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. Jeremiah 29:7
WE must never forget that the Church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of those who never go near it. God has chosen us, selected us from eternity to do a job for Him. There is a sorry strain that runs through the history of the Church, the tragic record of how the Church forgets why she is here. We are the enrollers, the conscriptors, looking for names to write in the Book of Life. The Church was never meant to be a club of like-minded people, but a sacramental society of collectors.
This does not mean we should neglect celebration, or that fellowship doesn't matter, or that we should not dedicate time to educating those who are already enrolled. Far from it! The Church is a Mother who nurtures her young in every way. We don't stop caring when people are enrolled. Every time we reach out we must also reach in, for the door works both ways, but look around. Don't stop with the immediate neighborhood, but start with it and look at Cleveland. There are thousands of people here who have learned the hard way that the secular city does not meet their needs. They probably aren't thirsty for the righteousness of God, or at least they couldn't think of it in those terms, but they definitely are not satisfied with Mammon's goodies, if indeed they have any of them. These people are not gullible. They are wary, but they have meaningful questions. They don't want garbage. This world gives them enough of that. A young writer once went to a New York publisher bringing with him an excellent manuscript. The publisher read it, then said Too bad! You have an excellent novel. Come back when you have some trash. Our fellow citizens already know trash. They don't need to get it from us. They want real value. And in faith, real value comes with authority.
Does the word "authority" bother you? No one wants to be considered "authoritarian." Many people refuse to submit to the authority of good grammar, with the result that they speak terrible English which no one can understand. We want to be certain that they hear the authority of Jesus, for He alone is the True Teacher of the Church. How do we have access to His authority? First through the Holy Scriptures, all of its parts, even the most violent of the Psalms. Secondly, through the Book of Concord, where we have the pure and truthful interpretation of the Scriptures, preserved for many centuries in the True Visible Church. Thirdly, we need God's deputies, the shepherds of Christ's flock, and parents who can be high priests in every home. And there is one more deputy, one in the larger society whom Jesus calls "Caesar." Jesus rules His kingdom of the left hand through the state and the force of the civil law, but He rules the kingdom of His right hand directly. He never uses force in the right hand kingdom, but grants pardon and peace through the Gospel. You and I are citizens in the one and subjects in the other. We belong to Jesus, to His kingdom of grace which is always a monarchy, but since the kingdom of the left hand might well be a republic, we must learn to act in it the way one acts in republics.
Most of the people in our city are outside the kingdom of grace. In Jesus' time His own people rejected Him. Today our neighbors reject Him. They have far fewer excuses because at least they know what Christmas and Easter are, that is they should know in spite of the commercial camouflage that covers them. Even if they knew all the facts that would not be Christian faith. You could recite all four gospels, you could admire Jesus for His mighty works and patient suffering, but it still would not be faith. It becomes faith when you can say This was for me. Shortly after that you could add This was for my friends and neighbors. Eventually the Holy Spirit will enable you to say This was for my enemies.
The prophet Jeremiah was writing to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed. They no longer had their own nation. In Jerusalem, church and state had been one. Now they were aliens in a strange land. The Prophet assured them that God knew who they were and where they were, that being Jewish would separate them from the secular society. In the same way, our heavenly citizenship separates us from our place of exile. Their faith made them different -- so does ours. What Jeremiah told them applies to us in the same way -- Seek the good of the city in which you dwell. If things go well for them, they will also go well for you. The city is not our first allegiance. That belongs only to the King who is coming, but that very King wants us to be productive in our present environment. He wants us to be involved so that everything will be better -- the books, the music, the clothes, the housing, the education, all of it. He calls us to continue to put forward what is excellent. To be good citizens we must never be content with trash.
Remember that Christ's Kingdom is the more important one. To recruit people for it we need to know a lot about people -- about refugees, about minorities, about other religions; to understand the world of broken homes and non-custodial parents. While these people want very much to be part of a sacramental fellowship, they don't necessarily want to join a social club. We want to assimilate them, but not into anything that wasn't commanded by Jesus. We have nothing to sell, just love to give away. Jesus does not sell us His grace. He buys us with His blood. Jesus had nothing to sell, and neither do we. He bought us by His cross and resurrection. Evangelism begins in the front yard, but eventually it reaches out to every land and language and tribe. You can be the best of evangelists by being a good citizen. Missionaries who work overseas are evangelists first and foremost, who need our prayers and resources to do their work. We must concentrate on what is at hand, but without neglecting people who are far away.
Before God made the world He worked out a plan of salvation. He did this purely out of mercy. There was nothing in us worth saving, but God is good. To find out how good we need to contemplate the cross of Jesus. That's how far God was willing to reach out to save the lost. All of us were born lost. Many people still are, groping about in the dark. Will they listen to us? We might first have to earn their trust. We can do that by being good citizens in Caesar's kingdom, and that would be impossible if we were not first subjects of the Messiah, children of heaven. We are! And to our real fatherland we aim to encourage immigration. AMEN.
~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross