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September 3, 2015

Sermon: Pride and Prejudice (Jonah part 1)

Here’s the mp3 audio version

Sermon by Matt Kennedy
text: Overview of the book of Jonah
Sunday November 13th, 2011

During seminary we knew a married couple who, try as they might, couldn’t get pregnant. They decided to adopt. When couples adopt, they normally select desired characteristics for their baby. Race is usually one of them. White couples want a white baby. African couples want African babies and so on.

Another criterion is lifestyle. Most couples want babies from healthy, drug-free, moms with no criminal record, who know the father.

So there are waiting lists for healthy babies of the right race and right history and there are foster homes and orphanages full of sick babies nobody wants because they’re the wrong color and mom was a prostitute on crack. These babies are moved from home to home, institution to institution, without anyone ever saying: You belong with us. We love you.

Our friends chose to adopt a minority baby, father unknown, whose mom was an addict.

Here’s how they explained their decision. God didn’t save us because we’re like him, because we’re his sort of people, because we’re healthy.  God came to us when we were lost, sick with sin, unlike him in every way.

Here’s how Paul describes God’s choice:

“…consider your calling…not many of you were wise…not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak…to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised…even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…because of him you are in Christ Jesus…” (1Cor 1:26-30)

How often Christians forget who we are—forget that it’s because of “Him” that we’re in Christ Jesus and not for some special inherent quality we possess. God didn’t look down the corridor of time and say, “Matt’s going to be a real special guy. He’s got great people skills, he’s a good communicator, he’s just, you know, special.”

When I believe that what I have, the position I hold, the salvation I enjoy has anything to do with me, my wisdom, my decision making, my inherent goodness, I’m on the road to two destinations: Pride first and then contempt. If I think I am where I am because I am “who” I am (pride) then I find that I have increasing contempt for the people around me. I’ve got a job. What’s his problem? I’m not an alcoholic, what’s her problem? I’m not an adulterer, what’s his problem? I’m a Christian, what’s wrong with you? Sooner or later I become a little Pharisee full of contempt for people who I consider weaker than myself when God says everything in me that is good was given to me as a gift. I’ve no basis for contempt and every reason to identify with the weaknesses of others and seek their good.

I forget that. We all do. So did Israel…

Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. There’s reason for that. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his people—to be his kingdom on earth, the people who do his will.

God articulated the purpose of that choosing in Gen 12:3. Through you God said, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) God chose Israel so that through them, he might bring redemption to the world. In them God would reveal his fatherly strength, protecting his people against all enemies and against all odds; the equity of his law, punishing evil, defending the weak; his lavish compassion seen in his people’s kindness to foreigners, slaves, widows, and orphans. God would display his glory in Israel and the gentiles would see it—they’d turn from false, powerless, idols and seek YHWH. God called Israel to be a channel through which his waters of redemption might flow to the world.

But Israel forgot that. God’s glory rests on us, they thought, because we’re not like the gentiles—idolaters, sexually immoral, murderers, liars. God chose us for us. Pride turned to contempt. Rather than a stream of redemption—Israel became a stagnant pool.

So God sent prophets to jog their memory: Turn to Ezekiel 16:4 “on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. 5No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred…6“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ 7I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment.”

God here is speaking specifically to and about Jerusalem but the principle applies to Israel as a whole. What is he saying? I didn’t choose you because you’re desirable. You were discarded and despised. I chose you because I’m merciful. And through you I extend my mercy to the world. Skip down to verse 13:15

“But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore.”

Instead of humble gratitude for God’s mercy, Israel believed her virtues, her glory, her adornments were hers. She sought her own pleasure, “played the whore” and ceased to be God’s light to the gentiles.

God is deadly serious about mission.  “Go…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all my commands.” Good Shepherd is not here for Good Shepherd. God did not call, save, bless and protect us because we’re good, worthy, or special. We’re here because God is a gracious God. He chose Good Shepherd, he chose you, he raised us up, filled us with good things, to be a channel through which his redemption might flow into Binghamton and beyond. The minute we think God’s work in us is for us and about us, we dam up the waters and become stagnant, a stench in God’s nostrils.

But Jonah reveals that God’s grace is greater than our sin. We can run from God or with God but his purposes will be accomplished one way or the other.

