The words of Jeremiah 29:6 are rather shocking if you get the context and historical moment right. God is telling his people that they will be in this state for a long time thus they should become active in the culture of Babylon, not separatists who go private. When we are not sure whether we will be somewhere for very long we rent or stay with family and friends for a season. But if we plan to stay we are inclined to get a house and begin planting ourselves in the city in which we live. Building, planting, marrying and giving in marriage are signs that a normal community has been established.
Verse six is striking for sure but verse seven provides the perspective that we desperately need in modern Babylon. These exiles are told to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf. . .” This is the counsel I believe God has for the church in the West in the twenty-first century. We are to: (1) Seek the peace of our city/state/nation, and; (2) We are to seek for the prosperity, both economically and culturally, of the place where we live. We do this in many ways for sure. Under the new covenant I believe that we do this best when the church is the church, not the judge and jury of the culture and its leaders. We do this best by being, living and sharing good news. Our good news is centered in Jesus Christ, the one person who can redeem and transform lives and cities. Listen to another prophet describe this so powerfully:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory (Isaiah 61:1–3, NRSV).
The people of God are to deliver “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” This is our calling in our post-Christendom exilic state. We cannot engage in power and politics in the old ways if we are to follow this counsel. We must examine our methods, all of them, and ask, “Is this what we are doing? Why not? How can we begin to reform the church in order to fulfill this calling?”
This theme of good news preached in exile to the people of a place where God’s grace is not widely known is picked up in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 9:35: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” And again we read in Matthew 10:7, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” In Luke 4 Jesus stood in the synagogue and read from Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free . . .”
The early church understood this clearly so we read in Acts 13:2, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors.” And 1 Peter 1:12 adds, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!”
So what is it that we are to be and to do in order to live corporately as a faithful incarnational presence in a strange place where God’s law is not known or loved and where people have rejected the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth? We are to live as a community of the good news for the well-being of our community.
Jeremiah 29:7 adds that we are to “pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This counsel is amazing. This is so different than the culture transformation models that we’ve seen at work in modern American religion, whether from the left or from the right. We are to pray for our city, our state, our nation. Consider this counsel with a little more reflection.
- If we are to pray this way for our city then we have to first change our way of looking at the city. We must see the city/state/nation as our home. We share this city with those who are not living in the community of the good news but who are our neighbors. Jesus plainly told us how to care for our neighbors when he told us to love them.
- We cannot see our neighbors as our enemies if we pray for their prosperity and well-being. They may be enemies to God, not because he despises them but because they reject him and his love. But they are not our enemies in any meaningful sense. Even if they were to become our enemies, as some in the state did in modern Germany and Russia we are still called to love them!
- The reason for this advice to the exiles is actually quite shocking at first glance–by praying for our city we are helping them to prosper and, in turn, we and our children will also prosper with them. This prosperity is surely one that includes economic well-being. But it must include peace and good government as well if we are to experience real prosperity in Babylon.
The Lord concludes by telling the exiles that they must beware of false prophets. They must faithfully serve and endure for a long time in Babylon. There is no quick fix revival on the near horizon. (This is why I believe revivalism is a positive harm to the well-being of the church at this point in history. True revival, on the other hand, would deliver us from the false teachers who promise us prosperity and power!)
God is in perfect control of his church in America. We have fallen prey to the schemes of the evil one more than we care to admit but we are not done. How do I know this? Because there are still many of us here and there is much we can do for the good of our cities if we stop condemning and start building This begins in the church and then it takes us out of our assemblies into the world that is starving for peace, justice and the joy of the Lord.