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Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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In my last post, I mentioned that I was planning to speak at Spartanburg Methodist College Tuesday night. I did, and God blessed my time that evening with the SMC community. 62 students were in attendance, plus the chaplain and me. The students seemed to pay attention, and they responded with some good questions at the end.

Wednesday morning, I was on that campus again to preach in the weekly chapel assembly. About 200 people attended that event, and I spoke about transitions in life. Here is a summary of the sermon.

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Life is filled with transitions. One of my teachers several years ago said that the only constant thing is change. We go through many transitions in life, like graduating from high school, going to college, adjusting to college during the freshman year, choosing classes, declaring a major, selecting a career, making and losing friends, beginning dating relationships, breaking up, and deciding what to believe.

How can we survive the transitions in our lives?

When I was a child, we often sang a hymn that begins to answer that question. It’s called, “Hold to God’s Unchaning Hand,” and the first verse says:

Time is filled with swift transition,

Naught of earth unmoved can stand,

Build your hopes on things eternal,

Hold to God’s unchaning hand.

That hymn ties nicely to an old story in the Bible. It’s an ancient story with contemporary applications for transitions.

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The generation that experienced God’s mighty deliverance from Egyptian slavery has almost completely died off. A new generation is about to enter the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites, reminding them of whose they are and, therefore, who they should be and how they should act. God, through Moses, gives the people several commands, but they are more than dos and don’ts; they are based on God’s characteristics. The Israelites should want to live in ways that please God because God has been so good to them.

Moses warns his people that the new land has other cultures of people who worship other gods and do things that are not appropriate for God’s people. These different people and their strange beliefs and actions will tempt the Israelites to forget their identity as God’s people and to do things that neglect God’s goodness that is supposed to shape their faith and behavior.

The people are coming to a major transition, and Moses reminds them of what God has done for them and what God expects of them. Then he goes up on a mountain to die, and Joshua becomes the Israelites’ new leader.

Joshua has already proven himself as a great military commander. He has been Moses’ assistant for several years, and he has learned from Moses’ wise leadership. He has learned to commune with God, and he has learned that he is not perfect. He has shown his confidence in God’s faithfulness.

Now Joshua must lead the Israelites through a major transition, from being wildreness wanderers to claiming the Promised Land and settling in their own towns. But Joshua has never done this before. In fact, no one has. He probably feels afraid and uncertain and nervous, which is why Moses and God and the military officers tell him to be “strong and courageous.”

In Deuteronomy 31:7-8, near the end of Moses’ farewell address, he commissions Joshua as the new leader and says, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

In Joshua 1:6, God tells Joshua,”Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them.” Then, in verse 9, God tells him, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” In verse 18, some of the military officers also tell Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” This theme pops up again near the end of the book, in chapter 23, where Joshua tells his people to “be very strong.”

But how are Joshua and his people to “be strong and courageous?”

In 1:6-9, God tells Joshua how to do it. He is to obey what God has said, talk about what God has said, meditate on what God has said, and know that the Lord will be with him.

In 23:6-11, Joshua tells the people to “be very strong,” and he gives them some ways to do that. They are to obey what God has said, avoid serving other gods, “hold fast to the LORD,” remember what God has done, and be “very careful to love the LORD.”

This advice is for God’s people in all ages. It was for the ancient Israelites. It was for the early Christians. (Hebrews 13:5 quotes Joshua 1:5.) And I believe it is for us today, too.

When you encounter transitions, whether large or small, follow the insights from this biblical story.

Remember whose you are, and let whose you are determine who you are and how you live.

You will experience temptations to live in ways that are contrary to your identity as God’s people. When this happens, remember the words of Joshua: “Be very careful to love the LORD your God.”

Remember the good things God has done throughout history and in your own lives.

Follow the guidelines God gave to Joshua as he was preparing for the Israelites’ great transition. Joshua was to obey what God had said; and in order to obey it, he had to read it and study it. He was to meditate on what God had said, and he was to talk with people about it. He was to remember that God was with him. All these things helped Joshua do what God had said.

So as you try to find your way through the transitions in your life, remember these biblical principles:

1. Read and study what God has said.

2. Meditate on what God has said.

3. Talk about what God has said.

4. Remember the good things God has done.

5. Remember that God never forsakes His people.

6. Let these practices shape who you are and how you live.

God will get you through the transitions, and those transitions will strengthen you and glorify God. Through it all, remember: “Be strong and courageous!”

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[All quotes from the Bible come from the New International Version.]

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This Sunday morning, God blessed me with another opportunity to preach for Central Church of Christ in Spartanburg. For a few days, I had been fighting some sort of sickness with plenty of congestion, and I had been ill enough on Friday that I had thought I might not be able to preach on Sunday. However, God empowered me to deliver the sermon with no coughs and only a couple of mistakes in changing slides.

The sermon title was “How to Hide from God,” and the message arose from Psalm 139. Ernie Thigpen (our preacher, who was out of town this Sunday) organizes the annual Summer Speaker Series on Wednesday evenings, and this year’s theme is the Psalms, but less-known Psalms. He invited me to speak in that series and told me not to choose from the more-known Psalms, including 1, 23, etc. One of the prohibited Psalms was 139, but it is one of my favorites because it speaks my situation so powerfully and also communicates with many other people’s experiences. Thus, I chose Psalm 22 for my message on Wednesday, July 16, and preached Psalm 139 this Sunday.

Before I give you the link for the sermon, let me explain some heightened emotion towards the end, when I read verses 19-22. I read those words in an angry tone because the psalmist is expressing anger to God. This is important to the message of the psalm. It is an example of a faithful person opening the complete inner-self to God, not holding anything back, not even anger. This psalm gives us permission to express our anger to God, even to yell at God. It pushes us to be honest with God about everything in us, even the parts of our inner-selves that we might choose not to show to other people. Of course, in the following couple of verses, we see an indication that the evil that so greatly angers the psalmist is also in the psalmist, leading him or her to invite God to perform an exhaustive examination of his or her inner-self and to lead him or her in the “way everlasting”–the way of God.

You may access this sermon by clicking here. Scroll down to 06/08/08 and click “How To Hide From God.”

May God infuse you with the message of Psalm 139 as you watch and listen.

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This morning, God blessed me with another opportunity to preach for the Central Church of Christ here in Spartanburg. Our deacon who works with technological aspects of the ministry has done a fabulous job in getting this morning’s sermon online so quickly. (Thanks, Stan!) You may access it by clicking here. Scroll down to 04/06/08, forgive the misspelling of my last name, and click “From Trash to Treasure.” Don’t worry about the static close to the beginning; it stops soon. If you have trouble playing it by just left-clicking the link, you might want to right-click it, choose “Save Target As…,” and then play the downloaded file. I pray that God will bless you as you watch and listen.

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