Sunday’s Sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Danger and Fear

Text used – Daniel 6:6-27

  • There have been a lot of words used to describe this year that we’ve had – this year, 2020, that is swiftly coming to a close. To be frank, a lot of those are words that I’m not going to repeat in the middle of a worship service! Suffice to say that many of the words that I’ve heard used to describe this year have been less than complimentary. Because I think we can all agree that it’s been a rough year on so many different fronts.
    • Year full of …
      • Isolation and loneliness
      • Frustration and uneasiness
      • Injustice and unrest
      • Loss and grief
      • Danger and fear
    • I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a year like this one. I know the word has been tossed around a lot, but between the pandemic, the protests, and the election (just to name the top 3 stressors of this year), 2020 has truly been an unprecedented year. It’s been a rock-and-a-hard-place kind of year. And yet today we enter into the season of Advent – a time of waiting for the birth of peace … and salvation … and love the encompasses all. A time when we’re waiting for the birth of an unexpected and unprecedented child into circumstances that are far from perfect and pristine. Because we know – we believe! – that even though the odds weren’t good and the world wasn’t untarnished and humanity wasn’t really ready, it happened anyway. The Star of Bethlehem shone. The angels sang. The shepherds rushed to the stable. And the Christ child was born – born to bring us God’s love wrapped in flesh and bone, in swaddling clothes and stray bits of straw. It happened anyway. Christ was born anyway. God came to dwell among us anyway … not even in spite of the fear and danger, the failings of humanity, the things that hold us back, the broken dreams, and the active “no”s … not in spite of all those things, but because of them, Love happened anyway. Grace happened anyway. God happened anyway. And it is to that reality that we will cling during this crazy, backwards, isolated Advent season. It. Happened. Anyway.
      • Advent sermon series → walk through our Scripture readings – familiar stories and the ancient words of prophets still speaking to us today – with this theme in mind: Against all odds … in the face of struggles and strife … despite hurdles and heartbreak … the Christ-child was born.
  • Starting point = probably an unexpected story → not one we generally think of as an “Advent text”: the story of Daniel in the lions’ den
    • Background for Daniel
      • BOOK of Daniel = basically divided into 2 parts
        • Back half – chs. 7-12 = what we call “apocalyptic literature”: visions, interpretations, prayers, and prophecies having to do with the greatness of God, the end of days, and retribution for the wicked
        • First half – chs. 1-6 = stories that introduce us to who Daniel the prophet was – a mouthpiece for God among the community of diasporic Israelites who had been removed from Jerusalem when the Babylonians conquered the city in 587 BCE
          • Told this at the beginning of the book of Daniel: In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and attacked it. … Nebuchadnezzar instructed his highest official Ashpenaz to choose royal descendants and members of the ruling class from the Israelites – good-looking young men without defects, skilled in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, conversant with learning, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. Ashpenaz was to teach them the Chaldean language and its literature. The king assigned these young men daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine. Ashpenaz was to teach them for three years to that at the end of that time they could serve before the king. Among these young men from the Judeans were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.[1] → So Daniel was one of those exiled Israelites who, in addition to being dragged from his home and possibly his family and everything that he knew, was also hand-picked by the king’s officials to serve in the Babylonian court.
    • So basically, Daniel has been hand-picked to be smart, good-looking, and above all, subservient. He is supposed to amuse the king. He is supposed to keep the king happy and entertained. He may even have chances to assist or advise the king on particular matters. But only so long as he remains in the king’s favor.
      • Similar to appointments in our own government: many people in their positions “serve at the pleasure of the president”
    • 1st rule of surviving in a forced position in a foreign, conquering court = don’t anger or offend the king (obvious)
    • 2nd rule of surviving in said court = don’t anger or offend your rivals → This is the rule that Daniel missed. Daniel is, indeed, intelligent and capable, just as he was chosen to be. And like his ancestor Joseph before him, he is also an interpreter of dreams (with God’s help, of course).
