God of this City

As we are gearing up for our launch (it's just in a few days now!), we have been looking at some of the main ideas that shape who we are and the type of church we want to become. One of those ideas is our commitment to the city. When my wife and I started talking about this church we knew very few things, but one of the things we were sure of was that we wanted to start a church in a city. That decision did not come without its challenges, there are other settings where it  is generally easier to start a church. The cost of living is more affordable, finding meeting space is easier, etc. And yet, I am convinced that this type of ministry is incredibly important and necessary.

There’s this episode in the book of Jonah that I think really captures God’s heart for cities. To recap the story of Jonah, there is this city called Nineveh, that was the capital of Assyria. At that time Assyria was the biggest political super power in the region and one of Israel's biggest enemies. God calls Jonah to go and pronounce judgement against Nineveh. Jonah refuses, he actually tries to go the complete opposite way, he ends being tossed overboard from the boat he was escaping on, gets swallowed by a big fish until he repents from running away. Eventually he goes to Nineveh, pronounces God’s judgement over the city. The people of the city end up listening to him, they repent and the city is spared.

After that happens, Jonah has this particular interaction with God that I find fascinating.

Jonah 4:1-11 (NIV)

1 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?” 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.” 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?”

Jonah is disappointed the city is not destroyed. But God makes the point that He cares for the city. He has "concern" for the great city of Nineveh.

Why does God have “concern for the great city”?

I think we find part of the answer to that in how God qualifies the city. Nineveh it is not just the city, it is the "great" city. In the original Hebrew language in which this passage was written, that word has two meanings. One is large, meaning that there is a lot of people living in the city, but it also means very important or influential.

And I think this verse implies both, a large city (for those days standards) but also an important city.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, at some point it was the most important city in the world.

And God sees this city, which on paper is as far away from God as it possibly could, as an important, valuable place and people.

I would argue that God is pro-cities. As a matter of fact, the story of the scriptures is a story of progression from a garden to a city:

At the very beginning of the Scriptures we see God planting a garden.

Genesis 2:7-8 (NIV)

7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

But at the end of the story, the future of the created world, is a city.

Revelation 21:2 (NIV)

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

 

There’s a reason for that, cities represent human community and human progress. The idea of the story ending with a city is a representation of humanity reaching its full potential, of the world finally becoming what God has always intended for it to become.

The book of Genesis is actually an alternative account of how progress happened, because in most ancient cultures and mythologies, culture advanced because of the gods. It was the gods that revealed to man science, art, agriculture, etc. But in the book of Genesis, while God still claims ultimate credit for everything, it was the coming together of humans in cities which led to progress and advancement of society. Since the beginning of time, the coming together of humans in a densely populated area creates a synergy were creativity and industry thrives.

Edward Glaeser in his book The Triumph of the City says the following:

Americans in Metropolitan areas of more than 1mil people are 50% more productive than americans in smaller metropolitan areas. He also mentions a study that says that when a nation’s urban population rises by 10% the country’s per capita output increases by 30%. 

Now I don’t want to paint cities as utopias, the opposite is true as well. Throw a bunch of people together packed in an area and crime and oppression and injustices and all sorts of evil things can happen. That’s why there’s so many people afraid of the city.

Both are true.

The point I’m trying to make is, because of the amount of people and at this point industries and companies, cities are incredibly influential in society at large, and that can be both for good or ill. But the potential is there.

Another aspect of that word “great” is not only how influential or important Nineveh was. But the sheer size of the city when it comes to population and you can see that at the end of the Jonah passage.

Jonah 4:11 (NIV)

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?”

You see, it’s not only that God has a concern for cities because of their influence on the larger society. But because of the amount of people that are in there.

And this whole passage we just read is that argument. Which by the way, is a fascinating insight into how the scriptures paint God. Because there is this caricature that the God of the Old Testament was just an angry vindictive being, and between that and the New Testament He went to therapy and calmed down and now he is nice.

But this passage in particular, presents God in a different light. Because there is the judgement side right? God is sending Jonah to pronounce judgement on Nineveh. And actually if you read the whole story, you see that it’s not even like God gives the people of Nineveh a chance to repent. There’s just judgement. So you could say that God lives up to His reputation.

Except for what Jonah says in this passage:

Jonah 4:2 (NIV)

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.

For the prophets of the time, God was too nice, too compassionate.

God is not bipolar, there is a consistency in the character of God and for Jonah that character was that of a gracious and compassionate God.

And then look at what God Himself says:

Jonah 4:10-11 (NIV)

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?”

 

God uses this plant to make a point. Jonah cares for the plant, even though he did nothing for it, he is actually being very selfish, only reason he cares for the plant is because it is providing him shade. And God juxtaposes Jonah’s care for the plant for how He cares for the city and its people. God is basically saying: "If you care for this plant even if it is just for self-serving reasons. How in the world am I not going to care for a city full of people. How could I not be compassionate and merciful?"

And for effect, God actually mentions the number of the population:

"There’s 120,000 of them…"

This attitude of God towards humanity makes perfect sense within the Christian worldview.

If God is the source of everything that exists, then he cares for this world. The Psalmist says

Psalm 145:9 (NIV)

The Lord is good to all;

he has compassion on all he has made.

 

But humanity is special to God. One of the main points of the creation narrative is that humans are made in God’s image, that somehow in us we bear God’s image.

For God, humans are his obsession.

When he looks at the city: he sees thousands upon thousands of the beings that are His hearts desire.

New York City pastor Tim Keller says: “Cities have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on Earth"

For God, cities are crammed with beauty.

So of course God is going to love and care for cities. And if we as a community want to faithfully represent what this God is like to the world, we are called to love our city.

Now what does that look like?

How do we engage the city?

I think the scriptures present us with two distinct approaches:

Jonah’s approach was to retreat and judge.

