Written by Aaron Graham
A few weeks ago I shared about my own calling into ministry and particularly my calling to live and work among the poor in Boston. I shared from the book of Jeremiah about the inseparable connection between knowing God in a personal way and doing the work of justice. For far too long the church has kept these two as separate pieces of the gospel rather than one integral whole. Worship and justice must go together.
Today I want to share with you about how to be prosperous! About the key to unlocking personal peace and prosperity in your life. Yes you heard me right! I said your prosperity.
Our Scripture this morning again comes from the book of Jeremiah, but a few chapters later. Chapter 29:4-11.
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.
9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them," declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.
11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
This letter was directed to the elders, priests, prophets, and people who had been carried away captives to Babylon. These were the people of Israel who had disobeyed God by worshiping false idols. But they thought they would just be refugees in exile for a short time, maybe two years max. They had the mindset they would just buy some time, not really settle down and invest in their family, work, and neighborhood. But Jeremiah lets them know they will be in Babylon 70 years so they better settle down and make the best of it.
Jeremiah was frustrated with the false prophets, who fed people constant lies that they would be able to return back to Jerusalem quickly. Jeremiah’s writes this letter to correct these lies.
•The Message translation verses 8-9 says “Don’t let all those so-called preachers and know-it-alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don’t pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They’re a bunch of liars preaching lies – and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me.”
•There is a dangerous theology that is spreading like a cancer in many churches and Christian books today. It is very similar to the theology of these false prophets in Jeremiah’s time. It’s a theology that says the conditions of our world are just getting worse everyday and there is nothing anyone can do to improve them. Therefore, just focus completely on the spiritual realm. This leads to what is sometimes called Lifeboat theology. Lifeboat theology says the world is like a sinking ship and your job is to pull as many people out of the water and get them into lifeboats as possible. But the problem is that people with this mindset are often so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.
•But contrast this with Ark theology, which I believe is a more biblical understanding of the gospel. This theology says that God wants to restore all of his creation by bringing it under His Lordship. When God sees anything he created he looks and says, “Mine.” Yes, God wants to start by changing our hearts, but God does not want to stop there, he also wants to change families, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. So while lifeboat theology is exclusively focused on getting people on earth into Heaven, Ark theology is focused on trying to yank a little Heaven onto earth. As Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
In this Scripture God is saying to the exiles in Babylon: “No Lollygagging.” Stop hitting the snooze button. You’ve got a mission and purpose to accomplish. You may want to sleep in but I’ve got the secret to your happiness and it’s different from what you are being fed by all these false prophets (who like the advertising industry) are constantly trying to deceive you into thinking it is all about you. These false prophets are turning Christianity into a “bless me club” and tricking people into thinking it’s about seeking their own kingdom rather than God’s Kingdom.
•For a long time I ran around trying to get God to bless what I was doing. I remember particularly in middle school praying things like – “God cause this girl to like me, God help me to make the basketball team, God please let my parents let me stay out later, and God help me to become famous.” I still pray these selfish prayers more than I’d like to admit today. Too often I am trying to get God to bless what I am doing. But we see from Scripture this morning Jeremiah saying something like: “Stop trying to get God to bless what you are doing, instead get involved with what God is doing, because it is already blessed.”
o And what is God doing? God is restoring lives particularly those lives that everyone else in society has given up on. God is at work in the city of Richmond, particularly in the forgotten places of desperate need.
o Speaking at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast the rockstar Bono from U2 said: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
[Connecting Jer. 7 & 11]
•Most people quote v. 11 everywhere. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to proper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It’s on every Christian bracelet, t-shirt, bookmark, graduation card, mug, and even breath mint! It is a very powerful verse. It has gotten me through a lot.
•STORY: In fact this verse has got me through this week. Amy and I were expecting to become parents of an African American boy on Monday but the birthmother changed her mind at the last minute and decided to parent the child. I cannot even begin to explain the emotional mess this put Amy and me through. To think one day that you are going to become a dad and the next day to have that taken from you is very difficult. But this verse kept me going this week reminding me that God does have a plan, and to just keep staying the course in doing God’s mission in the world, and He will bless and provide in His time. And that’s the story of how I met my beautiful wife Amy. It wasn’t by trying to make it happen. In fact it was the exact opposite. I met Amy in Boston when I was practically homeless and living off nothing. We met both doing what we love – ministering to college students and to people in the inner city of Boston.