      • Previous chapters of book of Daniel → he interprets many dreams for one Babylonian king after another which earns him great favor and praise → so much favor and praise that he begins to overshadow all others – text just prior to what we read this morning: Darius [the current king] decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of is extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators – so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption. So these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”[2]
    • And so we come to today’s passage: other officers and chief administrators trick the king into signing a law specifically crafted to target Daniel and his religious practice: prayer to God → law makes it illegal to worship anyone but the king himself → other officers and chief administrators catch Daniel in the act of praying to God → haul Daniel before the king, eager to see their rival punished to the fullest and most fatal extent of the new law: When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.” So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.[3]
    • But of course, that is not the end of Daniel: At dawn, at the first sight of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit. As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God – the one you serve so consistently – able to rescue you from the lions?” Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.” The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God.[4]
    • “The rest of the story” (a lá Paul Harvey) = the king decides to have Daniel’s accusers thrown into the lions’ pit instead (doesn’t work out so well for them as for Daniel) → king sends out a new decree, declaring “fear and reverence” for Daniel’s God – “the living God”
  • I don’t think any of us would argue that 2020 has been a year in the lions’ den.
    • Daniel faced danger and entrapment on all sides
      • First from the jealous and corrupt officers and chief administrators
      • Next from the letter of the law (despite the king’s anguish and frustration with his own law)
      • Finally from the lions themselves
      • And no matter how strong his faith, I can imagine that Daniel felt fear in some of those moments – fear in the moment when the other officers and chief administrators caught him in prayer; fear in the moment when, despite the king’s own misgivings, Darius sentenced Daniel to death in the lions’ den; fear in the moment when he was lowered and sealed into that pit with those lions.
        • Important point: fear and faith are not mutually exclusive à being afraid doesn’t mean your faith is weak or lacking or ineffective … But it also doesn’t mean that God is not with you.
          • Benjamin Disraeli (former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1868): Fear makes us feel our humanity.
    • If nothing else, 2020 has certainly made us feel our humanity.
      • Feel the fear of our neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones battling COVID
        • Those who are ill themselves
        • Those who are working on the front lines in overextended hospitals and care facilities around the country
        • Those who are experiencing the extreme isolation of this pandemic
        • Those who are struggling financially because of the screeching halt pandemic brought to our economy
      • Feel the fear of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones in the wake of the violent and senseless deaths of so many: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many more
        • Feel the fear of our communities and our nation in the months that led up to the election and in these weeks that have followed
      • Fear can be paralyzing. It can be insidious. It can steal even the most basic things from us: our ability to think clearly; our breath and our speech; our compassion and our empathy. But fear can also be inspiring – the thing that stirs us to move with purpose and intention.
        • Move closer to one another
        • Move closer to God
      • Friends, the aspect of our faith that continues to astound me is that, even knowing about the deepest depths and most hidden corners of fear, God chose to come down among us. Because of those deepest depths and hidden corners, God chose to come down among us – not as some avenging force, not as some charismatic leader with an overpowering army, not as some mystical presence to sweep through the land … but as a child. As a vulnerable, precious, fully human child in a manger. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in the world … and God came anyway. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in human hearts … and God came anyway. God knew that those same dangers and fears awaited the Christ-child … that those same dangers and fears would eventually bring about the death of that Christ-child … but in that death, those same dangers and fears would be overcome forever and all time by God’s own love embodied in that Christ-child. And so God comes anyway. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Dan 1:1, 3-6.

[2] Dan 6:1-5.

[3] Dan 6:14-16a.

[4] Dan 6:19-23.

Sunday’s sermon: A Promise in Action

Text used – Isaiah 6:1-8

  • I want to share a picture with you this morning. It was taken by Romain Bréget (found on Wikimedia).[1] If you’re joining us via Facebook Live this morning, I posted this picture right before church, so it should be on our page.

  • Isn’t this a beautiful spot? A beautiful, secluded, natural spot? Well … sort of natural. You see, this is a picture of something called a holloway or a sunken lane. While it looks like a natural little ravine, this is actually an ancient road of sorts.
    • Not the kind of paved road we’re used to today or even the paved roads that the Romans erected centuries ago
    • More like a local path that has been worn down and worn down and worn down by centuries worth of feet – human and animal alike
      • Holloway in this picture = from the site of a WWII battle in La Meauffe, France
    • Article from website Atlas Obscura: “Appearing like trenches dragged into the earth, sunken lanes, also called hollow-ways or holloways, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. They’re one of the few examples of human-made infrastructure still serving its original purpose, although many who walk through holloways don’t realize they’re retracing ancient steps. … You’re most likely to discover a holloway where the ground and the stone below are soft, such as places rich in sandstone or chalk. No one ever engineered a holloway — erosion by human feet, and horses or cattle driven alongside, combined with water then flowing through the embankments like a gully, molded the land into a tunneled road. It’s hard to date them, but most are thought to go back to Roman times and the Iron Age, although in the Middle East some are believed to stretch back to ancient Mesopotamia. They even have their own ecology, such as the spreading bellflowers that enjoy the disturbed earth.”[2]
    • I find holloways fascinating things because they have literally been born out of human habit – century upon century of people going the same way, literally walking in the footsteps of those who came before them. They’re not marked and named roads. They’re not going to appear on any map (not any conventional map, anyway). And they certain don’t change direction. They may get deeper, but the wandering ways of these sunken roads were set centuries ago. They are long past the point of change.
      • This morning: contrast the unchanging nature of holloways with the ever-changing, ever-unexpected nature of God’s call in our lives
  • Scripture reading this morning = perfect example of the emphatic and unexpected way that God calls us to action → This is the story of Isaiah’s call to be God’s prophet in a troubled time.
    • Background for Isaiah
      • Isaiah the BOOK
        • One of the major prophets (along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the book of Lamentations in the Bible)
        • Almost certainly the work of a few different editors à distinct linguistic, stylistic, and thematic differences in 3 different sections of Is (1-39, 40-55, 56-66)
        • Certain historical indicators that seem to point to those different sections being written down in different centuries → But remember, much like many other languages, Hebrew was an oral language long before it was written down. Important stories and elements of the Hebrew culture and faith were passed down from one generation to the next through stories, poems, songs, and so on. When we keep that in mind, it makes more sense that the various parts of Isaiah were eventually recorded by different people.
          • Not too unlike the 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings that we find in the 4 gospels
      • Isaiah the PERSON = prophet in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah
        • Time of prophecy spanned the reign of a number of kings → started at the end of the reign of King Uzziah (as per our text this morning) and went through the reign of King Hezekiah
          • Starts somewhere in the middle of the 8th BCE
        • Time of prophecy also covered the Babylonian exile → Jerusalem conquered by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who razed the city, then took all the best and brightest Hebrew politicians, scholars, artists, craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, priests, and so on and brought them back to live in Babylon for an entire generation → Isaiah was part of that group that was taken into exile.
    • But before all of that happened, we begin Isaiah story with his call from God – text: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.[3] → Clearly, God wanted to get Isaiah’s attention! This is some next-level call action here! Being in ministry, I have the privilege of hearing a lot of different people’s call stories.
      • Stories of calls to ministry
      • Stories of calls to other professions
      • Stories of calls to particular experiences (mission work, international placements, volunteer experiences, etc.)
      • And every single call story I’ve ever heard has been beautiful and different and powerful in its own way. To be frank, I don’t think any story of God reaching down into the heart and life of an individual and saying, “My beloved child, I have work for you to do” could be anything but powerful and eye-opening. God is so much bigger, so much greater, so much more than we are, that any brush with the Holy like that feels wild and frenetic and teeming with possibility and the unexpected. I will admit, though, that I’ve never heard a story quite as over-the-top as Isaiah’s!
    • Isaiah’s response to God’s call feels appropriately overwhelmed – text: I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”[4] → two interesting little bits to note here
      • First: Isaiah’s immediate reaction to God’s call = repentance → Isaiah doesn’t even ask for forgiveness or mercy from God. He simply names his flaws, laying bare the least pleasing parts of himself (according to him, anyway) before God.
