The other day I listened to a sermon by Brad Allison from the Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. He was discussing a well-known chapter in the book of Jeremiah in its proper context. Jeremiah 29 was a letter that God gave to Jeremiah for the Israelites after they were first taken captive by the Babylonians in 597 BC. The King of the Babylonians, King Nebuchadnezzar, conquered Jerusalem and took back with him the best and the brightest of the Israelites (of which Daniel was included). And King Nebuchadnezzar took those political and religious leaders as captives with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into the Babylonian culture, religion, and education.
Jeremiah was called to write this letter to the Israelites to give them comfort and to deliver the truth that this would be an extended time of captivity. In fact, it would last for 70 years. Jeremiah uses this letter to give them instruction for how they are to live as exiles. His advice is directly applicable to believers today. In 1 Peter 1:1 Christians are referred to as “exiles” living in a foreign land that is not our home. And we will most likely be here for a while so we need to understand how to live as exiles.
Jeremiah tell us two things about our attitudes. We are to show contentment. Jeremiah tells them to engage in their day-to-day activities that are long term activities: planting gardens, forming families, building houses. Accept where you are and learn to be content in this situation. Don’t spend all your time tucked away in a corner complaining about things. And second we are to show love for our enemies. The Israelites are told to seek good for the Babylonians. I know we may complain about our society and government leaders but consider why type of people the Babylonians were and what kind of “gods” they worshiped. Babylon is even used throughout the Bible as the metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, starting with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and ending with the destruction of Babylon in Revelation 18. It is representative of sin and enemies of God, yet the Israelites were to pray for the Babylonians, seek peace for the Babylonians, rejoice in Babylon’s successes, and grieve Babylon’s losses. God wanted the Israelites to be so committed to the welfare of this pagan nation that the Israelites should rejoice in their success and grieve in their failure. Love your enemies and pray for them. Pray for God’s good gifts to be given to these enemies of yours. And the best gift is for them to know God. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul tells us to pray for those in authority over us – which were the Romans, not Christian leaders. Paul says that from that many people would be saved.
Jeremiah also us two things about our behavior. We are not to assimilate with the foreign land where God has placed us as exiles. They were not to embrace the values or religion of the Babylonians. One of Satan’s methods in attacking the church is the assimilation from within the church to pollute it with worldliness. If he can make the church look no different than the world, then the church has really ceased to exist. Jeremiah tells them to pray to the Lord their God, not the gods of Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was to assimilate the captives so that they would worship his gods. But Jeremiah called them to stay true to their faith, to be distinct as God’s people. And Daniel and his friends maintain their faith in Jehovah while in captivity in the face of persecution (Daniel 3 & 6) and while the rest of the Israelites did not.
Even though we are not to assimilate, we are also not to separate. Jeremiah says they are to build houses, plant gardens, eat their produce, and form families. They are called to settle into this place as permanent residents, not as temporary visitors. We are called to do the same. We are not to huddle up among ourselves and neglect the community that God has placed us in. We ought not to think of ourselves as people rescuing folks from a sinking ship. We are instead to go about seeking the good of our community, of its institutions, not just the Christian institutions but the civic community institutions as well. As we do that, we are to bring the message of hope found in the Gospel of Jesus. I even heard this put another way, “Are you too Christian for non-Christians?” Have we so insulated ourselves from the rest of the world that we neglect forming relationships with unbelievers? Are we interacting enough with unbelievers that we can put our faith in action or are we too sheltered to have our faith exercised? Are we in a place where we can encourage someone in darkness without the light of Christ or do we only pray for others that we know can pray for us? Have we isolated ourselves so much that we can't really witness to anyone because we never come in contact with anyone who needs to be witnessed to? Are we forming relationships so we can speak God’s truth into their lives? Or are we over-protecting and separating ourselves out of fear, sitting in a holy huddle hoping none of the dirty sin world gets near us? God never commands us to be afraid; He commands us to be alert. In fact, He tells us well over 100 times in the Bible to “not fear.” If we pull ourselves out of our community, then where will the lost ever hear the name of Jesus? To show Jesus' love to those who might be unlovable according to the world, we must meet the world. We are not called to seclude ourselves to save our own on the sinking ship. We are called to be the flavor, the salt. And as you know, salt does no good if left in the shaker.