A Hope and a Future

Thriving Amid the Exile

Several weeks ago, our church read an excerpt from Jeremiah’s letter from God to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. It struck me as I was hearing Jeremiah’s words read out loud that they were just as prescient for our day as they were then.

A People Deaf to Warnings

In 597 BC the Babylonian armies invaded Israel and Judah and eventually conquered the capital city of the Jewish people in 586 BC. The Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon is one of the great tragedies of the Bible. The walls and buildings of the city of Jerusalem were literally disassembled and the Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed to its foundations.  Many people were deported into exile, including the entire royal court.

All of the destruction and deportation was anticipated and foretold through the writings and preaching of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not a particularly popular person in his day with the ruling class. Truth tellers are often difficult to hear.

False prophets rose up. Prior to the exile, they preached a message of denial. After the exile, they preached a “quick fix” approach, promising the exile would be a short few years, and that God would restore things back to the “good ole’ days” quickly. The truth was more severe.

The problems with the nation were deep and they went all the way to the top. Corruption existed at the highest levels—with the kings themselves, Ahab and Zedekiah. These men would ultimately be judged by God unto death for their spiritual adultery with foreign powers and gods, for their rebellion against God’s commands and for their lies.

Hope, But Not False Hope

One of the most cherished parts of Jeremiah’s writings are his promises of hope to the people of God amid their exile. As severe and devastating as the Babylonian exile was, it was not the end of the story. All hope was not lost. However, such hope should not be falsely understood; restoration would not come quickly. There would be no quick fix. The exiled Jews in Babylon needed to take a long, multi-generational view. It would take 70 long years to turn things around and for Israel to be ready to return to Jerusalem. Here is a portion of God’s letter to the exiles. It said:

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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29:4-14).

The letter encourages the people that they need to take a long view. It is critically important that they live and even thrive during the exile. In other words, it was incumbent upon them to thrive even though the culture around them was foreign to them—not their home. They should even seek the welfare of the city in which they live so that they can thrive for the long term with the city’s good favor.

Restoration would come eventually. God promised to give them “a hope and a future”, to prosper them with good plans. But, it would take a good long while to see such blessing. By adopting a long view mindset, the Israelites would stay strong for the long haul and stay faithful to God for generations.

Our Day…

The writers of the New Testament considered the secular Roman Empire in which they lived a type of Babylon. The church is the exiled people of God. Peter called the church in the world “scattered exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). This world is not our home. Even though we are citizens of the United States from an earthly perspective, our true and lasting citizenship is in heaven, in a city whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).  We are destined for the New Jerusalem and the heavenly city prepared for the new earth after the consummation of all things. In the meantime, what are the faithful people of God to do?

Some false voices suggest that the problems are not that severe. That one day soon, we can get things turned around. Beloved, if the election of 2016 has taught us anything, I hope that we have learned that there is not a sinless messianic presidential figure in the offing who will lead the United States of America back to the promised land that it once was.

The faithful need to be disillusioned with the pundits and the politicians who preach a message of false hope and quick fix. The problems that this nation has are deep and intractable. The truth is that it will take generations for this nation to be restored. They will not be solved in the short run with government solutions. On the contrary, national restoration of the United States will come from many generations of faithful consistent witness and discipleship by the church.

If the Foundations be Destroyed…

In Psalm 11, David asks: “If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?” There are times when it seems as if the very ground underneath our feet is coming out from under us. This political season may have shaken our confidence in the very institutions which we rely on for stability. However, David knows that if your trust is not in earthly foundations but in the Lord’s sovereign rule, all is secure. Here is David’s answer to his own question:

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face (Psalm 11).

God remains firmly in control of all events happening in the United States of America. He is sovereign over all. So, what will the righteous do?

Go on Being Righteous.

No matter how bleak the circumstances are in this land of exile, our hopeful confidence is ultimately not in the government of the United States of America or its elected leaders. As beautiful and wonderful as our nation is (God has truly shed his grace on thee) our hope and help is in the promised restoration that will only come by the sovereign hand of God and in his sovereign timing.

In the meantime, we take the long view. We go on being righteous, in season or out of season. We proclaim the good news. We plant and build churches, we do good deeds that build up the kingdom of God. We build houses and raise families. We study the scriptures together in community, and we seek the things of first importance, Jesus Christ, and him crucified and raised.

The Lord is in his Holy Temple and he calls us to live and thrive in the midst of exile. We should always seek the welfare of the nation and cities in which we live. By getting involved in the affairs of our community and being the salt and light of Jesus Christ, we manifest the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Elections do matter, and we are called to engage in the affairs of our communities and our nation so that the place where we live will be strong and good.

