By Jon Jordan
In the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel experience a dramatic turn for the worse. When Genesis concludes, the Hebrew people are living in Egypt with Pharaoh’s permission. They are growing, and thriving in the land.
Yet in one chapter, a new Pharaoh rises to power and begins to fear the Hebrews. He enslaves them, and eventually attempts genocide by killing all male Hebrew children in the land.
The King James Bible has a wonderful phrase to describe what had become of the Hebrews. Once a privileged group within a powerful nation, they had become “strangers in a strange land.”
Throughout the rest of the Book of Exodus, God delivers his people from this slavery in Egypt, and in the next several books of the Bible, God gives these strangers in a strange land a land of their own.
Centuries after the events of Exodus, King David had established a vast kingdom for the people of Israel. His son, Solomon, expanded the borders further. Given its humble roots, the kingdom of Israel was vast and prosperous —until around 900 B.C., when a vicious civil war tore the country in half.
Poor leadership in the Northern kingdom led to its eventual destruction: the Assyrians took over around the year 700 B.C. For the next hundred years, the Assyrians slowly gained control of the Southern kingdom, too.
At the time that Jeremiah begins his prophetic ministry, the South had a good king, but the territory was owned by Assyria, and it was Assyrian religion and laws that reigned supreme in the land, even in Jerusalem.
Jeremiah, his parents, and their parents had witnessed quite a dramatic turn: Israel, once a vast kingdom with clear borders and a thriving religious life, was now a divided kingdom ruled by foreigners who imposed their religious and social norms on God’s people.
A once-great people with a rich religious life have found themselves divided and scattered, pulled toward false worship in some cases, and pushed toward false worship in others.
As the Book of Jeremiah progresses, things grow worse until eventually tens of thousands of God’s people are taken from their homeland to Babylon while their city and their temple are destroyed.
God’s people once again find themselves strangers in a strange land. It is easy for us to imagine ourselves today in a different context. In many ways, we are.
It is legal to be a Christian. We pay no taxes on this property by virtue of being a religious institution. And, for the most part, we experience very little suffering for our faith in this part of this country.
But just as we needed to begin this sermon by finding our bearings in the Book of Jeremiah, I think it is important that we find our bearings in our own time and place before we hear the message God has for us through Jeremiah this morning.
In other words: what does it mean to be a Christian today, in the 21st-century Western world?
To answer this question, we need to touch briefly on two movements of the past few centuries that have irreversibly shaped our culture.
The first is the Moral Revolution, which began in the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment sought to free our culture from any necessary ties to religion. It did not ban religion, and many of its leaders remained religious. But it did seek to explain the world on terms that were free from religious commitment.
Because of this movement, there is a tendency in our culture today to appeal to a vague morality without reference to a specific moral foundation. We are very interested in making sure everyone else is moral, but we cannot agree on any foundation for that morality.
For example, think about the concept of tolerance.
Before the Moral Revolution, you could argue that humans should be tolerant of other humans because all humans are created in the divine image of God and are therefore worthy of our respect and care.
After the Moral Revolution, without the ability to appeal to religion or tradition, the only argument to be made is that we should be tolerant … because we should be tolerant, and that tolerance is good … because tolerance is good.
What happens in a culture when this is the case, when there is no real foundation for our moral decisions?
We value tolerance, as long as other people are willing to tolerate what we think ought to be tolerated. If they don’t, we don’t really have tolerance for them, do we?
Some of the most accepting people you know simply cannot accept others who aren’t as accepting as they are.
The Moral Revolution has successfully removed the need, or even the desire, for a shared moral foundation.
This leads us to the second great movement of the past few centuries: the Scientific Revolution.
The Scientific Revolution is not about the development and refinement of science (these are both good things), but about placing science as king of the ways humans are taught to think about the world.
Generations of teachers and students have taught and learned that science is the only discipline capable of providing real answers to important questions. Religion and the humanities can tell us how we feel, but science can tell us what is real.
God, faith, right and wrong, the afterlife: these are all relegated to the level of opinion. Only science can tell us what is ultimately true.
Because of the Scientific Revolution, there is a deep tendency in our culture to affirm only what we can see and observe. Everything else is simply a matter of opinion.
A Christian in the 21st century is living in a culture that is deeply shaped by the Moral Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.
