On the Journey to Greatness

Jonah, Jeremiah, Jeff, and the impact of faithfulness.

Address to the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship on the occasion of Jeff Barneson’s 49th birthday, 17 September 2005.

I’m very grateful for the modern advertising industry, because I’ve found that advertisers tell us truths about ourselves that we might not say out loud. Not long ago a lavish 16-page booklet from the motor car manufacturer Jaguar tumbled out of my Economist magazine.  It featured two-page spreads, beautifully illustrated and cleverly worded, on each of the seven deadly sins—lust, envy, sloth, greed, and so forth—assuring me that the Jaguar motor car excelled at fulfilling each one of them. Where else could you find such honesty?

Well, when I arrived in Harvard Square yesterday I found another example of advertisers’ willingness to say what we would never say quite so directly.  In this case the advertisers were the makers of Bass Ale, and they had taken over the entire subway station to reinforce something we all know but rarely acknowledge in so many words here at Harvard, namely, that we have an extraordinarily high opinion of ourselves.  As part of their “Reach for Greatness” campaign, they had created custom-designed posters just for Harvard Square, such as, “In the world’s search for great minds, the paths converge here.”

Over the very long run, the only time that matters, history is not made by those who visit, but by those who dwell.

If that were not self-congratulatory enough, there was another, my favorite of them all:  “On the journey to greatness, this is an inevitable stop.”

There’s a lot packed into that short sentence, and it shows that the purveyors of Bass Ale certainly did their homework.  They understood some of our most cherished beliefs here in Cambridge.

First, we are on our way to greatness.  The minister here in the Memorial Church, the Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, has a lovely phrase he often uses to describe the people who gather here on Sunday mornings and at other significant moments in the life of the university: we have assembled here, he will say, “the great and the good.” The great and the good. Sometimes the good. Definitely the great. But you probably wouldn’t see a sign in the Harvard T station saying, “On the journey to goodness, this is an inevitable stop.”

Second, this is one stop—just one stop. This is so apt for nearly everyone in this room. We know that this is not our destination. We are here to prepare for something bigger, better, greater. Whether we’re beginning or in the midst of professional degrees, preparing for Ph.D.s, or junior faculty, in all likelihood we’re on our way somewhere else.

Indeed, it’s rather weird to imagine someone who would stop here and just stick around, hanging out perpetually with graduate students. Wouldn’t you be a bit worried about such a person?

No, in our world greatness belongs to the commuters and the transplants. No one becomes great by staying home.

All this has made me think about the only commuting prophet in the Bible, and arguably the most successful.

Jonah is called to go on a journey to greatness. He is called to go to the heart of the pagan world, to one of its eminent cities, and declare God’s judgment on it. I don’t know if this assignment would appeal to you, but on the prophet career track this is a plum assignment. That’s what prophets do in the Hebrew Bible—it is the rare prophet who comes upon an assembly of the self-styled great and good without bearing a word of warning from God.

Jonah, famously, goes as fast and as far as he can in the other direction, proceeding to the landlocked northern city of Nineveh by way of a boat to the south. When this diversionary tactic fails in Moby Dick fashion, Jonah grudgingly goes to Nineveh, dragging his feet all the way, to carry out his assignment, which is to walk across the vast city, three days’ worth of walking, proclaiming, “In forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed.” He gets one day into his three-day course of prophetic activity before the entire city heeds his message, led by their king, who is not satisfied just to have his people fast and put on sackcloth, but also clothes even the animals in sackcloth just so God doesn’t miss the message. The people of Nineveh change their mind, and God changes his mind. The destruction is averted; the people, and the cattle, are saved; and Jonah is seriously ticked off.

I don’t have time to explore all the fascinating and frankly hilarious aspects of the book of Jonah, but you can read of Jonah’s adventures over half a cup of coffee—the book of Jonah is all of two pages long. For our purposes, just consider this: he is the most stunningly successful prophet in the pages of Scripture; and he is the least faithful.

