God’s Message to the Oppressors and the Oppressed (Jonah Sermon #4)
God’s Message to the Oppressors and the Oppressed: Jonah Sermon #4
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 22, 2015 • Nigel Berry, Youth Ministry Director
Hi! Good morning! It’s my privilege to conclude our 4 week series on Jonah today. If we haven’t had the chance to meet before, my name is Nigel and I’ve been on staff here at the Vineyard Church for 6 years next month. I started as an intern in the youth ministry program and was excited to apply for an open Youth Director position that opened up about 9 months later. I’ve been serving since then as our community’s Youth Director, pastoring students grades 5-12 and more recently have had the unique opportunity of leading our Mission Outpost Internship program in addition to teaching the BELONG class and coordinating the announcement’s team.
I was excited when Pastor Donnell invited me to contribute to the Jonah series because the story of a man being swallowed and thrown up by a giant fish is a fantastic story! I’ll be concluding our series this morning, with an intent to focus on the “Mind of God” as offered in the story of Jonah.
So, real quick - here’s a recap of where we’ve been so far:
We launched a few weeks ago with a quick overview of the first chapter as Jonah runs away from his God when asked to preach a message of repentance to his nation’s enemies, the Assyrians. We specifically wanted to explore a theme of reconciliation in this series utilizing some terrific commentary from Miguel De La Torre. Exploring why we reconcile. How we reconcile. Even exploring the question, “Who must I reconcile with?”.
From the start of chapter 1, we picked up on a a significant amount of broken relationships. Israel and Assyria, being the obvious one. We also observe a willful disconnect between the prophet Jonah and the God of Israel. And we’ll see as the story goes on, a significant division within Jonah’s own heart.
The second week we examined Jonah’s desire for retribution over mercy for his enemies and how God’s mercy spills onto Jonah as he repents of his inaction and finally heads toward Nineveh, a city which would enter their own moment of lament and repentance as they heed Jonah’s warning.
And finally, last week Pastor Donnell dove into the “Mind of Jonah”, really getting to this guy’s head and trying to process the story through his lens.
I’ll pick up today focusing on God’s voice in this story but I want to start with a reemphasis of Jonah’s struggle. And to summarize his struggle, I think it could be said that the great tension experienced in this story is that God intends to do something that Jonah is convinced should NOT be done.
The great tension experienced in this story is that God intends to do something that Jonah is convinced should NOT be done.
God will extend mercy to the Assyrians when Jonah knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a second chance is not deserved. They are simply TOO evil. They could never actually repent. They will oppress me and my people again and again and again because that is who they are and that is what they do.
God In Every Chapter, Asserts That HE Is In Control
Part of what we’ve seen God doing this far into the story is attempting to make one very strong and clear assertion - God is in control. And this theme is like a homing beacon sounding off in every each of Jonah’s four chapters. This idea gets emphasized in a couple of ways.
Many of the events and landmarks in the story would invoke fear and anxiety in the listener.
Nineveh - is a city renown for its wickedness. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire. And o start the story by sending a person to Nineveh would be a the narrative equivalent of asking the prophet to spend the night alone in a haunted slaughterhouse. Theres a sense of dread to start the story.
Tarshish - a city at the furthest ends of the earth! Yes, it’s not a slaughterhouse of humanity but it wouldn't’ be much better. Tarshish would have been as far away and as different from home as possible. If you’re going to run away from God, go to a place you couldn’t imagine God being - a place that is so different you can’t conceive he’d be there.
Weather - God asserts his control over the blowing winds in Chapters 1 and 4.
The Seas and Their Creatures - Those oceans are terrifying! The ocean is like the Fire Swamp from the Princess Bride. Dangerous, vast, and full of menacing creatures. God’s sovereignty over this wile place is stressed in Chapter 2.
The Earth and It’s Creatures - And we’ll read in a moment that God asserts his control over all the earth and even the plants and animals that inhabit it.
Nineveh repents, Tarshish is taken out of the equation, and God displays that even the wildest of places and creatures remain under his authority. God proves his control to Jonah over and over and over again.
