How Not to Love Your City

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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 29:4-7

Babylon was the major world power at the time and many Jews had been forced to live there. In the ancient world, when a nation took over a new area, they would usually kill some people, leave some people, and take some people back to their own country. The goal for the exiles was to try and get them to assimilate, to become like everyone else and prevent a revolt.

Jeremiah writes specifically to that group of people. They are in a strange land living as outsiders. Will they circle the wagons like gypsies and insulate themselves from the pagan world? Or will they play into the hands of their enemies and join the party? God speaks to them (and us) in that dilemma. He tells them to love the city… BUT:

Loving your city is not “blending in”.

God tells His people to multiply, but they are still forbidden from marrying outside their faith. Outsiders are welcome if they convert. But loving the city didn’t mean they could become like everyone else.

There is tremendous cultural pressure today to be like everyone else. We are supposed to be tolerant, which most people mean as “be open to anything”. Popular culture no longer has any sexual ethics. We are no longer expected to take any commitments seriously. We are not expected to have any real convictions. What that means is that more and more people have started to believe that love is blending in – losing your cultural, religious, and social identity to embrace the melting pot.

Cultural and ethnic diversity are good things. God values diversity. He will one day have a bride that is intentionally made up of people from all ethnic groups. But religious diversity is not a good thing and God is not OK with us losing His values in a melting pot.

God expects His church to be different from the people who do not believe. Blending in is not loving our city. Accepting something that God rejects is the opposite of love. We don’t have to accept the world’s values to love the world. That’s one extreme. Here’s the other one:

Loving your city is not “checking out”.

We don’t have God’s permission to retreat from, abandon, or ignore our neighbors because we disagree with their lifestyle or don’t understand their culture. God specifically instructs the exiles not to do that. He says, “Build houses. Plant gardens. Raise families. Put down roots!” They are not allowed to use or exploit the city. They are called to be “for” the city, seeking its welfare.

We are losing the idea that where we live is our community, our home… that the other people around us matter, even if they are different. American culture is radically independent. We typically only worry about our own needs and the needs of our immediate family. Do I have enough money? Is my home safe? Are my kids in good schools? Is my retirement account funded? We don’t spend much time thinking about other people’s problems.

But that is not God’s vision for society at all. Jesus summarized most of the law as “loving your neighbor as yourself”. And it wasn’t just religious intermarriage that sent the Jews into exile. They were also guilty of ignoring the poor.

We cannot check out. Where we live is not just where we “stay”. It is our place. It is our home. The people around us matter. We may not hold the same values as our neighbors, but they are people made in the image of God, worthy of our respect and attention. Ignoring social problems and focusing only on our own needs is sin.

Writer John Inge said it like this, “The Christian religion is not the religion of salvation from places, it is the religion of salvation in and through places.” We want to see God’s kingdom come IN Desoto County as it is in heaven. How?

Loving our city is seeking “welfare”.

That word means something different to us today, but the word “welfare” is used three times in verse 7. It is the word “shalom” in Hebrew. It means “peaceful or stable presence”. To seek shalom is to seek the physical, relational, social, and spiritual health of a place and a people.

What makes a building physically stable? Anchor points. Nails, glue, joists, studs… otherwise the building materials won’t stay where they need to be or have stability. Shalom is like that. Shalom is when everything is anchored and secure, nothing is hanging by a thread or buckling under pressure.

The anchor points in a community are relationships. A city or a town is only as strong as her relationships. The Gospel helps Christians to see our neighbors, our schools, our businesses, and our city government with compassion. Their problems are my problems.

It means we care about little children learning to read. We care about the poor having their needs met. We care about justice in our courts and jails. We care about who gets elected. We care about the nonprofits and civic organizations trying to serve people. We care about small businesses and new businesses. We care about the schools and daycares. We care about racial and class injustice. We care about mental health issues. We care about widows and orphans who have no one else. We care about people with special needs and their families. We care about homes where the father is absent. We care about sick people who are not necessarily in our own family. We care about our immigrant neighbors. We care about our homeless neighbors. We care about our addicted neighbors. We care about our Muslim neighbors. We care about our gay neighbors. We care about every physical, relational, social, and spiritual need in our town.

The church offers stability to a community because each of us is anchored to Jesus. He is our peace. He is our stability. He is our shalom, because in the Gospel he tells us that our spiritual needs are met. We belong to Him. We are forgiven. We can live our lives without shame or guilt because of His work for us on the cross. The cross is a picture of stability, two beams crossing, God and man uniting in the Son. The wrath of God for sin meeting the mercy of God for the sinner. He does not accept the lifestyle of ANY of us in this room, because we have all broken the law of God. Instead, he is able to accept us as righteous because of the blood of Jesus. Jesus is the anchor point that connects us to a holy God.

We are anchored to a kingdom that transcends our town and a king that rules over everything you see. In other words, we are anchored to the foundation. Without that, without shalom, communities start to crumble. Historically, when Christians check out or become like everyone else, everything starts to crack. When the church functions as God intends, communities are strong.

Civil Rights leader John Perkins said it like this “…while so many communities are divided by income, class, ethnicity, social structure or some other segregating principle, the church serves as a major force for unity. As a microcosm of God’s kingdom, the church welcomes everyone – people of all ethnicities, rich and poor, strong and weak, powerful and powerless. A worshipping church breaks down the barriers that divide people in communities. It helps people understand that every single person has gifts and talents to be used for the greater good of the community and the body of Christ.”

The Jews would eventually go home – back to Israel. Babylon was not their home. This is not our final home either. We belong to a kingdom that is not of this world. We are waiting on a new heavens and a new earth. But in the meantime, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the realities of that kingdom in real and meaningful ways until Jesus comes back – and we can do it right where God has us today.

Not by becoming just like everyone else, or blending in. Not by retreating from it or checking out. But by seeking to create anchor points, relationships built on the Gospel, with the people around us. Let us together seek the welfare of our town by pointing people to Jesus in word and deed because He is our ultimate peace, our real “shalom”.

Mike Winebrenner

Published on April 9, 2018