Separated for Service February 21, 2021


Olive oil was and is the oil of choice in Israel.  Ancient olive groves are filled with gnarled olive trees that provide farmers with olives which are pressed for oil and sold.  Olive oil is truly a treasured gift from God, something to be thankful for on a daily basis. In scripture we learn that oil has multiple uses—perhaps because it is so easy to come by in the Middle Eastern climate.

Just as we do in our kitchens today, Middle Eastern cultures have long used olive oil in cooking. Remember the story of the widow in 1 Kings who was visited by the man of God named Elijah?  We call him a prophet today. The widow lived with her son in Zarephath, which was outside of Israel.   Poor as she was, she was just about out of oil and flour, essential, bare-bones ingredients used to make bread to keep their stomachs full.  She was out gathering firewood to prepare the last meal for herself and her son when Elijah shows up, having been instructed by God to look for her.  She explains her plight, and Elijah asks her to make bread for him!  She does, and then she miraculously has a lifetime supply of flour and oil.   

Oil was also a source of income for some—there is a story in 2 Kings about another widow who was deeply in debt and in danger of losing her two children who could legally be taken from her as slaves to settle the debt.  The prophet Elisha tells her to borrow as many vessels as she can from her neighbors, and the little bit of oil that she had in her house becomes a fount of oil that fills container after container until they were all full.  She is then able to sell the oil and pay off her debt, keeping her family intact.

Oil was used for light, poured into a clay lamp with a wick to provide a warm glow in the darkness in a home or by a group of bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive so the wedding festivities could begin.  Remember that parable Jesus told about the unprepared bridesmaids who had not thought to bring extra oil?  They ended up in the dark, went looking for oil and missed the wedding.

Jesus also tells another parable that includes the oil that was used to wash the wounds of the Jewish man who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead alongside the road to Jericho.  Perhaps you too know the cleaning properties of oil, having washed with olive oil soap today.

And then there is the oil used for anointing, establishing a person or a thing as set apart for a special purpose, making the person or the thing holy with the oil sprinkled or poured.  The recipe for anointing oil is found in Exodus chapter 30—you take the olive oil and mix it with myrrh, cinnamon, sugar cane and cassia, which is a close relative of cinnamon.  Seems like the anointing oil smelled really good!  At one point in the book of Exodus, the people are instructed to bring the items to the tent of meeting that are going to be needed for the worship space to be outfitted and equipped.  It is an offering of silver and gold, dyed yarn, beaded leather, olive oil and spices to make the anointing oil.  Sounds like the offerings we give regularly which are used for the ongoing ministry of our congregation, for salaries, supplies and spaces for worship and study.  God instructed Moses to instruct the people to use the anointing oil on the tent of meeting, on the altar for sacrifice, on anything that was to be designated as holy, dedicated for God’s use.

The anointing oil was also used on people.  First it was employed in the ordination of  priests, such as Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Aaron’s sons.  It was poured on their heads and on their special priestly garments, including a turban and a crown, setting them apart for holy service.  Later, the same kind of anointing oil was used to anoint the kings chosen by God, setting them apart with the special task of leading and protecting the people.

The action is described as a consecration, a dedication or simply as making the priests holy, depending on which English translation you use.  But each one of the translations I consulted translated the same word in English— ordain– for the Hebrew idiom “to fill the hands of..”  Scholars are not sure how that idiom arose, perhaps it was a part of an ordination ceremony that we no longer have access to.  To me the idiom illustrates very well the ministry responsibilities of the priests.  They are set apart to fill their hands with the concerns and needs of the people, lifting them up to God in prayer.  And at the same time, they are set apart to fill their hands with God’s word, God’s message, for the people. 

