John 15:18-19 "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.”
John 17:16 "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
Philippians 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hebrews 11:13-16 “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
1 Peter 2:12 “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Ephesians 2:19 “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
There is no escaping the idea that followers of God should not feel at home in this world. That doesn’t mean the world is not meaningful, beautiful or enjoyable. It just means that there must always be a godly discontent with the cultural status quo; a holy conviction that this world is broken and in desperate need of redemption; an abiding sense that we are what Moses referred to himself as: ‘a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus 2:22).
When I was raised Mennonite, this tension was obvious all the time.
- We dressed differently.
- We didn’t have TVs or go to movies.
- We didn’t listen to secular music.
- We didn’t celebrate Halloween, and the cultural trappings of Christmas and Easter were very carefully monitored.
- We were pacifists, and every President is the Commander-in-Chief. All who pay taxes give money to the military. There is simply no way a historically grounded Mennonite can participate in the political process without a deep awareness of being a stranger in a strange land.
I’m not saying this made us holy or better. There are reasons you don’t see this list replicated in my home. My point is that we were different, and we felt it all the time. There was a constant reminder that our ultimate loyalty was elsewhere, and that awareness fundamentally shaped our lives. It might have been poorly expressed, and it had a lot more to do with tradition than the Bible, but the message was clear.
I was recently talking with a Mennonite friend who said that this election causes him no more angst than he normally feels when an election nears. He’s well aware that this world is not his home, and that the candidates are not the answer the world needs. From his perspective, this election quandary is in some ways a blessing. Now the whole church has to face this reality, because the United States feels less and less like home for Christians. And the more we are reminded that our citizenship is in Heaven, that’s not a bad thing.
I have another Mennonite friend who teaches at a Christian college in the Bible Belt. He recently spoke sadly of the lack of students really passionate about their faith. There could be lots of reasons, but the bottom line is that he thinks his students are too comfortable. They've never felt different enough. They are too comfortable in an American Kingdom that is often very much at odds with the Kingdom of God. At best they lack passion; at worst they are leaving their faith.
But it’s not just college students who are losing their sense of alienation and exile. The church in general is struggling with this.
"Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." George Barna concludes, "Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change." We have very little time, he believes, to reverse these trends… African Christian and famous missions scholar Professor Lamin Sanneh told Christianity Today recently that "the cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete.”
While I was reading the news last week an example caught my eye.
“Overall, the economy is the top concern for Americans regardless of religious affiliation (30%). National security (17%) and personal character (17%) also are significant issues. Supreme Court nominees (10%), immigration (5%), religious freedom (2%), and abortion (1%) are less important. ‘For churchgoers and those with evangelical beliefs, their pocketbook and personal safety are paramount,’ said McConnell. ‘Moral issues aren’t a priority for many of them.’”
It’s not that Christians desiring economic health or safety is a problem. It’s just hard to see how to make an argument that the Bible tells us to prioritize money and safety over the protection of human life, just immigration policies or religious freedom. I’m trying to envision Paul being handed this list and asked with what things the church should be most concerned
I want us to wrestle with the idea that there is something about being a committed follower of Christ that will inevitably and inescapably reveal the chasm between our earthly and heavenly kingdom. It should be clear to us.
- Every time we go through the checkout line at Meijers and see the magazines that objectify women and thrive on vicious gossip, that should feel strange to us.
- When we drive past billboards that use sex to sell products, that should feel strange, not normal.
- When we turn on the radio or TV and listen to or watch the celebration of sin, that should feel strange.
- When we hear language that is casually vulgar and demeaning, that kind of conversation should feel strange.
- When we see commercials that insist things will bring us happiness
- When see the racism that still exists
- When we vote this year, we should feel like strangers who inhabit a strange land, exiles not at home in this foreign land.
But we have to be careful. If this lingering feeling of alienation drives us inward or makes us retreat or causes us to lash out in anger, we are missing the purpose of this holy dissatisfaction. I believe God puts this reminder in us to motivate us to engage and redeem our culture for our good and His glory.
First, our hearts are meant to be broken by the fallen state of the world.
David wrote: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept as we remembered Zion.” (Psalm 137:1) That was a proper response for living in Babylon. It’s not that Babylon wasn’t beautiful. It had the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders Of The World. It was a cultural marvel. It’s just that the worldview, the vibe, the moral climate was terrible. It broke their heart to see Babylon in contrast with a land characterized by the things of God.
