Sunday, July 2, 2017

In the Meantime...: Sermon on Jeremiah 29 for Independence Day

What do we do now? There's the question. If you've been here with us recently, we've been delving into the prophecies of Ezekiel, written from his exile in the lands of Babylonia to which he'd been carried away captive. And in his prophecies, he spoke of the many blessings that God would eventually bestow upon the people. He'd appoint them a new shepherd. He'd give them a new heart. He'd revive them, like dry bones come to life; he'd breathe his very own Spirit into them, so that they could live again. He'd restore them to where they belong and settle them in safety. And in the end, when the forces of evil empires all around the world finally gathered into one force to squelch their liberty, God himself would win the final fight and make everything okay for good.

That's where we left off last week, with that prophecy – a prophecy about the mysterious “Gog, of the land of Magog” (Ezekiel 38:2). We surveyed the brokenness, the evil, the violence and injustice and dehumanizing bureaucracy in the world around us. And even though we're tempted to despair that it'll be with us forever, we learned from this prophecy that, in the end, it will have an expiration date – but we who belong to Christ will not. And so, knowing that these sufferings are not forever and that we will receive the plunder from those who have plundered us in this world-as-we-know it, we can endure with confidence.

And it's all well and good to set our eyes on that distant day – or maybe, God willing, not so distant now – when these things will be made right. And it's good to take away the lesson about bearing patiently under the difficult things of this life. But is that all there is to do – to resist, to endure, to suffer? Or is there more? What do we do now? There, again, is the question. And I think, to answer it, we need to remember the story of where this prophet Ezekiel came from. Before he ever gave any prophecies, he was stolen from his home as a young man, dragged far from Jerusalem to a foreign land, where he and his people were made refugees and told to haul silt in the shadow of a pagan temple. In this unclean place, they wondered if it was even possible to worship their God, so far away from his holy land (Psalm 137:1-4). A number of Jewish prophets – or at least they said they were prophets – predicted it was only temporary, that God would destroy Babylon quickly, so they should be ready to run and rejoice. They maybe whispered that, when the time was right, they should be ready to help the Babylonian leaders on their way down – ready, in other words, to rise up. And so the people were torn – torn between believing these prophecies of a quick return, or surrendering to despair and languishing away in hopelessness.

In the meantime, Judah was still there – as a client-state, under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb. And some of the other client states had been getting uppity and rebellious and had to be put down. The mighty king of Babylon had questions whether the puppet he'd installed on David's throne would be like them in this rebelliousness. And so Zedekiah sent a pair of ambassadors to the Babylonian court – Elasah and Gemariah – with plenty of tribute and plenty of assurances. But along with them, they brought copies of an open letter from a prophet back home, a message answering the deepest heartfelt questions of the Jewish exiles. Ezekiel was my age when he finally heard and read it, and it changed his life; his entire ministry was carried out in its light.

See, the exiles wondered, “Should we be ready to run?” And to this, the letter of the Prophet Jeremiah had this resounding answer: “No!” And there were five basic things Jeremiah said to the people. First of all, they were to ignore the false prophets who were spreading false hope. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 29:8-9). These false prophets would, in fact, shortly be judged (Jeremiah 29:21-32). There is such a thing as false hope. And in this case, it was a hope that things would be easy and quick, instead of messy and slow. There are plenty of preachers who make the Christian life today out to be easy and quick – lots of blithe talk of “victorious living,” “your best life now,” and so forth – and, in fact, the preacher who first shared salvation with me said much the same thing. Thankfully, I didn't listen to that part! Because the truth is, that's a false prophecy. It's not easy; it's not quick. It's messy and slow – God's workings usually are, or at least seem so to us. So no, Jeremiah says, don't get ready to run.

Second, Jeremiah does not want them to lose sight or to lose heart. Because, although the ready-to-run angle is a bad one, so is the moping-in-despair approach that seemed like the only other live option at the time. That's not right either, because just because life in Babylon isn't going to be over quickly, that doesn't mean it's a lost cause. God says through his prophet, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. … I will gather you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10,14). So they shouldn't lose heart – God has not abandoned them there – or lose sight of the eventual promise.

Third, Jeremiah encourages them to persist in prayer. They may wonder if prayer is even something they can do in Babylon, where they feel too far away to be heard – can they sing the LORD's songs there, after all (cf. Psalm 137:4)? But God is saying to them that they can and should pray; they should use this opportunity to reconnect with God, as a matter of fact. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD – plans for peace and not for evil, plans to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13). He tells them outright, “pray to the LORD (Jeremiah 29:7). Never give up on prayer. Never.

