the practice of improvisation: questioning givens

Jonah 3:1-10

What are the givens of our lives? Death and taxes is the old joke.
But we can add to that short list, can’t we?
Incarnation is a given.
And that means twisted ankles, bum knees and backs, the seasonal virus.
That means the disease.
That means age,
and several of you have been very clear in saying,
getting old is not for the faint of heart!

These are the givens of space and time
(the more philosophical way of saying incarnation!).
There are also, for us, the more theological ways of saying given—
the given of our creation: created in the very image of God—
the given of our nature:
we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

There’s a sense in which the givens do seem to represent the limits—
the boundaries beyond which we cannot,
the parameters within which we can, beyond which we can’t.

And so there are the givens that are the limits of our knowledge
and the limits of our ability.

There are relational limits—
hopes or expectations unmet or shattered.

There are the preferential givens of what we like and what we don’t.
Have to be careful there though. They change!
So stress is a given—not always so much how we deal with it, but stress itself.
Financial stress seems to be a new given for more and more people.
For so long in our culture, you worked hard,
your net worth increased regularly,
you were more “successful” than your parents,
you retired at ease.
Things change. Some givens change.

And some don’t though, right? Stress, for example.
And so much more important than any preferential givens,
there’s the given that’s the right thing to do
and the given that’s the wrong thing to do, right?
Except sometimes what initially appears wrong turns out to be right,
and what initially appears right turns out to be wrong.
So maybe more givens are preferential than we think
because given obviously doesn’t always mean obvious.
But we have to consider our givens—
we don’t have a choice
because we live within our givens.

Now improvisational actors, on the one hand,
play within the givens—
on the other hand though, question givens—
seek to overturn givens—
ask themselves, “what is a logical,
completely obvious way of hearing this another way—
a completely different way?”

Because while playing within the givens
acknowledges a certain kind of reality,
overturning the givens taken for granted
leaves you free to explore something unexpected and wonderful.

Nothing unexpected, new or surprising to that, actually.
Jesus and Mary Poppins overturn givens regularly.
Think about it:
Harry Potter begins with the givens of Harry’s existence overturned.
Star Wars begins with Luke’s givens overturned.
Percy Jackson, Jason Bourne, Mission Impossible …
what else is hot?
It is, after all, a tried and true formula.
Whether it’s by magic
or manipulation
or skill
or knowledge,
the question is, so you think you know who you are?
And you think you know what’s real?
We’ll see!

Nothing new or surprising to this formula.
Improv’s just about doing it without a script that does it for you.
Improv’s about taking the initiative to overturn things yourself—
to find the unexpected and wonderful to explore.
So much of it’s a matter of perspective, after all.

There’s the story (I think someone made a song out of it)
set in Alaska, two trappers, snowbound in their cabin.
And their deal is that one cooks until the other complains.
Then they switch.
Well, the one is good and tired of cooking,
but the other won’t complain. Y’all heard this?
So the cook goes outside and finds himself some moose patties.
And he bakes himself a pie—a moose patty pie—
nice lattice pie crust on top,
neatly crimped around the edge.
Well, the other trapper comes in,
sits down at the table, tucks his napkin in,
picks up his fork and takes a big bite.
As the taste registers (though why it would is utterly beyond me)—
as the taste registers, he throws down his fork
lets out this tremendous yell, “Moose patty pie! …
… Good though!”
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, 107)

To consider our text this morning
is to consider the overturning of givens from the get-go
(if we can get past some translation issues!).
Our prophet (and we know he’s a prophet
because we begin with “now the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1),
which is your basic introduction of a prophet)—
our prophet’s introduced as “Jonah son of Amittai,”
and he’s told to “arise, go and call” (three imperatives)—
arise, go and call—preach—against the city of Niniveh great to God—
again, that’s literal, “the city great to God”
(Phyllis Trible, The Book of Jonah in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes, Volume VII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 511).

So we’ve all heard that Niniveh was the evil enemy back then.
That’s a given, right?
Niniveh, associated with Assyria—
the evil empire that defeated the northern kingdom of Israel.
But not, actually, any of that until well after the time of Jonah—
who’s dated to the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel,
the king under whom Israel, the northern kingdom, was actually militarily successful—
under whom Israel expanded its borders.

But we read Jonah,
and the prophet Nahum comes to mind.
Right? Didn’t the word of God to Nahum come right to your mind?
Came right to mine—after I read all the commentaries!
The whole book of Nahum is an oracle concerning Niniveh.
And Nahum explicitly claims that God is against Niniveh—
has God say that … or God has Nahum say that God said that:
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts (Naham 2:13 and 3:5).

So this is the city that will destroy Israel—
the city that God is against (according to Nahum)—
city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful (Nahum 3:1)—
the city whose wickedness had come up to God (according to Jonah),
yet great to God … somehow.

Great to God before it was great to anyone else.
Great to God before it was the military power of its time.
Great to God before it was the capital of empire.
Great to God even as that which would come to define the other—the enemy.

So you think you know what’s real?
We’ll see!

The word of God comes to Jonah the son of Amittai
which literally means dove (like that bird)—
dove, son of faithfulness.
So a bird was told to arise, but this bird doesn’t arise.
Instead goes down (the opposite of rising) to Joppa,
doesn’t go east to Niniveh but sets out to the west to Tarshish
and doesn’t call out but goes down (further down)
into the hold of the ship and goes to sleep.
And will go further down into the water,
and then then even further down in the fish
(Trible, 470).
That’s all in the first chapter.

So what are the givens?!
You think you know who’s who?
Who’s good and who’s bad?
We have an evil city great to God,
and a prophet disobedient to God—
who does the exact opposite of what God says to do.

