For the good of the city

Our church has a list of reasons that we exist. One of them is that we exist “for the good of the city.”  Our church has been planted here in Birmingham with the conviction that we should not just become a “holy huddle.” A challenge is sometimes given to churches “If you ceased to exist would anyone in the local community notice?”

Where does that particular conviction come from?  Well, it’s based on these words from Jeremiah 7:4-7.

This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”

Verse 7 tells God’s people to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city” or as some translations put it “to seek the welfare of the city.  The specific command is to the Judeans who have been exiled from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the early part of the 6th Century BC.  All through Jeremiah there is a tension between what the people want to hear, indeed are choosing to hear from false prophets, and what God is actually saying through the prophet. There’s a persistent attempt to deny what God is saying and then to negotiate with him. This denial includes:

  • Believing that they will be safe in Jerusalem
  • Looking for help from other nations including Egypt.
  • Insisting that the exile although painful will be short and sharp.

Incidentally, these are quite common forms of denial, traps that we can fall into. We can put our trust in a place or institution, this might mean our local church or even our specific nation. We can look to help from other people and things (idolatry) and we can assume that even when tough times come, they will be short and sharp.

God is telling the people that they are not going to be there for a short time. Rather, they need to be there for the long-haul.  In fact, they should expect to be in Babylon for 70 years, time for several generations to come before God shows goodness and kindness to them by bringing them back into the land. So, this will not be a temporary stay. They are not to keep their belongings in suitcases. They are to prepare to settle in and put down roots.  They should expect to be finding wives for their children.  The aim is that, as happened in Egypt, God’s people should multiply.

God’s people were to be good citizens in their new city. They were to seek its good.  They were to desire to bless it.  Their aim was to see Babylon prosper.  This might be a surprise to us.  Babylon after all represented everything to do with the world’s enmity against God and his people. Surely they were to seek its downfall? But no, God tells them to bless the city.

How were they to go about that?  Well part of it would mean praying for the city, asking God to bless and protect the people within its walls, not just the believers but everyone who lived there.  However, secondly, they were actively to work for the good of the city as the NLT picks up.  This is best exemplified by the life of Daniel who served in the Kings’ palace as a wise advisor.  Although Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo were there under compulsion, yet they served the King willingly and joyfully.

It is important also to note why they were to seek the good of the city.  Now, when we think of things like mercy ministries and our good endeavours today, we often talk in terms of putting Christian love into action, of discipleship – obeying God by loving our neighbour and of Gospel opportunities arising. All of those things are good things and we’ll come to them at later dates.

However, get this!  The specific reason God gives through Jeremiah is this:

“its welfare will determine your welfare.”

The reason that the people of God were to seek the good of the city they were living in was because it mattered for their good, in fact for their survival. This is a call to be good citizens because they were dependent upon the life of the city around them. They were planted into a context.  At its most extreme it meant that when Queen Esther sought the good of her city and empire by being a good Queen Consort, it won her favour with the emperor so that he was willing to step in to save God’s people from judgement. It would have counted in Nehemiah and Ezra’s favour that God’s people had this reputation as good citizens. Perhaps this is important for Christians to consider today when protesting for their rights and seeking equitable and just decisions. 

The street preacher will stand a better chance in front of the magistrate when arrested for exercising their right to free speech if they are known as kind and compassionate and if there are plenty of people prepared to say that he is always courteous and polite in his interactions, careful to not cause obstruction or nuisance and well known for stopping his preaching to help those in need.

During the Commonwealth Games, I think we were able to get a good hearing for the Gospel because those of us who were there sought the welfare of those attending and participating whether through a word of thanks and encouragement to a police officer or by giving advice about places to eat and public transport to people coming out of the stadiums.

But there’s also that general sense of well-being as we live our daily lives and see our work as having value and meaning. There’s good motivation here for us to get involved in running CAP courses, ESOL etc, linking up with organisations like TLG and Safer Families, advocating for asylum seekers because a city where there’s good social cohesion is going to be a better place for our families to grow up and because it’s going to be easier for us to gather.  Consider what happens when the welfare of the city does suffer beyond our control – a global pandemic shut down our places of worship for long periods and even when they were open left many reluctant to be in crowded places, the war in Ukraine has pushed up fuel prices and so increased the cost of keeping our places of worship open through the winter.  We would rather live in a world where fuel prices haven’t gone crazy and where we are not under lockdown.  Those two examples are beyond our control and remind us that we are always dependent on God’s sovereignty. However, there are plenty of examples of things where we can have an impact.

The point is that because we do not know when Christ will return that we should live both expectant that he could return at any moment and prepared for the long-haul. This is where our eschatology matters.  If you are a pre-millenialist and you are caught up in the kind of apocalyptic speculation that abounds (of the Left-Behind) kind then you are likely to have little motivation to care about the city because you expect to be gone soon.  At the other extreme, Post Millenialists can have an over emphasis on the good of the city believing that before Christ returns, the church will have in effect taken over by establishing Christian cities and nations. As an a-Millenialist I sit someone between these. I do not know how much time I have here and so I’m going to make the best use of it.  I don’t expect to see us take over the city or the country and make it fully Christian but I do believe that we can do things which help to influence the culture around us.

All of this is relevant to us wherever we are. If you don’t live in a literal city like Birmingham then there is I guess the metaphorical city of the wider population and community around you.  However, I’ve also got a very specific concern for Birmingham and the West Midlands. For some time I’ve been seeking to encourage people to consider coming and planting here. What type of people are we looking for? Well, I would suggest that we are looking for people ready to be here for the long-haul, ready to get settled into a community and to seek its welfare.

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