Jesus, of course, did not live in Babylon during the 30-some years he walked the earth. I am speaking figuratively here. Jesus urged people to follow him, to live as he did and to “walk” as he walked – to be imitators of Jesus as he was an imitator of God the Father. We follow Jesus wherever we are.
Most people reading this blog don’t live in Babylon either, as in the ancient city. Rather, Babylon is symbolic of our lives in this world. Just as the exiles found themselves living as foreign people in a foreign land filled with foreign gods, followers of Jesus today are aliens and strangers in this world living among people who do not bow down to our God.
When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon right after they were taken captive, right after they lost everything (their homes, their lives as they knew them, the Temple around which their community was organized), his words would have difficult, perhaps, to receive.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….” (Jer. 29:4)
That God “sent” them into exile would have been a painful reminder of all the warnings of the prophets leading up to the final siege of Jerusalem, captivity, and long march to Babylon. Jeremiah had their attention, though. The unthinkable, that Jeremiah had long been predicting, actually happened.
In that context, this is what he said:
“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 29:5-10)
I don’t think we can emphasize enough the timing of these words: this was the very beginningof the exile. They just lost everything. They just got there. Their future was uncertain, though they had hope to return to their homes because the prophets who warned them of the exile also predicted their return.
We are not “of this world” if we belong to God in Christ. We are exiles in this world. This world is our Babylon. In the rest of this blog,
I will relate those words Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jews to our lives in “Babylon” today, and I will add in the warning, and the encouragement, that Jeremiah gave in the letter that are also instructive to us today. I believe Jeremiah’s words of instruction are how we should follow Jesus in Babylon.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jews in Babylon. The Jews were exiled by God’s doing. He has been warning them about it regularly. Then, it happened. I am sure they were stunned anyway. Jeremiah opens his letter saying:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….”[i]
God put you and I where we are, also. What God says to the Babylonian exiles then is instructive for us today, wherever we are.
I am going to break what Jeremiah says down and apply it to our world today, but first we need to set the stage. We need to step back and consider the big picture.
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this [marking out our appointed times and where we live] so that [we] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27)
Nothing in all of human history has caught God off guard. God saw the sweep and the details of that history from before time. He also knew you.
He knew where you would be born. He knew the hairs on your head. He knew the smiles and frowns on your face, your thoughts and every word that would slip from your mouth before they were even said. (Echoing Psalm 139)
God saw the United States of America, and all the nations of the world before they were established, their course in history and their demise. What we call future isn’t future to God. He exists outside of time. He existed before time began to tick. He exists now, and He exists in our future.
God is orchestrating the people, the times, the events in history for one end. John caught a glimpse of that end when he saw people of every nation, tribe and tongue gathered around the throne of the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9) Has Paul described God’s plan and purpose this way,
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
All creation is in on the purposes of God and is waiting for the fulfillment of God’s plan
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it,
Our present conditions are part of God’s plans and part of the ultimate purposes of God to be accomplished in the world He set in motion
in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
God’s plan and purpose is for creation to be freed from the present futility to which He subjected it as we obtain the freedom of becoming His children.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
It was so from the beginning. When Eve fell in the garden, God increased her pain in childbirth….
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies
When we are born again, by faith in God’s grace, and receive the Spirit, we taste the fruit of the life God offers and look forward to our ultimate redemption.
God’s Ultimate Plan
God marked out the appointed times in history of all the peoples of the earth and the boundaries of their lands throughout time, and that history is part of the larger creation that is waiting in eager expectation for the plans and purposes of God to be worked out in us and, ultimately, in creation. We are part of that plan.
We are at the center of the plans and purposes of God, who made us. Of all the creatures God created, we alone are created in His image. The creation waits eagerly for us to engage in that plan and purpose of God – each one of us and us, and us collectively.
Like the people of Judah in Babylon, we find ourselves exiles and strangers in the earth (1 Peter 2:11), if indeed we have been born again, born from above. When we are born again, we are born of the Spirit (John 3:1-21) by which we gain entry to the kingdom of God, which kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36).
“But to all who … receive him, who [believe] in his name, he [gives] the right to become children of God, who [are] born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12)
When we receive Him, He gives us “the right to become children of God”. Though God knew us and “chose us in Him from before the foundation of the earth” (Eph. 1:4), He gives us, at the same time, the right (exousia, the right or authority) to become His children – it isn’t a forgone conclusion – at least not from our perspective.
We have to receive it, to begin with, and to believe (trust and commit to) it. In more popular parlance, we have to walk in it. Indeed, Jesus calls us as disciples to follow after Him, to “walk” the way he walked, to live as he lived. Paul says it this was:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:1-8)
Jesus is no longer with us to demonstrate in person how to walk as he walked, but we have Scripture and the Holy Spirit as our guide. Indeed, all Scripture “is God-breathed” (inspired), and it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, so that we can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The people who first heard these words would have thought primarily of what we call the Old Testament.
What we find in Jeremiah’s words to the people of Judah exiled in Babylon are instruction for those of us today who are exiled as aliens and strangers in this present world (if indeed we have truly been born again). What he says may not fit the modern Church narrative and example, though – or at least the poplar notion of what that is.
Preston Sprinkle recently interviewed John Garland and Dr. Rebecca Poe Hays on the subject of immigration in episode #95 of Theology in the Raw. John Garland pastors a church in San Antonio Texas where he is immersed in ongoing immigration issues. Dr. Poe Hays is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University.
The San Antonio area is home to several immigration prisons. Being in San Antonio means the immigration crisis is a daily reality for Pastor Garland, and his church has embraced its position in the world. For that reason, the media often comes to him for stories they can publish on immigration.
When they interview him, he says, they usually are looking for a story that fits a particular narrative. Garland says that most people doing stories on immigration have already developed their narratives when they come to him for an interview. Thus, they are typically looking for a story that fits that narrative.
That characteristic of the media is true on both sides of the political fence. Because of the media focus on certain narratives, Garland estimates that only about 5% to 10% of what we read in the news on immigration describes an accurate picture of what is happening.
Most news stories on immigration are developed according to prefabricated narratives.
One story that the news media doesn’t tell is that it involves the Church. In Garland’s personal experience, the Church is on both sides of the immigration crisis, and the Church is caught in the middle.
When there is crisis, there is often confusion. Soldiers talk about the confusion in the “fog of war”. When we experience crisis in our personal lives, we often lack the clarity, need the clarity that comes from counseling from others who can provide us perspective.
That clarity often comes from people who “have been there” and have wrestled deeply with the struggles we experience. John Garland is someone who “has been there”.
We don’t see in most media reports that the majority of the people coming across the southern border are Christians. Garland speaks from personal experience when he says,
“[The immigrants] are our Christian brothers and sisters, and 85% of them over these last seven years are evangelical Christians…. They sing the same songs as we do.”
The people that Garland and his church serve at the border read Scripture with each other and pray together every night. They worship and serve God. They seek a better life for themselves and their families. They seek safety and freedom.
Garland says that the immigration crisis is very much a 21st century version of the exodus of freedom seekers to the New World.
“This is not a political story, really. That is happening on the news…. It’s a story of the pilgrim church and how we, as a church in America, are receiving the pilgrim church, a persecuted pilgrim church.”
Garland has experienced this reality on both sides of the border. He has spent time in Central America where he watched Christian leaders being driven out by violence and persecution.
In San Antonio, his church is receiving pastors, social workers and Christian community leaders escaping the dangerous and volatile environments they have left behind as a last resort. Garland says,
“This story doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed political narratives that you are generally going to get from the news.”
In the remainder of this blog piece, I will relate the narratives that Garland has categorized in his dealings with the media. He says they boil down to three categories that are reflected in the questions he is asked over and over again.
I feel like I need to begin this with a request to “hear me out” (at the risk of appearing apologetic). I am a white, evangelical Christian. The title recognizes who I am. I realize as I wade out into these waters that they are treacherous today. Many are the rocks on which ships with good intentions have been dashed.
Should I even have to say that people of color bear the image of God? I shouldn’t have to say it, but I feel I need to say it nevertheless. Why?
That impulse, alone, signals to me that something is not quite right.
I just read that slavery is “the original sin of the United States”. It colors our past (pun very much intended). It continues to leave its imprint on the present. I have to admit to finding some truth in that statement.
Obviously, race is the subject of this article. But not just race. I am writing about Christianity, generally, and the church universal and global.
If any group ought to be able to speak with wisdom into the race issues that we continue to face, it should be the Church, right? Yet, we see as much segregation in the church as a whole as we do in society.
Spoiler alert. God has been orchestrating the entire course of human history from the beginning to this end:
“A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….”
This is God’s endgame. Are we onboard with the plan?
This is the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers. (John 17:20-23) Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people. (Eph. 2:14) God began working though His Holy Spirit toward His endgame soon after Jesus died and rose again, working through Paul and the disciples to break down the wall between Jew and Gentile. (See Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius)
We won’t participate in achieving the unity for which Jesus prayed without recognizing the big picture – the kingdom of God – and the foundation on which we all stand – Jesus. Given the purposeful prayer of Jesus for unity among his followers, disunity that exists in the Church means we have failed in some way to focus on the things that should unify us. We have allowed differences that shouldn’t matter to divide us.
If the endgame includes people “from every nation, tribe, people and language”, then we should not allow those kinds of differences, at least, to divide us. Racial matters should be a non-issue. We should be one in Christ, right?
The message I listened to today in the online Chapel Street Church service was about the prayer Jesus prayed for us in John 17:20-23:
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
It got me thinking about what I see in my social media platforms: the polarization, division and disunity among the people with whom I am connected. Our nation is as divided as it ever has been in every possibly way.
When we look at the church, do we see a contrast to what we see in the world? Or do we see the same kind of division and disunity in the church?
I know my initial reaction to those questions, but let’s not jump to conclusions yet. God’s word doesn’t go out and come back void. If Jesus prayed for unity, can’t God accomplish it?
When I look out on the Church and think about Church history, I see a lot of division and disunity. Our history books focus on the disagreements, rather than the agreements. In fact, we see disagreement right from the beginning: Paul disagreed with the Gnostics; the Corinthians were fighting over following Paul or Apollos; and even Peter and Paul disagreed over whether to continue to follow Jewish laws on foods and religious rituals.
Disunity seemed to spring up immediately. Or did it?
Paul would say the Gnostics were not true believers. They denied the deity of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection, among other things. Paul urged the Corinthians not to identify either as followers of himself or Apollos, but to identify as followers of Jesus only. The Holy Spirit settled the disagreement over the eating of foods and Jewish rituals when He gave Peter a vision that was repeated three times followed by a “divine appointment” with Cornelius, a Gentile (though Paul would have to confront Peter before Peter finally go it).