Introduction to the Reading
Introduction to the Reading
We turn now to our Bibles and Helen is going to come up and read to us from .
As you will hear this is a passage that gives us details of a letter that was written by the prophet Jeremiah and sent to the people of Israel who had been taken into exile in Babylon. The letter is telling them how they are to live as God’s people during the time of the exile. Let’s hear what it says:
to live Before she begins reading though, I just want to give you a little context. The passage we’re looking at is a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem. The letter is sent to exiles, to people from Jerusalem who have been taken captive by the Babylonians. This was a strategy of the Babylonian empire. Whenever they conquered a land or a city, they would take the leaders, the powerful and influential people, and instead of oppressing them, they would educate them. The goal of this was assimilation, so that the people, and ultimately the nation, lose their cultural identity and their own distinctive understanding of the world.
This morning we are continuing to think about our Vision Statement, and we come to the one word that we have yet to look at, “serving”. In the context of our statement it reads, “serving the good news of Jesus”. Now straight away we might say that doesn’t sound quite right. How can you serve news? You can serve a person, or an organisation, or a nation, you can serve God, but how can you serve news? Well we’re actually borrowing the phrase from the Apostle Paul. In his letters to the Ephesians (3:7) and the Colossians (1:23), he describes himself as a servant of the gospel. ‘Gospel’ of course means ‘Good News’ and so Paul in effect, describes himself as a servant of the Good News of Jesus.
So what does it mean to be a servant of the Good News? In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul makes it clear that it is to do with mission, with making known what God has done. When we looked at the word ‘Living’ a couple of weeks ago we said it was about discipleship, about how we grow in the Christian life. Then last week, when we were looking at ‘Sharing’, we said it was about fellowship, about how we love and care for one another as we share together in what Jesus has done for us. And today we are thinking about mission, about how we make known what God has done, how we make known the Good News of Jesus.
Now, each of these topics, as Hunter said last week, is one that we could spend weeks unpacking. Discipleship, mission and fellowship are also three things that are closely related. In Jesus tells his disciples to love one another - he’s talking about fellowship. But then he says, ‘by this the world will know that you are my disciples’. That’s mission. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the great commission, that passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus sends his disciples into the world in mission to make disciples. Christian growth, Christian living, is therefore part of mission. So we need to hold these three things in our vision statement together. We cannot have one or two without the other - it is all three together.
So what does our passage today tell us about mission, what does it tell us about serving the Good News of Jesus? It actually gives us quite a lot. It tells us where we are to serve and why we are to serve. And then it tells us what we do to serve and finally how we do it.
Where we serve
Where we serve
First of all we see where we are to serve. The people this letter is written to are living in exile. They are strangers living in a foreign land. And several New Testament writers describe Christians in this way. Peter describes us as ‘exiles’ and foreigners’, Paul describes us as ‘citizens of heaven’, and the writer of Hebrews, describes Christians as ‘foreigners and strangers on earth’.
There is a sense then that every Christian is living in exile, living in a country not our own. And that is true in a general sense. But this passage also gives us something more specific. It tells us firstly that wherever we are, wherever we live, wherever we work, God is at work and God has brought us to these places and the people around us for his mission. It also tells us that regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in we are to be a people of mission.
The image of exile is one that should be helpful to us. You’ll see that in verse 1 we are told that the people were carried off into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. Then in verse 4 God says the people ‘I carried into exile’. What is this saying? It’s telling us that God is at work through Nebuchadnezzar. As in the story of Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar has evil intentions but God takes what he does and uses it for his own ends. The people living in exile know therefore, that they are not there by accident. God is working his purposes out. In this case he is judging the people of Israel for their disobedience, but even in that judgement, they are still to be a people of mission. Chris Wright puts it like this, ‘God’s people, even under judgement, remain God’s people for God’s mission.’