God strongly pushes this theme of “control” through the story. It’s woven right into the fabric of the narrative. And as we look at Jonah’s concluding chapter, I think the reasons why will become more clear. Our story concludes with the forth chapter and after God spares the city our story resumes:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
At this point, I think most of us probably sympathize with Jonah. We might find ourselves saying, “Yeah! Seriously, God - What gives?!” We feel, in general most people should have a second chance. After all, we’re all human, right? But deep down we struggle with the idea of everyone getting a second chance. Daesh militants? Sex traffickers? Crooked government officials? Our world tells us that 2nd chances aren’t always the case. Our assurance is that it is better to be “safe than to be sorry”.
The world assures us that it is better to be “safe” than to be sorry.
By all means, Jonah could have left for home by now. It would have been fine. Mission accomplished! He was done! Message delivered. People responded. Call it a day.
But he doesn’t. Jonah is going to set up on the side of the mountain because he just CANNOT BELIEVE that Nineveh isn’t going up in flames. They must! Jonah’s vindictive spirit plants him in front of the TV to watch justice rain down! God thinks that he’ll spare them - but He’ll come to his senses. He must.
Now to be honest, this sermon series was not just difficult for us to write because the themes were bigger than we anticipated, but also because these themes are deeply personal to all of us. Like Jonah, we all possess a sense of justice. And because of that, the story of Jonah is a challenging story to its readers because, in the way that God is seeking to knock down the walls of false justice that Jonah has constructed, He’s going to do the same with us. We’ll talk more about false justice in a moment but let’s see how our story concludes:
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Melodramatic much, Jonah?
Here’s what I love - Jonah has become the most Emo of all our prophets! In the midst of an incredible journey, a nature encounter that would make David Attenborough poop his pants, and he’s serving as the catalyst which would bring forth his world’s most threatening enemies admission of “Hey - we were wrong”. Jonah rolls on the ground whining that he would rather be dead than to be alive in this moment.
This is, on one hand, adorably childish. But on the other hand, Jonah is struggling with something sincerely difficult and painful.
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
And now the book has concluded. Jonah is confronted with the ultimate reality that he has expressed more concern for a stupid plant than for the pinnacle of God’s creation - people. It’s interesting that we don’t actually know if Jonah softened his heart or if he went home, clinging to his bitterness.
God’s Definition of Justice
But one thing is apparent - God has both the first and the final words in the book of Jonah.
Just as this theme of God’s control is woven into this story, there’s this larger theme that’s woven throughout the whole of the Bible which provides contrast for the way that we live. God establishes his reign and rule in the creation account of Genesis and maintains that his Kingdom is different from the kingdoms of this earth. And this is an important aspect of Christianity - the idea that the followers of Jesus are a peculiar people. When we adhere to the kingdom values of YHWH instead of the kingdom values of this earth, we stand out. We seem odd. We become ‘peculiar’. And all of this starts when God challenges the values that we have inherited. God tells us that there is a different way - a better way. The apostle Paul emphasizes this as he is writing to the church in Corinth stating,
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Jonah is caught in this tension. The kingdoms of this world tell us that we are to pay back evil with evil. But we’ve known for a long time that retribution is disproportional.
On September 11th, we witnessed the horror of losing just shy of 3,000 lives in a single day of terror. We all remember the day well. And most of us were ready for retribution. I recall one of my classmates using our choir teacher’s computer to register for the military draft that very afternoon. 3,000 dead. But revenge is often uglier.
The Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that in a 3-month period between October 7, 2001 and January 1, 2002, at least 1,000-1,300 civilians were directly killed by the U.S.-led aerial bombing campaign, and that by mid-January 2002, at least 3,200 more Afghans had died of "starvation, exposure, associated illnesses, or injury sustained while in flight from war zones", as a result of war.
Stated in clearer contrast, within 90 days of being attacked, our hands were bloodied with a conservative estimate of 1,200 more civilian deaths than were inflicted on us. And that was just in 90 days…
And the most conservative estimates today, more than 10 years on, place the civilian deaths of Afghanistan at over 14,500.
You guys - that is heartbreaking. And I suppose this heartbreak is probably inviting us closer to what God might be thinking about in this Jonah story.
The theologian Miroslav Volf’s proposed that the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament was purposed to gradually deconstruct the vindictive nature of human justice by offering an an ‘eye for an eye’. Even Steven, as it were. If you kill my goat, I get to kill one of yours. If you steal something of mine, I will take something of yours. The mindset offers a new standard for justice. It’s the “Keep it even” standard. A call to be balanced in our retribution.