•The problem with verse 11 is that we often take it out of context. We must first understand verse 7 in order to fully grasp verse 11. Verse 11 says “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you.” But the secret to how we experience that prosperity is in verse 7: “If it (the city) prospers, you too will prosper.” So when God says he has a plan to prosper you that is contingent on you first seeking the peace and prosperity of the city where you live. So if things go well in the city than things will go well for you.
•Let me be clear what is meant by peace and prosperity. The Hebrew word for peace and prosperity is Shalom. Shalom is a state of wholeness and completeness, possessed by a person or a group that includes good health, prosperity, security, justice, and deep spiritual contentment. The idea encompasses all the relationships of daily life (with God, neighbor, self, and even between nations). It symbolizes the people of Israel’s ideal quality of life.
So, if you want Shalom in your life work for Shalom in the city.
•The Bible is very straightforward about how we experience joy and purpose in life. And the biblical vision of others first it is quite different than the Burger King “my way right away” vision for life.
oIsaiah 58: 9-12 (The Message) "If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones. You'll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.
oPromise - God will have your back!
[God is in the City]
•Too often the church follows the pattern of this world and flees from the very people who have the most desperate needs. I have seen too many abandoned churches in downtown areas of major cities that were once filled with people. But rather than realizing that God was bringing their mission field to their doorstep many of these churches fled to the suburbs along with the white flight.
•We see in the Bible cities are places of spiritual warfare. It is depicted both as a dwelling place of God and as a center of power for Satan. The city is one primary stage on which the drama of salvation is played out. It is in cities where culture is shaped and ideas are generated. But too often, the church is completely irrelevant to the needs of the city and therefore does not have the ear of the unbelieving world. Rather than engaging the city as a mission field we run from it. But if we are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ than we can no longer avoid focusing on ministering to our city.
•In 1800, about 2% of the planet lived in cities, in 1900 about 8%, but since 2001 over half the world lives in sizeable cities! In our neighborhood in Washington DC, I heard there are about 180 nationalities of people living in our one zip code! I grew up hearing that missions was something we were to do across the ocean, but now I’m realizing it is across the street.
•If we take this passage in Jeremiah 29:7 seriously I don’t think we ever claim we have a healthy church until we ALSO have a healthy city. We cannot be content to just go to a great church and invite others to come to our church; we must ALSO live in a great city. We are not called to be an OASIS in a DESERT but to create an oasis for everyone in the city of Richmond.
•STORY: Last December I was in Columbus, Ohio meeting with 20 megachurch pastors in preparation for the Justice Revival I was organizing with the ministry Sojourners where I work. This was a diverse gathering, half the pastors were black and half were white and from many denominations. But what they all had in common was that there churches were huge – at least 3,000 people each! They went around and shared many of the great things happening in their churches including how fast many of their churches were growing. My boss Jim Wallis was in the meeting too, spoke up. He affirmed the pastors and how their churches were growing and gave praise to God for the lives that were being changed in the church. But he said, “I have a disconnect…flourishing churches in a failing city.” We decided to organize a 3-day Justice Revival to unite the church to address the needs of the city.
oIn Columbus, (like Richmond) one in five children lives in poverty. So its not enough to just have a big church when youth are being shot every night in the city, when thousands still live in poverty, thousands have no health care, thousands have no fathers in their lives, thousands are making the tragic decision to have an abortion, thousands have no job, and thousands of people have no family to care for them.
[Charity or Justice?]
Until we have brought justice to the city we will not be able to celebrate and experience shalom.
•But here is the catch. Shalom doesn’t occur through doing charity but through doing justice. There is a big difference. Charity is giving somebody a handout. It’s what we do with our spare change in our spare time. It may get someone through the day but charity rarely changes anything in the community.
oJustice demands much more of us. Justice requires sacrifice. And that’s unfortunate because we as Americans love charity! When we do charity, we can keep our safe distance, and help the poor on our own terms.
oBut the God of the Bible is a God of justice. God always gets to the root of the problem no matter how uncomfortable that may be for people giving or receiving. In the Bible God challenges rulers, kings, and judges on behalf of widows, orphans, and the stranger.
oYes, God calls us to do charity by having mercy and compassion on the weak, because that is we are transformed. But ultimately God wants us to do justice as it says in Micah 6:8. Or as Isaiah 58:6 says “To loose the chains of injustice”.
•STORY: I have tried to do a lot of charity over my life. But as I spent time in the inner cities of America and among the poorest of the poor across the world doing short term projects I often felt like I was just pulling dead bodies out of the river day after day without going upstream to see who was throwing them in. But I learned if we want to change a city we cannot just intervene after the damage has already been done. We have to help prevent the problems in the first place. Work with hi-risk youth before they join a gang and get in trouble on the streets. Work with teenagers before they get pregnant.
