Confronting Empire (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

2 Kings 18:28-35
John 18:33 - 19:16
Jonah 3:1-10

We are continuing our sermon series on Jonah.  Last week we looked at chapter 3 and specifically tried to answer three questions:  why does God send Jonah a second time?  why do the animals need to repent and wear sackcloth? and why does God change his mind?  The answer is that God is working to restore his whole creation, including things like animals, and He has chosen his people to do this and this is so important to God that He will give them second chances and will even condescend to change His mind.  The role of God’s people then is to be mediators bringing God’s message of blessing, hope, and second chances and work toward His mission of restoring creation.  

I want to start todays sermon by telling a story from history.  During the time of the Peloponnessian Wars between the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta, a group of Athenians ask the small island nation of Melos to ally with Athens against their enemy Sparta.  The Melesians ask why should they join Athens.  The Athenian delegation admits that there really is no reason for the Melesians to ally with the Athenians other than out of fear since the Athenians were more powerful than their tiny island city.  The Melesians refuse and Athens attacked Melos, killed all its men and sold its women and children into slavery.  The Green historian Thucydides concludes his description of the incident with the famous line, “The powerful do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  For most of human history this this statement has been all too true.    

Today we are going to return to chapter 3, but this time I want to look at the chapter from a different perspective.  So you may noticed that each of our readings today is an example of God’s people and a confrontation with empire.  There is a theme that runs throughout the Bible contrasting the communities who follow God with the people who do not.  As those in my Sunday School class know, this division takes place right after the fall when God says that He will place enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.  It will develop first in the Cain and Abel story where Cain kills Abel and this is exiled and builds his own city.   This city develops technology but also develops the seeds of empire which I am defining as the rule of others by economic or violent power for the purpose of its own enrichment.  Such systems are oppressive and exploitative.  As the story of Genesis continues we see this demonstrated by one of the descendants of Cain, named Lamech who boasts that his life is characterized by vengeance and murder.  We see this demonstrated by the violent warrior Nimrod who founds the great cities of the Ancient Near East that will emerge as the seats of empire.

We see this battle in the story of the Hebrews who serve as slaves to the Egyptians.  We see this in the story of the Philistines and Israelites.  We see it in the Assyrians who conquer the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians who conquer Judea.  We see it again in Daniel, who has visions of the great statue and the four beasts symbolic of the great empires who will oppress God’s people.  We see it again as Jesus subverts the power structure of both the Jewish ruler and the Romans and as Paul bears witness to the Kingdom of God throughout the Roman Empire.   We see it as John uses Babylon and the image of the beast as symbols of all systems that rule through power, violence, and exploitation.  The central message of the gospels is that Jesus is Lord and that means that Caesar or anyone else is not.

Augustine writing as the Roman Empire was falling, famously contrasted these as the City of God and the City of Man.  Throughout this sermon series I have repeatedly pointed out that Nineveh represented the great empire of its day.  The Assyrian empire was really the world’s first empire and ruled mostly through brutality, force, and fear.  I have catalogued many of the gory and brutal details of how Empire was done in Assyria, so I will not repeat them again.   However, my point is that the Assyrian Empire Jonah is facing is an example of the imperial ideology that is set in opposition to the system and ethics of the kingdom of God.

Now as we look at chapter 3 our focus is going to be on Nineveh and how Jonah confronts Nineveh.  The first thing I want us to pay attention to is verse 3, where Nineveh is for the third time in the book of Jonah described as a great city.  For reasons unknown to me, most translations do not include this, but it says Nineveh is a great city to God.  You may have to look for a footnote if you do not read that phrase “to God.”  This means that God is making a couple of claims on Nineveh.  Number one we are to think of Nineveh as belonging to God meaning God’s sovereignty extends to Nineveh.  Nineveh then does not belong to the king of Nineveh or to its chief goddess Ishtar, but to YHWH.  Israel’s God is claiming Nineveh for Himself.  

This phrase great city echoes the words of an Assyrian king named Sennacherib.  Here is how Sennacherib describes Assyria:

    At that time, Nineveh, the great city, the city bemercyed of Ishtar wherein all the
    meeting places of the gods and goddesses .. the eternal foundation, the plan of which
    had been drawn from of old in the heavens… where the kings who went had exercised
    Lordship over Assyria and had received yearly, without interruption, never ending tribute
    from the princes of the four quarters.  

Sennacherib is praising Nineveh because he has just renovated and rededicated the city to Ishtar and is claiming credit for its greatness.  However, Jonah is challenging this view that Nineveh’s greatness is due to Sennacherib or because of Ishtar.  The greatness of Nineveh is because God is sovereign over Nineveh and God has designated it a great city.  

We find this same notion in the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate.  Pilate here represents the imperial face of Rome.  In chapter 19, Jesus stands silent before Pilate’s questions and Pilate asks, “You will not speak to me?  Do you not know that I have the power to release you and power to crucify you?”  Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s claim of power is, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”  In both cases, Assyria and Rome, their leaders believe that their power comes from themselves.  However, God wants us to know that is not the case and that any ruler or empire only exercises dominion if God allows it.  