    • Second: just how tied all of this is to speaking and silence
      • Isaiah’s confession = “I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.” → Heb. “lips” could also be “speech/language”
      • Some of the first words out of Isaiah’s mouth = “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” → Heb. “ruined” could also be “silenced”
      • I find this fascinating, especially as we live in this culture where it feels like words become cheaper and cheaper every day. If anyone lives in among a people with unclean lips, it is us. How easy it is to shoot off an angry email or write a nasty, intentionally argumentative comment on Facebook or some other online forum. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to parrot the soundbyte that we heard on last night’s 2-minute news story without investigating the context or actual facts behind that soundbyte. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to take the latest bit of gossip that we heard and pass it on quickly through a text blast or Facebook or even a quick phone call without considering the person at the center of that gossip. How easy … and how unclean. Truly, Isaiah’s dilemma has not changed much in more than two millennia, has it?
    • But as the saying goes, those whom God calls, God also equips, and in keeping with the rest of this odd and fantastical call story, God equips Isaiah in a spectacular fashion. – text: Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” → When I was growing up, there was a row of stained glass windows in my church that depicted various scenes from Scripture: the birth of Jesus was one. So were the crucifixion and the resurrection. Moses and the Ten Commandments was another. And so was this scene – this strange, other worldly scene with Isaiah on his knees and the many-winged angels around him with one of them holding a coal to his lips.
      • Fascinating scene to see depicted in stained glass
      • Fascinating scene to imagine
      • Fire has long been used as a tool for refining things … for good and for ill. Fire refines precious metals to their purest, most precious and costly forms. Fire was also used throughout the Inquisition as a way to try to “refine” the heretical Protestantism out of people to try to get them to return to the Catholic Church, the “true” church.
        • Fire of the burning bush refined Moses’ call[5]
        • God was present in a pillar of fire as the people of Israel fled Egypt[6]
        • God was proved in the fire that came down from heaven when Elijah challenged Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Ba’al[7]
        • Jesus spoke of God’s judgment in terms of fire burning away the chaff and leaving the refined wheat[8]
        • So while God’s use of fire in Isaiah’s vision here certainly has the weight of precedence behind it, it is no less shocking … no less attention-grabbing.
    • Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be because following the burning coal touching Isaiah’s lips, we get to The Point of this story – God calling Isaiah. – text: Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”[9] → And there it is: the crux of the matter, the moral of the story, the whole point in four simple words. “I’m here; send me.” Not surprisingly, this is a popular verse among pastors. Many have it hanging on the walls in their office or their homes in some form – as a sign, as artwork, as an undeniable and constant reminder. Many others actually have this phrase tattooed on their bodies (some in English, some in Hebrew) as an even more permanent reminder and commitment to that call. “I’m here; send me.” You see, friends, we’ve been talking about God’s promises as we’ve been winding our way through God’s Grand Story of Faith with the Narrative Lectionary this year, and this single verse contains everything that we’ve already talked about.
      • First half of the verse speaks to God’s promise to the people that God will, indeed, remain their God → God is seeking someone to go out among the people and remind them who they are and whose they are. God is seeking someone to speak God’s own words of chastisement and judgment for the actions that have drawn the people away from God, but behind that reproach is love. God isn’t looking for someone to call the people out just because God wants to give them the ultimate public shaming. God is looking for someone to call the people back to God because God loves them. God longs to be in that holy and sacred relationship with the people once more – that relationship promised and renewed and promised and renewed time and time again throughout Israel’s history. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us? Who will help the people remember me? Who will help the people find their way back to be? They are my people, and I yearn to be their God again.”
      • Second half speaks to the relational nature of that promise → Throughout Scripture, God works with people and through people. God doesn’t force people to choose God. God doesn’t force people to worship. God doesn’t force people to pray. God continues to work with these crazy, frustrating, broken human beings that God created. It is God opening the way for people to continue in this relationship that God promised to us. And it is one powerful, moving example of one of those crazy, frustrating, broken human beings saying, “Yes.”
  • Modern-day calls take on any number of variations and forms … but just because it doesn’t look dramatic and charismatic like Isaiah’s call doesn’t mean God’s call in your life is any less real, any less potent, any less packed with potential and unexpected possibilities. God calls us first to faith, but as part of that faith, God also calls us to action. Over and over again. In big ways and small ways. In easy tasks and difficult tasks. With people we love and with people we find it difficult to love. God is calling you to action. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” “I’m here; send me.” Amen.