But in the New Testament, Jesus took this idea even further saying,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42
We struggle with this because God’s voice in the Jonah narrative is the same voice as Jesus in the Gospel account - we should not repay evil with evil. We can now sit more complete in Jonah’s tension. Jonah is adhering to a worldly definition of justice but God is not. “They’ve done evil! They are terrible, no-good, stinkin’ excuses for human beings. NOTHING they can do can ever make up for how awful they are. Justice looks like their utter destruction and humiliation.”
This is the world’s approach to justice. And its a definition that we have adopted because it is often packaged nicely. No one cries when the Death Star gets blown up in the Star Wars movies.
In fact, we applauded it! It’s the cinematic moment of “ahh…. justice! This evil empire finally gets what it had coming!” And we typically appreciate this message when we’re on the “right side” of it. And it feels right because the world tells the ‘eye for an eye’ message is how the world is supposed to work. But God’s message for Jonah was that the Assyrians are loved by God. It would have landed on Jonah is as strangely as we assert “Stormtroopers are people too.”
But you say, “Nigel, that’s Hollywood. We wouldn’t react that way if there was a large loss of human life in the real world. Look at my profile picture on Facebook - I’m Team Paris!”
But Jesus continues his discourse in Matthew 5, adding,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
Caring for France was easy because we’re a Western culture practicing our love of a Western culture. It’s easy and natural to care for those who are most like us. It is difficult, however, to love those that are different from us. To love those that hate us or threaten us.
This isn’t a knock on extending compassion towards France, mind you.[Slide]
I copied my current FB picture because it is good to practice compassion. But if we are selective
in our compassion, neglecting the international stories of Beruit, Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico, and Baghdad and Mali OR neglecting the national stories of Minneapolis, the University of Missouri, or Yale - we are guilty of holding a skewed lens of mercy that denies justice and hinders reconciliation.
This is the false justice of the world. It is a cycle of revenge, of dismissal, of shed responsibility and concern for our neighbor. God’s alternative is mercy.
“Real Justice” Mercy for the Oppressor and the Oppressed
So who gets this mercy? And how do they receive it? In God’s Kingdom, both the oppressor and the oppressed are the recipients of mercy. And we’ll see that mercy,
Mercy will pave the road for justice.
Ultimately paves the way towards justice. In Jonah’s story, we saw mercy being enacted on Jonah after he was thrown into the raging seas. And we witnessed mercy being shed upon Nineveh as the city heard God’s warning and practiced repentance. Last week, Pastor Donnell highlighted something very important for us to takeaway from the text. We focused on Jonah as possessing a dualistic nature, being simultaneously the oppressed and the oppressor.
God desires mercy for both the oppressed and the oppressors. And herein lies the great unveiling of how God might see us. The story of Jonah is ultimately the story of us - like Jonah, we are both the oppressed and the oppressors.
Now this may set heavy with us, particularly the idea of us being “oppressors”. So let’s take a moment to unpack this beginning with our experience as the oppressed.
As The Oppressed:
We don’t need radical examples to understand oppression in our lives. For some, the extreme is their reality. Living under actual dictatorships is oppressive. Restriction of a freedom to worship is oppressive. State mandated family planning is oppressive. But for you and I - what do we have? We define oppression loosely as a misuse of power and authority which places someone into a state of lessened rights, resources, and decreased human equality. This is complex. This is pervasive. And we all experience it to different degrees.
Our boss misdirects their stress and projects consequence unfairly on us.
Our family creates rules regarding who is and is not welcome during the holidays.
Our friend withholds affection because of differing opinions.
It’s worth noting that at the end of Jonah’s story, God explains his motivation for mercy:
God’s distinction of Nineveh’s people not knowing their left hand from their right hand is important because the two hands are perceived to have two very different functions and, naturally, one hand is considered to be more “clean” than the other.
It was a reference that God made observing that those in Nineveh were not as fortunate as Israel - knowing the difference between right and wrong. Mercy opens the doors for conversation, for learning, for maturation. Mercy lays a path for justice. Mercy makes room for reconciliation. And mercy must be our first response AS MANY TIMES AS IT TAKES.
Mercy must be our first response AS MANY TIMES AS IT TAKES.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21
Christians do not submit to oppression. Nor do we strike back and risk emulating what we hate. Rather we subvert oppression. We undermine it. We topple it with different weapons. We overcome oppression
As The Oppressors:
In the same way we see God inviting us to extend mercy to our oppressors, the lens for oppression can shift, bringing to light an awareness of the role that you and I may share in the oppression of others. We recall in the Jonah story that Jonah runs away from God for fear that God would be merciful to Jonah’s enemies. In his disobedience, Jonah takes on the role of the oppressor - possessing the keys to freedom for the Assyrian people. Jonah withholds God’s message, sentencing them to repeat their cycles of sin, bringing continuous harm to both themselves and their neighbor.
My fear is that we too may often step into the role of the oppressor - sometimes intentionally, and other times unaware. Our habits of oppression may be that of Jonah’s - withholding spiritual blessing from others when God has expressly asked us to offer them in obedience. This could be the withholding of forgiveness which offers freedom the both the aggrieved and the aggravator. Our oppression may surface as a lack of patience - placing an inescapable burden of instant gratification upon another. For others, it may be the politicalization or the sexualization of a celebrity, co-worker, or close friend, hindering intimacy while overlooking their humanity. Most of these, at some point, constitute intentionality and awareness. That’s called ‘conviction’ and this awareness is often revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
We will undoubtably have some unaware or hidden aspects of oppression that we’ve not been made aware of yet. To offer an example, some of you may or may not have heard of the organization called the Feminist Majority Foundation. They operate under the conviction that the majority of the world actually supports gender equality but that the world has not been empowered to voice their support to initiate deeper level conversations and change. Part of their campaign included this t-shirt,
worn by advocates and celebrities alike to bring the subject into the spotlight. It’s a great idea and since their conception in 1987, they’ve helped to shape numerous public policies, research, education programs, and leadership development initiatives for the betterment of our world’s women. That’s pretty awesome! So where is the oppression? Well… it got a little awkward a few weeks ago when this $70 t-shirt was revealed to have been produced in a Mauritian sweat shop where their female labor force worked 45 hrs a week, sleeping in military style barracks with upwards of 16 women per room, and though being paid the minimum wage…. it is actually
1/3 of a living wage in Mauritius, significantly more disconnected from the minimum wage/living wage gap in our own country. This will undoubtably make you feel awkward if this t-shirt is in your closet!
Other awareness gaps exist. Being unaware of our privileges in society is a severely consequential example whereby we hold onto unearned benefits and deny opportunity for change for those with fewer privileges than us. Some of those examples could include our levels and qualities of education, our genders, race, nationality, sexual orientation, primary language, family profile, wealth accessibility, and mental capacities just to get us started.
And so these things hit us. Sometimes we looked for it and discovered it. Other times, the realization hits us out of nowhere like a ton of bricks. And once we have new information that we didn’t have before, it invites us into a decision. It invites us to step out of our cycles of oppression so that we can be reconciled to God, to our neighbor, and to ourselves.
And our way out of the oppressor cycle is the Christian practice of repentance.
Our way out of the oppressor cycle is the Christian practice of repentance.
It’s the idea of “turning around”. Offering an ‘A bout face’ approach with regards to the directions we have been marching. And I want to acknowledge that owning up to our messes and resolving to work through repentance is often difficult work. It can be difficult to bestow mercy on those that oppress us. It can difficult to repent of our own oppressions against others.
Repentance will look like mercy. If our first response isn’t to follow the path of mercy, we risk perpetuating cycles of revenge or repeating practices of oppression. And the world will offer us many excuses o help us avoid changing. A common we we see today is the worldly wisdom of better “safe than sorry” which is currently denying mercy to global refugees.
The world assures us that it is better to be “safe” than to be sorry.
God assures us that it is better to be merciful.
The world assures us that it is better to be safe than sorry. But God assures us that it is better to be merciful. To take the risk. And we don’t butter it up here at the Vineyard - discipleship is costly. Jesus says that those who want to follow him must deny themselves, pick up the cross (the symbolic instrument of their death) and follow Him. Because we believe that in losing our life, we find our lives. We believe that in losing the wisdom of Rome, we discover the wisdom of the Kingdom of God.
This is pretty heavy. But it’s good!
