Jonah is all of us

Proper 20, Year A always takes me back to my senior year of high school.  Every Friday morning, about a dozen of us who made up the core group of my Young Life club would gather at the Fletcher home for Bible study and monkey bread.  Occasionally, we would spend the night there Thursday night, though the older I get, the more I can’t imagine how our parents let this happen.  Anyway, on those Thursday evenings, we would hang out with Fletch and Julie’s kids (who are now way too old for my liking) and watch Veggie Tales videos.  Mostly, we’d enjoy the Silly Songs with Larry best-ofs, but every once in a while, we would watch a real episode.  Proper 20, Year A takes me there not because of any of the VHS tapes we watched then, but because of the 2002 release of the Veggie Tales Jonah movie, but you, dear blog reader, are used to reading long, useless intros by now.

My favorite part of both the movie and the Biblical book from which it based is the ending.  Without so much as a spoiler alert, Sunday’s Track 2 lesson takes us right to the very end of the story.  To recap, Jonah tried to escape God’s call to prophecy in Nineveh by jumping a ship to Tarshish on the other side of the known world.  A storm comes up, presumably because of God’s indignation over Jonah’s failure, and eventually Jonah is thrown overboard where a fish (not a whale) swallows him alive and vomits him out three days later.  A contrite and probably disgusting Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where he prophecies against their sins and retreats to a high place to watch God’s destruction.

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Remarkably, the people repent of their evil (fish slapping, in the movie version) ways and in our lesson for Sunday, we hear that God decides to forego his wrath, which ticks Jonah off to no end.  It is there, under the shade of a tree he did not plant, stewing over God’s grace freely offered, that I realize that Jonah is me.  Jonah is all of us.  It may not be so obvious as grumbling about the eleventh hour conversion of another, but each of us has a place where God’s grace catches us short, where God’s unending love seems wildly unfair to us.  How often do we recognize God’s grace in our own lives while being unwilling to comprehend how that same grace might be made manifest in the life of another?  Like Jonah, it can make us angry to witness God’s grace poured out abundantly on those whom we deem unworthy – angry enough to die – and in those moments, though we fail to recognize it, God pours out his grace on us, even in our undeserving.  This week, I’m grateful for the reminder of fun times in high school, for silly videos, and most especially, for God’s never failing grace that is poured out upon me, even in my most undeserving moments.

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Rack, Shack, and Benny – a homily

I absolutely love the story of Shadrach,  Meshach, and Abednego.  I came to know Rack, Shack, and Benny through the Veggie Tales, a children’s cartoon that tells Bible stories in a fun, age appropriate way.  I watched them in high school, and thought they were hilarious, but that’s my issue.  In fact, I re-watched this particular episode yesterday.  Anyway, the story, which we heard Ned read for us this morning, is part of the much larger story of Daniel, an apocalyptic book in the Old Testament not unlike John’s Revelation in the New.  The Book of Daniel opens with the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar laying siege to Jerusalem in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim as King of Judah.  In time, Nebuchadnezzar was victorious.  He left Jehoaikim to rule Judah as a puppet king, but took the brightest and best that Jerusalem had to offer back to Babylon to be trained to serve in his court.

Four men were deemed to be of particular value by Nebuchadnezzar: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  As foreign powers are wont to do, Nebuchadnezzar tried to break the spirits of these four men by taking away their Hebrew names and giving them Babylonian ones:  Daniel became Belteshazzar, Hananiah was Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach, and Azariah was called Abednego.  Slowly, the King came to respect Daniel very highly, and gave him promotion after promotion until he became more powerful than all the magicians and enchanters in the Babylonian Empire.  Here’s where things began to turn south.

Nebuchadnezzar started having terrible nightmares.  They were so awful that he couldn’t sleep, and he refused to speak about them.  He brought in every magician, enchanter, and sorcerer in his kingdom to interpret his dreams, but because they were so frightening, he wouldn’t tell them about the dreams, instead he demanded that they  tell him  the dream and its interpretation.  When they couldn’t do such an impossible thing, he ordered that every wise man in his Kingdom be killed.  As they searched for Daniel to be executed, the Lord gave him a vision of the King’s dream and its interpretation.  This brought much joy to the King, so he promoted Daniel again.  Here things take a turn for the much, much worse.

Nebuchadnezzar sort of went off the deep end after Daniel successfully interpreted his dream.  He started worshipping Daniel, burning incense for him, and making grain offerings to him.  Daniel made the best of it, making sure his friends, Rack, Shack, and Benny got cushy posts in the province of Babylon, where, it just so happens that the King decided to build a 90 foot tall golden statue that was to be worshipped whenever the King ordered.  The King invited every officer of his court to come and see the statue at its dedication, and commanded that they all worship it.  Rack, Shack, and Benny refused out of deference to their God who commanded them not to worship any idol, and our story picks up as Nebuchadnezzar catches wind of their protest.

Rack, Shack, and Benny have several opportunities to recant and worship the statue, but they refuse, and are thrown into a furnace kindled so hot that it killed the men who put them into it.  God spared them, walking with them in the midst of the fiery furnace. After they were saved, just after our lesson ended, Nebuchadnezzar had a change of heart, declaring that “any people, nation or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego should be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.”  I’ve never been thrown into a fiery furnace, but over the years, I’ve come to know what Nebuchadnezzar learned: our God is faithful, especially in times of trial.  As we come to the end of Lent, and Holy Week is upon us, may we walk with Jesus through his not-quite-as-fiery ordeal, certain that God will be present in the midst of our suffering. As Jesus told those faithful Jewish disciples in our Gospel lesson, the truth of God’s love will set us free; not from the bad things that might happen, but free from the anxiety, worry, and fear that come along with them.  God stands alongside each of us, even when we’ve walked far from his plans, even when life seems to have gone off the rails because God is faithful, even, especially in the fiery furnace of our own making. Thanks be to God.  Amen.