[2] Allison Meier. “Holloways: Roads Tunneled into the Earth by Time” from Atlas Obscura, Posted Sept. 25, 2014, accessed Nov. 15, 2020.

[3] Is 6:1-4.

[4] Is 6:5.

[5] Ex 3:1-12.

[6] Ex 13:17-22.

[7] 1 Kgs 18.

[8] Mt 13:24-30.

[9] Is 6:8.

Sunday’s sermon: Hidden Potential

Text used – Jonah 3:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11

  • So Julia is 2 now – 2½, actually (if you want to get technical) – and she’s started doing this thing lately. Nearly every time you ask her something, she’ll say, “No.” Not surprising, right? She is 2, after all. The funny thing is when it’s something that she actually does want to have or to do. Her automatic response is still, “No,” but half a second later, shoe goes, “But … yes.” “Julia, do you want some milk?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, do you want to go outside?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, should we read some books?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” (Just kidding … the answer to that last question is ALWAYS yes!) Oh, toddler-hood! It’s an easy thing to joke about, right? “Toddlers always say no. Hahahahahaha!” But do you know when it becomes less funny? When it’s adults.
    • Adults who refuse to listen to each other
    • Adults who refuse to talk to each other
    • Adults who resist any form of communication with each other whatsoever
    • Adults who have decided the other side is
      • Unreasonable
      • Unreachable
      • Unredeemable
  • Enter our Scripture story this morning: Jonah. Most of us probably think of this story as “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Big Fish.” I have a tendency to think of this story as “Jonah the Adult Toddler.” I bet you can figure out why. Let’s read the story. [read text] Like I said … “Jonah the Adult Toddler,” right? Jonah … who ran away from God when God said, “Come here.” Jonah … who tried to hide from God in the hold of a ship heading in the opposite direction. Jonah … who was pretty sure he knew better than God. Jonah … who, when he was proved wrong, decided to go up on the mountain and pout. Jonah … the adult toddler. → two separate judgments that Jonah makes in our text this morning
    • First judgment = Jonah’s judgment of the people of Nineveh
      • Now, Nineveh had quite the reputation back in Jonah’s day.
        • Huge city – text: Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.[1]
        • Wild and sinful city Let’s just say the motto for Nineveh could easily have been: “What happens in Nineveh stays in Nineveh.”
          • Described this way in various parts of the OT
          • Also described this way by various ancient writers and historians (Herodotus, Aristotle, etc.)[2]
        • Foreign city
          • Capital of Assyrian empire at the time relations between Assyrians and Israelites were never good
            • Antagonistic
            • Hostile
            • Violent
          • So in Jonah’s defense, God calling him to take a word of rebuke and call to repentance to the city of Nineveh is no small feat. It is a frightening call. It is an intimidating call. And it is a potentially dangerous call. On the other hand, Jonah is by far the first person God calls to do something hard. God called David to kill the giant Goliath.[3] God called Daniel to worship despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous decree, and Daniel ended up in the lions’ den.[4] God called Esther to circumvent Haman’s political manipulations and plans of genocide.[5] God called Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, to defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all male Hebrew babies born in Egypt and ended up saving the life of Moses.[6]
        • As an Israelite, these are all stories that Jonah would have known – stories from which Jonah could have drawn courage and conviction in the face of his challenging call. And yet, when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah flees. Jonah runs from God as far and as fast as he can in the exact opposite direction.
          • Makes is way to Joppa (modern-day Tel Aviv) and gets on a ship headed for Tarshish (modern-day Lebanon) literally flees west when God has called him to go east
          • And why does Jonah do this? Because of his pre-judgment of the people of Nineveh. They’re supposed to be lawless people. They’re supposed to be scary people. They’re supposed to be immoral people. They’re supposed to be people beyond saving. Surely, Jonah’s never been there himself.
            • Jonah = one of the Hebrew people from the northern kingdom of Israel
            • Jonah served as a prophet for God during a time of relative peace means Jonah got to bring words of affirmation and comfort … You know, words that people liked to hear. Words that people were happy to hear. Words that people found to be a blessing rather than a condemnation. So Jonah’s life was pretty cushy. This whole “taking God’s word of judgment to a giant city full of rough-and-tumble people” didn’t really fit in with Jonah’s vibe.
          • So without even meeting the people of Nineveh … without ever setting foot anywhere near the city itself … Jonah dismisses them as not worth his time. Not worth God’s time. Certainly not worth even the possibility of God’s redemption.
    • Middle of the story
      • Jonah gets on the ship headed for Tarshish God causes a massive storm at sea that puts the ship and its entire crew in jeopardy Jonah finally fesses up that he’s running from God sailors throw Jonah into the sea (at his own request) sea immediately calms Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish and spends 3 days in its belly giant fish vomits Jonah out onto the shore God calls Jonah a 2nd time to go to Nineveh Jonah finally relents – text: And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. … Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[7]
