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Exile 4

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When John Newton wrote the famous hymn Amazing Grace, the words did not come from thin air. He had a story in mind. When Newton was a young man he joined the British Royal Navy, but he hated it. He hated it so much, he tried to desert. But he was caught, and he was stripped naked in front of his entire crew, tied to the mast, and flogged 96 times. After that, his punishment was forced labor on the ship, until one day he is dumped at a port in Sierra Leone in Africa, left to die in a foreign land. He winds up becoming a slave in Sierra Leone for three years before gaining his freedom and boarding a ship to at last go home. But on his way back, a massive storm off the coast of Ireland descends on the ship, and it begins to break apart. John was below deck, when suddenly a hole opened in the hull of the ship right where we was, and water started pouring through. He cried out in fear and in prayer that God would save him, and suddenly the ship lurched, and a huge stack of cargo tips over and collides with the wall and it plugs the hole just enough to allow the ship to drift to land. Newton would later say that that was the moment that he believed in the grace of God.
Though it wouldn’t stick, because once he makes it back to London he becomes the first mate on a slave trading ship. And though he writes in his journal that he was deeply conflicted, because he knew that what he was doing and what he was a part of was evil in the eyes of the Lord, he didn’t step down until he had a stroke six years later in his thirties. He would, of course, go on to renounce the slave trade, go to seminary, and become an Anglican priest and help start an influential group of clergymen, business men, and politicians that would become victorious in their campaign to end the slave trade across the British Empire. But what a life! And behind the words of his most famous hymn is this story. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed! Newton has a story in mind when we wrote those words.
In the same way, when the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians living all over the Roman Empire, he address his first letter not to the saints, like Paul normally did, nor to the faithful or to the churches, but he calls his audience the exiles. You see, Peter has a story in mind. And it is the story that we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks - the story of Israel’s exile. In 586 BC the nation of Israel was annihilated by the Empire of Babylon, and thousands of its citizens were marched into exile, to live for generations scattered in a place that was not their home.
And this experience of exile became for them a metaphor to describe the condition that all of us find ourselves in as human beings. We are all exiles. We had a home, and oh was it incredible. It was perfect! It was like a garden filled with delights, gifted to us by our Maker. But, by our own fault, our own decisions, we lost it. And now the world that we call home is nothing like what it could have been. And so we are in exile, living in a kingdom that is not our home.
And then Jesus steps into the spotlight, and in every town that he came to, he had one message that he played on repeat for all who had ears to hear: another kingdom had come. And this kingdom was not made with the fallen, greedy, violent hands of Man, but its origins went all the way back to the garden of delight that was our true home. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that the doors of God’s kingdom had been thrown open, and Christ himself supplied the way in. By his death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ has made us citizens with him in God’s kingdom, even as we presently live in the sin-stained kingdoms of mankind.
And what we see is that the earliest followers of Jesus, Jewish men and women, people like Peter, who were steeped in the story of Israel, they started seeing themselves as exiles. Because they knew their home was in God’s kingdom, where the love of Christ permeated all things and reconciled all things - a kingdom that we can experience in part today among God’s people in Christ’s church, and a kingdom that one day we will experience in full when Christ returns to make all things new. But though that is our future home, we continue to live here, in a world permeated with sin, disease, and injustice. We belong to the kingdom of God, but we live in the kingdoms of man. We are exiles. And so the predominant question becomes, how shall we live while in exile?
This morning the prophet Jeremiah gives us an answer. Jeremiah lived during the seige of Jerusalem in 586 BC. He saw the walls fall, and the people carted away. Jeremiah was allowed to remain in the ruined city, he wasn’t taken captive. But the Lord would give Jeremiah a message to send to those who were taken away into exile, a message that sought to answer what would certainly be the question on every mind, “What do we do now?” And Jeremiah wrote the Lord’s message in a letter to those who were living in exile, and we find that letter in chapter 29.
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…4)The letter said: “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…10)“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
So this is a crazy message from God. Think about what he is saying and who he is saying it to. These are his people who have just had their lives turned upside down. They’ve lost everything: their homes, their possessions, their loved ones. All of it has been taken from them by Babylon. And now they are living in Babylon, the city that represents the furthest from God that humanity can run, a city of sin and injustice and violence.
