October 19, 2014

City: The World That Is

Passage: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Service Type:

But 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.


Work consumes a large part of our lives. Work is, of course, broader than the activities of gainful employment. The making of a home is work. So is tending a garden; volunteering at the hospital; teaching your children or grandchildren to read. Some work we like to do; other work we find monotonous and can’t wait for it to be over. Some people are identified by their work—doctor, dentist, lawyer, banker, minister. My grandfather was in his 104th year when he died. In the later part of his life he said he felt useless because he had no work he could do. How do you think about your work? I invite you to consider a short video that explores this question—what is your work? (Video 2 min)

1. “I am a living sacrifice and this is my offering to you. That is my work.” I think this a good summary of the heart of the gospel with respect to the work of our lives. The Apostle Paul said that “… whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” (1 Corinthians 10:31); “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual* worship” (Romans 12:1); “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). With respect to life`s needs our Lord said “strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

In our culture, there is perceived to be a divide between public and private life and work is thought of in this public sphere and church or faith in the private. One of the things that I appreciate about the work of Pastor Timothy Keller (the author of our small group study) is the way he challenges this arbitrary separation and helps believers understand how the gospel changes everything; how the gospel speaks to, shapes and influences the work life of the believer. How the believer is to seek the welfare of the place we find ourselves; a welfare that can be promoted through our work.

“But 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.” This word from God to the people of Israel came through the prophet Jeremiah to those who had been deported as captives to Babylon; more on this in a moment. This call to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” includes the activity of work life. Listen to how God has the full scope of human life in mind. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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.”

The people were to make a life with what was before them. They were to work and enter into the economic activity of their new Babylonian setting. Their contribution to its welfare would be the way forward for their own welfare. I wonder if we see our work as Christians in the marketplace of our community and cities as contributing to the welfare of this place and further that God is at work promoting the welfare of the world he loves in this very activity.

Some have undertaken to quantify the contribution a church makes to its local community. Dr. Ram Cnaan, a University of Pennsylvania professor who considers himself nonreligious, has published a book on this research into the contribution of a church. He said that “if the average North American congregation were to bill its community for the social services it provides, the tab would be about $184,000 per year.” He calculated things like volunteer hours worked, the financial impact of helping people gain employment or overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. According to a 2009 survey, on average, every year one inner-city church contributed $476,663.24 to the local economy.

But think further. Think about life beyond the voluntary contributions. Consider the work/employment of all these church members and adherents. A Christian who endeavors to do their work honourably has a positive impact on the work of that company or organization. “You are the salt of the world”, said our Saviour. The accountant who brings good order to financial structures; the care-giver who seeks the genuine well-being of a client; the carpenter who takes pride in work well-done; the home-maker who gives careful attention to nourishment—all these and a myriad others contribute to human flourishing that blesses countless others.

Dr. Niall Ferguson is—among other academic appointments—a professor of history at Harvard University. In his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, he interviewed a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an arm of the Communist Party in China. This unnamed Chinese official praised the role of Christianity in the Western world. He said:

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success … of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.   But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity …. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.” (Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Books, 2011), p. 287)

Now I realize that not all are fans of capitalism nor democracy. Capitalism seems to some heartless and democracy cumbersome and inefficient. However, they are, in my view, to be preferred above all other human economic and governance constructs. The general welfare of people is improved to higher standards for more people under these structures that other systems. I do think that the unnamed Chinese official is largely correct in his analysis that the Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life made profound impact on the emergence of capitalism and democracy.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the prism through which Christian faith views all aspects of life. It is here that we learn of God’s love—which is essentially self-forgetful self-giving. This love guides us to live with profound regard for the other person and look to their welfare. In work life we seek to provide services that serve the needs and wellbeing of people. In a culture whose imagination has been seeded with such thoughts the economic freedom of capitalism and the guidance of democratic rule can flourish—indeed promotes all kinds of human flourishing.

“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,” says our God. When we as believers, informed by the gospel, do our work in accord with the good news that is Jesus Christ, we are salt and light that God uses to promote the welfare of the world he loves, and, by the way, in it we find our own welfare

2. In 597 BCE the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar came and King Jehoiachin of Judah surrendered. Nebuchadnezzar took captive Judah’s leading citizens including Jehoiachin. Here is how the Biblical record describes this deportation: “The king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valour, seven thousand, the artisans and the smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war.” (2 Kings 24:16) Nebuchadnezzar also appointed Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah as King in Judah. Eleven years later (586 BCE) Nebuchadnezzar retuned with his army and destroyed Jerusalem levelling the temple Solomon had built.

Judah had been a vassal state of Babylon since 606 BCE. Vassal states demonstrated loyalty to their overlords by (among other things) the payment of tribute or taxation. Rebellion meant essentially to withhold taxation. This is what prompted Nebuchadnezzar’s visit in 597 BCE. Jehoiachin rebelled; he didn’t send the delegation with the tribute. The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry in Judah extended throughout this entire period of Jerusalem’s decline.

Shortly after Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as King in Judah a prophet named Hananiah began preaching that God had broken the power of Babylon and within two years the exiles would all return. In essence, he his countenancing Zedekiah to rebel—don’t send the taxation. (You can read about this in Jeremiah 28) Jeremiah disagreed with this counsel. As it turned out, Zedekiah did send a delegation (this time) with the tribute and it was with this delegation that Jeremiah sent his letter that we read from today. God’s message through Jeremiah was that return to Jerusalem was indeed in the future, but not for 70 years. It was in this context that God said, “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.”

This is an in-between time for Israel. In between the time of life in Jerusalem and return to life in Jerusalem. In some sense this is where we live as Christians. The church finds its life in an in-between time. If the battle with sin and evil was won at the cross then why hasn’t everything been fixed? I am not sure that we can say why entirely; the scriptures point us to consider God’s forbearance and love for people. Still, we are in this in-between time. In between the time of the decisive moment when everything changed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the time of the final consummation when all will be set right.

It is for this reason that I think that this passage in Jeremiah is instructive for us. “But 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.” It is a template for how we are to live in any in-between time.

3. The word “incarnation” is used theologically to speak of God coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth; God was incarnate as a human and we have seen his face; he came among us as one of us. The way God approaches us—by becoming one of us—is instructive for how we live out the good news that is Jesus Christ. Indeed Jesus has much to communicate to us and it is good to note that God did so in a human to human sort of way. Jesus embodied obedience to his Father and a relentless love for people.

We have often characterized sharing the gospel with people as an inquiry of knowledge; as sharing a message. And it is that for sure. The question is how. Jesus models an incarnational way that is relational. One Christian leader characterized it this way; “Let your spiritual life be natural and your natural life be spiritual.” Christ came into the world as a human being to reach human beings. It is a pattern that can help us. When we do our work as a living sacrifice to Jesus Christ it fits this incarnational way of living the good news of Jesus.

4. It must have been frightening for Israel’s exiles—to say to least—to be deported and taken to a unfamiliar country as a captive. The message of Jeremiah’s letter must have been hard to take. “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.” The last thing I would want to do is seek the welfare of captors. We live in a culture increasingly hostile to Christian convictions. Do we really want to seek its welfare? Why would I believe that seeking the welfare of the city to be a hopeful way forward?

Listen to the some of the rest of what God said to them. “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Israel’s hope (and ours) is guaranteed by God’s self-knowledge of his gracious council.

I have been blessed in life with friends who I know genuinely seek my welfare; I just know they want good for me. If I needed help they would do what they could. I know it because I have experienced something of their character in the course of our relationship. AS Christians everything is viewed through the prism of the cross. Here we see that God pours himself out without remainder for our sakes. At the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ we know that in God’s heart are plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope. As the Apostle Paul wrote: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32)

But 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.