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Monday, September 26, 2011

Exiles for the World (Jeremiah 29.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 25, 2011

Exiles for the World
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-11

Today I want to look with you at a passage we studied about a year and a half ago. It was also the Bible study for the officer and staff retreat we had at Good Shepherd and the end of August this year. I’d like to not only walk you back through this passage, but then share with you some of the content of that retreat, particularly as it bears on the life of our church. 

Exiles on a Mission of Blessing

While removed from us by several thousand years and many thousand miles, the context of this passage nonetheless has a number of points in common with us. It is written to the people of God who find themselves far from their historic and familiar home, in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place, surrounded by people who do not share their traditional values and beliefs.

God’s people in Jeremiah have been conquered by a foreign power and driven from their home. Not only did they lose their homes, but also jobs, land, and the Temple and city of Jerusalem. And there was more. All those things represented the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises… the ones we talked about last week. God had indeed granted Abraham’s descendants blessing, numbers, and land. And now they seemed to be losing it all. So, too, can we as God’s people look back on the flourishing of the church one and two generations ago and compare it to the diminishing place of church in society. We can look at the culture all around us and feel like “exiles” trying to find our way in a new and foreign land. Not only have values changed, but language and worldview has changed – our children seem to have more in common with this new place than with where we came from.

The natural response to such displacement would be to get back to where we came from. That was true in Jeremiah’s day as well as in our own. The exiles longed for Jerusalem and what lay in ruins in the rear-view mirror. Likewise, there is a strong impulse in church and conservative society to wind the clock back and somehow transport back to what is in our own rear-view mirror. Given that impulse, God’s Word through Jeremiah is startling and uncomfortable. God’s charge is there in vv. 5-6:

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease.

Look at all those verbs: BUILD, LIFE, PLANT, EAT, MARRY (take wives), MULTIPLY. For a people concerned that they had lost the covenant promises, this is covenant language. The covenant with them was about land, children, and blessing, and God is telling them to make a home THERE – in exile, in the world – and don’t cease to be the covenant people of God! God is still calling them to a PLACE to be a PEOPLE… and the next verse (v. 7) is about blessing.

The blessing is unexpected as well, though, for it isn’t an immediate promise to bless God’s people in exile. Rather, it comes as another charge: they are to “seek the shalom of the city.” (v. 7) We’ve talked about that word before. It is translated in the pew Bible as ‘welfare.’ It is a rich Hebrew word meaning blessing, peace, salvation, well-being, welfare. It is the essence of being “blessed” by God. And God’s charge to them was to seek the blessing of their captors, the strange and foreign people all around them in exile. In doing THAT, God said, His people would find the blessing that they longed for.

What a challenge to us! In a day when traditional church is no longer at the center of society, when secular culture is not only all around us, but invading our homes through TV, computers, music, and other ways, God tells us not to retreat, not to hide out, not to work to wind the clock back, but to make a home and be His people right smack in the middle of it all! And further, to seek to be a blessing to the people all around us. That is what obeying God, worshiping God, loving God looks like.

That sounds like Jesus!

“Love the Lord your God… and love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You are salt and light…”

“Be IN this world, though not OF this world… but do not remove yourself FROM the world.”

The punch-line I used last time I preached through this was this: the shalom (peace/blessing) that I long for – that I NEED – 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. 

Exiles for the World

So, with that charge – recognizing that in many ways we are like the exiled people of God charged with making a home, providing a witness, and being a blessing IN this world – our elders, deacons, and ministry staff gathered to consider where we’ve been and what God may be calling us to now.

We spent some time looking at the past ten years, at how the Lord has built us up and equipped us around worship, witness, Biblical training, mercy ministry, mission outreach, and the lighthouse/searchlight vision. And in all of that, we have focused primarily on our own congregation and the immediate Old Providence neighborhoods, convicted that as we were faithful in these things, God would invite our faithfulness in larger ways in His timing.

This idea of being “exiles for the blessing of the world” is behind our going out on Wednesday nights, our involvement at Olde Providence Elementary and with the Swan’s Run group home. It’s also a significant part of why we have not reacted to denominational woes by withdrawing, hunkering down, or only hanging out with like-minded churches, but have plunged into conversations and engagement purposefully. I believe our taking seriously the charge to make our homes and raise our children where God has planted us is also why we have experienced such fruit and blessing internally as we continue worshiping, meeting, training, and equipping you for ministry and mission in your own personal mission fields.

So I walked the officers and staff through the past ten years with those things in mind. If you’d like to see some of that, I’d be glad to e-mail or print out a copy of the materials for you. What was really interesting is that as I began sharing some of the things God seems to be putting before us now, I realized (in the moment) that many of these were, in fact, beyond the immediate congregation or neighborhood, though all still consistent with this calling to be a distinct people sent into the world to bless others for God’s glory.

