In high school, we had one of those thick literature books with pieces of different stories in them that we would read over the semester. There were lots of different kinds of stories, from Beowulf to Canterbury Tales to The Raven. There was one author that my high school English teacher absolutely loved, however, and that was Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was a prolific author who wrote sometimes grim stories that explored the less happy side of humanity, but one thing I remembered my teacher saying about her was that, after her death, they found an absolute trove of unpublished works in her house. She had written far more than she made public, and apparently these weren’t throwaway duds because they won O’Connor several posthumous literary awards.
Sometimes I’ve heard advice from well-meaning Christians that the best thing a person with doubt or unbelief can do is open up the Bible and start reading. And while I would never discourage anyone from reading the Bible, it’s passages like today’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians readings that would make me pause before giving that unqualified advice. Imagine never having opened the Bible, and as a modern, secular, critical-thinking person, the first two stories you encounter are a complicated recommendation about not eating meat, and a story about a demon. You’re bound to have some questions at that point, right?
Questions like, “What’s Paul’s deal with eating meat?” “What is a demon anyway?” or “How does any of this have to do with me, today?”
The answers would be, “it’s a long story,” “it’s complicated,” and “this might take a minute.”
Probably the best-known part of the book of Jonah is that he got swallowed by a whale. But that’s just one part of one of my favorite books of the Bible. See, Jonah son of Amittai was a prophet in the days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who preached military success and conquest for his homeland. His book isn’t like the other prophets’ books because instead of poetic prophecies, it tells a story. It’s this story of the nationalistic prophet Jonah being called to preach doom on his country’s mortal enemy, Assyria.
Now, if you haven’t read his book or it’s been a while, it goes something like this. Jonah was called to preach doom to Nineveh, the biggest city in the Assyrian Empire. Instead of going up to Nineveh, Jonah immediately ran down to the nearest port town and booked a ship going to Tarshish—on the other side of the world. It was during a storm on this ship that Jonah agreed to be thrown overboard to save the rest of the crew from God’s anger at him, and that was when a whale swallowed him. Then the whale puked him up on the shore, and that’s how we got to today’s reading.
I’m a really big fan of maps. I think it’s really cool when someone can take the outline of a country and tell me something really interesting about that place. Like this one series of maps that I saw, that had the fifty states overlaid with different, interesting “most” or “best” rankings. One of them was a picture of the commonest fast food restaurant in each state. Another was the favored football team. And one of the most interesting was the one that showed Google’s autofill answer to “why is this state so…” It can be eye opening to see what others think of where we live or where we come from. And sometimes, those opinions can be less than kind.
Take Nathanael’s words from our gospel reading this morning for example. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, admittedly, he might have had a point. See, Nazareth was so insignificant a town that it didn’t even show up in any historical record, anywhere, until 200 years after Jesus. Archaeological digs there suggest there weren’t more than 400 people living in the town. And Nazareth was set in the region of Upper Galilee, which was part of the rough-and-tumble frontier of Jewish settlement. It would be like saying someone who just emerged from far western North Dakota was going to change the world. No one important, much less the Messiah himself, was ever expected to come from that kind of place.
Baptisms are always among my favorite days in the church, and I’m pretty sure most every parent or grandparent has happy memories of their own children’s or grandchildren’s baptisms—the gathered family, the white baptismal gown, comments on whether the child was well-behaved or cried or squirmed at the water, the pictures and the general joy of the day. Lexie, today your family is getting the chance to remember that day with you, too, when you were baptized and now, when you take on those promises for yourself. And due to the crazy circumstances of this year, it just so happens to fall on the day that we celebrate the baptism of Jesus himself!
But, y’know, Jesus’ baptism wasn’t quite like the joyful, happy-gathered-family-with-photos-followed-by-an-egg-bake-luncheon baptism so many of us had. It took place in the dusty wilderness, hundreds of feet below sea level, along this muddy creek called the Jordan River. Jesus was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people who had flooded in from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside, compelled by the calling of John the Baptist to repent. And, of course, there was that little detail of the heavens being shredded in half and the Spirit of God in the form of a celestial dove dive-bombing into Jesus. So, y’know, different from ours.