      • But then, something miraculous happens. The people of Nineveh – those scary, evil, immoral people that Jonah had tried so hard to avoid! – heard God’s word through Jonah. They believe God’s word, and they repented. – text: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[8]  And indeed, God does And indeed, God does turn away from the path of wrath and destruction that God had laid out for the people of Nineveh. God was, indeed, merciful and gracious to them.
    • And here’s where Jonah’s 2nd judgment comes screaming into the story – text: But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[9]  So Jonah stomps out of the city, heads up to one of the hillsides surrounding Nineveh, and sits down to pout. And there he is, folks! There’s the adult toddler Jonah, full of petulance and backhanded compliments. “I knew you were too nice, God. I knew you were too loving, too forgiving. Thanks for wasting my time, God, since you’re too nice to destroy this city. You brought me all the way here for nothing. Might as well kill me because this is lame. Humph!”
      • Jonah is judging God’s mercy as too broad
      • Jonah is judging God’s forgiveness as too easy
      • In Jonah’s mind, he’s come all this way, he’s gone through all these trials and tribulations (which, let’s remember, were his own doing), he’s shouted himself hoarse delivering God’s word to such a giant city, and he wants to see some punishment! He was to see some real live fire and brimstone! He wants to witness the destructive power of a righteously angry God. He doesn’t want to see this wimpy, predictable, lackluster response from God. Forgiveness, for Jonah, is just not exciting enough. So he judges God’s response as inadequate.
        • God tries to reason with Jonah and teach him in this strange little vignette at the end: Jonah builds a sulking hut on the side of the hill God causes a bush to grow up beside Jonah to provide him some shade (which Jonah thoroughly enjoys) next day, God sends a worm to eat the shrub so it withers and dies God doubles down and adds a full, hot sun and a “dry east wind” to the mix, making Jonah’s sulking hut on the hillside definitively uncomfortable Jonah gets angry again (maybe a touch more justified this time) – text: God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good – even to the point of death!” But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[10]  God is trying to get Jonah to understand just how misguided it is to mourn the passing of a simple shrub while rooting for the destruction of an entire massive city. God is trying to provide Jonah with some much-needed perspective.
  • So what happens to Jonah? Who knows? That last question that God poses to Jonah about pity for Nineveh’s 120,000 people and animals is the end of the book. Maybe Jonah stayed up on that hillside until he did, indeed, perish. Maybe he stayed up on that hillside until he was too hot, hungry, and thirsty to continue, then went down to seek refuge from the very city that he argued so hard to condemn. Maybe he saw the error of his ways and engaged in a little repentance of his own. We simply don’t know.
    • What we do know: this story isn’t really about Jonah it’s about God and the lengths to which God will go to reach out to us
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh à traveled every frustrating, circuitous step of the journey with Jonah
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to Jonah through his stubbornness and indignation
        • A storm at sea
        • The belly of a giant fish
        • A shrub, and a worm, and a hot, hot day
      • And God does this – God goes to these lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh … to Jonah … even to us today – because God loves us. God loves us enough to see through all the barriers we put up and the false selves that we cling to. God love us enough to see the truth of our hearts and our souls. God loves us enough to recognize hidden potential in us even when we refuse to see it ourselves … when we are too busy getting in our own way.
        • Potential that we don’t see
        • Potential that the world doesn’t see
        • Potential that some, out of their own ignorance and prejudices, may try to diminish, deny, or destroy not unlike the way Jonah wished for the destruction of Nineveh despite the potential that God saw there But God sees through those false judgments and malicious intentions of the world, too. Whether we are the ones hiding our own potential or the world is trying to crush it out of us, God is greater. God sees. God knows. God loves. And God will move.
      • Beautiful thing: God’s love makes that initial move to reach out to us because God sees that potential But it doesn’t stop there. As God’s love claims us and enfolds us, it also begins to change us. God’s love works slowly but surely within us – our words and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our hopes and our prayers – and transforms us bit by bit into a greater and greater embodiment of God’s love in the world. And in that transformation, even more hidden potential is revealed in us and through us. It’s like a fabulous upward spiral, going higher and higher and getting wider and wider as we draw nearer to God. All because God sees potential in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3:3.