But for God’s sake take the long view, do not be discouraged or lose hope by the affairs of this world. We will remain in exile a good long while. As the Lord promised the people of God of old, his words continue to ring true:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

Something else helped the men of D-day: their rockhard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And, so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkenss for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.” -Ronald Reagan, Normandy 6/6/1984

What will it be like when we get there?

When we get there

The meditations of a pilgrim anticipate the destination. The pilgrim’s mind is filled with ideas of what it will be like when he “gets there.” We do the same thing; on long road trips to vacation sites, our thoughts are filled with anticipation and excitement.

The goal of a Israelite pilgrim was Jerusalem. For there God’s presence manifested itself in a special way within the Holy of Holies, in the temple of God. The temple was known as God’s house. Oh, it did not contain Him, but the temple was the footstool of the Heavenly King whose throne was in heaven. At Jerusalem, man could approach the very throne of God.

The Meditations of a Pilgrim

Psalm 122

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

122:1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2 Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!

3 Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together,
4 to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
7 Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
8 For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Jerusalem was the place where all the tribes of Israel would go to offer praise to their king, the Lord. It was the place where justice reigned (v.5). It was a place of security. Jerusalem was a place which was safe and peaceful.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that “here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Old Jerusalem in all its glory is a mere shadow of the great glory of the heavenly Jerusalem. We are citizens of that heavenly city. As pilgrims to that city, we should meditate on what it will be like when we “get there.” In one sense, we are already there; for even now, the temple of God is the people of God. We are at the footstool of His throne every time we assemble for worship. Now we can offer Him praise at His feet and petition Him for peace and security. Yet we are on a long road trip to the New Jerusalem. There, we will see God’s face. There, righteousness dwells and justice reigns. The glory of God will be seen in its fullness.

Prayer:
Heavenly King, your Kingdom must be a glorious place filled with great joy and love. Heaven will be great, Oh Lord, for you will be there. I cannot wait to be with you and see you face to face.

Here is the Church and Here is the Steeple…

Little Lies We Learn as Children

There is a little children’s rhyme that we all learned as children. It uses hands to creatively teach about the church:

Here is the Church
And Here is the Steeple
Open the Doors
And see all the People!

The childhood rhyme is Biblically incorrect! While we often call the physical building and place of worship for the people of God, a Church, that is a misnomer. I go so far to call it a little lie. Little lies like this have been taught to us as children, and they have done great damage. Subtly and powerfully, they shape our vocabulary and thus our thinking and values as the people of God. The Church is NOT a physical building with a steeple and doors. Yet, we persist in using the word with that reference and meaning.

The institutional church itself has reinforced the vocabulary. A couple of years ago, the Bishop corrected me when I referred to St. Peter’s worship space as “the Sanctuary”. He said, “Properly, the sanctuary is the space behind the altar rails and building should be referred to as ‘the church’.” From a technical architectural vocabulary perspective, he was not wrong.

The reforming instinct in me cannot accept his correction. I have worked hard to never refer to a physical building as “The Church” because of the misaligned priorities on buildings, programs and institutions.

Empty Tombs

In the New Testament parlance, the Church is the gathered worshiping People of God. Rather than the building, the Church would be what you see when you open the doors and look inside the physical building. Monday through Saturday, the Church has left the building! Without the resurrected People of God gathered, the building stands vacant like an empty tomb!

As the angel who told the women looking for Jesus inside the rock-hewn tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen!” Yes, there are many beautiful “church” buildings built around the world, with wonderful architectural features and gorgeous stain glass windows. They are built to the Glory of God! However, without a vibrant Holy Spirit filled, worshiping body of Christ, they are empty albeit beautiful sepulchers.

Whenever the New Testament uses the term “church”, it is always referring to the redeemed and holy people of God. It does describe church in terms of building and structure but always as a building made with living stones on the divinely appointed cornerstone.

The church building is alive!

Biblically, we should not say we go to church as so many of us are apt to say, but rather we should say we are the church! The church is a community of people whose lives are completely centered on Jesus, living stones built into the precious cornerstone.

Paul used this same imagery in his letter to the Ephesians. He says,

“You are being built into a holy temple, one stone placed upon another, incorporated with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a Holy Temple in the Lord. In him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

So does that mean that we should not build physical buildings for the church? Not at all! Yet, the institutional tools and structures that we have created with human hands out of wood, metal, bricks and mortar are merely tools and institutional supports for the spiritual living Church, the body of Christ. This is an incredibly important distinction for us. Why? Our primary focus is properly on the living organic Temple of the Lord.

