5 Oct 2013 by Jason Law CM-
The world seems such a huge, lonely, and scary place these days. Everyday, we’re confronted with news of crime, persecution, acts of terrorism, and warfare. Just barely two weeks ago, a terrorist attack took the lives of more than 80 Christians.
How are Christians to make sense of such events that seem to go against the will of God? One tendency is to wonder; isn’t God in control? The temptation to withdraw from the world and live as hermits, praying and hoping desperately that God will do something without us involving ourselves in the public sphere is strong. Some Christians may choose to go to the other end of the spectrum, becoming vocal critics and speaking out forcefully.
Both approaches are normal, deriving from a completely natural response to such events. As a form of engagement, however, their positive impacts are often minimal. Chances may be that the first approach leads to a form of fatalistic defeat, while the second may only lead to a case of stone against stone leading to a bushfire. They are, in rather different ways, more of a defensive mechanism. In order to be a blessing and change nations for the good, and for the glory of God, we may need to develop a whole new perspective on such events. This was the topic of the talk given in a recent service in DUMC by Rev Christopher J H Wright, one of today’s leading experts on the exegesis of the Old Testament.
Part of a conference on ‘Blessing the Nations: How & Where?’ the talk titled ‘By Seeking the Welfare of the People Around Us’ aimed to help in transforming Christians from Refugees to Residents, Mourners to Missionaries, and Victims to Visionaries.
From Refugees to Residents
The text was taken based on Jeremiah 29. The background and setting for this text was a letter written to the exiled Israelites during the Babylonian captivity brought upon by Nebuchadnezzar. Israel had been defeated, Jerusalem and the Temple of God had been destroyed, and the Israelites had been taken into exile. An immediate point of interest in this text is that God’s people have been undergoing such experiences since Old Testament times. The central question to be considered was “How can we live as the people of God in the midst of a society, a community, a nation, in some cases, that may dismiss us, or in some cases despise us, or in one way or another, perhaps make life difficult for us? How can we be agents of transformation for God and how can we be the people of God in such a society today?”
Rev Wright contextualized the passage for the church. Looking back from our vantage point, the events seem so distant, but for the Israelites that time, it was very difficult to accept that God was still in control. The response of the Israelites were varied but was mostly of denial and doubts of God’s control and purpose for His people. They despaired and in the words of Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 37, felt that they might as well have been dry bones, or, led by the false prophet Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) looked to the false hope that the exile would only last a couple of years.
Rev Wright pointed out that if we read the passage in Jeremiah 29 closely, we come across a surprising new perspective. In v4-6 of the Chapter, the Bible clearly states that the people were brought into exile by God.
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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.
Jeremiah 29: 4-6
This is an interesting point to consider because it meant that while on an earthly level, it seemed that the Israelites and God’s people had been utterly destroyed by Babylon, from the perspective given by God, these events had been permitted in God’s sovereign plan and will. The Israelites could have found this difficult to accept at the moment, as would we, but it also meant that God was and is still in control. The plans of God are still sovereign even in the midst of tragic human history.
This perspective restores purpose, turns Refugees into Residents, and empowers the Israelites, and today, God’s people with a mission. Christopher shared an example of when God’s people were oppressed, and missionaries were chased out of China fifty years ago, it seemed to be the end for God’s people in China. Yet today, there are more Christians in China compared to the whole of Europe put together because despite the difficulties and doubts, the Christians there ultimately had faith in the will, purpose, and sovereignty of God.
From Mourners To Missionaries
The new perspective above brings new purpose to God’s people. This is where the new perspective turns God’s people from mourners to missionaries and brings in a surprising new mission, found in v7.
7 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 29:7
“Imagine the reaction to that. They must have got angry. They must have said ‘I bet that must have been changed. The Babylonian censor must have got hold of the letter because that’s not what we’re supposed to do! We know what we should be doing. It’s in there in Psalm 122!’” Rev Wright shared.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
“May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.