[2] Thomas M. Bolin. “Nineveh as Sin City” from Bible Odyssey. Accessed Nov. 7, 2020.

[3] 1 Sam 17.

[4] Dan 6:10-24.

[5] Est 5-8.

[6] Ex 1.

[7] Jonah 3:3, 4.

[8] Jonah 3:5-9.

[9] Jonah 4:1-3.

[10] Jonah 4:9-11.

Sunday’s sermon: Gritty Hope

Text used – 1 Kings 17:1-16

  • The classic 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”[1] You’ve probably heard it, or at least are familiar with the first line of it:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

  • I’ve always loved this poem because it paints such a beautiful, delicate picture of hope. Hope, the tender little bird perched in the soul. Hope, the light, uplifting melody echoing in the dark. Hope, the warm and welcoming fire that keeps out the chill. That’s the kind of hope that I picture with Emily Dickinson’s poem, and I think a lot of the time, that’s the way that we think about hope in general.
    • Hope that comes with a new phase of life → new home, new job, new relationship, new baby, etc.
      • Hope of endless possibilities and open doors
      • Hope that is effervescent and brilliantly bright
      • Hope that bubbles and sparkles with excitement and joy overflowing
      • Hope that anticipates all good things
  • But that’s not the kind of hope we find in our Scripture reading this morning. In this story, we encounter the grittier, grungier side of hope. → see the same gritty, urgent, audacious hope in both of the main characters this morning: Elijah, the prophet and the widow of Zarephath
    • First, Elijah → prophet sent by God to deliver words of condemnation and a call to repentance to King Ahab
      • Ahab = king of the northern kingdom of Israel in late-to-mid-800s BCE
        • Evil king
        • Married to Jezebel → leads Ahab to abandon worshiping God and instead establish the Canaanite religion of Ba’al in Israel
        • So not only has Ahab himself turned away from God, but he’s led the entire nation of Israel to turn away from God as well.
      • Hence Elijah’s call to be God’s prophet – to declare the word of God in the face of such widespread and state-led idolatry. And so we open with Elijah’s words for Ahab in our passage today: this threat of a national drought so severe that “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”[2] Not surprisingly, this declaration infuriates Ahab and Jezebel so much that Elijah is forced to flee.
      • Today’s reading = Elijah running for his life → God instructs Elijah to run and hide himself by the Cherith Brook, reassuring him that the ravens will bring him food → And so Elijah heads into the wilderness. And since he’s relying on the brook for his water and the ravens for his food, I think we can assume he fled with little to nothing. The clothes on his back, and God in his heart. Imagine the desperate hope Elijah must have been clinging to throughout this ordeal.
        • Hope that the birds will come the next day … and the next … and the next
        • Hope that God will not forget him
        • Hope that Ahab and Jezebel’s agents won’t find him
        • Hope tinged with the fearful knowledge and reality that the brook providing the water that’s keeping him alive will certainly dry up because of God’s words from Elijah’s own mouth: “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”
      • And in fact, that’s exactly what happens: After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath.[3]
    • And so we are introduced to the other character in desperate need of hope in today’s story: the widow of Zarephath. The woman with literally nothing left. Nothing but a tenacious and tattered scrap of hope.
      • Elijah encounters the widow collecting sticks outside the town gate → asks her for water → when she brings him water, Elijah goes a step further (giant step!) and asks for some bread as well
      • Widow’s own description of her circumstances is chillingly bleak: “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll at the last of the food and then die.”[4]
        • A couple of interesting things to notice about this enigmatic widow
          • FIRST: as a woman from Zarephath, she was surely not an Israelite (Zarephath = modern-day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 100 mi north of the border between Israel and Sidon) → see this “otherness” when she says to Elijah, “the Lord your God”
          • BUT: she is clearly someone that God has interacted with in some way
            • Yes, she says, “The Lord your God,” but when she says that, uses the sacred Hebrew name for God. She calls God “Yahweh,” a name that was only used between God and the people of Israel.
            • Remember God’s word to Elijah on the dried-up banks of Cherith Brook: Get up and go to Zarephath … I have ordered a widow there to take care of you.[5]
              • Heb. in this phrase is fraught with layers and meanings to wrestle with: “take care of” carries connotations of a task that needs to be endured, but at the same time “ordered” carries connotations of a direct command but also a blessing → It’s a complicated and complex statement. It seems that God knows this particular command is not going to be easy for this foreign widow, but God also ensures that there will be blessing in the midst of this challenge. There will be goodness. There will be hope.