Jeremiah is a mostly doom and gloom book. The prophet spent most of his career when the kingdom of Judah was in a state of crisis, until it completely collapsed with the invasion of the Babylonians, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of anyone important to Babylon. Jeremiah doesn’t have a lot of happy things to say through most of the book. But the particular part of Jeremiah that we read this morning comes from words he spoke way at the beginning of his time as a prophet, when this king named Josiah was on the throne.
Now what we need to know about Josiah is that he was a truly good king. He restored the Temple in Jerusalem and brought back worshipping God alone to the kingdom. He held the first Passover meal in the kingdom since the days of King David. And because the great empires were really weakened when he was king, he expanded the kingdom of Judah to include lands that used to be in the Northern Kingdom. It’s this particular situation that Jeremiah is writing about in his prophecy.
Two years ago, when Annie and I were preparing to meet Hazel for the first time, one of the things that kept coming up in our birthing class and in the books we read and from friends we talked with was how a birth plan can help reduce some of the stress that was going to happen very soon. They all recommended planning out the details you could plan for, like who would be there, what you’d bring, how you’d get there, that kind of stuff. I remember it was exactly 31 minutes from our front door to the maternity ward entrance. Annie’s mother would be at the house to watch the dog and greet us when we got home. We had the clothes, the car seat, and all the “welcome to the world” things staged and ready to go. We even had a playlist lined up. And admittedly, having all that in place helped.
I was thinking a lot about that while reading about the birth of Jesus. I wonder what Mary’s birth plan, as far as she had one, looked like? It would make sense that she expected to be surrounded by family. Her mother, probably her grandmother too, would be present, along with her cousins and maybe siblings if she had them. I wonder if her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, was supposed to be there too? Joseph likely fretted over the details of making sure the house was ready, ready with his family to pray for a safe delivery, food at the ready for all the guests that would be there for the birth of a firstborn. I wonder if it helped them destress to think that they’d be surrounded by the familiar when this baby, the Savior of the World, came.
And then the change of plans.
My sister Katherine has always been really good at job interviews. It doesn’t hurt that she has a really likeable personality, so interviewers tend to like her right away, but it’s more than that. Going into an interview, she doesn’t overthink trying to impress the company, or make herself out to be the best possible fit, or even flatter the interviewer. Instead, she goes into an interview with questions. She wants to know what the job looks like, what the company culture is like, why the interviewer likes working there, things like that. She’s so good at interviews because she knows that’s when she gets the chance to figure out what she’s getting into.
When we’re about to make a really big commitment—like taking on a new job—it’s always important to know what we’re getting into. You want to get some certainty of what’s required and what things will look like if you join the team or take on the project. How hard will it be? Do you have the right skills? Is it worth committing to? And we have these questions all the time—whether it’s a job, or a sport, or an extracurricular team, or moving houses, or getting married, or whatever else. If it’s something important, it’s worth investigating.
We’ve probably all been involved in an icebreaker at some point. You’re at a conference or a gathering or a camp or something, and you’re instructed to share with everyone your name and something about yourself. Honestly, I prefer the ones where the instructor tells me exactly what about myself I should share. But there is something important there, I think, in leaving the floor open.
When someone asks who you are, how do you answer? Obviously your name is up there on the list, but what else would you say about yourself? Would you mention what job you have or what grade you’re in, how many kids you have or who you’re married to, where you live, what your education background is, maybe your favorite hobby? The things we choose to say about ourselves say something about what we think is important about who we are. What’s the most important thing for others to know about you?
There was this show that was on some time ago called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, produced by Tina Fey. It’s this story of a woman named Kimmy Schmidt who was kidnapped as a child by a cult leader and raised in an underground bunker for years before being freed, and she has to adjust to a world entirely different from her early-90s image from before she was, well, kidnapped. Now, that might sound dark, but if you know Tina Fey, I hope you know that it’s a wacky hijinks hilarious show.
But in one episode, Kimmy is talking to her roommate about how to get through something really hard. She used the image of turning the crank for the bunker’s generator, and how she would always “count to ten.” The logic was, you can do anything for ten seconds. That way, she could do monotonous, difficult tasks, as long as she could just take them ten seconds at a time. A lot of this year has been like that, needing to be taken ten seconds at a time. But there is good news on the way!