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)
In many ways the Church seems to be in exile, without having moved. The changes in our society over the past fifty or so years have been profound for the Church in America. Denominations have lost members. Many can remember a culture that would have been embarrassed at breeches in traditional values that are now taken as a normal part of life. Actions that would have ruined an entertainer’s career at one time now seem to increase their popularity and profit making potential.
The Sabbath is perfect example of this change. Not long ago the idea of a business being open on a Sunday would, at least in parts of the country, been unthinkable. Now it would be difficult to find a national chain that closes on the Lord’s Day. I mention this, not to pine for the good old days, but to illustrate that while the Church was at one time supported by the society as a whole, now the culture around us is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the Church. We find ourselves in Exile, asking the same questions our ancestors in the faith asked when the Jews were taken from the promised land to live in Babylon.
Much debate in the Church in the past decades has been over how we respond to the Exile-like situation in which we find ourselves. Some would say that the Church should acquire political power and fight for the overthrow of those seen as enemies of the Church. They draw up agendas and form political action committees. Others think that separation from the culture is the answer, set up alternatives systems to “secular” culture. Some seem to completely embrace the culture around us baptize it and denounce the Church’s past actions as hypocritical and oppressive.
I have often turned to the above passage of scripture, a letter from Jeremiah to the elders and other Jewish leaders in Babylonian exile, as a guide for Christians living in cultural exile. It reminds us that, although we should remember that this world is not our home, we are still to settle in and dwell wherever we are. Just as the Jews were to be part of their community, we should fully enter into the place where we live. We should not turn up our nose at the food or ignore the interests of the people with whom we live. We are to care for the place where we are, seeking the “welfare of the city,” not pray for the death of our leaders or the overthrow of the government. We have no excuse to separate or exclude ourselves, but rather enter into the life of wherever we are and seek its redemption, bearing witness in our words and actions, to the Redeemer. And just as God warned the Jews of false prophets, (vs. 8 & 9) we are to be wary of those seeking to turn us against the place or draw us away from our obligations to it.