      • And indeed, Elijah brings a miracle and brings this nameless, Gentile widow hope. – text: Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t fun out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease, nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.[6]
  • Confession: I find this to be a really, really uncomfortable Biblical story because of what Elijah does here. This widow is at the bottom of the social ladder. She’s just told Elijah that she literally has nothing left. And yet Elijah asks of her. “Before you make your last bit of food for yourself and your son, make some for me. Feed me first, then take care of yourselves.” Yes, I know that it works out alright in the end. Yes, I know that Elijah was acting on God’s behalf. But it still sits prickly and troublesome in my soul, especially in the face of the poverty and injustice suffered by so many across this country and around the world today.
    • Scholar put pointed and powerful words to this discomfort: Too many around us are that widow or that child, literally or figuratively. Too many around us feel lost, hopeless, hungry, and thirsty for something beyond the tangibles of daily living, for more than meager leftovers, scraps of food, love, and justice. Many feel there is simply no one willing to empower them with healing and grace.[7] → Too many feel that loss of hope. Too many feel that hope is beyond their reach. Or at best, too many are only acquainted with the grittier side of hope – the desperate, slogging-through-the-mud, last chance kind of hope.
      • Hope that is more like molasses than the effervescent bubbles of champagne
      • Hope that is more frayed and tattered than gleaming and brilliant
      • Hope that is more like a quickened pulse than an outright, joy-filled laugh
      • Hope that has been tempered and knocked down and stripped nearly away so many times that it is a mere shred
  • Friends, we are still in the throes of a global pandemic. The numbers around us are rising rapidly. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Our teachers are frantically doing everything they can to teach while keeping a classroom full of masked kids safe. And we have been apart from each other for so long … with no sure end in sight. Friends, we are facing Election Day this week at a time, as Rev. Dr. Nishioka said last week, when our country is more politically divided and hostile than it has been since the Civil War. The constant political rhetoric is ruining relationships left and right: between neighbors, between friends, between families. Friends, our black, indigenous, people of color neighbors are crying out for justice and paying for those cries with the blood of their bodies and with their very lives while white supremacist groups march openly through the streets armed to the teeth. I don’t know about you, but my hope feels fragile. It feels brittle. It feels more like Elijah’s hope along the bed of that dried up creek. It feels more like the hope of the widow gathering the last sticks to make her last meal. It’s not that bubbly, effusive, joy-overflowing kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that you fiercely cling to by your fingertips, not the kind of hope that you gently shelter in the palm of your hand. But it is still hope.
    • Scripture this morning is so important because it reminds us that God still makes space for that darker, dingier side of hope as well as the sparkling, pie-in-the-sky kind
    • Recently read a book called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang (director of International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice): God is so greatly concerned with injustice that [God] continually invites [God’s] children to face darkness for the purpose of sending us in to scatter it. As we choose to face grave darkness in our broken world, one of the best ways to combat our own pendulum swinging between apathy on the one hand and despair on the other is to also intentionally choose hope. Hope can be impotently naïve and moorless when pursued as nothing more than a sentimental wish. But when hope in grounded in the reality of who God is and the reality of how God works in our world, it becomes a source of great power in the face of even the darkest circumstances.[8] → “Intentionally choose hope.” It doesn’t have to be perfect hope. It doesn’t have to be pretty hope. It doesn’t have to be big hope. It can be the smallest, most tattered scrap of hope you have left. But for God, that is enough. Amen.


[2] 1 Kgs 17:1.

[3] 1 Kgs 17:7-10a.

[4] 1 Kgs 17:12.

[5] 1 Kgs 17:9.

[6] 1 Kgs 17:13-16.

[7] Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey. “Proper 5 (Sunday between June 5 and June 11 inclusive) – 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24): Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 100.

[8] Bethany H. Hoang. Deepening the Soul for Justice. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.