If you remember by to the sermon I preached during advent on Luke 2, the birth of Jesus makes a mockery of these claims of power.   Caesar in his attempt to tax the whole world is but a pawn that God is using to fulfill the prophecies about the birth of the messiah.  God manipulates the entire Roman imperial system to ensure that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem, the city of David.

When Jonah is dragged, hiding below in the ship, the sailors ask Jonah what he does and where he is from.  Jonah replies by telling the sailors that, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”  When Jesus rises from the dead after receiving everything terrible the Roman Empire could do to Him, Jesus declares to His disciples, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Me.”  The point that I want to make is that there is not one piece of the earth no matter its power or its might is not completely subject to God and the authority of Christ and there is not one piece of the earth that does not matter to God.  God claims for Himself Nineveh and Rome and every Empire as His own.  That means we as the church must also claim every piece of the earth.  Jesus sends his disciples out to Jerusalem, and to Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome and Jesus’ reply is that, we should render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God’s”  Often this is seen as a way to achieve a nice, separation of the secular and the sacred, between church and state.  However, the subversive message Jesus is declaring is that everything belongs to God.  

Now the difficulty with this is what about kingdoms like Rome and Assyria that oppress and exploit.  So if we look back at the confrontation between Jesus and Caesar, Jesus tells Caesar that he has no power unless it was given you above.  However, what we might wish Jesus said was, “God is ending your power.”  Jesus does not do this because He acknowledges that God wants His kingdom ordered by human authority.  However, God tells us is that God will hold authority accountable.  In fact that is what is going on when Jonah confronts Nineveh - God is holding authority into account.  

The take home message then is that all the empires of this world with their aspirations of power all receive their power because God allows them too.  God holds them accountable and can remove that power when He chooses.  As the church confronts Rome or Assyria on any other empire this should provide comfort and hope.

The trick here is that because God has allowed human rulers to exercise power, they inevitably abuse that power.  Jesus confronts Rome and Rome crucifies Him.  God does not promise a favorable outcome.  In our first reading, Jerusalem is surrounded by the army of Assyria under Sennacherib.  This takes place about forty or fifty years after the events of Jonah.  Every other city in Judea had been defeated and now only Jerusalem stands.  Sennacherib has sent out one of his officials called the Rabshakeh to try and persuade Jerusalem to surrender.  

One of the arguments the Rabshakeh uses to make Assyria’s case is that Assyria’s success is proof of God’s favor.  The teaching of scripture is never so straightforward.  God often allows the wicked to prosper.  However, we are always reminded that despite appearances, their fate is sealed.  Part of the point of Revelation is to paint a picture of human events from the heavenly perspective.  In heaven, Jesus is sitting on the throne ruling and actively working to bring an end to the forces of evil that lie behind empire.   This is meant to bolster the faith and give hope to those who are presently suffering under Rome’s oppressive might and overwhelmed by its apparent victory.  Assyria and Rome will both fall.   The message for us is to live by faith and not by sight.  That means that we should not be discouraged or lose hope even in the face of the apparent victory of evil.  ISIS will fall.  It also means that the church should not judge itself by its apparent successes or victories.  Success is not not necessarily a sign of God’s approval as suffering is not a sign of God’s disapproval.  Often it is the opposite.  God has reserved the outcomes for Himself.  Jonah succeeds and Assyria repents.  Jesus confronts Rome and Rome has Jesus crucified.  

Jesus says that He has come to bear witness to the truth, but Pilate asks, “What is truth?” and does not wait for the answer.  For the Romans, truth was a simple concept, does the claim correspond to reality?  Jesus’ claim of kingship clearly did not correspond to reality as Pilate understood it.  Jesus though bears witness to a bigger reality that Pilate cannot grasp.  Last week I said our imaginations need to be bigger.  That we need to have dreams of not just salvation and escape, but of resurrection involving all of creation.  The problem with Pilate and his view of truth is that it is not big enough.  There is more to heaven and earth that can be dreamt of in his philosophy.  There is the reality that the book of Revelation describes that shows that the raging and rantings of the empires of this present world are still subject to a larger heavenly reality.  It is this truth that Nineveh was able to recognize that a bigger world existed outside of them and that God would hold them to account.  It this truth that Jesus bears witness to when he announces the coming of the kingdom of God. 

Jesus explains to Pilate that His kingdom is not of the world.  Again like Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees over whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Rome, we have often taken this to mean that the world is divided.  Caesar has his realm and Jesus has His realm.  However, I think Jesus is making a different point - Jesus says my kingdom is not like your kingdom.  Jesus is making the claim not that His kingship is entirely different than the kingship as Pilate conceives it because right before making this claim Jesus says, “If my kingship were of this world,  my servants would fight that I would I would not be handed over to the Jews.”  Jesus instead is presented a kingdom with a different ethic.  A kingship that renounces violence.  