Jonah does not really care for God. He particularly doesn’t care for God’s habit of being merciful and compassionate and changing his mind when people repent. He also doesn’t care one bit about Nineveh, or perhaps we should say he cares for it in the way that people who like demolition derbies care for cars.

What becomes eminently clear about Jonah in the course of the book of Jonah is that what Jonah cares about, consistently, is Jonah. When we last see him he is sitting in the middle of the desert feeling sorry for himself, after the most stunning success a prophet could ever hope for.

There is another prophet in the Bible whose message is almost identical to Jonah’s: without repentance, a great city will be utterly destroyed, people and animals alike. But this time the city is not the pagan capital of Nineveh, but the home of God’s own chosen people, Israel, the city of Jerusalem. And the prophet’s name is Jeremiah.

If you want to read the book of Jeremiah, it will take you a lot longer than the book of Jonah: 52 chapters, or 59 pages in my Bible. And there’s a lot of repetition in those 52 chapters.

Jeremiah prophesies for decades. Through three kings’ reigns he consistently proclaims the news that unless the leaders of Jerusalem repent from their entanglement with foreign allies and foreign gods, their own God will destroy them at the hands of the rising empire of Babylon. Jonah spends three days, Jeremiah spends forty years.

No one listens to him.  Each generation of ruling elites seeks out his advice, listens carefully, and ignores it completely.

Eventually, toward the end of Jeremiah’s life, the geopolitical forces that always threatened to crush Israel tighten their grip, the Chaldean army arrives, and the city is destroyed. Everything that Jeremiah has warned about, from the first year of the young Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, comes to pass just as he had said.

Jeremiah ends up much like the holdouts we’ve seen in New Orleans the last few weeks. Even after the king and the elites of Jerusalem have been taken off in captivity to Babylon, Jeremiah stays with the wretched remnant in the smoking ruins of Jerusalem. He just won’t leave. He even buys a field in Jerusalem just as the Chaldean army is sweeping down upon it, like buying shares in Northwest Airlines on Tuesday. And even more strangely, he writes the exiles in Babylon and tells them to have the same commitment to Babylon itself that he has to Jerusalem! Buy houses, marry, have children, plant vineyards, seek the welfare of the city you find yourselves in, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Or, in slightly more contemporary language, If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

What a contrast between Jonah and Jeremiah: Jonah, the most resoundingly successful prophet, and the least faithful; Jeremiah, a complete failure as a prophet, and the most faithful.

There’s a lot we can learn from this juxtaposition, not least the foolishness of measuring faithfulness by success, or expecting success to follow as a normal consequence of faithfulness.

But I’d like to call our attention to what the contrast between Jonah and Jeremiah might say about our desire for “impact.” 

Impact has become a popular word among evangelical Christians, as well as many parts of the business community. It is so popular, in fact, it has become an honorary verb, as in, “I want to impact the campus for Christ.”  There is even an undergraduate student organization here at Harvard named “Christian Impact.”

Perhaps it’s the influence of recent popular culture, but whenever I hear the word impact I can’t help thinking of a large asteroid that is about to plunge into the earth, bringing an end to all known life.  I wonder if that isn’t how it sounds to people in our culture when they overhear evangelical Christians wanting to “impact the culture.”  What do they think when they hear something like “Christian Impact”? Maybe our brothers and sisters could consider a name change—to something like “Christian Approach” or “Christian Docking Maneuver”?

Well, be that as it may, I know for sure that Jonah makes an impact.  If you want impact, the prophet Jonah is your man.  Prophecy—bang!—repentance. Impact!

And yet there’s something curious about Jonah’s impact. In the longer course of history, Jonah has so little impact that without this slim little book we never would have known he existed.  The dramatic conversion of Nineveh, sackcloth-clad kings, people, cattle, and all, has slipped beneath the sands of time leaving no trace except this short little story. No archaeological evidence, no historical records.  It would not be the last time that a dramatic conversion had little lasting effect.