Now the word of God came to Jonah a second time
as the beginning of the third chapter echoes the beginning of the first.
The word of God came to Jonah again.
The same three imperatives are repeated: arise, go, call.

Now, think about what that means.
It means Jonah had resisted God’s will.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Even God’s prophets!
We just usually get the positive press releases!
But this—and this being the Bible, not just the one book—
this being the story of God not the story of any of God’s people—
this is about God’s persistence not anyone’s obedience.

Arise. Go to that great city and call,
but this time God says call—proclaim—preach to it (3:2).
in direct contrast to the earlier command to call—proclaim—preach against it (1:2)
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary [Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 438).

What’s changed?
We don’t know.
Other than that all the givens we thought we knew,
we didn’t—we don’t.
They’ve all been overturned.

So, of course, this time Jonah obeys. He gets up. He goes.
Now will he proclaim? Will he obey all three commands?
And, if he does, what will he proclaim?
God’s more explicit, you see, this second go round.
Proclaim to the city what I tell you to say, God says to Jonah—
literally, “Call to her the calling that I am wording to you”
(Trible, 510).
Isn’t that wonderful?
The wording of God came to Jonah.

Well, Jonah gets to that city, great to God.
We’re told that it would take three days to get through this city—
which means it was a big city, right?
Well, it was never that big.
Not quite eight miles in circumference (Nogalski, 414) in its heyday
(which, remember, was after the time of Jonah).
More important than how big the city really was,
we’re also told that Jonah made his way one day into the city
when he offered up his prophetic word.
So he didn’t go to the middle of the city,
let alone tell the whole city.
He goes a little ways in and proclaims what is in Hebrew just five words:
in forty days, you will be overturned.
It’s a half-hearted or a third-hearted prophetic word!

And I’m thinking he whispered those five words!
Found some quiet cul de sac off the beaten path
that he though was deserted
one day into a three day journey,
whispered five words,
then backtracked a day,
and found a place outside the city to watch it be overturned.

And consider what all he leaves out.
He doesn’t say whose word this is.
He doesn’t say this is the word of God.
He gives no reason for the coming overturning.
He offers no options.

But the Ninivites didn’t play within the givens.
They questioned the givens. They played with the givens
and heard something completely different
as the givens were all upset—overturned as it were.
In forty days, you will be overturned.
It’s a word that can mean destroyed—overturned.
It can also mean delivered—saved—overturned (Trible, 512)—
free to explore the unexpected and wonderful.
It’s the wording of God!

So the Ninivites didn’t hear destruction; they heard possibility.
They weren’t playing within the givens.
They were questioning the givens. They were playing with the givens,
and they heard theology. They heard repentance. Responsibility.
And they turned—that’s what repent means, doesn’t it?
They turned—they overturned.

And starting with someone—
Jonah overlooked—didn’t see—didn’t know was there—
someone who overheard five whispered words
in a quiet cul de sac
well off the beaten path
one day into a three day trip,
the people of Niniveh declared a fast
and they put on sackcloth.
And when the king heard about it,
the king rose (Jonah didn’t, remember?).
The king rose, divested himself of royal robe,
put on sackcloth,
sat in ashes,
overturned what it means to be king—
which he had already done, right?
Because he was responding to what the people were already doing.
His decree is the will of the people already being enacted.

He, too, playing with the givens,
and the play is the thing
wherein to catch the conscience of the king!

Samuel Wells, in his book Improvisation:
the Drama of Christian Ethics, asks,
what’s the difference between a given
and a gift (Wells, 115)?
How it’s received?
There’s so much I just can’t conceive of as gift though.
There are truly horrible possibilities in this world of ours.
But that’s why it’s Niniveh, don’t you think?
Wickedness incarnate.
Good though.

Jonah can’t do it.
It’s beyond him.
Moose patty pie. Yuck!

The worst of the world (Niniveh) received given as gift,
and the man of God received gift as given.

It’s not a how-to manual. Would that it were!
I wish I could tell you based on a careful study of the Hebrew
and the theology,
these are the steps to take your givens and receive them as gifts.
But the Ninivites only got five words!
No instruction whatsoever.
But they knew it was important—vitally important.
They knew it would be hard.
They knew it meant overturning everything—
overturning who and how they’d been.
And that, says our story, can be done.
It has to do with believing God.
Not believing in God—believing God.
The wording of God come to us.

Won’t just happen, Jonah reminds us,
but can, proclaim the Ninivites.

What are our givens here at Woodbrook?
Average attendance? The number of giving units?
Dollars in and dollars out?
All important, but not our bottom line.
Our bottom line has to do with the integrity of our ministry—
the witness of our worship.
For a church, that’s the only bottom line.

What are your givens?
What if I were to say to you, our only given, as the people of God—
your only given, as a child of God, is the unfolding story of God?
That’s a gift, isn’t it?
Doesn’t mean everything’s good. Or right.
It does mean that nothing has to overturn destroy us—
that all can work together within the love and presence of God for good.
The wording of God!

Nahum and Jonah are the only two books of the Bible
to end with rhetorical questions
(Nogalski, 441).
Nahum ends with a question for Niniveh,
“Who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?”
Jonah ends with God asking,
“Should I not be concerned about Niniveh?”
These are the wordings of God.
Thanks be to God.

So I have some questions for you to think about.
Of course I do!
But this time, mull your answers over.
I’m not asking for outloud responses.
I’m asking you to seriously consider
what’s the most real thing to you in your life?
Is it a given—a limit—a boundary?
If so, can you think of a way of focusing on a gift instead of a given?

More importantly, what about God?
I asked you what the most real thing in your life was,
if you did not say God,
is that something you should do something about?
And what can you do about that?

I wish there were the how-to steps,
but all I can tell you is it’s hard.
It involves overturning your reality,
believing God, and you will find
unexpected wonderful.


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