Fourth, Jeremiah gives them some more radical advice. Their two options before had been a stark contrast. On the one hand, they could live a sparse life in their tents, ignoring all the concerns of this world and being ready to run, focused on staying unencumbered for their impending escape – think of all the apocalyptic cults who avoid education, jobs, marriage, stable living, because they're convinced the end is so nigh that there's no point to any of it. That was one option. Or, on the other hand, they could give up – they could resign themselves to a meaningless life in Babylon, abandoned by their God, and sit down and waste away in hopelessness. And then, too, they would live a sparse life in their tents, ignoring all the concerns of this world because they're too down to do otherwise. The result looks almost the same.

But Jeremiah gives them radical advice. Listen to this: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). In other words, live as normal a life as you can. Yes, you've been uprooted; yes, you're living amidst pagan idols and mocking soldiers and every other depressing thing. Yes, you want to get out or give up. But no – no, take back normal. Do the normal things of life. Make a home, make it pretty, have a family, and keep holding on.

But the fifth thing Jeremiah says, in the heart of his letter, is probably the most revolutionary idea there is. He writes, “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” (Jeremiah 29:7). Think about what that means. There are other exiles living alongside them from other nations, and if there's one hope that all of them have, it's that Babylon will be destroyed. And that's the hope that the false prophets are stoking – they can't wait to see Babylon come to ruin, to downfall. Its destruction is their chance for freedom, after all. I mean, this is the city that oppresses them, the city that lords injustice over them. Why should they wish anything good on their new unwanted neighbors, their captors? Why should they want this society, to which they're aliens and treated as such, to prosper?

And yet that's exactly what Jeremiah says, as a word from the LORD. It's not easy for them to hear, but he tells them to actively seek to make Babylon a success – to collaborate with their captors for the common good of all. They should pray for it – pray for the city, pray for the soldiers, pray for Nebuchadnezzar and his court. They should act kindly toward the Babylonians, not out of servile fear, but out of the will of God. They should try to make Babylon a better place, a more prosperous and peaceful place. The word Jeremiah uses – 'shalom' – it's a broad Hebrew word that suggests not only peace, but harmony and wellness. Comprehensive healthfulness and prosperity. That's what Jeremiah wants to see the exiles work toward and pray for – for Babylon. Because, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats: since the Jews are here for the long haul, they should try to make Babylon a more healthy and prosperous society, because that will make them more healthy and prosperous, too. Yes, the big deliverance is on the distant horizon; but in the meantime, work for Babylon's benefit.

It's a crazy and radical thought, one that set Ezekiel free for his prophetic ministry – once a vision of God made him see that it was true. We talked about that at the end of April. But the influence and impact of Jeremiah's letter didn't end there. No, those words have echoed throughout time. Hundreds of years later, when Jeremiah's LORD walked the soil of the promised land himself, it was advice too often forgotten for a people under Roman rule. And yet his apostles learned from him, the Crucified and Risen Teacher whose death and life set them free, and so they encouraged the early Jesus-followers to be a blessing so they could share the blessing; to “seek peace and pursue it;” to focus on doing good, yes, even to a society that would treat them as strangers, foreigners, aliens, exiles (1 Peter 3:9-17).

And then fast-forward many more centuries – about 2300 years after Jeremiah wrote that letter on parchment and handed it to Elasah and Gemariah – and zoom across the ocean to lands yet unseen. In this land, there lived thirteen colonies, established under the distant rule of the British crown. Many – not all, but many – of those who lived in these places would have described themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as heirs of the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah. And they hadn't stopped reading Jeremiah's letter. Their preachers still turned back to this ancient note, with its advice for living in Babylon. But they didn't see it as out-of-date.

There was one preacher, a 28-year-old pastor named Joseph Sewall – his dad Samuel was a repentant Salem witch-trial judge and one of the first abolitionists in colonial New England – and Joseph preached on this message. He didn't see it as limited to Babylon, but as good for all societies, all families – after all, he said, “Civil societies consist of particular families combined and associated.” He wanted to see families reformed, so that civil society itself, the society of Massachusetts where he lived, could be reformed. And here's more of what Joseph Sewall said:

Now, every man is under strong obligations to seek the prosperity and the welfare of the community which he belongs to. God commanded his people of old to seek the peace of the city whither he had caused them to be carried away captives, and to pray unto the Lord for it, Jer. 29:7. … No man is born for himself alone, but also for his country. And it should be everyone's ambition to be a blessing to the public; and in nothing can we more truly promote the public weal than by endeavoring that true piety may flourish; that the kingdom of Christ which is righteousness, peace, and joy may be set up and established. True religion is the glory, the safety, the happiness of a people.

So our lives aren't ours alone. They're God's, first and foremost, of course, but also with “strong obligations to seek the prosperity and the welfare of the community” where God has planted us. Our goal is to be a “blessing to the public,” to “promote the public weal,” the public common good. After all, if it was true in Babylon for a foreign people in exile, how much truer does it have to be here, in this nobler society? 

