A City Set on a Hill in a Foreign World

Our end goal is not ultimately to rehabilitate an earthly city or country, but to enter into a heavenly City of which the designer and builder is God.

One Sunday I recall the pastor deviating from the planned sermon to observe that Christians today sometimes act as if God is not in control. We do this by complaining about politics, our country, the world, etc. Sometimes when the Spirit leads, we need to stop from our planned way and consider what God is saying. If we don’t, we might miss God.

There is a segment of the church that believes and acts like the USA is God’s country, a Christian nation. I think this is where many Christians allow politics into their theology at a grave danger to pure religion, which James reminds us “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. (James 1:27)

Yes, the founding fathers were “Christians”; and the country became a haven, a promised land, early on for people escaping religious persecution in England and other places. I love the fact that our country was founded on Biblical ideals, among other things, with honor for God. The freedom of religion and freedom of expression in the USA make this country great, the envy of much of the world, though not understood by much of the world as well.

Many hundreds of years before Jesus the Israelites were God’s chosen people. They were chosen out of all the people groups in the ancient Middle East on the basis of Abraham’s faith, and a promise was made to him that the whole world would be blessed by his progeny.

The promise of God to the people (Abraham and his descendants) to whom He chose to entrust that promise prepared the way for Jesus, the Messiah, except Jesus came with a plan and a message they did not expect. He came to his own, and his own knew him not. The Israelites were dug in, resting on the assumption that they alone were God’s chosen people. Many of them missed the boat. They rejected the Son of God because they had their own expectations and were not in tune with what God was doing.

We know the rest of the story, at least where the narrative continues today. God’s plan was to introduce the Christ for all people through the platform of the message entrusted to the Jewish people, who preserved that message and protected it. But many of them missed it. God does not always work as we expect Him to work.

We might say the Jews became nationalistic in their religion, and they missed the fact that God intended to bless the whole world. Yes, Jesus came to his own, but he also came to all who would believe on him. The new wine came, and the old wine skin could not contain it.

It seems axiomatic to say that “God’s ways are not our ways”, but it’s true. God establishes authorities. (Romans 13:1) People who champion the fact that God established the USA as a nation in which freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and all the other fundamental freedoms are protected are absolutely right to think so. But what about the two terms of Barack Obama? Most conservative Christians were opposed to Barack Obama, but does God not establish authority?

In the First Century, the authority established in the region where Jesus lived was the Jewish Nation under the rule of the Roman Empire. Under that authority, Jesus was crucified and died. Of course, that was God’s plan, was it not? The First Century Jews might have had a hard time seeing that as part of God’s plan.

The First Century Church grew quickly and thrived for a time in Jerusalem until Saul began a “great persecution” of the church, dragging Christ followers away to prison. (Acts 8:1-3) Saul persecuted the church with the authority of the high priest, who sent letters to the area synagogues authorizing him to remove followers of “the Way” (as the early church was called) out of the synagogues and imprison them. (Acts 9:1-2) As a result of the persecution, the believers in Jerusalem were scattered.

The early Christ followers were scattered, but “they preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:4) The Gospel was spread, scattered like seed, by the winds of persecution of the early church in Jerusalem and even beyond.

Given our human propensity to get comfortable and settled in, I have little doubt the early church would have settled in and become comfortable in Jerusalem if not for the scattering at the hands of Saul and the Jewish authorities. I can’t imagine that the early church thought that spread of the Gospel by persecution was a good plan, but it was God’s plan. They were focused on being obedient to preach the Gospel wherever they went, and so the Gospel spread.

In our time, we have enjoyed unprecedented freedom of religion in our country. The church has had unprecedented freedom to flourish in the USA without fear of reprisal, but there is no guaranty that we will continue to be comfortable and settled in our Christian lives in the US into the future.

One danger in our political involvement is that we might be working against what God is actually doing in our country, in the present time for the ultimate purpose to bless and reach the world. We assume that God wants what is good for us, which usually focuses on what we think is good for us, and we forget that God is working His universal plan for the salvation of all who would call upon His name wherever they might be in the world. It isn’t all about us.

We forget that God establishes authorities. When things go awry from our perspective, God is still in control. He is working out His plan for the whole world. We can’t afford to get comfortable and settled in. We need to check our expectations. We need to stay flexible and open to God’s plan.

Ultimately, we are strangers and aliens in the world. (1 Peter 2:11) Our end goal is not ultimately to rehabilitate an earthly city or country, but to enter into a heavenly City of which the designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10) Our citizenship is in heaven. (Philippians 3:20a) We eagerly await, not the transformation of our earthly society; “we eagerly await a Savior from [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20b-21)

I have no doubt that some people are called by God to be involved in politics. We are to be salt and light wherever we live and whatever we do. We can’t be salt and light, though, if we lose our flavor. We don’t represent Jesus to our world when we are so focused on this world and its politics that we lose the flavor of the Gospel.

I dare say that God loves Democrats as much as Republicans. There is neither Democrat nor Republican in Christ. God is no respecter of persons and no respecter of human institutions that are designed for accomplishing human goals.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in those human institutions or working to achieve human goals; but it does mean that we should always be mindful of the ultimate purposes of God and the image of God in other people, friend and foe alike. We represent God first, and our human connections second. We should not let the human connections eclipse Christ in us, the hope of glory to the world.

If we are to be the City set on a hill that Jesus spoke about, we need to recognize whose City it is. It’s God’s City that is to be set on the hill. It isn’t a Republican or Democrat city. It isn’t a city that is ruled by political and cultural norms that we are fighting for, even if they are “good”. We need to be first a resident of God’s city that rises about the political and cultural fray providing a beacon of Light to all the world on all sides of the spectrum of humanity.

Christians are to be a city set on a hill in a foreign world. We are to be salt and light to world. People will inevitably reject us, like they rejected Jesus, but they should be rejecting us for the right reasons – not for political and cultural ones. Another way of putting this is that we should be attractive to all people who are being called by God, regardless of the direction from which they are coming. If we fail to attract the people God is calling because we have wrapped ourselves too tightly in the fabric of earthly flags, political clothing and cultural garb we are failing to line up with God’s ultimate purpose on this earth.

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