But what about Jeremiah?  Jeremiah’s persistent, painful, painstaking wrestling match with God yields words from the Lord that sustain the people of Israel through the dislocation of exile, the disappointment and disintegration of all of their dreams, the dissolution of their journey to greatness. Strangely, the prophet who most drastically pronounces God’s judgement on God’s own people also is the bearer of a profound message of God’s mercy and God’s plans to give them a future and a hope. The words of Jeremiah become the manna that sustains Israel through the second wilderness of its exile so that far from disappearing into the sands of history like every other nation that Nebuchadnezzar conquered, like the ancient city of Nineveh, a remnant remains.  Indeed, they remain to this day, while the empire of Babylon would be forgotten by history except that it appears in Israel’s own sacred scriptures.  Ultimately a young man is nurtured among that remnant who fulfills in unimagined ways the hope of God dwelling among his people, restoring them from exile and breaking open their national story into history’s whole story. 

Jonah, the man of great impact and success, becomes a bit player, an entertaining and instructive sideshow, in the grand sweep of God’s redemptive purposes. It is Jeremiah, the complete prophetic failure, who stands in the direct line of God’s activity in history. Because Jeremiah stayed.

This weekend many of us have gathered to celebrate the life and ministry of Jeff Barneson. Some of you don’t even know Jeff yet, others of us have known him for decades.

Jeff’s ministry, if I may put it this way, has not been Jonah-like.  Jeff has not succeeded in bringing the vast enterprise of Harvard to repentance. I have not heard of the statue of John Harvard being covered in sackcloth because of a prophetic word from Jeff. Sometimes I am quite sure he has felt like Jeremiah. Yet perhaps his ministry has been even more difficult than Jeremiah’s, because at this era in history, this place, with all its perplexing combination of good intentions, intelligence, and steadfast refusal to humble itself before anything greater than Harvard itself, far from crumbling under the forces of history, has continued to go from strength to strength. No one can spend decades here, or at the heart of any flourishing empire past or present, without wondering whether the warnings of the prophets about human enterprises cut off from God were not, well, quaint and in the end embarrassingly overstated. Maybe this is the home of the great and the good after all.

But the story of Nineveh, that great city, momentarily repentant and now forgotten; the story of Zedekiah’s Jerusalem, living on borrowed time and dubious alliances; the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, regionally dominant yet within three generations a fading monument to overextension and folly, all remind us that in the end, every empire falls. Every human culture is Babylon.

We recently witnessed, for the first time in living memory, just what it means for an American city to be destroyed. And one of the haunting phrases from the first days of the news coverage was this: New Orleans is a city largely below sea level surrounded on three sides by water. Every human city is New Orleans, every human city is Atlantis, built on sinking land, below sea level and surrounded on three sides by water. Cambridge is New Orleans too. One day people will speak hazily and nostalgically of the brick buildings of Cambridge, of this lovely church, of Harvard University‚ if they speak of them, or remember them, at all.

Jeremiah suggests that the only lasting way to live in this perishing world is to love it, to stay in it. To stay in it for God’s sake, because it is ultimately God who is at work in the rising and falling of history. It is God who preserves his people, who has alone the power to weave a lasting story through the temporary stories, our temporary stories, of human rebellion and repentance. Nothing fast lasts.

At a personal level, the people whose lives you will shape, and who will shape your life, will not be the people you meet, but the people you stay with. Nothing you do this coming semester, this coming year, or this coming decade, will be anything like as important in God’s time as the things you do for a lifetime, and the people you spend your lifetime with. Over the very long run, the only time that matters, history is not made by those who visit, but by those who dwell. This is why Jeremiah is our model, not Jonah. This is why our way to greatness is not a series of stops, but will ultimately require each of us to make a decision to stay.

And I’d like to think that the people gathered here tonight are a visible confirmation of the worth of staying in a place. There must have been times when Jeff has asked, “Was it worth it?” Was it worth it? Look around. Was it worth it? Yes, it was worth it. If you choose a place, if you stay, if you love the one you’re with, someday, in the very long run, you will find that in God’s amazing providence you were part of the only true greatness, the only true story, the only story that is both great and good.