Jeremiah, however, had reminded the Israelites of the original Abrahamic Covenant that God had given to them; to be a blessing to the nations including the nation that they were now in. “God didn’t say; ‘be a blessing to the nations that like you, because in that case they wouldn’t have been a blessing to many nations [Israel had been surrounded by enemies for much of their history]. Be a blessing to them. Start where you are and love them’. This perspective turns mourners into missionaries. It takes them back to the mission; seek the blessing (and be a blessing) and shalom of your neighbours.’
Rev Wright admits that this is counter-cultural and difficult, but this was what the Israelites were called to do. This is the high mission for Christians, difficult and challenging though it may be.
“..and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Rev Wright gave the example of Daniel in Nebuchanezzar’s empire. Daniel played an important and high-ranking role in that empire, and just as Daniel carried out his role in Nebuchadnezzar’s court without compromising his faith and remained true to the One Living God, we would trust that Christian men and women are able to accept where they are, and to be a blessing where they live and serve the government where they are even if it’s a non-Christian one and still remain true to their faith. Daniel and his friends were not in Babylon just because Nebuchadnezzar had brought them there. They were there because God had put them there.
There is a powerful story of how Daniel responded to the revelation in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream found in Daniel 4, focal point v19 and 27.
There are all kinds of ways that Christians can be a blessing to the nations, among some of which are social. Some examples are development, education, employment, health and drug rehabilitation, and all kinds of other ways. As Christians, we are to work for the welfare of the nations where we are, and speak into the hearts of the government itself when God brings the opportunity. As Christians, we are called to do good. We should be eager to do good in our society for the Lord’s sake (Titus).
From Victims to Visionaries
A careful study of Jeremiah 29: 10-14 also brings in a surprising new hope. Rev Wright shared that beyond judgment, there is a word of hope and promise, and we need to see with the eyes of faith.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[a] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
Rev Wright shared that while verse 11 is a familiar promise, it must be set in a certain context. It is not a quick-fix hope. It is a word for the repentant who seek God with all their hearts, and is based on the foundation of earnest prayer and genuine repentance (Daniel 9).
‘[The promise in Jeremiah 29:10-14] is not a kind of facile, superficial niceness. This is God saying, in spite of judgment, in spite of their sin and rebellion, there is hope because of the goodness and grace of God. So what should we do?… It is a moment for turning back to God with repentance and obedience. Daniel called the people to repentance [in Daniel 9],’ Rev Wright shared from Daniel 9.
‘Daniel prayed and worked for society and mourned and repented for God’s people. It was to a confessing, repentant people that the promise in Jeremiah 29:10-14 applies. Work for the good of society where we are and pray and seek after God.’
This perspective turns victims into visionaries. ‘It encourages us to lift our eyes towards God and look to the future; to look to the Lord and believe that the faithful God who always fulfilled His promise to His people will ultimately keep it. Believe in the God who said that through you, He will bless all nations. All nations God said. All nations it will be. And that’s where our hope lies. God’s purpose will go on. God isn’t finished with His people’ Rev Wright said. As Christians, our hope lies in the long-term faithfulness to God and how closely we walk with Him.
‘Such a perspective [from Jeremiah 29] turns us from refugees, mourners, and victims into resident, missional, visionaries. And the only question we have to ask is, which are we going to be? Because it’s only if we ourselves, transformed by this perspective, by this mission, by this vision and hope that we have any chance of being agents of transformation in the world around us. Only if we live as God’s people here, in this nation, in the midst of the nations, for the sakes of God’s purpose for all nations’ closed Rev Wright.
As Christians, we’re called to be the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). This means that as Christians, we have a responsibility. Withdrawal from the world is not an option. Nor, if confrontation only leads to bitterness, violence and warfare and downgrade the message of the Gospel, is this an option either; we’re even called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Everything should boil down to the sovereignty of the will of God not ours.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
God has placed Christians all over the world for an appointed purpose. As Christians, we’re to accomplish this purpose well, no matter the sacrifice and price we have to pay. Perform it well and be a blessing to the nations, including the one that every one of us is living in now. May God’s will be accomplished in our nations, and may our respective countries continue to be blessed by God according to His glory.
So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Note: Pictures of Rev Christopher Wright are provided by and credited to DUMC
References for pictures: