By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. Psalm 137:1
It is quite understandable that when Israel found itself in exile, they mourned Zion, the land they had lost. But is that the state God wanted them to remain in? Once we recognize that exile is our own reality today, how should that affect how we think of the new land we find ourselves in?
For some, the new land represents ungodly forces at work, making it a toxic place to be conquered for Christ. For others, the land is what it is, and if we want to survive we should just blend in with the crowd and keep our faith private.1 But how does God want us to see the new land? Well, he tells us through the prophet Jeremiah.
God’s desire for us
Jeremiah called for the Jews to settle in to the new society, unpack their trunks, and get to work for its benefit:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
God didn’t want them pining for the old days. Those were gone and God wanted them to move forward where he had planted them. They weren’t to rebel against the Babylonians, but instead were to carry on with life as peaceable citizens by settling down and living out their lives in a way that blessed the community where they had been transplanted.
God wants us to make our new location home and focus on flourishing in this setting. He wants us to live facing the future, not mourning for the past, and he wants the exiled community to increase in health even though it is in exile.
An important point for the church today is that, unlike the Jews, we do not have a prophecy about how long the exile will last. So it might even be better to say that we are living in the conditions of exile but that our future may actually be more like the Diaspora of the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem. Instead of being foreign visitors, we might instead be permanent residents. Regardless, God’s desire is for the church to flourish wherever he places it.
The upside of exile
If we take a moment to think theologically about our situation, we will gain some positive insights regarding our new host culture.
Creation theology reminds us that God made the whole world and everyone in it. There is no place, no matter how evil, where God is not present. Jeremiah told the Jews that God would be with them in Babylon, just as he was with them in Jerusalem. He sent them there and he would answer their prayers so that they would prosper while in exile. The catch was, however, that the Jews would only prosper by praying for the prosperity of their host society. In other words, no imprecatory prayers! No calling down bolts of lightning on anybody!
This means that we too should pray for Canada’s welfare regardless of how far from “Christian” our nation has wandered.
It was pretty hard to be salt and light when so much in our society affirmed Christianity because the contrast wasn’t so great, but now that this is no longer the case, our light can shine brighter in the darkness and we really can preserve the memory of what is right and good and healthy. We need to permeate and engage with every part of society without being transformed by it.
The church’s mission
Christ gave his church a mission, and that mission did not depend on the church being in a position of official power. In fact, when he gave the mission, the church was in anything but a place of political power! So whether we have power or not, we must be busy pursuing our mission.
I wonder if complacency invaded the church when the state supported our faith through, for example, the Lord’s Day Act and recognition of major Christian holy days as public holidays. The state also supported the good work of the church as it took on poverty relief programs and health care.
Fifty or sixty years ago, individual Christians maybe didn’t feel the need to engage in Christian work personally because someone else was looking after it. Perhaps personal benevolence and social activism suffered from those days of government support for Christian values.
If so, the current state of affairs is a serious call to all Christians to wake up and pick up their share of the work. While government and society are still doing good works, it increasingly leaves a lot of room for Christians to do good works from a distinctly Christian perspective. The challenge is for both individuals and ministry organizations to step up and engage society from a place of humble service.
God’s obvious desire for Israel in exile was that it would prosper. Jeremiah describes prosperity in terms of a growing, healthy community providing for its needs and enjoying continued vitality. God did not tell them to live in temporary tents, but to build houses. They were to grow their own food, and so be a productive part of society. They were to take care to preserve their community and continue to build it. They were to have a long term perspective about their situation.
The equivalent for us today would be to take care of our churches so that they are strong and healthy communities.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve received woeful emails from two pastors which are just like too many others I’ve received over the years. We have far too many badly divided church boards or boards in serious conflict with their pastors. Some issues may be legitimate, but I suspect that many are the result of allowing personal preferences or agendas to drive the topics of discussion at the board table. If they had to justify their particular conflict to the whole worldwide church in broad daylight, such as Paul and the Judaizers had to do at the Jerusalem Council, or if a reporter published a story about it, I wonder how many of the conflicts would be exposed as foolishness or pettiness or would shame one or both of the opposing parties?
We absolutely must get our churches focused on the number one top priority, which is our mission. I wonder if conflict arises because a church isn’t fully engaged in mission but is in maintenance mode, leaving too much time for inconsequential debates. Paul’s words are apropos here: “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies” (2 Thess 3:11).
A pastor of a small church in Manitoba told me that his church suffered from worship wars, but as they wholeheartedly gave themselves to evangelizing their small town and saw great success, all the bickering faded completely away. People were too busy doing productive work that was significant and of eternal value to waste time on their personal preferences!
A major topic of discussion in every church in the country should be “How do we build a sense of urgency to become a more effective servant to our community? What should we stop doing so that we can start doing something new and more creative? What hinders us?”
We shouldn’t only be praying for Canada’s welfare, we should also be actively engaged in contributing to its welfare using all the talents and skills we have available to us. Without compromising our faith, we need to participate positively in our host society as much as we can.
“Christians share a world with others and they must contribute to its overall flourishing…[We need to commit] to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world.” James Davison Hunter2
Daniel served in a pagan government and navigated his way through a challenging life; on the one hand remaining faithful to God and on the other hand serving the kings who kept him in captivity and did not share his faith or worldview. Daniel is an excellent example of a godly person contributing to his society’s welfare by working in high government office.
We are called to live faithfully and to participate in society. So be a Christian working in a secular business. Be a Christian politician. Be a Christian artist, screenwriter, homemaker, or teacher. Dedicate your career, your community relationships, whatever it is that you do, to making a distinctly Christian contribution to your part of our world. John Wesley put it this way:
- Do all the good you can
- By all the means you can
- In all the ways you can
- In all the places you can
- At all the times you can
- To all the people you can
- As long as ever you can
Wesley’s programs to help the poor were so effective that the poor became rich, something known to church historians as the “Methodist lift.” He was so successful in rescuing people from the gutters that over time they became too comfortable, so much so that Wesley had to rebuke them, saying, “Are not you, who have been successful in your endeavours to increase in substance, insensibly sunk into softness of mind, if not of body too?…You have nigh lost your zeal for works of mercy, as well as of piety. You once pushed on, through cold or rain, or whatever cross lay in your way, to see the poor, the sick, the distressed…Do you now tread in the same steps? What hinders? Do you fear spoiling your silken coat?”3 I wonder if his rebuke might just be a bit uncomfortably close to the truth about many of us, both clergy and lay.
Our influence, informal as it is, should come from the positive contribution we make to our society as we present powerfully effective Christian solutions, as Wesley did, to solve society’s problems.
“A Christian way will be loved and hated — loved for its prosperous outcomes and hated for the values that built these outcomes. Charlie Self4