You’ll see that in verse 1 we are told that the people were carried off into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. Then in verse 4 God says, ‘the people I carried into exile’. This is not a contradiction. It’s telling us that God is at work through Nebuchadnezzar. As in the story of Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar has evil intentions but God takes what he does and uses it for his own ends. The people living in exile know therefore, that they are not there by accident. God is working his purposes out. The same is true for us. Wherever we find ourselves we have been placed there by God for mission. Now, it may be that we would actually rather be somewhere else. Another place, or even another time. I heard a preacher last year who said, “If we wake up tomorrow and discover that it’s 1950, then there are churches up and down the land who are primed and ready to go!” There is perhaps a longing within the church for different days, for more fruitful times.
But God calls each of us to serve in the various places we find ourselves day by day. Closely related to this is the fact that we are called to serve regardless of our present circumstances. In the case of this passage the people of Israel find themselves in exile. They have been decimated by siege, famine, disease, sword and captivity. And yet they are called to mission, to serve the city that has done all of this to them. The exile was God’s judgement upon them, but even in that judgement, they are still to be a people of mission.
God’s people, even under judgement, remain God’s people for God’s mission.
In this case he is judging the people of Israel for their disobedience, but even in that judgement, they are still to be a people of mission. Chris Wright puts it like this, ‘God’s people, even under judgement, remain God’s people for God’s mission.’
Why we serve
Why we serve
This brings us to our second thought, ‘Why we serve’. Jeremiah is quite subtle about this, but in verse 6, as he is encouraging the exiles to build houses and settle down, to marry and have children he uses a strange turn of phrase. He says, “Increase in number there, and do not decrease.” These words are an echo of God’s promise to Abraham, his covenant with Abraham in . It is Jeremiah’s way of saying, “Remember the promises of God. Remember what God has done. Remember his covenant and remember that he is faithful and true. And when you remember these things, then you will be spurred on in mission and service.”
The great fear for these people was that they would be wiped out and that nothing would come of the promises of God that were so foundational to their lives and their nation. Jeremiah is telling them that they need not fear, for God would not abandon that promise. Israel would not die out but prosper. When he goes on in verse 7, to tell them to serve the city of their exile, he does so on the strength of this promise.
The same is true for us. The only difference is we have a new covenant, one which Jeremiah actually goes on to mention in chapter 31. And the new covenant is right there in our vision statement - it’s the Good News of Jesus. When Jesus was instituting the Lord’s Supper, he said to his disciples, “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” In other words, he is saying the new covenant is this, it’s my blood for you, it’s me dying in your place, it’s me buying your redemption, it’s me, bringing you back into the family of God. The new covenant is the Good News of Jesus. We therefore serve, not in order to win God’s favour, but because of what God has already done for us. It is our response to his grace in our lives.
When you think about it, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Whenever we have good news, a new birth, an engagement, a wedding, a new job, we want to tell people don’t we? And if someone helps us, we in turn want to help others, don’t we? It’s natural. We serve because that is what Christ has done for us.
What we do to serve
What we do to serve
Now we come to what we do to serve. And it is there in verse 7 we are to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, of the places to where we have been called. Now, this would have been completely shocking for the people who received this letter. In Babylon the leaders’ hands were dripping with the blood of the people of Israel. The city was filled with idols, filled with false gods, and God has the audacity to say, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city.”
The leaders’ hands were dripping with the blood of their kindred. The city was filled with idols, filled with false gods, and God has the audacity to say, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city
What he actually says is, “Seek the Shalom of the city.” As you may know this is an incredibly rich Hebrew word and our word, ‘peace’ doesn’t really do it justice. When we think of peace we might think of hostility coming to an end or the absence of war. Or maybe we think of a kind of inner calm. That’s not quite what shalom means. The Hebrew word shalom means total flourishing in every dimension: socially, economically, physically, and spiritually.
When we think of peace we might think of the cessation of hostility the absence of war. Or maybe we think of a kind of inner calm. That’s not quite what shalom means. The Hebrew word shalom means total flourishing in every dimension: socially, economically, physically, and spiritually.
We are therefore called to seek the total flourishing of our community. This means we should be involved in social action, in doing what we can to improve and support our local school and local businesses, it means looking out for and helping our friends and neighbours, serving in a whole manner of ways. But because Shalom is not only about social, physical and material needs then Christian service must also seek to meet the spiritual needs of others by sharing the Good News of Jesus.