Before moving to DC last year Amy and I spent five years doing urban ministry in Boston. Some of the ministers in the city told me about some amazing work they were doing in the 90’s and about why they started one of their ministries. It was 1992, and the violence in Boston had gotten out of control. The homicide rate was ski-rocketing. It got so bad that one morning during a funeral at Morning Star Baptist Church (for a young man who had been killed by a drive by shooting), a rival gang barged into the church and opened fire while the funeral was taking place.
The city was shaken. The next morning dozens of black ministers in Boston got together to meet and pray. They had a lengthy discussion about what was causing all of the killing. Eugene Rivers remembered a conversation he and some of the ministers had with a heroin dealer the week before. The drug dealer was trying to help the ministers understand how the church could be more effective in reaching out to hi-risk youth. The dealer said to the minister, “Its not rocket science. When Johnny goes to school in the morning, I'm there, you're not. When he comes home from school in the afternoon, I'm there, you're not. When Johnny is sent out for a loaf of bread from the corner store for Grandma, I'm there, you're not; So I win, you lose.”
The issue was pretty straightforward. The drug dealers could be there on the streets, why not the ministers? Rivers and clergy from about 40 other churches took the hint. They put together the "10 Point Coalition" to fill a void in their children's lives and take back their community block by block, street by street. They would start after school programs, make home visits, create drop-in centers, shelters for battered women, create jobs, mentoring opportunities, urban/suburban church partnerships, and walk the streets each night covering the city in prayer.
The result of the partnership between churches was amazing. The homicide rate dropped 72 percent and there was actually one 29-month period without a single youth homicide. It has been called “The Boston Miracle.”
See what can happen when churches unite, when the community comes together! When we don’t allow the streets to come into the church but take the church out into the streets! When we don’t limit our help to charity but also work to do justice. When we don’t just sit on the sidelines or in the pews and blame the government, the poor, the church, or the young people. But we each take personal responsibility for the welfare of our city.
Imagine what it would be like if every Christian in this city took responsibility…If every pastor in this city knew of each other? If we refused to allow race, class, and denominations to divide us? If we refused to allow Sunday morning to be the most racially divided hour each week in America? I believe if we as the church took seriously God’s call on our lives we could change this city. Richmond could be a city where everyone has the same chance at life. A city that will not allow where you are born to determine whether you have the same opportunities as everyone else.
•STORY: When I was a college student at the University of Richmond I would spend a couple days a week in Creighton Court on the East Side of Richmond working with a storefront church and after school program. Talk about a contrast – affluent University of Richmond culture and the rampant poverty of the housing projects. These kids in Creighton Court were so beautiful and joyful and I loved being with them. But they could not read in 10th grade. After volunteering over several months I learned some troubling facts: 1) 76% of them would not graduate from high school, 2) None of the kids in the after school program had fathers living in the home 3) All of them knew someone who had been killed on the streets to gun violence 4) All lived in poverty and 5) All of them missed at least one meal a day. This is all right here in Richmond. How is it that in one of the most prosperous cities in America we tolerate such injustice among the children of our city who so desperately want a chance to fulfill God’s dreams for their lives?
•What is God saying to us today through the prophet Jeremiah? If you want peace in your home, then get involved in the needs of the city. If you want to have the best church in the city, then get involved in the needs of the city. Reach beyond the cultural divides as Valerie challenged us to do last week.
•We can no longer live our lives as if what happens to someone on the other side of our city does not affect us. We are more connected than we think beyond racial, suburban/urban, rich/poor divides than we think. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny . . . I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”
The challenge this morning is very straightforward. What will our responses be to the injustices of our city? Richmond has one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Will we deny these great needs and just try to move farther away from them? Will we continue to believe the lies we are being fed by the false prophets of our modern culture that say seek first your on prosperity? Or will we trust that we serve a huge God that is able to do immeasurably more than we can ever ask or imagine? Will we trust that Jesus can empower us to go beyond our comfort zones to bring hope, healing, and justice to some of the most forgotten places of Richmond?
•This morning I want to ask you to consider making three commitments that I believe will help us all seek the peace and prosperity of our city.
1)Pray for your city. We are commanded in the Bible to pray to the Lord for our city (Jer. 29:7).
2)As you pray, ask God to give you a heart for one specific place in the city (that has been forgotten by others but not by God).
3)Spend time in that locations serving, listening, and praying.
•If every member of your church does these three things regularly I guarantee you your city would never be the same.