Dan Spragg & Josh Olds on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Amos 4:1-5, Acts 2:43-47 and Matthew 22:34-40
‘Seeking the wellbeing of the city’
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Dan
Finding oneself in a hostile environment, having been forcibly removed from home and land tends to sharpen up the choices one has in front of them. Jeremiah’s voice comes to Israel while they find themselves in exile. Defeated by the Babylonians and taken back to Babylon to live amongst their enemies they find themselves in a strange place. So, what do they do? Do they run? Or do they fight? Or is there another way? What if there was? What would that look like?
Nonviolent resistance has a long history. We know of Parihaka, we know of Martin Luther King Jr, we know of Mahatma Gandhi, and we know of Jesus, and we learn of it here with the Israelites in Babylon. Should they run or fight? God encourages them in another way: to settle in, be present, make their home, multiply and actively seek the welfare of the city they are in. God has a vision for how they are to be as they find themselves without home or land. Be here and be peaceful, but not only that, promote peace. Resist the urge to run or to fight. Be a peaceful and useful resistance amongst those who persecute you.
Themes throughout the prophets’ writings always have a future hope. That in the end all would be well. But here, it is like God is calling them to bring that future into the present and actualise that vision there and then by being God’s people where they found themselves.
This passage from Jeremiah 29 has been an important passage within our life over the past number of years. The church in the Western world and increasingly in New Zealand finds itself a sort of exile in a strange land. No longer is the Christian Church at the centre of our society. We find ourselves in a strange space. So, what are we to do? Are we to run and retreat, draw tight lines around ourselves, wall ourselves off from the world? (we know some who do). Or, are we to fight, to rally against the changes in society – changes like restrictions on Bible in Schools and prayers in parliament; or are we to react against Covid restrictions as if they were a personal attack on the Christian church? (we know these reactions too). Or, is there a different way? Run, retreat, fight, or, be present where we are, engaged with the life of this new world and in our small ways bring to life God’s vision of the world right where we are, by settling in and praying for and working for the peace and welfare of this place.
Amos 4:1-5 and Acts 2:43-47 – Josh
So as we’ve just heard – part and parcel of being the people of God is being invested in a place, or as Jeremiah puts it – seeking the peace and prosperity of the surrounding community of which we’re a part.
The passages that we’ve just heard from Amos and Acts serve as examples of the people of God doing that in a really positive way in the case of Acts, and in quite a negative way in the case of Amos. Let’s start with Amos and get the bad out of the way first.
Amos was a prophet, a man called by God to deliver a warning to God’s people. The situation was that during the time of Amos, the people of God were very concerned with following the religious ceremonial laws that God had given them – making this type of sacrifice, holding that type of festival, going to the temple during this time etc. They had it all figured out and they knew it. But there was one reasonably glaring problem, their worship was completely detached from the way they lived.
While God’s people would make the right type of sacrifice and go to the temple at the right time, alongside that they also carried out massive injustices. The poor and marginalised in Israel were exploited and oppressed by the wealthy, who lived lives of luxury. Those without means were often unjustly sold into slavery and stripped of any rights. The justice system was completely corrupt and easily manipulated to favour the elite. So while they were great at observing and practising the ritual of worship, it was nothing more than habitual box-ticking. So Amos comes and calls out their hypocrisy, effectively saying “you can’t worship at the temple one day and then oppress your poor neighbour the next day. No, being the people of God must always extend beyond the ritual and ceremony to authentic neighbourly love. It’s not about showing up at the right place, or saying the right thing – but being the people of God is about seeking the peace and prosperity of all.”
On that note, we turn to Acts, and a much better example. The situation happening during this time in Acts is that the followers of Jesus have begun gathering together after Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit has come, in what we might call the first formation of the church. The faith of the believers is expressed organically and holistically – their worship at the temple extends into the rest of their lives as they open their homes and break bread and eat together. They give what they have and ensure all are taken care of. They are characterised by the joy and generosity that they lived with. And because of that, we’re told that they had the goodwill of all of the people. The wider community felt goodwill towards the people of God because of how they went about living, isn’t that cool? They were seen as an asset to their community, something of value to the place they found themselves in – a living example of a community of God’s people seeking the peace and prosperity of the community of which they were a part.
And so, in the Amos passage, we see a people compartmentalising their faith; their worship is resigned to temple rituals and has no connection to the way they live. As a result, they perpetuate brokenness. But in Acts we see a people whose faith is integrated throughout their whole lives, their worship at the temple is consistent with the way they relate to their neighbours, and as a result, they perpetuate peace and prosperity.
We move now to our fourth and final reading.
Matthew 22:34-40 – Josh (part 1)
So this morning we’re reflecting on one of our core values as the Village – what it means for us to be a community of people who seek the well-being of our city, people who seek the peace and prosperity of our community. But sometimes that can feel easier said than done, we live with lots of grey areas, don’t we? How are we to seek the well-being of our place when the challenges present are so complex and multi-faceted? There aren’t always nice, easy and clear answers.
In this passage, Jesus gives us the starting point. Sometimes online, at the bottom of long posts on Facebook, or at the end of a long article you see the four letters TLDR – TLDR stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read,” it’s then followed by a summation of the central parts of the post or article for people who weren’t able (or willing) to read the whole thing. Jesus sort of does that for us in this passage, he boils it all down, and he sums up everything that God has asked of his people through the law and the prophets – by simply saying love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself. Of course, the intricacies of seeking the well-being of our place as the people of God will still require much discernment, at times we need to pause and reflect on what it looks like to love God and neighbours. But at the risk of sounding too simplistic, if these two things inform our life as the Village, we’re off to a pretty good start.
and Dan (part 2)
So as we have this vision of ‘how to be here’. And as we have a clear starting point of ‘love God, love neighbour’, but also hold alongside these the complexities and the grey areas of trying to live these out, it’s good for us to be honest and recognise that we can probably see a little bit of ourselves in both the examples we’ve heard. There are parts of us that go through the motions with the religious stuff. We come to services – stand up, sit down, sing some songs and have a cuppa and give our time and resources to the church and the community but it doesn’t seem to sink in any deeper, it stays at a surface level – and at our low points we might even justify some not so great behaviour because we can offset it against turning up for church each week. And at the same time, there are parts of us that experience an ‘all in’ kind of faith life. It’s engaging, it’s meaningful; we feel like we’re part of something bigger that is having a positive impact on those around us. There is always the potential for both and potential for both at the same time more often than not.
So it is good to pause and ask yourself today, where do you land? Do you have a sense of integration with the life of God living here and now in this place? Or is there a disconnect occurring? Do you have a sense of God’s vision, a sense of what a God-filled life might look like? Can you picture what it is to love God and love your neighbour? If not, what could you do to move towards that?
The great thing about stories and examples from the Bible is that they are experiences that humans had. Which means that their experiences can be our experiences. Sure, the particulars are different – a different time and place – but, it’s often not hard to see how similar the situations are at the same time.
As the Israelites found themselves in a different society and struggled with how to live out God’s presence with them; as the early Christians did the same; we get to ask the same questions.
And today, we are being encouraged, not to run from it, take it for granted, use our faith as a tick boxing exercise or be aggressive and fight as victims; but rather we are being encouraged to be here where we find ourselves. Be present to God who is with us and enact God’s goodness, love and grace to those we rub shoulders with.
Seek the well-being of the city. Love God completely and love our neighbours the same. For it is there that peace for all will be found.