Summary: How do we live in, and respond to, the culture in which we live? The examples of: Jonah, Esther and Daniel.
How do Christians live in, and respond to, the culture in which they find themselves? About a half century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr attempted to answer that question in his book Christ and Culture. He offered five possible responses to the question. First, he said that some Christians have claimed that we should see our response as, “Christ against Culture.” In this view the Christian’s allegiance is only to Christ, and a radical choice confronts every person: either to follow Christ or the world. The prince of the world is the devil, therefore Christians should separate themselves and withdraw from the present evil culture and condemn it.
The second response of some Christians, historically, has been to see it as the “Christ of Culture.” Their Christ is the Christ who is a product of the culture. These would be cultural Christians who say that the Gospel should be interpreted according to current intellectual and scientific categories. They embrace the culture and believe it is necessary for Christians to accommodate to it. Whereas the first group would separate itself from the culture, this group would blend into it.
The third point of view would be to see “Christ above Culture.” Niebuhr calls the people in this group synthesists because they want to bring together the values of Christ and the culture. They claim that there are other laws besides the laws of Jesus Christ; and it is necessary to follow them. Christians live in the material world, but seek to rise above the material world by following the ideals taught by Christ.
The fourth view is called “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” The paradox view says that both Christ and the culture claim our loyalty, and we live in that tension which is never resolved in this life. The culture may force us to do things against our conscience. Nevertheless, we have to live in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, and we must live with the conflicts it causes.
The fifth view is called, “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” This view is optimistic about the ability of Christians to affect the culture. It believes that the culture cannot only be influenced, it can be converted. And the reason for this is that it sees the result of the sin of Adam and Eve (which we call “The Fall”) as corrupting things that were originally good, and are therefore capable of reform and renewal. This was John Wesley’s view. It sees the church as called to be a holy community here on earth which serves as a testimony and model of what the world could be. The church is visibly set apart from the non-Christian culture, and yet it engages and serves it. The church does not change the world by its own effort, but it sees God at work as it remains faithful and continues to announce the good news. The church sees its responsibility to be Christ to the world. It does not believe that you can legislate Christianity into existence, but it sees God at work behind the scenes bringing about his kingdom — in spite of the resistance and even the hostility of the culture.
We see all of these models at work in the Bible. This morning we will look at three different models of dealing with the culture. These models are acted out by colorful people. Let’s first look at: the prophet Jonah. Jonah is an interesting guy. He is the most successful of the Old Testament prophets, and yet the most resentful. You remember the story. God tells him to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s fierce enemy. They were savage warriors and extremely cruel to the countries they conquered. Israel suffered greatly under Assyria. What makes the story more interesting is that Assyria is modern day Iraq. God tells Jonah to go and preach to the country of his enemies, but he hates them and refuses. He does not want them to hear the good news of a God who is willing to forgive if they repent. He does not want them to repent — an interesting disposition for a prophet of God.
So Jonah runs from God and hops the closest boat he can find. He thinks that surely God will not find him when he leaves Israel and is on the sea. But God shows up, because God is determined to reach the people of Nineveh. The sailors on the ship throw Jonah overboard and he is swallowed by a great fish that brings him back to land and rather unceremoniously deposits him on the shore. Reluctantly, Jonah makes his way to Nineveh. He yells at the people, warning of coming judgment, and then parks himself outside the city and waits for God to destroy them. Israel had not repented, so why would he expect Assyria to repent. But they did repent. The Bible says, “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). We don’t see that kind of revival in Israel. The king took off his royal robes, put on sackcloth and sat in the dust. He made a proclamation and said, “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” (Jonah 3:8). When God saw what they did, he had compassion and did not bring destruction on them. But Jonah is mad at God for being compassionate and forgiving. He wants the enemies of his nation destroyed. Listen to him as he says, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3).