The resurrected life is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and the community and people that have been incorporated into the New Temple that is his Body. As in times of the Old Testament, the People of God find themselves serving worldly physical and institutional structures, rather than the physical and institutional structures supporting the people of God.

This was the corruption of the political, religious and economic systems which Jesus confronted in his day when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the old Temple.

The challenge in our day is to renew our emphasis on the True Church, the Living Stones, the New Spiritual Temple, The Body of Christ. The people of this world value the physical stones, but the Lord values the living stones. As the Apostle Peter writes, they are chosen by God and “precious to him.”

Question for thought and discussion: Do you agree that the people of this world place more value on worldly structures and institutions than people? Do you see this happening even with the Church? How do we get back to the right emphases?

Express your thoughts and comments here!

What am I doing with my life?

Here is a Personal Question

“What am I doing with my life?”

House on Sand

The question strikes close to home. As you consider your family and your personal life ask, “what I am building?” Personally, as an individual, have you accepted Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone of your life? Are you constructing your life around His Name? Or, are you simply making a name for yourself?

If you have said “Yes” to Jesus then what you have said is, “That stone right there is the number one marker, and from that place I will lay every other brick in my life. Every little piece of the edifice, I will center and align upon him, because he is the plumb. He is the Chief Cornerstone.”

Have you done that in your life as you have built your career and financial life; as you have built your marriage; as you have built your home; as you have raised your children? Have you aligned every aspect of your life, your vocation, everything, with Jesus Christ as your Chief Cornerstone? Now that’s a tough question.

It is not a hard question to ask, but it is a hard question to answer honestly. Why? Because more often than not, the answer is “No.”

As I argued in the last post, we live in a nation that, in these last days, has built according to the human blueprint rather than God’s blueprint (even contrary to its own pioneers and founders). The pressure is on every one of us to conform to the pattern of this world and give up core values aligned on Jesus Christ. The culture may be OK with Jesus being a “decorative fixture” in your life. But, make Jesus the center of all you are and all you do, and you will find yourself at odds with the prevailing winds and tide.

Some people do say, “Yes to Jesus.” But then merely make him a fixture and an add on to a self-focused and self-constructed life. As if to say to the Lord:  “I’m going to put you up here as a decorative stone; as something that is attractive that I like to look at occasionally.” But that is not the way God has ordained things, is it? Jesus is not to be the decoration on an existing structure but rather the foundation and starting point. He is the Chief Cornerstone! While the builders of our day may reject that, and while we may even be some of those builders, God has ordained his plan for our lives. His plan is ultimately for our good.

Wise and Foolish Builders

Jesus taught that there are really only two types of builders in this world, wise and foolish. He illustrated his comparison of the two with a parable known as “The Wise and Foolish Builders”:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. –Matthew 7:24-27

Looking on from the outside, the two buildings which these two builders constructed could have appeared quite similar. However, one was built like a house of cards and the other built to last. The difference in the two structures lay not in what was seen above the surface, but what was unseen and hidden. The difference lay in the deep foundation. Notice that Jesus identifies the wise builder as the one who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice”.

GK Chesterton once opined, “It is not as if Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has not been tried.” Actually, Christianity has born tremendous fruit for life and blessing in the life of everyone who has tried it. Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone, he has been set in place for our guidance to offer a life of blessing and goodness.

What am I doing with my life?

Without him as our foundation stone, we have no direction and are endanger of being washed out. Our society promotes a philosophy called “secular relativism”. Its only and highest value is tolerance. The result of this philosophy is a society where people do whatever they want in their own eyes. The Lord would have the peace of Christ rule and govern our hearts. Instead, the spirit of the age promotes self-rule. The pressure is on for you to construct a life according to the pattern of this secular world according to your own self-constructed plans. Ask yourself: What am I doing with my life?

As Jesus warned, it is just a matter of time before a structure constructed without a proper foundation will be tested. The storms of life will come. The home of a foolish builder will fail the structural challenge–and it will fall with “a great crash”!  Sadly that has been the tragic story for so many individuals, marriages and families in our day.  The trial of faith will come to all of us personally…the strength of a structure will be proven by the deep foundation of a personal life built on the Rock. Again, Jesus identifies the wise builder as the one who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice”. In Jesus’ parable the storm came to both houses, but the house built on the rock–it did not fall!

For discussion: In the comments, offer an encouragement or some ideas to someone who may be wondering what personally needs to be done in order to rebuild a life on the rock…post your thoughts here!