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Monday, October 3, 2016

For the Good of the City (Jeremiah 29)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

            Author Andy Crouch in his book, Playing God¸ helped me put words to my own understanding of life as a Christian in the United States.  We worship idols in our country.  These are not statues of god like those worshipped by the ancients, but they are idols nonetheless.  Crouch defines an idol as something that occupies the space God is to occupy in our lives.  The idol starts out promising us wonderful things.  But the more we are drawn to the idol, the more it asks of us and the less it gives to us.  This continues until finally, the idol demands everything from us, our very selves, and it gives nothing to us.
            God also asks everything of us – complete love, loyalty, faith, and devotion.  However, when we give these to God, we have more, not less.  The more love we give to God, the more love we have for others.  The more we trust God, the more faith we have and the more faithful we become. 
            An idol demands our worship and takes and takes and takes from us until it robs us of our humanity.  We become disfigured distortions who no longer bear the image of God. 
God graciously receives our worship, our hearts, and as we give to God, we are transformed.  We become new creations. 
            We – Christians in America – sorely need to remember who we are.  In Christ, we are sons and daughters of God, bound for the Kingdom.  In the Holy Spirit, God is always with us.  We live every little bit of life with God.  Our culture sells us shallow thrills, materialistic fulfillment, and deviant pleasures that excite or numb us but, like idols, rip life from us.  You can think of examples.  Drug addiction.  Gambling addictions.  Idolatry of certain body images.  The lust for comfort without regard for the wellbeing of our neighbors. 
            Our leaders fail to inspire us.  Many people came away from the first presidential debate disappointed because they find neither candidate appealing.   The thought of spending the next 4 years embarrassed by our president leaves us apprehensive and melancholy. 
            These less than encouraging thoughts filled my brain as I read Jeremiah 29 this week.  But, then I remembered that I had made a promise a few weeks ago.  I alluded to that promise last week.  I promised to make the case that Christians who live as true Jesus followers are agents of good who work to help people flourish.   Our exclusive loyalty and identification with the kingdom of God leads us to reject patriotism and nationalism.  We do not strive to be good Americans.  We do not stand on love of country because we know we are aliens in this place.  We belong somewhere else, to someone else.  Instead, we strive to live out the Kingdom of God on earth. In living this way, we end up as the very best American citizens. 
People who make love of country their top life value sometimes set whatever they conceive as ‘American’ in opposition to someone else, even other individual citizens’ visions of what is ‘American.’  But Christians, whose loyalty and love belong exclusively to Jesus, contribute mightily to the good of all people in society.  What we read in Jeremiah 29 shows why this is the case. 
            The people of Judah, God’s chosen people, had from the end of the 7th century into the 6th century BC been pressured by the Babylonian empire to pay taxes to Babylon and serve as a Babylonian colony.  King Zedekiah was installed over Judah by the Babylonians as their puppet.  The nation of Judah finally fell in 586 BC when Zedekiah rebelled and Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  Before that happened, several thousand Jews from Judah fled to Egypt.  Many others were taken to Babylon in a first stage of exile in 590 BC.
            Imagine tanks and cattle cars rumbling down the streets of your neighborhood.  A loudspeaker orders everyone out of their houses with as much they can carry.  You have 10 minutes to pack whatever you can.  Then it’s onto the cattle cars and before you know what’s happened, you’re relocated, forced to live in a cramped apartment in a country where you don’t know the language and have no way of getting home.  It’s a one way trip. 
That was the fate of the exiles sent to live in Babylon, modern day Iraq, in 595 BC.  Walter Brueggemann describes this as the end of history for these people.[i]  Their identity was tied to the land.  In their imagination, they reached back to the days of Moses and the God of Moses.  God led them (when He led Moses and their ancestors) out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey.  Their life in that land was full of ups and downs.  With delight they remembered David and Solomon and heroes like Samuel and Samson.  With disappointment they recalled the reign of King Saul and the failures of King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.  They held both, the good stories and the bad, and they held onto the land.
Now, the people were ripped from the land.  Was Babylon stronger than God?  Was their failure as his covenant people so grave that they could no longer trust in his promises?  Had God given them up?  The land was lost.  They were foreigners in a strange land.  Could they still tell their stories?  Or were they, as a people, lost too?  In Jeremiah 29 we read a letter the prophet sent to those exiles to help them make some sense of what had happened. 
Writing from the growing chaos in Jerusalem, Jeremiah sends verbs to the exiles.  Build.  Plant.  Take.  Seek.  Brueggemann calls Jeremiah’s prophecy a scandal.  How can the people of God be the people of God away from the Promised Land?  How can they worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in Babylon? 
Know this.  Today, America is Babylon.  We live in the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced country in the world.  We do everything we can to fill our country with the riches of other countries.  Gas.  Oil.  We assume it is our right to have these things in order to maintain our way of life.  And we export our way of life, our values, our individualism, our sense that monetary and material wealth will solve the world’s problems.  We assume that the more other countries become like us, the better it is for them.  America is today’s Babylon. 
