Excellence in Exile, Part 1: Living for the Good of a Bad City
(Psalm 137:1-9; Jeremiah 29:4-14; Daniel 1:1-2)
Spiritually speaking, much has changed in America in our own lifetime. From a Christian perspective, some of these changes are sad, revolting, depressing, and even scary. As a nation, we’re far from God, and the church at large is in a funk because of it. Older evangelicals especially can’t believe the changes they’ve witnessed. It is depressing. Like Israel in exile, we’re tempted to lament the situation, curse the darkness, and “hang up our harps on the poplar.” But while these reactions are understandable, it’s vital to remember that God has a plan for his people, even in spiritually dark times. Especially in dark times.
Jeremiah 29:4-11 provides some much needed encouragement. This famous passage of Scripture is often ripped from its context, but the context is vital to understanding its message and contemporary relevance. The “plans” that God has for his people are not individual recipes for success, but plans for effective corporate witness, and an eventual end to the exile. “But until then,” says God, “don’t run from the pagan culture; settle down in it. Live among your neighbors and love them. Help them flourish. Seek their welfare. Live for the good of a bad city.”
In other words, his marching orders for believers are to live out the wisdom of God in their neighbors’ midst, and captivate them with the reality of who God is. A pagan’s eternal destiny is God’s business, but the believer’s business is to be a good neighbor and stay loyal to God in the process. It’s to be in the world but not of it.
And because God is “beautifully sneaky,” he’s always up to something good in the midst of something bad. Magi attended the birth of Christ precisely because the nation of Israel went into exile. Had the covenant people stayed in their familiar and comfortable land, the messianic prophecies never would have reached the Gentiles. But they did, and that’s how the magi knew to connect the astronomical phenomenon with the birth of the new king. God’s love is truly for the world.
And so it is today. It’s the scattered church that can plant seeds for the harvest. When a culture is spiritually dark, God’s people can graciously turn on the light. That’s part of what it means to be “excellent in exile.” The book of Daniel shows us how.