Think for a moment about our ordination practices in the Presbyterian Church.  I am sure most of you have seen an ordination, whether of deacons, elders or ministers of Word and sacrament.  Did you know that the same eight questions are asked of the one being ordained, no matter which office her or she is being ordained to?  Each office has only one question that is unique, a question pertaining to the unique tasks of their office.  The questions are designed to be sure that the individual is adequately prepared and fully ready to assume the duties of this office which sets them apart for a particular service in the church.  It does not make them better or closer to God.  Unfortunately, we have often put pastors in particular, but maybe elders or deacons as well, on a pedestal, thinking that because they are ordained they are to be treated differently, more highly regarded, etc.  This mindset has led to abuses of the power of the office in too many sad stories of a person of the cloth taking advantage of a church member in some way.  Let’s be careful here—being ordained does not mean we are superior to other believers in any way or worthy of being fawned over.  Nor does it mean we have a more direct line to God.  Being ordained means being set apart for service, for a particular task of ministry—whether service, governance or preaching and teaching.   I so appreciate the line in our list of what has been described as the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, the core of what we believe as Presbyterian Christians:  We believe that God elects (or chooses or sets apart) people for salvation and service.  That is all people, not simply those who are ordained to particular offices in the Presbyterian Church.  Each of us is set apart for salvation through Jesus Christ.  Period.  Not through any action on our part.  Through the grace of Christ.  And each of us is set apart for service—service to God and service to others.  As we make our way through Lent toward the cross and ultimately the resurrection of our Lord, perhaps we can spend some time reflecting on our role as believers set apart for salvation and service.  If you believe that, how is it visible in your life?  Where are you using your God given gifts?  In whose life are you making a difference with your time, your wisdom, your energy?  How are you using your wallet to serve others, to contribute to the ministry of this congregation or other helping agencies in our community? 

Each one of us has been selected.  In our congregation, some are selected by God through the voice of the people to serve as elders.  Active elders serving on session make decisions and create a vision for our witness in the world.  They care for our entire flock, providing for pastoral care, spiritual nurture and enough challenges to ensure that each of us is growing closer to God.

We do not actually make use of anointing oil for ordinations in the Presbyterian church, but we do practice the laying on of hands.  When a person is first ordained, others who have been ordained in the Presbyterian church, either elders or ministers of Word and sacrament, are invited to come forward to lay hands on the one being ordained.  Usually there are so many hands involved that we have to make a human chain, pre-Covid, of course!  The ones closest to the person place a hand on the head or the shoulder or the arm, and the others place their hands on those who are standing in front of them, so the power of hands is transmitted through the human chain to the kneeling man or woman or youth.  I wonder if it is our Presbyterian way of pouring oil on the head, of anointing the person, setting him or her apart for a particular task of ministry?  Surely it is the hands full of love, support, encouragement which reach out to fill the hands of the one being ordained, so that he or she will begin serving God and serving others in a new way.  It is our oil substitute.  And like the olive oil, this is a gift from God. Amen.   

Jonah… Running from God

January 24th, 2021

The story of Jonah, who is sometimes called the reluctant prophet, is a story told to make a point.  It is kind of like the tall tales that are told around the campfire, passed on from generation to generation.  Maybe it could even be called a long parable.  It is full of humor and satire, both tools that writers can use to get a lesson across.  It perhaps dates from the post exilic period (during the 5th or 4th century BCE) when the people of Israel had already been run over by the powerful Assyrians to the north.  It is a message about the wideness of God’s mercy and compassion stemming perhaps from the descriptive words of praise repeated in various places in the Old Testament, first found way back in Exodus.  Listen to the ancient credal statement from Exodus chapter 34: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity ad transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”  Please note that the people of Israel long assumed that this God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love exclusively toward them!  The story of Jonah puts a question front and center for the people of Israel and for us:  Just how far can God’s mercy and grace extend?

Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, described elsewhere in the Old Testament as a wicked, violent place; an enemy of Israel, often threatening to overpower them, ultimately doing so in 722 BCE, forcing the Israelites into exile.  It was a very large city.  When God told Jonah to carry a message to the people of Ninevah, calling on them to repent of their wicked ways, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. He hopped on a boat and God hurled a great wind, whipping up the waves and threatening the ship with an extremely likely wreck followed by death to its passengers and crew.  Jonah seemed unaware of the threat.  Listen:

Read:  1:5b-12

The sailors did not want to be responsible for the death of Jonah, so they did their bests to get the ship to the shore.  The sea grew more and more stormy until they finally asked the Lord to not blame them for Jonah’s death and threw him overboard. The sea calmed.  Amazed at the power of Jonah’s God, the Gentile sailors turned to the Lord, offering their praise and commitment to God.

As you likely know, Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish.  What a laugh this part of the story would have gotten as it was told around the campfire at night.  What?  A human swallowed whole by a fish?  A human who could pray from inside the belly of the fish?  Anyone can see God’s humor here.  I hope you also see God’s mercy toward Jonah in this rescue.

Jonah’s prayer seems to alternate between blaming God for his current situation and seeking God’s rescue.  Listen: 

Read:  2:2-10 

God’s response to Jonah’s prayer is equally funny.  The Lord spoke to the fish and it spewed (maybe vomited?) Jonah onto dry land.  What a sight on the beach!  Soaking wet with seaweed wrapped around his head.  Smelly contents of a fish stomach covering his body. 

God comes a second time to Jonah with the same request as before:  Go to Ninevah with the message I will tell you.  God is clearly a God of mercy, giving Jonah a second chance to obey God’s instructions.  This time Jonah listens.  He heads to Ninevah and only gets about 1/3 of the way into the very large city, crying out “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”  No mention of God, no mention of a possibility of changing their behavior or their attitude and getting a reprieve from certain destruction.  It is only a short, terse message of judgment.  You have no hope, Ninevah.  Only 40 days left.

First the people of Ninevah and then even the king of Ninevah react in a way similar to the sailors—they turn to God, seeking forgiveness with the traditional acts of contrition—putting on sackcloth and ashes and asking for grace from God. 

Now the laughter really gets loud.  Listen to what the king says: 

Read 3:6-10

The livestock are dressed in sackcloth?  The livestock are forced to fast?  What?  How could the cows and the sheep and the goats have been accused of following evil ways, of performing acts of violence?  This points out in hilarious hyperbole how deep the repentance of their evil ways went!

Jonah is not happy.  He knew what kind of God he was dealing with, and that was why he ran the other direction in the first place.  Neither he nor the people of Israel as a whole would have ever thought granting mercy to the Assyrians would be a good idea.  Listen:

Read 4:1-4

God is challenging Jonah’s mindset here.  This story of Jonah is challenging the mindset of any of us who would lump our enemies into the bucket of those who do not deserve mercy from God.  God’s mercy is too much for Jonah’s taste.  Here a third time in this short story God shows mercy to Jonah, providing a very quick growing plant big enough to shade the sulking prophet as he stews over the merciful, gracious work of a God who abounds in steadfast love even for Ninevites.  Then just as quickly as the bush appeared, it disappeared the next day, leaving Jonah baking in the hot desert sun, hopefully trying to understand what God is attempting to teach him!  I wonder if we can begin to see our own grudges against groups or individuals as we listen to this tale.  Can we remember the people we have written off as undeserving of mercy?  The humor continues with Jonah’s repetition of the same dour statement:  “It is better for me to die than to live.”  The “kill me now” joke is a foundation of much modern Jewish humor as well.  God is not finished with Jonah and has no intention of killing him.  The message is too important.  Listen to the words of God at the close of this story:

Read 4:9-11

Don’t forget the animals!  God’s concern for the city of Ninevah is broad and inclusive.  The residents have been counted.  God includes all of them who had been wandering around in the dark and their livestock.  Must be the same livestock who put on sackcloth and ashes as an act of repentance after Jonah’s message!  If God chooses to care about the whole city, Jonah has no room to complain.  It is God’s choice to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Jonah knew it the whole time.  We know it too.  Thanks be to God.