Nobody knows exactly how big the situation is, but everyone knows something has to be done. The issue is immigration, in particular illegal or unauthorized immigration. It’s one of those flashpoint signs of the time; one of those issues that’s dividing communities and generating a flurry of legal activity. Nobody knows exactly how big the numbers are, somewhere between 7 to 20 million illegal immigrants are living in America. Nobody knows exactly how it’s affecting our nation. Is it hurting us because all these people avoid taxes and drive up medical expenses? Or does immigrant labor actually encourage economic growth because we avoid all those employment "inefficiencies"?
Christians are just as divided as everybody else. Some Christians defend tough immigration laws, saying that our Scriptures require us to obey the law of the land. Others say, no way, the heart of the Gospel is when Jesus says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
The only thing we know for certain is that the situation is reaching a boiling point. People are reacting. Law enforcement officials get accused of racial profiling, of looking for convenient excuses to detain people of a certain color. Immigration officials say they don’t tolerate racial profiling, and race is never the only factor for lawful detention.
Both sides make their case. Whenever there’s a questionable detention both sides argue about what’s really going on; about what signs or signals really matter. Was there really something wrong with the vehicle? Did a driver commit some moving violation to draw the officer’s attention? Or was the officer reacting to the color of their skin and the neighborhood they happened to be in? Both sides have a story about what got noticed and what really mattered - someone’s illegal behavior, or just their appearance. What were they looking for, and when they saw it, what did they do?
In some cases it’s almost impossible to know. But the questions matter: what kinds of signs or signals are we looking for? And when we see them, what are we supposed to do? They’re important questions, not just for immigration. They’re important for life. They’re certainly important for Christians because we believe that God cares about this world. We believe that somehow God is inviting us to join His good work in the world. And we believe that somehow God helps us understand which paths lead to life, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see the signs of the time.
It’s a belief we find in the heart of our tradition. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “When you turn to the right or to the left your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it,’” (Isa. 30.21). And if our invitation is to join God’s good work in the world, then what signs or signals are we supposed to be looking for? Debates about immigration? Perhaps some kind of natural disaster? What about economic struggles or military campaigns? Are these the kinds of signs of the time that matter most for Christians? If not, then what? What are the signs, and when we see them, what are we supposed to do?
If we’re talking about signs of the time, there’s no better story in the entire Bible than the book of Jonah. If it’s been a while since you read the whole story from beginning to end then let me invite you to read it today. Because Jonah is short, just 4 little chapters. You can almost read the entire thing during a TV commercial break. It’s that short. And it’s funny, because it’s a story about everyone who knows how to recognize God’s signs, God’s signals, and God’s Word - except God’s own prophet.
God tells Jonah, “Get up! Go to Nineveh” (1.2) - and Jonah goes the opposite direction. He’s running and it just makes things worse. He gets on a boat, so God causes a storm. The sailors cry to a bunch of their gods for help. They don’t know what God Jonah “follows” (hint, hint: he’s not “following” his God anyway…). But when they wake him up, Jonah says that his God made the waters (where the storm is happening!). And it’s the foreign sailors - not Jonah - who cry to his God for help. It doesn’t work, because no matter how well everybody else understands what God is doing, Jonah just won't respond. He says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” And Jonah gets swallowed by a really big fish.
Inside the belly of that fish - the deepest, darkest place he could possibly go; it can’t get any worse - Jonah does the right thing. He prays. But don’t get your hopes up. Because instead of thanking God for saving all those people he endangered, Jonah thanks God for saving himself. And after putting up with that kind of selfish prayer for 3 days and 3 nights, God’s had enough. God tells the fish to spit Jonah out of its mouth. Because even the fish knows how to recognize what God wants. So it spits Jonah onto the land.
And then, “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you,’” (3.1). Finally Jonah goes. He recognizes what God wants, he responds to it - and it works. “God changed his mind about the calamity… and he did not do it,” (3.10). And the very next line, “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry,” (4.1).
The story ends with this little duel between God and Jonah. Jonah goes outside the city to feel sorry for himself and God grows a shade tree to protect him from the sun. The next day God lets the shade tree die and Jonah says, “Fine, just kill me too.” So God says, “Oh, you actually cared about that little shade tree that was my gift to you even though you had nothing to do with it? Then why shouldn’t I care about an entire city that’s lost it’s way? Why shouldn’t I give them an invitation for new life?” (4.10-11). That’s the sign Jonah should have been looking for all along.
What signs should we be looking for? Coming next in Part 2.