Lately, I have been learning a lot about what it means for a community to be a healthy or “abundant” and the importance of community for personal and communal well-being (for this education I am indebted to John McKnight and Peter Block, namely their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods). How do you imagine an abundant, healthy (or competent, as some experts call it) community? Many of us may have memories of a community where we roamed freely and safely as kids, or where families did life together, or, perhaps the opposite, where no one even acknowledged that they had neighbours!
Sociologists (i.e., community development specialists) document how community competency leads to personal and communal well-being, creating a “thick” social fabric that impacts areas that include safety and security, health, the well-being of children, the environment and land, food, an enterprising economy, and care. From the perspective of a person of faith, such an abundant community reflects or bears witness to the Triune Communion (i.e., the community of God) and to His Kingdom Shalom. We all yearn for this kind of place. One where we all feel safe, secure, included, and welcomed; where we can all grow, flourish, and prosper; where we all take care of each other; where we are all working for the common good. As I ponder the incredible way the Spirit is opening up experts, civic authorities, politicians, and community workers to the beauty and significance of the local community, I have been drawn again and again to the words of the Lord communicated through the prophet Jeremiah (see chapter 29 of the section of Scripture bearing his name) to the Babylonian exiles long ago.
What does society’s growing understanding of the significance of community have to do with this text? In both contexts, I believe, God is calling followers of Jesus to catalyze and nurture abundant community in the neighbourhoods to which He has sent them.
[Tweet “What does society’s growing understanding of community have to do with Jeremiah 29?”] But I am jumping ahead of myself. First, we need to understand where we are and how it parallels where the Babylonian exiles were if we are to understand and respond to the message Jeremiah has for us.
A Post-Christian Culture in Pre-Christian Times
It was 588 B.C. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and forcefully deported the majority of Jews, including its leadership, back to Babylon. Babylon, you may recall, was from where Abraham (then Abram) first set out in response to his divine call (Genesis 11). There in Ur, God had called him to leave Babylon and go to Canaan. His father, Terah, incidentally had made it only halfway, stopping and settling in Haran–Which raises a question: Are we only willing to go halfway sometimes?
Abraham, however, having trusted and obeyed Yahweh, received the promises of land and a people by getting out of Babylon and settling in Canaan. His descendants, on the other hand, over and over again squandered those gifts, ignored their Giver, and seemed to reap the consequences. They were back at square one in Babylon! Perhaps this was God’s way of offering them a do-over. (I wonder how often God invites us, even calls and sends us as the church to do some do-overs. Furthermore, I wonder how well we recognize and make the most of such opportunities.) Let’s see how the Israelites felt about such an opportunity.
They were not pleased!
They were neither impressed, nor happy, nor comfortable. But perhaps that was the point.
To the Isrealites, Babylon was a foreign and hostile land. Its very name meant “The gate of the gods,” implying that it was the place in all the earth where the gods—of the other—came down (Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood). One can only imagine the Israelites’ shock at being sent to this city! What must have been their sense of disorientation, chaos, and loss! I wonder how often the church today finds herself in a similar state of shock, wondering to herself:
What happened? How did we, the people of God, get to be here on the margins, where we don’t have influence, power, or control anymore; where we’re no longer at the centre, no longer consulted, no longer, in some cases, even respected. Gone are the days when we were the majority and our society was basically Judeo-Christian in its morals, values, and world view; when just about everybody went to church and, if not, at least knew they should! What is God up to?!
We can resonate with the ambiguity, the loss of identity, the angst and anxiety that the Israelites must have felt as exiles in Babylon. So, how are we to be the church in this foreign land of post-Christian culture?
The Israelites’ Response–Our Response?
The Israelites responded by wanting to go back. According to the text, they even had false prophets making false promises about a quick return. But that was not to be. God had a different plan for them (Jeremiah 29:11). To these plans the Babylonian exiles responded with lament (see Psalm 137). They cried out to God, essentially telling him that this wasn’t the way they wanted or expected things to be! They grappled with being the dislocated people of God amongst enemies in a foreign land. Their captors even mocked them by saying, “Come on, sing us one of those songs of Zion.” And oh how often we, as did they, respond with “How can we sing Zion’s songs in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4).
How are we to be the church, here and now, on the margins, without the structures and strongholds of Christendom we’ve so long enjoyed? How are we to be the people of God in this “foreign land,” this non-Christian, sometimes anti-Christian culture? The first response of the Israelites in captivity was to mourn. And perhaps some of us have lamented too. We experience the changes as loss. We just want to go back to our Jerusalem, to the good ol’ days (even if they weren’t really always as good as we imagine them to have been). If only everything was closed on Sundays again. If only we sang the classic hymns, read the law, enforced our former rules—no drinking, dancing, or playing cards—then everything would be ok again…
[Tweet “”How are we to be the people of God in a non-Christian, sometimes anti-Christian, culture?”] One might call this reaction, along with other forms of retreat and withdrawal, a “flight” response. Do you know Christians, or perhaps whole congregations, who have become more and more cloistered in safe, self-contained Christian bubbles, having as little to do with the “city” as possible? It would have been natural for the exiled Jews to withdraw from engaging the Babylonian world around them. It would also have been justifiable for the Jews to be hostile (a “fight” response) towards their captors. In fact, the Psalmist expresses such enmity with a vengeance at the end of his lament in Psalm 137:7-9—one of the nastiest few verses in the Bible! Similarly, has the church, being caught in the midst of circumstances over which she has no control, ever done the same? Has she put up a fight by blaming society and culture, or by condemning or seeking to destroy the other?
Briefly, a third option exists. This option is an unfortunate one that far too often has been opted for throughout history. This third way, in fact, appears to have been adopted by some of the Israelites in exile. I speak of the choice to assimilate into the surrounding, prevailing culture. That is, to be low key and just “fit in.”
All of these alternatives–to flee, to fight, or to fit in–make sense though, don’t they? What do you tend to do when you’re the odd one out, particularly as a follower of Jesus? Which response are you most susceptible to? I tend to try to fit in, which, as with the other responses, leaves me with little opportunity to bear witness to the Saviour who loves me and whom I trust. Truth be told, I have also been a part of congregations where all three of these F-words have been lived out. Why? Because fleeing, fighting, and fitting in make sense in human terms.
Life on God’s Terms
…But who’s talking in human terms?
Jeremiah reminds us that we are doing life on God’s terms. Through this prophet the Lord revealed an entirely different option for the people He sent into exile. He called His people to be faithfully present (an alternate F-word!) wherever He sent them, no matter how Babylonian an area proved be. The same call to be faithfully present belongs to us today. It’s a call to respond in a completely counter intuitive way to the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, “foreign” place in which we find ourselves. Nota bene the beautiful words of God to us:
Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, emphases mine).
How do you enter in, embrace, and engage the place God has sent you? How do or will you practice faithful presence and overcome your or your community’s tendency to flee, fight, or fit in? How do or will you plan to stay and work for the peace and prosperity of the city, praying for your neighbourhood and helping to shape it into an abundant community?
In Part 2, we’ll reflect on these questions as well as a few others related to this beautiful passage. We’ll also reflect more deeply on the places to which we’ve been sent. See you there!
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