A few years later, a 25-year-old preacher named Thomas Foxcroft, grandson of a former governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, used this passage to encourage colonists to pray for the public good of their fellow neighbors in the New World – after all, he said, “God expects their intercessions, and the public has a just title to the benefit of them,” and in praying for the public good, “they,” the godly, “will consult their own peace and welfare,” because if God answers their prayers, “they will have their share in the public tranquility and prosperity: the prospect whereof should encourage 'em to prayer.”

In 1748, an elderly New England pastor named Nathanael Eells pointed to this verse to argue that the influence of the godly is a support to “the peace and order of this world,” and “is no enemy to the public peace, to the well-ordering of the state, but a friend to them.” And twelve years later, Eells' successor in the pulpit of Slatington, Connecticut, one Rev. Joseph Fish, dealing with a fractured church and fractured town, offered these words against the partisan nonsense weighing his society down:

A party spirit is a dangerous evil. … Should any plead, that the constitution is weak, the government bad, and the rulers tyrannical, all this won't legitimate a party spirit, nor justify its ruling, so long as there is a public common good, upon the securing of which the safety of individuals, under such a government, may be obtained. The holy religion that God has taught his people is of such a generous temper that it not only forbids their touching the public peace but requires them to seek and promote it, even under an idolatrous and tyrannical magistrate. Hear the direction and charge of the God of Israel to that people, in the Babylonish Captivity: And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. All parties and sects, however they may differ in sentiments as to other matters, are hereby taught to be tender of the public safety of any state that gives them protection. … How unreasonable then, as well as hurtful, is the indulgence of a party spirit in a well-founded Christian government?

These are the things people were hearing from the colonial pulpits – messages brought from Jeremiah's advice. The godly, the people of the church, are to be committed to the public good, to actively “seek and promote it” – if that holds true in Babylon, how much more in these thirteen colonies, they reasoned? That is the will of God: to settle down, to live peacefully, to work for the betterment and prosperity of the community where God has placed us – not to wall ourselves off from our neighbors, not to shun them, but, to the extent possible while worshipping God and following his ways, to be actively involved in promoting the public good for everyone – for Jew and Gentile, for black and white, for young and old, for rich and poor, for Christian and Muslim and all the rest, in a healthier and more prosperous society.

Sixteen years after Joseph Fish preached against “party spirit,” there were parties in the colonies who had come to believe that King George III and his Parliament had plans for evil and not for peace; that their policies were so harmful to the public good and the welfare of colonial society that it had become intolerable. It had, in fact, become time to stop being “colonial society” and instead to become a confederation of “free and independent states” – not out of malice, but out of a concern for the public good. And so representatives from these thirteen states met together in Philadelphia, and 241 years ago today, they unanimously declared their independence.

Two days later, they formally ratified an explanation of their decision. They felt it had become “necessary” for them to do it, in the name of “self-evident” truths – chiefly, the equality of people with respect to the “unalienable rights” with which we all are “endowed by [our] Creator,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The role of a government, they said, is to “secure these rights” – governments are only instruments, and when they become a hindrance to the public good as measured by these unalienable rights, a society has not only the right but the “duty to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.” The former government under King George didn't serve their public good – that was, in fact, the colonists' first complaint, that “he has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” They had many other complaints as well. The king nullified their representative assemblies. The king tried to stop immigration into the colonies. He limited their free trade with the rest of the world. And much more. As the colonists saw it, the only way for them to “seek the welfare of the city,” to further the public welfare of the thirteen colonies, was to become free and independent of a king like that. And at the end, they “appeal[ed] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intentions.”

How he'll answer them on the last day, I won't profess to know. But as Americans celebrate Independence Day, it behooves us to ask, as Christians living in these United States yet looking forward to the day of Gog's defeat: What do we do in the meantime? We know that all kings and kingdoms are temporary – yes, even America, and even our Constitution and our vaunted independence. All these are subject to Christ's lordship, and we must never forget the difference. And yet Christ, the “Great God our King,” bids us to “seek the welfare of the city... and pray to the LORD on its behalf,” because in the betterment and health and harmony and beauty and success of our community, that's where we'll find ours, too, as we go through this life in the meantime (Jeremiah 29:7).

That's true when America is an easy place for believers to get along. It's also true when America looks more like Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, as I think it so often does these days. In either case, God calls us to seek the welfare of our community – to make it fare well, a better and healthier place, a place full of more shalom for all. This week, I want to challenge you to do that. Put aside any “party spirit” you might have – Joseph Fish would insist on no less! – and get out there with your neighbors. You have not been born for yourself alone, nor have you been born again for yourself alone, but to be “a blessing to the public,” as Joseph Sewall would say. Make this community healthy and beautiful, make it peaceful and prosperous, make it a “sweet land of liberty” indeed, in Jesus' name – for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Amen.

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