Reflecting on this MLK once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
Next week we are having our first Messy Church, and if you can, please do come along to the prayer meeting on Thursday evening at 7pm. But at Messy Church we see these things coming together. It seeks to meet the needs of the people and families who come along by providing something that is fun and enjoyable for people of all ages, that helps families care for and love one another, that builds social cohesion and a deeper sense of community. We aim to provide a nourishing meal and a good time for everyone before the beginning of another working week. And we could do all of this without mentioning Jesus. But if we did, it wouldn’t be true Christian service. Equally, if all we do is talk about Jesus, and we never love or serve, then as Paul puts it in , we are like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
And note that we are not only to seek the shalom of the city, or our community, we are to pray for it. We are to bring our community before God in prayer and to pray for its wellbeing, pray for its flourishing. We are to pray for the needs of our neighbours, for those who are ill or anxious or bereaved. And if we pray for these things, if you come along to our Kingdom service tonight to pray, or if you come on a Sunday morning at ten to ten or on a Wednesday morning at 9.30am then we can pray for these things together. And when you do that you will find that you will work all the more in the service of others.
How can we serve
How can we serve
That is what we are to do, but it sounds quite demanding, doesn’t it? It sounds like a lot. Like it will require a great commitment and effort on our part. Where can we find the strength to live like this. Remember, the people of Israel were literally being asked to pray for and seek the wellbeing of their oppressors. How on earth can they do that?!
Well, Jeremiah tells them in verses 11-14. And these are verses that are all about their future hope. Now, verse 11 is probably one of the misquoted verses in all of scripture. ‘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.’
‘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.’
Don’t get me wrong, it is an encouraging verse, and we should be encouraged by it, its promises are wonderful, they are just not what we might expect. Firstly, if we look at verses 8-10 we see that what the people want is not the same as what God wants. The people want a swift return from exile but God is telling them it’s going to be 70 years. Most of them will not see Jerusalem again. How can this be plans for their prosperity?
Well we need to look at what prosperity is in this context. The people of God were in exile because they had forgotten him. They had forgotten what it meant to be his people. They weren’t living according to his promises, and they weren’t seeking him in their prayers. The purpose of the exile was to bring people back to God, so that they could know and enjoy his presence among them. Verses 12-14 tell us that true prosperity is knowing the presence of God.
This is something we can know now. In prayer, in worship, in fellowship, in communion we can experience God’s presence. It might be a sense of awe and wonder, or maybe a sense of deep peace, and the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit will work in us to assure us of God’s presence with us now.
But what we know now is only in part. We are still living in a foreign land. God is yet to bring us home, and it is that promise of home that gives us the strength, the power, the capacity to serve. We are inspired to serve because of what Christ has done for us but we are able to serve because of his promise to bring us home. The writer of Hebrews, as he describes Christians as aliens and strangers on earth, tells us that they are able to live Christian lives, they are able to serve, because ultimately they longing for a new country, a heavenly one. And then he writes, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
The city God has prepared is described in the book of Revelation, but it is actually mentioned in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was the prophet in Babylon, he would have been one of the recipients of this letter, and at the end of his prophecy he describes this city. It is full of life and hope. It is completely secure. And then, at the very end he writes, “And the name of the city will be: The Lord is there.”
We can serve in this world, in this place, in this city, because one day we know that Christ, who has died to save us, who has risen to bring us new life, who has ascended that we might know his honour and glory, will one day return and bring us to our true home.
What do we mean by ‘Serving the Good News of Jesus’? We mean serving wherever God has called us, wherever he has placed us. We mean serving not to earn God’s favour but in response to what he has done for us. We mean seeking and praying for the peace and prosperity, the Shalom of our local community. And we are able to do this because of a future hope, already revealed in part, already known in part, a hope that we might dwell in the very presence of God, our heavenly Father. Amen and thanks be to God.
Our Father, we thank you for the gospel, for the Good News of Jesus. We pray that you would indeed help us to be servants of the gospel. That through word and deed we might declare your goodness and make known what you have done in our lives. Help us to call upon you, to come to you and seek you with all our hearts. Only then will be be equipped to serve you. We pray you would help us seek the peace and the prosperity of this place, and ask that you help us grow as your disciples, as your fellowship and as your servants. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.