Again this is what Nineveh grasps that Pilate does not.  When Nineveh repents the people of Nineveh turn away from violence.  The kingdom of God is not of this world and presents a vision of an entirely different ethic.  The kingdom of God is for those who are poor of spirit, who mourn, who are hungry, who are meek, who are pure in heart, who seek peace.  The kingdom that loves their enemies.  The kingdom of God is that does not seek to conquer or exploit but one that seeks to serve.  The kingdom of God is not a nicer version of empire but one that is radically different.  

Again we as the church need to embrace this ethic and not seek to replace the current structures of Empire using the same thinking and same tactics.  We need to present a different picture entirely.  Our imaginations need to be bigger than that.  We need to do what Jonah did and what Jesus did and proclaim that another world is possible.  We need to present an ethic that shatters the idea that the only way to live is by self service and accumulation and exploitation and oppression and violence.  We need to present a world that breaks the current cycle and gives hope to the hopeless.  I will even go one further and say that we need to proclaim that another world is not only possible but inevitable.  

Now let me pause and say that I do not think this is something that can be fully realized in this reality.  Until Christ comes the church cannot achieve this as permanent reality.  However, I do think the church is called to bear witness to this reality.  In this world the church must present this vision and expect persecution and suffering.  That is why Jesus in the sermon on the mount tells those that are peacemakers and meek and mourn are blessed but also says that those that are persecuted and reviled are also blessed.  I want to close by giving two modern examples of when bearing witness to this alternate vision has occurred.

The first occurred shortly after the start of WWI.  Germany had invaded neutral Belgium on its way to conquer France.  A combined French and British army had repulsed the Germans outside of Paris and as the Germans dug in a continuous line of fortified trenches formed from the North Sea to the Swiss alps. Between the two armies was a small stretch of earth called “no man’s land.”  

However, a funny thing happened on Christmas Eve in Ypres, Belgium site of some of the most viscous fighting between the Germans and the British.  The Germans began lighting candles and setting up Christmas trees in their trench.  They began singing carols and the British responded by also singing carols.  Pretty soon the artillery fell silent and men began arising from their trenches and exchanging gifts of food, alcohol, and tobacco in “no man’s land.”  The two sides even played soccer with each other.  It is estimated that 100,000 soldiers participated in the Christmas truce.  

What had happened?  The soldiers had glimpsed another, bigger world that made what they were doing seem unimportant and inconsequential.  For a few days the kingdom of God had broken in and there was love of the enemy and as a result peace.  For a few days there was at least some proof that life could be different.  

The second occurred after the fall of apartheid.  Apartheid was a system a system of racial segregation imposed on black inhabitants of South Africa from 1945 to 1994.  Over 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes under threat of force and moved to segregated neighborhoods.  As time went on, the plight of non-white South Africans actually worsened.  In 1970, the right of political representation was taken away and they were actually deprived of citizenship.  Public services were also segregated into two systems and predictably the non-white services were inferior to the white services.  The state enforced this system by becoming more militarized and using violence and repression to answer any hint of unrest.

Eventually, under pressure from the international community and the realization that the apartheid system was unsustainable, non-whites were again allowed to participate in the political process, pro-black parties were no longer banned, freedom of the press was restored and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  In 1994 the first truly democratic election was held with Nelson Mandela elected as president.

However, as great an accomplishment as this was, what happened afterwards was absolutely unbelievable.  The new black South African leaders knew that something radical must be done to transition to a full and free democracy and promote unity within the country.  The new government knew that there had to be justice for the victims of apartheid.  At the same time a victor’s justice based on retribution would only lead to more division and violence.   As an alternative, the South African government created a system of courts that focused on restorative justice called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought perpetrators of violence before the court to and allowed them to give testimony.  Victims of oppression were also encouraged to tell their story so their voice would be heard.   Remarkably upon confession, the defendants could also request amnesty and the commission was empowered to grant it.  

The ideology of the Truth an Reconciliation Commission was based on Christian concepts and churches played a key role in the commissions.  It was important for the architects of the commissions to break the cycle of violence.  They were able to imagine a bigger reality outside of the one that they had known and demonstrate to the world that a different world was possible.  

I hope these examples give you a concrete picture of what I have been talking about in today’s sermon.  Just as for Jonah and for Jesus, it is our mission at Resurrection church to confront the world with an alternate vision.  We must give hope to a world broken by the corruption of power that it does not have to be this way.  God will hold those in positions of power into account and a new world order is coming that is not a slightly nicer version of the same old structure, but something far more beautiful and perfect than we can imagine.  The creator God is reclaiming sovereignty over His world through the slaughtered lamb and He has entrusted to the church the responsibility of bearing witness to Jesus as the world’s true Lord and to His way of victory which is great than the power of Empire.