When God delivered the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and as He placed them in the promised land, He warned them that if they trusted and obeyed Him their lives would be protected and blessed with good things, but if they turned to other gods He would remove His protection from them and give them over to their enemies. After centuries of giving them small punishments for their disobedience, God finally gave the people into the hands of the Babylonians. In 586 BC, the Babylonians took the majority of Israel into captivity. There were at that time, lying prophets who told the people that they would be delivered shortly and everything would go back to normal. This was not true, because God had not sent them. However, God had sent Jeremiah to them with a message about these things - which is recorded in Jeremiah 29:4-12.
"4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But 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. 8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. 10“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.”
Our culture has changed dramatically during the course of just a few decades - and it’s going to change much more in the years to come. Congregations, which were once the center of their communities’ lives, now feel like they have been left behind in a foreign land. Churches who used to set up folding chairs in the aisles now struggle to keep their doors open. It is normal for us to feel hurt and defensive. However, indulging these feelings for too long is of no benefit to the Church or the world around us whom God has called us to serve.
God’s message to the Jews in their exile may also be applied to the Church in our day: “. . . 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.” God calls us to pray for our communities and to do everything that we can for their good. This is an important witness for the Church in our age. How common is it today for people to do things for others when they don’t have to? How many people in our city feel lost, forgotten, and cut off from God? While it is tempting to begin making a list of all of the things that we might do to serve our community - and that’s good - it is important that we begin first by seeking Beloit’s welfare before God in prayer.
Of course, our efforts on their behalf do not stop there - but they should always begin there. God will show us what He would have us do. Pray that God would burden your heart with His mission in our city. And remember the words God also spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” As Jesus invites us into the work he is doing in our city, we will most likely experience some changes in how we do things, but also a life together that is increasingly meaningful and of much benefit to our neighbor. Finding ourselves surrounded by a culture that we no longer easily identify with is disheartening, but finding ourselves engaged in the work God is doing - although feeling foreign to us - is one of the greatest joys this life offers.