As we wrestle with this, we might find ourselves wrestling with the “now what” question. And that’s a good question. Its an important one. And because it is a messy question with a messy process, we’re often tempted to dismiss our emotions, our convictions, and our discomfort before we let them transform us. If that describes you this morning I’d like to suggest this encouragement from Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. She writes:
Another way to process this is through the poetic musings of Wendell Berry who suggests:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry
Now I honestly don’t know which concept is more difficult to stomach, that I am guilty of participating in the oppression of those around me or that, as someone who simultaneously experiences varied degrees of oppression, that I must offer unlimited mercies to my oppressors.
If I could be really honest with you, these invitations make the justice approach of the world looks welcoming. It invites me to think, “Well, who can blame France for bombing the snot out of Daesh? Right?” As I was writing on Thursday, I heard over the radio that the alleged mastermind behind the French attacks had been killed. Reactions were jubilant. And it is SO EASY to find affirmation of my doubt for God’s control. I have friends that rejoice in the world’s justice. I have family that approves it. Educated men and women, far smarter than me, assert that such ways are an appropriate and strategic response.
“If violence had any place in the Christian’s life, it would appear that it must be violence which is endured rather than inflicted, a violence which is suffered in imitation of the Founder as a way of transcending human passions and breaking the endless cycle of injury and retaliation.”
-Louis J. Swift
And I’m a weak man. And at the end of the day, my heart will follow the path of who I believe will offer me more safety. Who will offer me more control.
This must be why God asserts so strongly that HE is in control over and over and over again in the Jonah story. Mercy, justice, and trust all go hand in hand. We trust that God is present when we act with mercy.
Concluding Thoughts: Why We Need The Whale
So as we draw this story to a close, we have to talk about the whale. The fish. That bizarre man-swallowing sea behemoth that captures our imagination and comes to our minds whenever we think of Jonah. By all means, God could have been merciful to Jonah with a piece of driftwood and a convenient ocean current. Why the fish?
Irregardless of how you choose to interpret this fish story, literally or figuratively, we might all agree that the whale is a symbol in this story.
Why We Need The Whale:
- The whale reminds us of God’s invitation to put to death our oppression of others. Jonah, through the whale, is invited to repent of his sin and to rejoin God in his rescue mission of all people.
- The whale reminds us that “what goes down must come up” The things we put inside of us will come back out. (Matthew 15)
- The whale reminds us that God has ultimate control over all things. It is a symbol of our faith and trust in a narrative that runs counter to the the worlds’ narrative.
- The whale reminds us that this story is not just for children - but that it is for everyone. But it’s an important story for children. Because if the lesson “If someone hits you, you are not allowed to hit them back. You tell a teacher.” sticks, then we will have made some incredible disciples when they are 12, 17, 24, 31, 40+ years old. How quick we are to relapse and spoil our fruit when we tell them the rule doesn’t apply in politics! In neighboring. In the church. Or in adulthood, period.
- And finally, it may have been observed by some of you that that three days in the belly of the great fish yielded God’s victory in his love crusade towards a lost and broken story. I don’t think the parallels between Jonah and Jesus are coincidence.
Today’s Practical Tips
- Through Baptism - December 6th, what better way to enter into the process of “dying to ourselves” than to participate in the most central of Christian traditions that exemplify exactly that? If you’ve never been baptized or your initial baptism experience didn’t carry weight or significance to you, consider signing up in the lobby after the service and a pastor will follow up with you.
- Through Repentance - Changing our minds.
- Stop thinking that the oppressors are beyond redemption
- Stop categorizing people as “good” or “evil”. Jesus reminds us that only God is good. Making distinctions opens the door to practice mercy only on those what we judge are worthy.
- Through Prayer
- Praying for our enemies is a central habit of peculiarity of Christian faith and expression.
Listen to the voices of the oppressed. Do your best to hear more voices belonging to individuals rather than the news anchors and political commentators.
Gain awareness of (see) your own privilege. Our awareness of oppression is tuned more finely when we have an understanding of our own advantages in contrast with our neighbor’s. There’s a link in the sermon notes to a basic assessment that helps us to gain better understanding of our advantages and disadvantages in society. http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you#.uhK61qZlk3
Be intentional to share stories of reconciliation. Everyone would believe in UFO’s if everyone saw them and talked about what they saw. Most of us have experienced reconciliation to some degree in our lives - are you telling your story? Tell us today! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.