You’d expect God to tell them to like, one of two things. They should keep themselves separate and don’t go touching anything while in Babylon. Withdraw from the sinful society and form their own little holy group to preserve themselves while they wait for God to bring them home. It’s like when you go to an away game to an arch rival’s stadium. You just keep your head down, stick together, and get to your seat. Don’t make eye contact with anyone in body paint and you’ll be fine.
So withdraw and stay separated. Or, you’d expect God to tell them to do the opposite! Call down holy fire on the sinful nation in the name of the Lord of Hosts! This was actually the message that Jeremiah’s rival gave, the false prophet, Hananiah. His message was to resist! To fight! Because the Lord was going to break the yoke of Babylon with a mighty hand. So swing that righteous hammer of judgment, you exiles, for the Lord is with thee! That was Hananiah’s message.
And it’s interesting that these are so often the routes that we see Christians taking in our world today. Either they withdraw into little holy huddles, where everyone you have any kind of meaningful relationship is also a believer, and you intentionally avoid places and situations that would place you among non-Christians, and you fill you schedules with church programs from Sunday to Sunday. That’s withdrawing from Babylon.
Or, you’re known for being against everything. Surveys consistently show that the number one response that non-believers give to the question, “How would you describe a Christian?” is “Anti-gay.” Christians are often known only for what they stand against, because we spend so much time standing against things with a resist-all mentality.
Both of these responses are two sides of the same coin. Both are ways to not engage with Babylon. Both are ways to escape. But what is God’s message to the exiles in Babylon? He doesn’t say withdraw. He doesn’t say fight. He doesn’t say escape. He says, build houses. Plant gardens. Get married. Have families. This sounds like what you’d tell your college graduate when they get their first job and are living in a new area. You tell them to get an apartment. Go to the parks. Find a man or woman. Settle down, and have a family. Invest in the city! Put down roots in the community! Connect with your surroundings. This is what the Lord is telling his people, living in exile, to do.
But of course, this isn’t an exciting new city that God is talking about, it’s Babylon. It’s Israel’s arch-enemy. It’s the foil to God’s people. The complete opposite. That’s the scandal in this message. God is telling his people to connect and engage and invest in this violent, oppressive, inhumane city and people. But more than that, he tells them to seek its welfare and to pray for it.
That word, welfare, is the Hebrew word Shalom. If you’ve been around Redeemer for long, you’ve heard us talk about it before. It’s a word that means peace, and wholeness, and holistic flourishing. God’s answer to the question, “How should I live while in exile?” is to work for the flourishing of Babylon. And this is how we know that his instruction to build houses and plant gardens is not a call to live passively and comfortably while you wait for salvation. It’s not just, let’s make the best of it. No, the way God’s people ought to live while in exile is to actively pray and labor for the welfare of their enemies. To seek the shalom of sinners. This is how we live in exile.
And, family, this should not surprise us, because this is exactly what we see in Jesus. Like us, Jesus belonged to the kingdom of God, but he lived in the kingdoms of man. And he did not keep himself separate. He didn’t keep to himself. Nor did he come to condemn and judge the mess that humanity had made of the world that he created. No, he lived out Jeremiah’s message to the T. He invested, engaged, and connected with a broken, sin-stained world and people; and he put his hand to the plow, working sun-up to sun-down for their wellbeing.
His peers didn’t understand why he would choose to live like that. They would see him associating with people with all kinds of shady pasts and presents, and they’d ask what he was doing weaving his life with their’s, and his response in Matthew 9 was, “Those who are healthy don’t need a doctor, but those who are sick do. I’m here for the sick.”
And thank God that he’s here for the sick. Thank God, Jesus sought the welfare of his enemies, because as Paul says in Romans 5, it was while we were enemies of God, Christ died for us to take away that stain of sin, to take into himself our sickness, that we might be made well, that we might now call God’s kingdom our home. Christ, in obedience to God’s ethic of exile, sought our welfare.
So family, as we live in exile, belonging to God’s kingdom but living in Babylon, how are we choosing to live? Are we refusing to engage with the world, and instead are we withdrawing? Are we fighting? Or are we seeking to connect and invest - to put down roots, build houses, and plant gardens, weaving the story of our lives with those who do not yet belong to God’s kingdom? If you look around and only see believers, it’s time to start asking why, and what needs to change, because God has called you to a different ethic, a different way of life. The life of an exile.
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