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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Seek the Welfare of the City (Jeremiah 29.1-7)

June 20, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the spoken version varies more, sometimes less, from the written (early) draft.  This is one case where the spoken version varied more significantly in terms of organization (though the same basic points).  I'd encourage listening to the audio if possible.

Have you ever found yourself in a place you don’t want to be? Other than the obvious desire for immediate extraction, does God have any direction for us in those places? Whether those places are geographical, emotional, physical, or something else, those are some of the questions raised in today’s text. There are some important limitations to note as we try to apply Jeremiah 29, but also some helpful and important applications as we struggle with places, people, and situations that challenge us deeply.

First, let me briefly set the context, then I’ll look at God’s message back then, and then we’ll consider God’s message to us today. Please turn to Jeremiah 29 as we look at each verse in turn.

Verse 1 provides the context and historical information. Jeremiah is the young prophet who bears the message, usually spoken but this time written. Verse 1 describes the “words of the letter” – a written message – sent from Jerusalem to “the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” The audience, then, consists of Jewish exiles living in Babylon. Lost, for the most part, are the benefits and perks of being elder, priest, or prophet. As had happened to northern Israel generations earlier, a foreign power had conquered southern Judah and taken the people away from their homes, land, and livelihood.

Verse 2 helps date the writing of this letter. It was after King Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) and the queen mother surrendered to Babylon. That story is told in 2 Kings 24:8 and dates the story to 597 B.C. Verse 2 also tells us that the court officials and skilled labor had already departed from Jerusalem, which was leveled shortly afterwards.

What follows, starting in verse 4, is God’s message to the Exiles, who found themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually in a place they did not want to be. More than a few laments would be written and sung, pleading with God to restore their homeland and health. Exiled from home for their unfaithfulness to God, and seemingly exiled from God as well, they were neither whole, nor trusting in God as He designed them to be.

So what follows is what God has to say to them as an exiled, broken, and hurting people. I described the context for this message, though, because there are some important limitations to put on the application of this passage. I want you to hear those clearly when I get to application at the end. So do hear God’s message to the Exiles and start letting it wash over your own life and experiences, but don’t tune out the limits when we get to them. I’ll remind you when we get there!

I’m going to start in verses 5-7, where you will see a series of charges or commands from God to the Exiles. I’ll put them in two groups.

Build, Plant, Take, Multiply (vv. 5-6)

The first grouping of charges come in verses 5-6. Look for the verbs, which all come in pairs:

BUILD houses and LIVE in them
PLANT gardens and EAT their produce
TAKE wives and BECOME fathers… (MARRY and HAVE FAMILIES)
All of those pairs have a common theme. Yes, you are far from home, cut off, and exiled. But don’t give up on life; make a home for yourselves. Build and live, plant and eat, marry and have families. In other words, keep living life! For the Jewish people, these particular challenges tied rather directly to the covenant challenges to grow families and teach them about the Lord. While the Holy Land was part of God’s gracious provision, it was not the only place where His people could be faithful. Indeed, both in the generations before coming to that land and in many generations after being displaced, His people had to learn and re-learn what it meant to be faithful in every setting. God’s challenge to the Exiles was no less than His challenge to His people wandering through the wilderness between captivity in Egypt and arrival in the Promised Land: “listen to me; trust in me; make a home and teach them about me.” That home was and continues to be our “first congregation” even before that of the church community.

Seek and Pray, for in its Welfare You Will Have Welfare (v. 7)

God’s message continues on into verse 7, with the challenge to “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” This challenge also connects to the covenant of old, in which God told Abraham He would bless him that he (Abraham) and his children might be a blessing to the whole world. It does not matter that God’s people have been taken from Jerusalem; they are still able to fulfill their covenant purpose of being a covenant community of faith and blessing those among whom they lived.

There are several points about this challenge to “seek the welfare of the city” that I want to lift out. First is the meaning of the word translated here as “welfare.” Some translations will have “peace,” translating a Hebrew word that you may have heard before. The underlying word here is shalom. Depending on context and shade of meaning, it can mean peace, well-being, completeness, wholeness, blessing, or as translated here, welfare. The use of shalom here stands in marked contrast to what the Jewish Exiles seem to have lost. Taken from home, they felt lost, broken, incomplete, and cursed – anything but shalom. Yet God asks – even commands – that they pray on behalf of the city of Babylon for the very thing that they feel is missing. Can you imagine? In fact, I think some of you can, as you are identifying with the kind of loss the Exiles experienced.

“What about me, Lord?” What about MY welfare? Interestingly, and this is the other thing I want to lift up out of this verse, God says, “In the city’s welfare you will have welfare.” Pray for the shalom of this city and her people – the place where you are exiled – and as they experience my peace, healing, and wholeness, then YOU will experience my peace, healing, and wholeness.

“But Lord, I had those things back in Jerusalem. I just want to get home.” In this case, the Lord had them in Babylon for a reason, and peace was not to be found in returning to the place from which they had come. Peace and healing and wholeness and blessing was to be found in their praying and God’s providing shalom for the city of Babylon.

The New Testament talks about some teaching as milk and some as meat. Well that, I believe, is a thick bit of steak. The shalom that I long for – that I NEED, Lord – is not found in the place I came from, nor where I think I might go, but in obediently following the Lord to the place He leads.

That’s the key application that we need to hear out of this passage. But I want to be very, very clear about what this passage is NOT saying. So, listen closely – or if you get home and think you didn’t hear me right, call or e-mail me and ask, because I want to be clear.

While the application of this passage is significant and broad, some of the particulars are very specific. As we think about applying these charges or commands into our own life, we need to ask “whose welfare?” we are to pray. But first, let me note the particular limits in this passage.

What is NOT being said…

There are two clear pointers to the limitations in this passage. One is in verse 4, when we read the description of the recipients of the letter: “…to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile…” Another is in verse 7, in describing the city as the place “where I have sent you into exile.” Do you hear it? God did this to them. This homelessness, this brokenness, this curse, if you want to call it that, was God’s discipline for their faithlessness and disobedience over generations. And that’s the point where we have to be very, very careful in interpreting and applying into our modern experience.

First, as you ask yourself what your “exile” entails, realize that not all things you might deem “exile” are God’s doing. Yes, I realize nothing surprises God and there are levels upon levels of talking about God’s sovereignty, but for today I simply want to differentiate between God’s discipline of His covenant people for their disobedience and the various struggles we face. You may experience aspects of exile because of your own choices, those of another, godly discipline, God allowing a test or trial, God’s calling or leading in your life, or any other number of reasons. This passage describes one scenario for a people to be anxious for God’s shalom, but it does not describe every scenario.

Having said that, I believe the principle that is being taught is not primarily about suffering, but about faithfully listening to God’s voice. Said more simply – your reason for needing God’s healing, help, wholeness, peace, and completeness, may be different from the Exiles’ reason, but God’s prescription for finding that shalom is broad, because it connects with His covenant of old as well as the teaching of His Son who was yet to come. Let’s turn then to that prescription and explore it in more depth.

Whose Welfare?

God’s prescription for shalom was to live full and godly lives in the place where you are, and to seek and pray diligently for that shalom for those all around you. In that living and seeking, He told the Exiles, you will find it for yourself.

I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) I am also reminded of the sermon Will Dolinger preached from this same letter in Jeremiah 29 a few weeks ago. One verse he keyed in on reads: “For I know the plans that I have for you… plans for welfare [shalom] and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (v. 11) That same word shows up there and links to our text today. God’s plan is indeed for His people’s shalom or welfare, but His prescription for them experiencing it was through their listening to His Word and obeying His instruction to seek and pray for others’ first. That again reminds me of Jesus and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

If you and I were to take this prescription seriously, what would that look like? For whose welfare would we pray?

Perhaps the most literal application would be to seek and pray for the welfare of our city. God challenged the Exiles to pray for Babylon – their captors! Surely we should pray for our city and our neighborhoods. Let that be the first and broadest challenge today: and not JUST prayer but “seek and pray” – get up, move, do, listen, pray, follow, obey, connect with Charlotte, with the Old Providence neighborhoods, with our neighbors around the church and around where you live. Where in our neighborhoods and city do people most long for or need God’s shalom – His peace, wholeness, help, completeness, and healing? If we are to be God’s covenant community in this place – this Church – than that is our mission. If we want to know God’s complete plan for us, then we need to seek and pray for the welfare of THIS city. After the pattern of God’s people of old, we are to live full and godly lives where we are, and diligently pray for and seek out those all around us, that they might know the fullness of knowing God.

More specifically, I want to challenge you on a personal level. It may be for different reasons than the Exiles, but you may recognize a need for God’s healing, help, and wholeness in your life. It may be work-related; it may be a hole in a relationship; it may be physical disability, sickness, or limitations; it may be spiritual dryness or feeling completely disconnected from God – in whatever form you need God’s shalom, consider this prescription for finding it. Seek and pray for those who need what you need, and in connecting with them and laying those other similar needs before the Lord, you may find the peace and wholeness you need as well. Amen.

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