How often do we weep for our American Babylon as we think about how far we have wandered from the goodness of the Kingdom of God? It’s easy to see the latest celebrity who makes terrible life choices and jeer. It’s easy to see political candidates and just get mad. It’s easy to read articles about how the world is descending into madness and get hardened and cynical. It’s easy to muster arguments for why the last natural disaster was clearly a judgment by God against some group of exceptionally bad sinners.
But that’s not the biblical call (and the last one’s just not biblical). We should be broken. We should be praying; we should be weeping for the cycle of sin that unfolds in so many lives including our own; we should be begging God for the salvation, healing and restoration of everyone.
Our hearts are meant to be broken by the fallen state of the world.
Second, our broken hearts should motivate us to engage.
When the Jews were in exile, the prophet Jeremiah wrote:
“This is what the Eternal, Commander of heavenly armies and God of Israel, says to those He exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses—make homes for your families because you are not coming back to Judah anytime soon. Plant gardens, and eat the food you grow there. Marry and have children; find wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, so that they can have children. During these years of captivity, let your families grow and not die out. Pursue the peace and welfare of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to Me, the Eternal, for Babylon because if it has peace, you will live in peace.” (Jeremiah 29: 4-11)
That’s a very specific order for the Israelites, so let’s consider how this command has played out over church history in other situation. In the early church, Christians were very good at redeeming things within their cultures, moving in and bringing with them the peace of God.
- The New Testament Christians sang; they tithed; they ate ‘love feasts’ together; they listened to speakers. This wasn’t a new idea; every other follower of a religion did this at that time.
- The church took the iconic kriophoros, or lamb bearer, and used it to portray Christ as the Good Shepherd.
- The church used the praying figure of the pagan orant to symbolize Christian piety.
- The classic image of Jonah under the withered vine was based on the story and popular pictures of Endymion, a young man who fell in love with a goddess.
- A fresco of Christ as Orpheus in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome dates from the 4th century. Clement wrote, “Orpheus pacified wild beasts by the power of his song…Jesus’ new song tames ‘the most intractable of all animals – man.’”
Modern Christianity has done this as well.
- Christmas, Easter and Halloween have a mixed history, but the church has always found ways to take cultural celebrations and direct them toward God.
- We move into entertainment, entering into popular music and popular forms of storytelling and using that vehicle for the glory of God. How many times has the Matrix been mentioned from this pulpit?
- We enter into the flow of art and fashion and make things that reflect biblical values.
- We are politicians, businessmen, students, teachers, lawyers, laborers…
We don’t retreat from our culture. We embed ourselves in it. The first Christians didn’t move out of the neighborhood once they became disciples of Christ. They were just aware in ways they weren’t before that all around them was a broken and dying world that in some ways was terribly at odds with their new citizenship – and it broke their hearts, and they stayed there and sought to bring the reality of new life in the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. They prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and then they did His will.
So our heart should be broken, and that should motivate us to engage.
Third, we must remember the power of public witness.
Here’s the big question: what do people learn about Jesus from Christians? They can’t see him, obviously, but they can see us. And when they see people who claim they are being transformed so that they increasingly reflect Jesus, they reach conclusions about what Jesus must be like.
- People will assume that what we celebrate, Jesus would celebrate.
- People will assume that what we mourn, Jesus would mourn.
- People will assume that the stands we take are the stands Jesus would take; that the things we call virtues or vices are the things Jesus would call virtues or vices.
- They assume that the language we use online is Jesus approved.
- They assume the signs we carry and the things we shout are a reflection of the gospel message.
- They assume our attitude, our actions, and our speech reflect our Savior.
So how has the past month been going? If one of your friends was asked right now, “What did you learn about Jesus last month from ___”, what would they say?
Has our public witness strengthened or weakened the reputation of Christ and His Kingdom? We may be strangers, but we are called to be loving, truthful, and gracious strangers. Do we bring peace to the city? I don’t mean through compromise, but through our presence: our integrity, our words, our actions, our attitudes, the proper ordering of our loves as we model what ought to matter most. Has God been glorified in Traverse City because our lives can’t help but point others toward our glorious Savior?
Here’s my challenge to you this week.
- Develop and awareness of being a spiritual exile, a foreigner, a stranger.
- When this becomes clear, let your heart be broken for this strange land.
- When your heart is broken, let that engage you; become even more involved in our community as you work and pray for peace to come to our land as we bring the presence of Jesus to all those around us.
- Let your witness point toward the fullness and the hope of life in the Kingdom of God.
 “Borrowing From The Neighbors.” http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/borrowing-from-the-neighbors/