I preached this message on Sunday, May 7, 2023. You can find the Scriptures here.
We’ve now lived on Nova Scotia’s south shore for almost 9 years. When it comes to our kids, that’s 2/3 of our boys’ lives and 1/2 of our daughter’s life. Yet, we are in many ways still “from away.” And no matter how long we live around here, we’ll never be “from here.”
Every community or region or area has its own culture, habits, traditions, and ways of living and thinking. And when you’re “from away,” you can become more familiar with these things, but these things will never fully become a part of you.
So there is a sense in which you can remain an outsider, never fully fitting in, not like those who were born and raised in the area whose families go back generations. This is a good analogy for what it means to live as followers of Jesus these days. We can live in a familiar community, know who our neighbours are, and even have roots in the area. But because of our faith, because of our convictions as disciples of Christ, there’s a sense in which we are “from away.”
Because more and more, fewer and fewer of our neighbours share our faith in Christ, attend church, or have any understanding of what Christianity is all about.
I’ll put it simply: for those of us who are followers of Jesus, who believe that he is the risen and ascended Son of God and is therefore worthy of our worship and obedience, and that we are called to repent of our sin, confess him as Lord, and place our trust in him: we are “from away.”
We are foreigners, strangers, and exiles. Right here. Whether or not we were born and raised in the area or not. If we are Christians in Canada today, Christians who live on the south shore of Nova Scotia, it means we are “from away.”
“Pursue the well-being of the city”
Throughout their history — in the OT and in the NT — God’s people have often lived as exiles, as strangers in a strange land. We see that in our two passages this morning. Our passage from Jeremiah is a portion of a letter to the exiles in Babylon. Israel was exiled to Babylon as a consequence of God’s judgment on their disobedience and idolatry (586 BC). And while judgment is not the last word, because the Lord will also restore his people, they are told they will be in Babylon for a considerable time (70 years).
Consider what they are told in the letter: Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease.
In other words, the Lord is telling them, “You’re going to be in this strange, pagan land for a long time. So make a life here. Settle down and settle in for the long haul.”
And consider the fact that they did not choose to come to Babylon. Their homeland had been decimated. Their temple destroyed. Their identity reduced to rubble and ash. And the land to which they had been exiled was not friendly to their faith. They were living a land that was even hostile to their beliefs. So they had to learn to be faithful Jews, to live in relationship with God, in a pagan environment.
But notice what they are told to do next: Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive. Sounds like a strange thing to ask them to do, especially since the Babylonians had carried them off into captivity and destroyed Jerusalem. We know from other Scriptures that this was a profoundly traumatic time in the life of God’s people. Read Psalm 137. Read Lamentations.
Yet the Lord had called Israel to be a light to all of the other nations — that is, his representatives and witnesses. This was still their calling in Babylon. Yes, the circumstances had changed; but God’s purpose for them had not. This is why they are told to pursue the well-being of the city. This is why they are told to pray to the Lord for their Babylonian neighbours. They are instructed to do all of this in order to be a light to their pagan neighbours. They were called to live out their faith in inhospitable circumstances. They were called to reflect the truth of who God is right where they were. They were called to love God and to love their neighbours in a setting where it would be incredibly difficult, where they had no cultural privilege, and where they were in the minority.
And this wasn’t all that different for the first generation of Jesus’ followers. We see this in our passage from 1 Timothy. There Paul encourages Timothy (and through him other believers) to pray for everyone. Except notice that he singles out the governing authorities: I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority.
This is especially significant because the authorities at the time were hostile to Christians. They lived in a pagan world ruled by the Roman emperor. They did not live in a democratic society. And so Paul encourages this prayer for a specific reason, not simply for the well-being of the authorities generally. It was so that believers could lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
Now lest we think Paul wants believers to keep their heads down and to keep quiet about their faith, we need to pay attention to what he says next: This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. One commentator notes: “If there is peace, security and dignity, the church can work freely to give everyone an opportunity to hear the Gospel and to turn to God.”
So, like the ancient Jews in Babylon and the early Christians living in the Roman Empire, we too are called to pray for our neighbours and our leaders. We’re called to seek their well-being. We’re called, as God’s people always are, to be a light to others.
“You are the light of the world”
But I also think we know that this isn’t always easy. If you’re anything like me, you’ve noticed that a lot of the values or assumptions of our culture are increasingly at odds with a biblical worldview.
Both the exiled Jews in Babylon and the early Christians in the Roman Empire lived in a pagan culture. There were all kinds of other religions and different belief-systems. These religious ideas and beliefs led to particular ways of living, of understanding what it means to be human and what makes life valuable and meaningful. It’s also important to understand that beliefs are never only theoretical. They have practical, everyday consequences.
Here’s the truth: we also live in an increasingly secular and I would even say pagan culture. One where not only do many not share our faith but actively oppose it. Most people, because they do not share our biblical worldview, have views of what it means to be human, on what makes life valuable, and what the meaning of life is, that diverge profoundly from Christian teaching.
And for this reason I think we need to be aware of some of the specific issues that confront us here and now as followers of Jesus in Canada. Because if a given piece of legislation or government policy conflicts with a biblical worldview, then we need to find a way of being a light in these areas.
This means being willing to articulate a Christian understanding of life. It means figuring out how to be faithful to Christ in a time and place where our faith may seem strange and even unwelcome. Because like the Jews in Babylon, we’re called to love our neighbours. This means wanting for our neighbours what the Lord wants for them. It means pursuing their flourishing and well-being as defined by God.
So over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at number of issues that as Christians we need to think through carefully and biblically. We’re going to look at MAiD legislation, abortion, LBGTQ+ issues, and religious freedom. These issues have particular relevance here and now. Some of them have a distinctive Canadian flavor. They also highlight how our biblical faith can come into conflict with our surrounding culture.
Now, these are also difficult topics. They are complex. They are often emotional and divisive. So we’ll look at them sensitively and prayerfully. We need to recognize that we might not all come to the same conclusions about how to approach these issues as Christians. It goes without saying that we won’t be able to do these topics justice. But hopefully we can get a sense of what’s at stake with each of them and how we can begin to approach them from a biblical point of view.
Years ago when I was at Acadia Divinity College, I remember my theology professor, Dr. Roy Williams, commenting that we’re at the point where churches and Christian organizations from other places around the world are beginning to send missionaries to the US and Canada. He made that comment almost 30 years ago.
And, yes, we still send CBM staff overseas to other parts of the world to share the truth of Christ and love of God in word and deed. But the simple truth is, the Canada we live in today is not the Canada most of us grew up with. To use old fashioned language, our own community is a mission field. Even if you grew up in this area, and can look back at generations of family, if you are a follower of Jesus you are now officially “from away.” You are an exile, a stranger, a sojourner whose citizenship is in heaven.
When the apostle Paul tells Timothy to pray for leaders, he does so because of the truth of who Christ is. He does so because he wants believers to be able to live out their faith amongst their neighbours, their family and friends. More than that, he does so because of what’s at the center of God’s heart: God, he says, wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
And what is that truth? For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time. Living out and sharing this truth is what it means to be the light of the world. That’s what it means to love our neighbor, to show God’s love in our words and through our deeds. Because whatever other people believe, whatever is going on in the world around us, people still need truth. People still need hope. People still need forgiveness. People still need Christ.
One thought on ““Living as Exiles #1: Being From Away””
Great word Brother! I look forward to following these sensitive issues with you. Go bless you!