We followers of Jesus are not made for this place.  We are made in God’s image, designed for and called to a society of creativity, cooperation, and mutual care.  We are meant for a Kingdom that welcomes all – really, all – and sees value in all people. Once we realize who we are in Christ, we know we are made for somewhere else.  How do we live as God’s people when we have not yet arrived in God’s Kingdom?  Build.  Plant.  Take.  Seek. 
In these verbs, Jeremiah tells the exiles to do the unthinkable.  Live life to its fullest in in Babylon.  They are to build homes, homes God will bless.  They are to plant gardens and when they do, they’ll be able to live off the land because God will make it produce fruit.  God is here – even here in Babylon.  The God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt will bring them life in this place.  Only this time, the prophet does not promise a wilderness journey back home.  They’re staying 70 years, the lifespan of a generation.[ii]  Those who receive this shocking word from Jeremiah won’t see Jerusalem again. 
Take wives for yourselves and your sons and give your daughters in marriage.  Did not Moses have a non-Hebrew wife?  He did.  Was not Ruth, the great grandmother of David a woman of Moab?  She was.  Do we dare let our children marry Babylonians – these cursed Babylonians?  They’ll marry Babylonians and bring life with God to Babylon because God has preceded them there.  God has made a way for them in this, what looks like the darkest hour.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare” (29:6). 
How do we live as people who follow God, particularly God as have met God in Jesus Christ?  We seek good for the city where God has planted us.  Brueggemann calls it a gospel for hard times.  As I think about the crises of our day, immigration and refugee crises, race relations in America, our thoroughly self-serving politicians, as I think of it all, I consider these hard times.  But then, I hear Jeremiah’s word, “seek good for the city.”  I hear God speak through the prophet to us.  And Bruggemann is right, this is Gospel, because even though the times are hard, we have good news.  Gospel means good news and Jeremiah’s urging of us to seek the welfare of our city is good news for our city and for us. 
I propose, based the verbs of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, that in the act of seeking the welfare of the city, we point the world that is dying in sin to the one who can save it: Our Lord and His Kingdom.
First, we build and plant.  We participate in the economy of American life by holding jobs, doing them well, and helping those around us do their jobs well.  Even in jobs we wouldn’t choose, we work with integrity and effort.  Doing our work well and loving our coworkers is a holy practice endorsed by God.  We do not stay in work that is unethical or immoral.  We choose to leave and trust God for our provision rather than do dishonest or destructive work. 
Risk is involved.  Many Christ followers and nonbelievers alike find themselves in precarious situations as jobs don’t pay enough and don’t provide health insurance.  But even in those circumstances, how we live is a witness.  Are we joyful or woeful?  Do we see God, even in hard times?  Always, we practice our vocation as people of the cross.  We carry ourselves with a constant awareness of the presence of God.
We pay our taxes and manage our money responsibly.  We are profitable financial stewards who see our money as a resource to serve the Lord and help others. Don’t confuse generosity with recklessness.  God shows us how to be wise and extravagantly generous.   
We build and we plant.  We also enter into relationships of intimate friendship with people in the world around us, people who are not Christ followers.  Jeremiah said “take wives and give your sons and daughters in marriage.”  I understand this to be a way of saying, don’t isolate yourselves from others.  Don’t hide in a holy huddle inside the church.  Open your hearts to the people around you and win them over to God with your love and acts of service and kindness. 
We know from the New Testament that many in the church were single.  The best practice for those who marry is to marry fellow believers.  Life is pretty hard if the most important thing in your life is your relationship with Jesus and your spouse has no relationship with Jesus.  There were New Testament couples where one was a Christian and the other wasn’t.  The early church leaders saw just how difficult that life is so they recommended marriage to fellow believers. 
When we take Jeremiah’s instruction that the exiles marry where they are, and see it as teaching that we should enter relationships, then we love those around us as friends, as neighbors, and as people who help one another. 
Building and planting, investing in relationships, in these things we seek good for our city, our society.  We point our world to Christ by living as Christ in our world.  In Philippians 3, Paul says that “our citizenship is in Heaven” (v.20).  We are exiles here.  Idols abound around us, sucking the life from the people who bow to them.  We know the one, true, living God and in the way we live our lives, we can help people know Him too.  Our witness is verbal.  It is also life style and it is in acts of compassionate service. 
Also in Philippians, chapter 2, Paul says that when we imitate Christ we “Shine like stars” in the “midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (v.15).  It is as if Paul were writing for the church in 2016.  His words echo Jesus’ words.  He told the disciples, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Jeremiah’s counsel to the exiles in Babylon; Paul’s words to persecuted Christians in Phillipi; Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount; God’s word compels us to pray for our world.  God’s word goads us to work for justice, which means naming injustice and speaking out against it.  God’s Spirit prompts us to fight poverty by attacking its causes and walking with who suffer from it.  God leads us to use our voice in our democracy to call out corrupt politics and call for integrity.  In activism, in compassion, in right living, and in how we carry ourselves in the comings and goings of daily life – in all these ways we seek good for our city.  We Christians bring hope and speak life into our community. 
I close with God’s words, spoken through his prophet.
“Surly I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (29:11-14).

[i] W. Brueggemann (1977), Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.125-126.
[ii] D. Gowan (1998), Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.116.

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