What happens when these forces combine?
Traditional Christianity becomes not just silly (why would you take time out of your weekly schedule to worship an invisible God?) but dangerous and offensive. It is dangerous because it offers a definitive and competing explanation for the world, and it is offensive because it offers a clear foundation for morality.
We are clearly not living as exiles in Babylon. We are still enjoying the benefits of life in Jerusalem. But the tide is changing, and it is changing quickly.
Our current situation looks much closer to the historic situation God’s people have found themselves in than we might think.
I am no prophet, and I can’t tell you for certain what the future holds. But it may just be that we, too, might find ourselves as strangers in a strange land in our lifetime.
So Jeremiah’s word from God to those living under the oppression of Assyria and Babylon is the same word from God to those of us living in the age of the Moral and Scientific revolutions.
Look with me at Jeremiah 23, now that we have some sense of what it means to be God’s people in his day and what it means to be God’s people in our day.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God offers a rebuke of our culture, and a way to redeem that same culture.
First, let’s hear the rebuke: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.”
In Jeremiah’s day, it was Assyria and Babylon that had driven away and scattered God’s people. These two empires, whose leaders claimed to be ushering in a new era of humanity, failed miserably.
So it is Assyria and Babylon that Jeremiah critiques in these verses. But what might God have to say through these words in our own day?
Like Assyria and Babylon, the Moral and Scientific revolutions were the great hope of the 18th and 19th centuries, promising to usher in a new era of humanity. What did they accomplish? They accomplished the 20th century.
Without a shared foundation for morality rooted in a good Creator and a loving Redeemer, we used our advances in science to unleash never before seen destruction on the human race. In the 20th century, we discovered that we could use science to perfect our ability to kill one another easily, and without a rooted moral foundation, we never stopped to ask whether we should.
We, and our children, will be living through the backlash of that century for centuries to come. These revolutions have failed, and they have scattered humanity.
So here is where Jeremiah’s critique hits home for us today:
Especially on this Christ the King Sunday, be wary of placing your hope in anyone or anything that claims to bring about heaven on earth, other than the one who is ruler of both heaven and earth.
We lose our way when we put our trust in a charismatic leader, a political party, or the spirit of the day. Movements, revolutions, and empires will fail us. They will cause real harm to God’s flock. So don’t put your trust in them.
But in his critique, God also offers a way of redeeming our culture:
“Then God will gather the remnant of his flock … and he will bring them back, and they will be fruitful and multiply” (Jer. 23:3).
We may find we are strangers in a strange land, but God has another title for us:
We are the remnant. We are a faithful part of the whole culture. A faithful part of the whole, which God uses to enhance the whole. To redeem the whole.
Think of the pictures Jesus uses to describe his kingdom: Salt. Yeast. These are remnant ingredients.
Salt and yeast are often among the smallest parts of a recipe, but as long as they serve their purpose, they wind up enhancing the entire meal.
This is God’s call to us this morning:
Be a small, faithful part of the culture you live in.
Don’t go hide in a cliff. Don’t go live in the woods. Recognize the good in our culture, especially since that good, more often than not, has its roots in the Christian church.
Be faithful in everyday moments wherever you are.
God will save his remnant. And because God is full of mercy, God will save others through his remnant community, too.
There is one way to live as God’s people when you are in Jerusalem, with a Hebrew king, and a beautiful temple, and laws that support your way of life.
There is another way to live as God’s people when you are captives in Babylon, with a wicked king, no temple, and laws that undermine your way of life.
I don’t know with certainty which context we will have in 20 years. But I do know that there is a way to faithfully respond to God in both contexts.
Either way, now is the time to develop the grit needed for the remnant lifestyle.
If we find it difficult today to regularly worship, to form communities of care and accountability, to give of our resources, to center our lives around Scripture and prayer — if these things are hard for us now, I can’t imagine them becoming easier if we wind up living in Babylon.
Advent begins next week. Use this season of preparation for Christmas to prepare your lives to adopt these practices so that you can become faithful in everyday moments, so that you can live the remnant life.
The Rev. Jon Jordan is a priest at Church of the Incarnation, and serves as the headmaster of the Dallas campus and Theology Department chair for Coram Deo Academy, a school in the classical Christian tradition.