Sunday Message, 5th June: Spirit Without Measure 6
To weep for our City
2 Chronicles 7:14, Jeremiah 29:4-14.
Creating the Body of Christ, giving extravagant experiential gifts, keeping us Jesus shaped and helping us share Christ with others, making us Holy flowing Channels of His transforming presence and grace, and enabling us to be faithful fruitful Disciples of Jesus and make Disciples of others. These are some of the ways in which the Spirit Without Measure is poured through our lives and these we can welcome, receive and understand: but making us weep? Surely not? Stiff upper lipped Englishmen don’t weep, or do they? Well it seems to me that if Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, and for the city of Jerusalem, then it not only okay but also essential I do too!
Our reading from Jeremiah 29 is in the form of a letter sent to the exiles in Babylon. Previously at a kind of conference held to decide whether there should be a revolt against Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah had powerfully witnessed, wearing a wooden yoke and denouncing a false prophet (who subsequently died), and as a consequence the revolt had not gone ahead. The letter sent to all the exiles from Judah was delivered by two of the Kings envoys and written by Jeremiah. What he says was fully in accord with the word he had given in Jerusalem saying that there was not going to be a quick release for the captives. He said God was telling them to settle down and establish homes for the community in exile, to build houses, plant gardens, to marry and to have children. It is very possible that word of the visit to Jerusalem of foreign ambassadors and the proposed revolt had reached to overthrow Babylon had reached the exiles. Jeremiahs letter may have had the specific purpose of restraining his countrymen from attempting a foolhardy venture in Babylon itself. “Calm Down” Jeremiah was saying “accept the situation you are in and await the timing of the Lord.’ This is difficult counsel
for anyone to accept when they are in trying circumstances and there seems to be no end to the problems. We all go through testing times and periods of real adversity when we have to appeal to the Lord for patience in the face of temptation simply to take things into our own hands. If we do try to work a way out of our troubles without seeking the Lord, our own solutions could lead to disaster. The right way is to seek the Lord for his way and his timing.
There were of course false prophets among the exiles in Babylon just as there were in Jerusalem. They were telling the people that Babylon would soon be overthrown and that they would be released to return to Jerusalem. Of course, this was a very popular message. The last thing the exiles wanted to hear was an exhortation to settle down and prepare to stay in Babylon for many years. But it was important that this message should get to them. In fact, the message certainly had the blessing of the establishment in Jerusalem, political and religious, and very possibly of the king himself. We know this from the fact that Jeremiah’s letter was carried to Babylon by Zedekiah’s own ambassadors. It is possible that both of these older men were retired by now as they served Zedekiah’s father Josiah, at the time when the ‘Book of the Law’ was discovered during repairs to the temple (2 Chronicles 34). The most likely explanation for official support being given to the letter to the exiles is that following the failure of the international coalition to reach agreement on a united revolt against Babylon it was important to instruct the exiles not to do anything foolish. Rumours of revolt had undoubtedly reached Babylon and the false prophets and diviners among the people were hard at work. They were preaching heady messages, raising the hopes of exiles to fever pitch. They may even have been planning ways of assisting the revolt by acts of sabotage in the capital of the Chaldean Empire. This would have been disastrous, and would certainly have
resulted in a savage revenge, which could have wiped out the entire Judean community in exile (Holocaust is no modern description). It was no doubt in the face of this situation that royal approval was given for the official ambassadors to carry Jeremiahs letter. They were instructed to deliver it in person to the elders of the community in exile. The message was to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city’ to which God had sent them. To be told, in addition, that God had sent them into exile, rubbed salt into the wound. Jeremiah added the exhortation, ’Pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ Hang on a moment: pray for Babylon? Yes! That was the word of the Lord! It is reminiscent of Jesus’ word on the subject of using worldly wealth to gain friends (Luke 16:9). If God has entrusted us with worldly wealth we should use it wisely and prudently to serve the kingdom. It is always wrong for Christians to amass wealth for personal ease, comfort, or self-aggrandisement. But to seek the peace and prosperity of the secular state, and business world, so that God can work out his good purposes through his people, is right. These are, however, dangerous areas, as we are dwelling in the enemy’s territory (Babylon) and we can so easily be overcome by greed, ambition and temptation. We need the whole armour of God around us!
Now we can’t be sure what Jeremiah meant by the phrase, ‘When 70 years are completed for Babylon.’ There have been lots of attempts to date it exactly. In Jeremiahs day it was a well used idiom simply meaning a long time, just as 7 years meant a short time, and 40 years meant a whole generation. So Jeremiahs emphasis here telling the exiles to settle down, build houses, marry and have children, was to say ‘prepare for a long stay’. What Jeremiah was saying was: your freedom will take time so don’t be deceived into doing anything foolish, like plotting rebellion, or refusing to work, or not allowing your sons and daughters to marry and have children. Jeremiah knew that many
of the exiles were living in a state of great expectation, all ready and packed, waiting to leave for Jerusalem at a moments notice. His letter told them that that would not happen for a long time.
This must have been a bitter disappointment. So Jeremiah included one of the most beautiful promises in the Bible. The promise reveals the tender heart of the prophet, but also the loving concern of God for his people so far from their ancestral home. “I know the plans I have for you,” the Lord assured them. They were neither banished by God, nor forgotten. He could never forget if own people, however badly they behaved. This same thought is beautifully expressed in Isaiah 49:15 where the Lord asks the question, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?’ and responds ‘Though she may forget I will not forget you!’ God’s plans were to prosper his people. The verb used here is ‘Shalom’ which means much more than material prosperity; it means the whole ‘well-being’ that God bestows, in health, happiness and peace. God’s promise of well-being is always dependant upon the response of his people. The promise to the exiles was that if they would call upon him he would listen to them. If they would seek God he would ensure that they found him. In due time he would bring about the overthrow of Babylon and bring his people back home. But in the meantime he would be with them every moment of the day and night, to bless, protect, and to ensure their well-being. These are Gods good plans for all his people. The Lord has good plans for each of us, if we will seek him with all our hearts.
So what has this all to teach us about the Spirit Without Measure and weeping for our city? A lot! Today the Jesus shaped Body of Christ is struggling in our nation: it’s feels a bit like being in exile. False Prophets abound even in our day: proclaiming revival just around the corner or rapture imminent, but the reality is that we have largely lost the plot as the Body of Christ and need to experience exile and pain before the Lord will restore the
fortunes of His Bride. Our response to such circumstances can and has often been of two extremes: forming religious ghettos to hold back to onward march of the world, or declaring a religious war on the prevailing culture. Neither are effective: the first is like putting a nail in the coffin of a congregation because it looses its very nature of being there to share God’s love embodied in Christ, the second because we are called to be Salt & Light, not Judgement & Fire. Jeremiah’s wisdom is instructive here: although as Jesus says we are called to be in the world, but not of the world, we are to deeply root ourselves into the cities and towns the Lord has called us too, and as a salt and light community seek to make a difference for Jesus. We are to weep when we see the effects of mans humanity to man, and the worst effects of a society that has moved away from God’s values and ways. The Spirit Without Measure helps us to see the pain and the longing for things to be different, and to respond with Christ’s compassion. Then He leads us to make a difference in the name of Jesus, as those engaging as caring Street Pastors, praying saints bringing Christ’s healing, working with the homeless at Peoples Kitchen, asylum seekers at Common Ground, Refugees at WERS, patients and staff at our hospitals, children and teachers in our schools etc. Can I say here on behalf of Lorna and I how we have experienced this too: in 2006 it seemed like exile in the North-East but quickly and because of God’s call it felt like home and we have grown to love the city, pray for its peace and prosperity, and feel deeply with tears its trials and tribulations.
So what is the word of the Lord to us today: what would he write or has he written that could help us?? The answer as many other than me have discovered is the first verse Charlie read before the Jeremiahs letter: 2 Chronicles 7:14. If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear
from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Weeping Saints hear the word of the Lord: You are his people called by his name (the name of Christ). What the Lord requires of His Jesus shaped Body (the Church) is humility, prayer, and repentance: not from everyone else but from you! When and only when the Lord sees your heart and these things are not just religious duties but part of who you are will He do three things which will transform our city, our region and our nation. He will hear from heaven (touching heaven changing earth), forgive their sin (freedom from guilt and our past), and heal their land. This final part of the promise doesn’t say heal the Church, it says heal their land: in other words, and in a priestly sense, what we do as we in the power of the Holy Spirit weep and stand up the gap for our city will make a difference to the whole city whether they realise it or not!
June 5th 2011.