Jacquelyn and I visited Fort Ticonderoga this week. I remember reading about the fort when I was eight or so and being excited about the story of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys taking the fort by surprise.
Today the fort is a forbidding castle of grey stone with cannon pointing out from the walls and people in 18th century period costumes. I’ve had a chance to dig further into the fort’s history and I’m struck by a strange fact: the fort was never the center of a great battle.
First built by the French, Fort Carillon, as it was named then, was abandoned to the British in the mid 1700’s. American colonial forces surprised a small British garrison in 1775 and took it without a fight. They in turn surrendered the fort two years later when the British returned and mounted cannon on an overlooking mountain. The British ultimately abandoned the site.
This is a kind of metaphor for fear. Forts, after all, are built because an enemy is feared, just as we often live in anxiety over something we fear. But often the fear and anxiety don’t help us; they may in fact paralyze us.
We’ve been reading through the book of Jonah in worship this summer. It has three movements.
- God sends a word to Jonah, commanding him to go to Ninevah and proclaim doom due to Ninevah’s evil. Jonah fears what will happen so goes another direction. But his disobedience is stopped when God sends a storm. He is saved by a miraculous great fish that brings him back to his start.
- God sends a word to Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim their destruction due to Ninevahs’ evil. Jonah goes, preaches, and everyone from the king to the animals repents. God miraculously repents the intended punishment and the city is saved.
- Jonah becomes angry at God’s repentance. So God sends a word to Jonah in the form of parable: a tree that sheltered him is parched and dies. At Jonah’s complaint, God surprises Jonah by asking whether God shouldn’t be concerned about all the people at Ninevah.
What’s common to these three parts of the story is that each begins with some kind of fear or frustration. Each one proceeds to a surprise that makes the original fear irrelevant. The final surprise for the book’s original audience and in some sense for us is that God even cares about Those People.
Those People are the ones outside our boundary, for we all create boundaries. The direction of this whole book is to come to this conclusion: God’s boundary is bigger than we ever thought.
There is a bigger point to this story, however. It is simply that beyond the fear of each movement is the moving God whose purpose is being fulfilled, whose purpose is pursued regardless of what else happens. Jonah delays it; God keeps going on. Surprise! What we feared? God embraces.
The old fort stands there today, more solid than at any time in its history. It looks solid; it looks powerful. Here’s the thing to know: it never worked. What has always worked is finding God’s purpose and getting on board that journey, not holing up in a fort.