Jonah goes outside the city and judges it and is actually upset when Nineveh is not destroyed.

Jonah is the only example of a prophet going out of Israel into a foreign city. Which some scholars will tell you, is laying the groundwork for the people of Israel to understand what it looks like to be in exile. Years later when the people of Israel are carried away to Babylon, their first instinct is to act like Jonah. They are outside the city gates, not wanting to engage the city and wishing they were back in Jerusalem.

Which if you think about it is how some churches and christians think about the city. They look at all the negative things about it:

- It’s too dangerous

- It’s too expensive

- It’s impossible to find parking

- I would never live in the city

However, God has a different approach toward the city. We saw that in Jonah’s story, He is concerned for the city. But when the Israelites are exiles in Babylon is the same thing. Look at this:

Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Again this is fascinating, because for generations, one of the key tenants of the Israelite religion at the time was worship purity, the capital crime was to worship other gods. Which was very much tied with how they related to other cultures and countries, because they all had this false gods. As a matter of fact, when you read a lot of the prophets, the way they interpreted Israel’s exile was “it must be because we were worshipping other gods.” So of course the one thing they are not going to do is want to integrate with this foreign city, filled with different ideas and people, that’s what got them into this mess in the first place.

And yet, one more time, God surprises us. You would think that God would be “right on” you finally got it! But now God is like, I actually want you to make yourself at home in Babylon. Even though that is not your ultimate home and you are in exile. I want you to settle down and make a life for yourselves there, get involved in society. And not only that, look at verse 7:

Jeremiah 29:7 (NIV)

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

God’s not only saying, settle down in the city, buy a house and make some friends. He says, actively work to make that city a better place to live. Not only that, but God is saying, your well-being and your prosperity is tied to the well-being and the prosperity of the city. This is utterly revolutionary.

And by the way, we see the same basic idea in the Jonah passage. How does it end?

Jonah 4:11 (NIV)

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 also many animals”

Why did God mention the animals?

When God says animals He is referring specifically to cattle, and cattle represents the economy of the city. Again, God is not only interested in saving the souls of the people in the city, he is interested in making the city a better place to live.

Which is the same thing we see in the Jeremiah passage.

And this is the basic blueprint for what ministry in the city looks like.

It’s a holistic involvement in the city. Not seeing it as this “inconvenience” but loving it just like God loves it. And loving its people, and working for its good.

And actually this is what the early church did. In the Book of Acts the strategy of most missionaries was urban-centric. Most people in the countryside were pagan (the word pagan comes from the greek word paganus that means a country man or a rural man). And it was actually the commitment of Christians to the city and its people what propelled the early spread of Christianity.

Rodney Stark, a sociologist turned historian attributes the involvement of the church serving Rome during hard times as one of the keys to its growth:

During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city -Rodney Stark

One of the plagues he is talking about there is what is known to historians as the plague of Cyprian which happened around 250 AD. More than likely it was small pox, and it decimated the population of Rome. Some of the reports say that at the height of the plague about 5k people a day were dying.

One of the main accounts we have of what happened during that time is from Dionysius of Alexandria, a bishop of the time. And from his records he makes an interesting contrast between how pagan romans treated the sick versus how Christians did:

“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease…” -Dionysius of Alexandria

Now this is how Dionysius describes the church’s reaction:

"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…” -Dionysius of Alexandria

And the argument Stark and other historians make is that the commitment, service and compassion shown by the church made it incredible compelling to those who were not Christians at the time and Christianity started growing and becoming more and more popular.

Why?

Because the engine that allowed Christians to serve their city so well is that they understood that they were part of a larger story that not only allowed them to endure suffering but that empowered them to be the very best citizens they could be.

Why?

Because in a way they saw their role in Rome as the same role that the Israelites had in exile. Seek the welfare of the city, not only for the city’s sake, but because you belong to a different type of city. For the Israelites in exile that was Jerusalem. God was telling them, live committed to this city where you are right now like if you were in Jerusalem. Act like you would act if you were home.

Now what is home then for this Christians?

A couple of hundred years after this plague the city of Rome had another crisis, it was sacked

On August 24 410 Alaric and the army of the goths came over the wall and sacked Rome. And Christians were blamed for the sacking and Augustine writes City of God as a response. Christians themselves at the time were confused and despairing. Augustine argues that Christians don’t only belong to Rome as citizens, but that they are citizens of what he calls “The city of God” which is made of all the people of God.

You have confused the eternal city (civitas eternitas) this is what Romans called Rome, with the city of God.

And his admonishment/encouragement to the Christians at the time was that if you belong to the City of God, your hope is on something eternal that cannot be shaken regardless of what's going on in Rome. But also that if you belong to the City of God then  you become the very best citizen of the City of Man.

And as an example, Augustine references the sacrifices of the early Christians. This is how the Dionysius quote ends:

"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead….” -Dionysius of Alexandria

Where in the world would these early Christians get the idea of dying for their neighbors? of “transferring their death to themselves and die in their [neighbor’s] stead”

There's another story of someone going outside the city. Unlike Jonah however, He did not go outside the city to retreat and judge it, but to give His life for it.

Hebrews 13:12-14 (NIV)

12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

For those early Christians, their religious DNA was founded of the idea of this Jesus not only loving the city, but giving His life for it. For early Christians that was the only possible way they could live.

You see this flips on its end any sort of intention of detachment from culture or society by Christians. What Augustine and the writer of Jonah, and the writer of Jeremiah, and the writer of Hebrews are saying is, precisely because the people of God believe in this different type of city, in this “city that is to come” as the writer of Hebrews puts it, is that we are incredibly committed to be the best possible citizens we can be of this city. If you are a citizens of the city of God you become the very best citizen of the city of man.