“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take 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. 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." Jeremiah 29:4-7
Anybody still reading through the 1-year-bible will land on Jeremiah 29 this weekend. This is one of my favorite passages in all of the Scriptures. Here we find Israel, overwhelmed and overrun by a brutal enemy. The surviving Hebrews have suffered the destruction of their city, displacement from their homes and deportation to Babylon, held captive in a culture that celebrates decadence and depravity. The rest of their lives would unfold in the midst of a social and spiritual climate that offends and assaults their beliefs and convictions at every turn. The most optimistic of God’s people had to be deeply discouraged, and the majority of God’s people were likely descending into utter despair.
Into that darkness Jeremiah speaks a word that lays out God’s strategy for his people to be faithful and fruitful as minority people living on mission. I believe this strategy is still better than any God’s people have come up with and it is the strategy we’ve decided to adopt as a local church.
Our propensity is to always look beyond where we are. God’s strategy is to be fully present where we are. We're burdened by the pressure of upward mobility, the bigger house, the nicer area, the cleaner section of town, the more homogenous neighborhood. We are anticipating the next step and imagining the greener grass. We are tempted to always feel stuck. Certainly the Israelites in Jeremiah 29 felt stuck in Babylon. But in v. 4, God says, “you aren’t stuck there, you’re sent there.”
In other words, he’s urging us no to look for ways out of our city, town or neighborhood. Instead, we are to look for ways to more deeply embed ourselves in our city, town or neighborhood. God sends his people to places where Christ is opposed and resisted, in order that we might cultivate a meaningful life within and among our community. God’s design, as he lays out in v. 5-6, is for us to put down roots. He wants us fully engaged and fully present right where we are. He wants our lives and our families and our churches integrated with the community, not separated from the community. He wants us to build homes, lives, families, and businesses, so that we might flourish, and so that our neighbors would flourish as well.
That might seem too simple and too boring. But don’t lose sight of this: Jesus’ life and ministry was extremely localized. Jesus lived such a local life that he was identified by demons, by Pilate, by the crowds on Palm Sunday and by the mob promoting his crucifixion as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Even when he appears to Saul on the road to Damascus after his resurrection and ascension, He announces himself as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus had a clear sense of connection to a local place. You know why?
He spent the first 30 years of his life in a small, rural town, growing in maturity, nurturing relationships, learning a trade, working with his dad. He spent 30 years in monotony and in anonymity. Thirty unimpressive years in an unimpressive place among unimpressive people. The world waited for redemption and salvation while Jesus went to work on tables and chairs. The world waited for rescue while Jesus took time to sand down a stool.
And out of that forgotten place and out of faithfulness to those unremarkable, everyday responsibilities, the Kingdom of God exploded onto the world stage.
In these few verses, Jeremiah casts a vision for three generations of Jewish presence in Babylon. That may not sound long against the backdrop of history, but imagine how eternal it felt for the first generation exiles. This meant they would never return home. Their children and grandchildren would know this dark place as their home. Seventy years, for those just taken into exile, was forever.
Brothers and sisters, gospel work requires patience and perseverance. The normative transformational work of the gospel comes through, what Eugene Peterson calls, “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Think about how biological families operate. A baby is born, grows up, matures and becomes independent. That’s always the goal. Nobody wants their healthy baby to turn into their 37 year-old roommate who has an education, but no job, no life skills, no goals and no contribution to make. We want our children to mature and move out; to choose Jesus; to be responsible, and work hard; to have their own family so we can have grand babies. Families are designed to multiply.
It’s no different for God’s people. Think about how Jeremiah’s prophetic vision works itself out for us living in 21st century suburban Atlanta. The church is a family designed to multiply. So, we make and multiply disciples. We come together in communities formed by the gospel. And we plant and multiply churches that love and serve Jesus. We do this by sharing life together in meaningful ways, and serving alongside one another for the good of our community. And for that have any lasting impact, we have to have a lasting presence. we need a lot of patience and time. We need longevity.
God was not surprised by what happened to Israel. God is advancing his strategy through Israel. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable about the kingdom of God. He says, “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
In God’s infinite wisdom he compares his Kingdom, the reclaiming and renewal of all things, to the smallest seed which becomes the biggest of all garden plants. In other words, the Kingdom of God needs good soil and a strong root system. You can’t continually relocate most plants and expect for them to remain healthy and strong. You need to leave that plant in one place where it develops deep roots while growing larger and heavier above the surface. For the Kingdom to flourish in us and around us and through us, God’s people need to commit to locality and longevity.
When a church is committed to local engagement over a long period of time, we create safety and trust, a place for people to belong, a place for people to find shade. So God sends his people to hard places socially and dark places spiritually. He does so in order that His people might plant themselves there until the light of the gospel starts to push back the darkness of human culture and worldly structures. The Spirit’s power can produce in God’s people a staying power.
To What End
We don’t do this without an agenda, by the way. We do this with a clear agenda. Jeremiah gives us that too, in verse 7. We are seek the welfare of the city to which we've been sent.
There is nowhere in the scriptures that we are told or even permitted to adopt an adversarial, angry or even apathetic attitude toward our city. We are not sent here to argue with, criticize, or overcome our neighbors. We are sent here to bless them, to love them and to serve them. The word translated “welfare” is the Hebrew word shalom.
Shalom represents a holistic flourishing and thriving; an interconnectedness and interdependence with absolute harmony and beauty. Where sin brought futility, frustration and a fraying of all things, shalom is about completeness, restfulness and the wholeness of things. This is the heart of God and the thrust of this passage. God wants us to share in His love for and pursuit of shalom. He wants us to seek the shalom of our city and to pray for our city. And he directly ties our own peace and flourishing to the peace and flourishing of our neighbors and community.
Beloved, we are so consumed with making sure our neighborhoods and neighbors are safe for us and our children. Jeremiah’s prophetic vision poses a different question: is the church safe for our neighbors? are we people of blessing and peace who labor for the good of neighbors, neighborhoods? Are we a people where other broken people find safety; where the hurting receive comfort; where the weary are restored; and where the guilty find grace?
Do your neighbors feel more loved, more cared for, more peaceful, more settled, because you live where you do, work where you do and play where you do? Are our neighbors better off because of your presence? Is Norcross better off because Generations is here? If Generations disappeared would our city grieve? If you moved away would your neighbors even recognize it?
Church, like Israel in Babylon, we are exiles. This is not our home. But it is the place God has sent us. Let’s resist the urge look for a better place. Let’s resist the impulse to withdraw from our place. Let’s resist the temptation to be takers in this place. Let’s resist the felt need to be accommodated by those around us. Jesus has already accommodated us.
He came here, the light of the world, entering into the darkness. He left his home, and planted himself in a place for a long time. He ministered faithfully to people who didn’t understand him, sacrificed everything for people who didn’t appreciate him, and gave himself fully to those who disregarded him. He’s gone ahead of us to show us the way. And He’s gone ahead of us to prepare a better place than here, where we rightly feel out of place. Until that day, however, we are sent into exile to this place. Our presence is about making the invisible Kingdom of God visible to our community. That is an awesome privilege that requires our local and long term engagement. Let’s embrace it.