This morning, I’d like to share a few of those opportunities with you, recognizing that some are already unfolding, some are just ideas, and some may not happen if the Lord leads us in a different direction.

Creative Arts

I don’t know to what extent you realize it, but we have an extraordinary treasure of creative gifts at Good Shepherd. From music to drama to visual art to technological know-how, it would be surprising in a 1000 member church, much less a 250-member church. And increasingly, our performers and creative folks are being invited to share and teach and extend their ministries beyond our walls or even our neighborhood. Folks are being invited to play or sing or act – to teach about how we use these things for the Kingdom – and in some cases, to simply perform in a public and secular sphere. In fact, this afternoon, at the invitation of Providence Presbytery – the collection of churches in northeastern SC, including Rock Hill – Kathy, Joanie, and I are taking a creative team of youth to lead an afternoon retreat for 175 SC youth, including drama, prayer, music, and worship – and Karen Katibah is the conference preacher!

As I talked with the officers and staff about some of these opportunities, I confessed and we recognized the tension between keeping our treasures “in house” and the obedience of releasing them for wider ministry. I remember that same internal tension when Jason and Tiffany Hinton first shared a call to missions. After Cathy and me, they had been our first two musicians on the worship team and we didn’t know where we’d find anyone to step in. Well, the Lord obviously provided, and far more than we could have imagined.

So, likewise, is there a part of me that might not want to loan out our choir or worship team or singers on a Sunday morning? Sure there is… but I also recognize that the Kingdom of God is bigger than Good Shepherd or my personal worship experience. And according to God’s Word in Jeremiah, by seeking the blessing of others, I will discover God’s blessing in my own life.

Perhaps the biggest example of this in the creative arts area is with Kathy Larson. For several years now God has been laying on her heart to start a community theater company in the arts district of Charlotte. The realization of that is still a ways off, but I wanted to share with you the vision and dream of it – that she would take the kind of drama she’s written and shared within our walls, and more and more in our OP neighborhood, and share it more widely. If that’s something you’d like to hear more about, I’d encourage you to talk to her! 

Teaching Ministry

I have long recognized the priority that Good Shepherd has placed on the study of God’s Word. When I came, this was already a very Biblically literate congregation. I remember telling a friend that any member was probably qualified to teach Sunday school. And yet, I came to the realization several years in that we needed to be using that treasure more and more. A number of elders in the church have cultivated preaching skills. At the retreat, I floated the idea by the group of sending some of our in-house preachers out to churches needing fill-in preachers. We could even send a musician or two if they were needed. Often the churches needing supply preachers are small and struggling. Think of the potential impact in terms not only of teaching, but of networking for mission or ministry!

Increasingly, we have seminary students seeking us out as a place to study and learn how to do ministry. It seems like we have the opportunity to become a teaching church with wide impact. That includes new models of hosting student interns (http://bit.ly/IRC-rma);. I’m talking to two seminaries about intentionally housing groups of 3-4 students in the Swan’s Run apartments, to spend 3-4 years (rather than 1-2 semesters) engaged fully in the life of Good Shepherd. I wouldn’t be the only mentor to them; rather YOU would help teach and train and prepare them for ministry. And part of the model for living at Swan’s Run would be to engage in missional ministry in that context, in partnership with the church. 

Issues, the Church, and the World

A third area of expanded vision involves the denomination. What drives much of the modern tensions in and with the denomination are issues, particularly around sexuality. Good Shepherd has historically found itself on the conservative and evangelical end of the spectrum within our Presbyterian denomination, and that has not changed. And yet, we also have taken seriously this biblical charge of remaining engaged in the world, even while we seek to be a distinct people. That not only gives us reason to remain engaged in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but also in the issues within the church and in the world around us.

To that end, the Session is beginning a six month study entitled, “Turning Controversy into Ministry” – written by a Presbyterian pastor friend of mine and asking precisely this question: “How can Biblical Christians not turn their back on controversial issues, but seek the shalom of those all around us in faithful, obedient, and grace-filled ways?” It is a wonderful and thoughtful study, and one we hope to begin sharing with you in the spring. If you can’t wait to get started, I can point you toward his book now. And if you don’t want to get started, I can encourage you that this is something we can do together, even as God called His people together to make their home and seek others’ blessing in exile.

Well, there’s more that God is laying before us as a church, but that’s enough for one sermon! As our new elders and deacons come before us today for ordination and installation, I hope you sense the excitement before us in the ways God is opening doors of faithfulness for ALL of us. I believe that is a sign that we have indeed been faithful with what God has given us up to this point, and I am humbled and honored to pastor you as together we seek to be faithful with what God has in store for us. Amen.

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