I Wanted a Better God

The Rev. John Lane. This sermon is based on Jeremiah 1:4.

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

This past week, Novel Theology participants discussed Istanbul: Memories and the City by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. Except for a couple of visiting professorships abroad, Pamuk has lived in Turkey all his life. Not only Turkey but Istanbul. Not only Istanbul, but the same neighborhood. Not only the same neighborhood, but the same building. He’s a gifted writer, but he doesn’t like change.

Closer to home, do you know how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb, and two to stand around talking about how they liked the old one better. We don’t like change either.

The biblical prophets were not popular figures.  They were mouthpieces of God. As God says to Jeremiah, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” The words were not always soothing, sometimes quite challenging, forcing the people to change or die.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has gone home for a visit. In Luke’s version, he is well-received—at first. We’re proud of you. It’s nice to have our own homegrown prophet. Then with no warning he turns from preachin’ to meddlin’, and his popularity goes down in the polls pretty dramatically.

He talks about the Old Testament prophets Elijah and his successor Elisha, how they performed great miracles for Gentiles, not Jews. They consorted with outsiders. Jesus the prophet, it seems, won’t be helping the local folk. He’ll be out on the road, preaching, healing, eating with Gentiles and other notorious sinners. He’s leaving home, headed toward the bright lights of Jerusalem.

We all know about Jonah and the whale—“big fish” actually. It’s a Sunday school staple. The oft-neglected back-story is relevant to today’s gospel. God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, that great city, and preach destruction. Jonah sets out in the opposite direction and boards a ship. God still wants him in Ninevah, so he sends a mighty storm and scares the seasoned sailors. They throw all the freight overboard to lighten the load. To no avail. Jonah is a prophet, and he understands he’s the problem. He tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Reluctantly, they finally do. The storm dissipates immediately. Enter the big fish. The fish keeps Jonah in his belly for 3 days, then coughs him up on the shore.

Twice warned, Jonah starts toward Ninevah. When he gets there, he preaches total destruction. From the king on down, everyone in Ninevah repents—sackcloth, ashes, the whole nine yards—so God is merciful and spares the city. This upsets Jonah, as reported in chapter 4:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah is a Hebrew prophet. Ninevah is not even a Hebrew city. Jonah is beside himself. God is taking care of foreigners better than his own people. In a very recent novel updating his story Jonah says, “I wanted a better God.”

What I’m about to say is probably blasphemy: From time to time, I think most of us “want a better God.” What pray tell is a better God?

A better God does what we want. He’s on our side. He overlooks our sins, and blesses us with all the things we want—health, security, love, successful children, good friends, strong leaders who promote our values. He doesn’t challenge us too much. Our 7-year old grandson Will has been very disciplined at saving money. He’s changing it up with his New Year’s Resolution for 2016: “I’m going to spend all my money on Lego Star Wars stuff.” He’ll probably be more successful with his resolution than with mine to lose weight.

What do we want from a better God? I would like a better God to eliminate disease—to use his power to support the “Moonshot for Cancer”—to get rid of poverty, crime, hatred, egotism, division. I would like a better God to bring love, peace, happiness, altruistic service.

Our God is a better God when we help, when we devote ourselves to serving others, when we act as prophets to the whole world. Let me end with a famous quotation from Saint Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.