Jonah is divided into two parts with an epilogue. The first part begins in 1:2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

How does Jonah respond? He runs. Chapters 1:2 -3:1—the storm, the near drowning, the whale—part 1, might be entitled “running from God”. Now turn to Jonah 3:2. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” Same call. God doesn’t give up on Jonah.

How does Jonah respond? The second half of Jonah from 3:2 to 4:1 might be entitled: ‘running with God’. Chapter 4 is an epilogue—God deals with Jonah’s heart

In the book of Jonah human pride, prejudice, and contempt goes toe to toe with God’s unrelenting grace. What we cannot do as we study Jonah is imagine that it’s a story about someone else.  Jonah is Israel. Jonah is the Church. Jonah is you and he is me.

I’ve given you an overview of the purpose and organization of Jonah, Let’s do some history and then we’ll close.

Under Saul, David and Solomon, Israel was a united. But under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the 10 northern tribes broke from the large southern tribe, Judah. A civil war ensued but in the end, there were two kingdoms Israel in the north, Judah in the south. 
Jerusalem was the capital of Judah, the city of Samara the capital of Israel. Reading first and second Kings you’ll notice that Israel become increasingly wicked. To prevent people from travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem, they built a copy of the temple on the hill of Samara and placed a golden calf in the holy of holies, calling it YHWH (they built a second one in Dan to the north). Over time, the worship of Baal and Ashera increased and Israel forgot about YHWH.

Despite their national idolatry, Israel continued to consider herself “the people of God”  because for centuries God continued to have mercy and shower them with blessings.

The chief way God showed his mercy was by sending prophets to preach at them.
One of those prophets was Jonah the son of Amittai. Outside the book of Jonah, Jonah is only mentioned once: in 2nd Kings 14:26

“He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord…which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher”

Jonah was one of the few prophets who got to prophesy good news to northern kings. The “he” is king Jeroboam II, a wicked king, who reigned in Israel from 752 to 783 BC. God, mercifully, gave Jeroboam II military success. So Jonah lived in a day when God extended Israel’s borders—a time when it would’ve been easy to say, “We’re doing something right.”

But there were enemies. Assyria was one of them. The Assyrians had been a colossal power but in Jonah’s day their power was, temporarily, waning—which would have cheered the heart of any Israelite. The Assyrians were a cruel people. Unlike the Babylonians and other ancient empires, the Assyrians practiced ethnic cleansing. After victory over a people, they’d slaughter the male children and young men, force girls and young women to intermarry and enslave the old men and women. Their goal was to eradicate entire races. One commentator sums it up: “The…Assyrian Empire was established by bloodshed and massacre, cruelty and torture, destruction, plundering, and exiling such as has seldom been seen in history.”

Assyria bordered Israel to the north (Syria had been destroyed by Assyria—then Assyria began to wane and pulled back. A resurgent Israel under Jeroboam II held sway over Syrian lands) and despite its waning power, remained vastly superior in strength—and so, a great threat. Who can guess the capital of Assyria? Nineveh.

Now let’s imagine what the average Israelite must have thought of Assyria. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s during the cold war. The great enemy was the Soviet Union. They could’ve destroyed us.  I was taught that Communism, grounded as it is in atheism, made the Soviets ruthless, amoral and bent on world domination, whereas the US, a Christian nation blessed by God, stood as a bulwark of freedom.

There was “some” truth to that—the Soviets murdered 20 million people by planned starvation and political execution. Communism remains a death-dealing ideology that must be opposed. And yet the United States—a Christian nation—has managed to kill 50 million innocent babies. We tend not to focus on that. We like to see ourselves as a godly, chosen people—to think God is on our side and against our enemies because we are good and they are evil.

Americans have to do a lot of imagining to get there. For Israel such thinking would’ve been easy because, so long as they ignored their own sin, they could use the bible to justify it. God chose us. He’s on our side. He loves us and detests our wicked enemies.

So maybe you can understand how Jonah must have felt when the word of the Lord came to him saying: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

Jonah’s a prophet. He knows that when God calls him to “cry out against” a city—that he has one purpose…to seek repentance. God wants to have mercy. On Nineveh.


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