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How can we live as people of God

Dr. Christopher Wright, 29/09/2013

Finally, we got to see him live. I first heard of him when his book, the Old Testament Ethics for the People of God was recommended as a reference for Project Timothy by the ACT Ministry.

The text today is Jer 29:1-14.

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin[a] and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.

We used the same text yesterday. Jesse observed that Jer 29:11 is one of the most quoted Bible verses. I agreed and said “sometimes misquoted.”

Pastor Daniel asked (like yesterday) why should football teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea (he didn’t mentioned Chelsea yesterday) get all the applause when it should be reserved to our God.

How can we live as the people of God in a society that despise us? How can be agent of transformation for God?

It was about 600 BC. Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem captive. He later came back to destroy the temple. It’s difficult for us to image how life was like for the people of God then. The reactions of the people vary. One reaction was complete despair. “That’s it. We are finished!” Some thought they might as well be dry bones in the grave (Jer 33). A few remained optimistic. Hananiah (Jer 28) said it would just be 2 years and everything would be ok. He died in 2 months. He was a false prophet.

Where was God? Has he been defeated? Was he asleep? When we need to hear from God, we need a prophet. God sent those in exile a letter through Jeremiah. God has a surprisingly new perspective on the situation. Who was responsible for the exile? At a certain level, Nebuchadnezzar did it. That was a fact. But God (Jer 29:4, 7, 14) said he carried them into exile. So, who did? Both. The first perspective is from the human perspective. History would record how Nebuchadnezzar and his armies lay siege on Israel. But from the spiritual perspective, God’s hand was on it. Israel was defeated, the temple is burn but Yahweh is still in control. All these were in the sovereign hand of God. This is hard for the Israelites to grasp. It’s easy for us to look back, thousands of years later. When we are in the middle of it, it’s much harder to receive and believe.

The Arab Springs these few years devastated the people there. Where is God? Israel has always been going in the opposite of God. It’s almost someone press the rewind button and everything unravels and went back to the same thing. Israel has again and again proved to go against God’s leading. It’s hard to believe in the sovereignty of God when we are deep in the middle of a hard situation.

About 50 years ago, missionaries were sent away from China, the biggest nation in the world. It looks to be the end of the church in China. However, today, there are more Christians worshipping God in China than the whole of Europe.

Jeremiah told the people to settle down there and get marry and have children. (Dr. Chris said he has 4 children and 8 grandchildren and he was obeying God.) He told them to be there as God has put them there for the moment. Do not see themselves as strangers in the land. The pilgrim’s mind set is captured in a song. One person who heard the letter and took it to heard is Daniel, together with his three friends. Most sermon preached on Daniel 1 focused on Daniel and his three friends refused to give their full loyalty to the king. What most people didn’t notice is that they followed the instructions from the letter – they took Babylonian names, they learned the culture and the arts. They were Jewish believers but they learned and served in Babylonia. They however refused to compromise their beliefs. Christians can live and serve in any nation even a non-Christian one while keeping their faith.

Are we a refugee or a resident where we are?

Then later in the latter (v7) they were given a mission – to seek the shalom of the city they are in. But their mood is perhaps better reflected in Psalm 122 (to seek the peace of Jerusalem) and Psalm 137 (to seek vengeance). Jeremiah called the exiles back to the mandate given to Abraham and Moses to be a blessing to the nations. Most nations around Israel are their enemies. This is the attitude that turns people into missionaries. They are our enemies? So what? Love them. But they destroy our cities? So what? Pray for them? This is the closest in OT to mention love your enemies and to seek their welfare. This is counter-cultural but that is what God wants us to do.

Again, we see Daniel did this. We are not sure if Daniel indeed heard the letter. Daniel was a civil servant. In Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar had a bad dream. He dreamed about the tree to be chopped down which turned into an animal. What would we do? We are facing the man who kill our families and took us captives. And he is in distress and it seems like the time comes for him to get his comeuppance. He gave the interpretation but he wished not this on his enemies. He then did something civil servant is not supposed to do – he gave him a way out from the judgement. He told him how he could turn away from his ways and repent and be saved! We know Daniel pray 3 times daily. And this is possibly the reason he could do this. Perhaps he prayed for Babylon and the king. He followed the instruction from the letter to pray for the peace of city. It’s hard to be angry with someone when we constantly pray for him. Paul in Philippians told us to pray for the government, king, etc. At that time, the government were the Roman Empire, who were not Christians. They don’t know God and some even thought they were God.

Dr. Chris wonders if the churches all over the world have enough teachings about how to be good citizens. He recalled one event where there were 3 men from Argentina who preached. He was told they were good Christians, good husbands and good citizens. Puzzled about the necessity of the last comment, Dr. Chris asked the lady who organized the event. She said all three of them, though being lay people, love their countries, pay taxes and do not think about moving to US. Dr. Chris thought that was a wonderful testimony.

Jeremiah knew Babylonia as a whole stood under the judgement of God. The day would come for it to face the judgement of God. Yet, while they are called to stay there by God, they are to seek the peace of the city.

Israel was in exile was because of the sovereign hand of God. It is also judgement for their congenital disobedience. Some thought there was no hope. The letter brought a surprising hope. It was not a quick fix hope. There was going to be 70 years (v10). To us today, 70 years is nothing if we are to draw it in a chart. However, for those who are facing the fate, 70 years is a long time. God told them there was hope (v11). Dr. Chris noted the voice rising when it was read earlier. Dr. Chris said this is a good promise. However, we are to look at the context of the promise. It was given to people under the judgement. In spite of their judgement, they have hope. It is not a time for celebration but rather for repentance. Daniel read the scroll (in Daniel 9) and called his friends and instead of celebrating the imminent salvation from Babylon, they prayed and repented. Daniel 9 is a prayer of confession.

To the people who think of themselves in a victim mentality, it is so pitiful. Jeremiah told them to look to the Lord. He told them their hope lies in God. God isn’t finished with his people. It’s long term faithfulness. God told us to be there for him and live there for him.

In the midst of suffering and evil and distress, God is sovereign. What does God want us to do? The ancient truth is also a surprising new perspective. He gave us a new mission to live and seek peace for the place we are placed. And we have hope. Which are we going to be? If only we ourselves are transformed by this perspective, this vision and this hope, we can be agents of transformation in the place we are at.

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