The Gospel and The City

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Jesus Christ is Lord.  That is the simplest and shortest expression of the gospel.  When Jesus rose from the dead he demonstrated his victory over sin, death and the devil.  When he ascended into heaven he was elevated over every power, authority and rule as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  I hope you believe that, because it's true.  It actually happened in history, and right now Jesus reigns in heaven

Jesus is Lord.

That summary of the gospel may be short, but it has massive implications.  If Jesus is Lord over all things, then that means that Jesus is Lord over me, and Jesus is Lord over you, and Jesus is Lord over every person in Gateshead.

This new series 'Gospel in Life' is all about exploring how our lives should be shaped by that reality – if Jesus is my Lord, and Jesus is your Lord, then what should our lives look like?

As I said the implications are massive, so we're going to take a few weeks and rigorously rake over the details.  We're quite deliberately doing the same programme on Sunday and in our small groups so that we can have the time to really think in depth on the various topics.  If you're not in a small group now's the time to join one.  There's also material for further reading at home.  Some of it is heavy going, but it's also practical and challenging.  Why not make this term a time when you deliberately invest in your growth as a Christian – do the extra reading, ask yourself some hard questions, pray with friends about what you're reading.  Make up your minds to make the most of this series.

So that's where we're going – Gospel in Life – it's all about radically shaping our lives around the gospel.

So if that's where we're going, this morning looks a slightly strange place to start.  Did you think so too?  This morning we start with the topic 'Loving the City'.  Where does that come from?  Why is loving the city at the top of the list?  Does loving the city even count as one of the implications of the gospel – didn't John say that we shouldn't love the world 1 John 2:15 do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him.'  Clearly we can't mean loving the city in that sense.

So what are we talking about?  Well the title comes from the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish Exiles in Babylon, the letter we read from Jeremiah 29.  Remember Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem, God's holy city – pulled down the walls, desecrated the temple, even entered the most holy place and removed the ark and the altar and other sacred things.  Those exiles were wrenched from their home and deposited in that society – a city that was expressly dedicated to false gods, a society that was plainly opposed to the values and religion of their homeland.  This was a society so offensive and corrupt that it's name has been synonymous with corruption and vice ever since.  W should be under no illusions this was a society in which it was hard to live for God.

So how should the exiles feel about Babylon?  The obvious response would be to hate and despise it – to loath the godless masses and to hope for their swift destruction.  Shouldn't the godly man pray for an end to such a city as Babylon, shouldn't he work like the French resistance to undermine the oppressor?

Well you might think so.

But that's not what Jeremiah instructs them to do, he tells them to pray for the city, to work for it's good even.

God had decreed that they would live there for generations, so their fate is tied to the city, even thought it's a godless city.  Its good is their good, its prosperity is their prosperity, its safety is their safety.  What's good for the city will be good for them, because it's now their city.  And there's a lot more to say about that specifically – but I'm going to leave it for Tim Keller to say on Wednesday night in homegroups, or Thursday in Women's Fellowship.

But this goes to the heart of the implications of the gospel on our lives.  When we become Christians our very identity is shifted.  We're no longer defined by where we live, or where we grew up or who our parents are – now our single greatest defining characteristic is our relationship to God.  We're no longer at home on earth, our citizenship is in heaven, where Jesus is.  In his first letter Peter says that our situation mirrors that of those exiles in 6th C BC – like them we're aliens and strangers in a foreign city, and like them we should do good to the city we live in.

So those are my two simple points this morning –

First: If We Belong to the Lord Jesus then we don't belong Here; and

Second: Though We Don't Belong Here, We're to Do Good Here

Now I know those two points are fairly straight forward, but there's plenty of meat on those bones, so we'll have plenty to chew on.

So, please open up to 1 Peter 2 and we'll get stuck in.

The First thing Peter tells us is that :

1) If We Belong to the Lord Jesus then We Don't Belong Here

That's verse 11:

NIB 1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

Now I don't want to over egg the pudding, but this may be the most important thing we need to understand about our identity as Christians, and the most overlooked teaching of the NT.

What do I mean by that?  I mean we often fail to live as aliens and strangers, we forget that our citizenship is elsewhere and we live as if this is our home.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here, because we need to understand what this means before we go running ahead to ask if we're putting it into practice.

So what is this concept of aliens and strangers all about?  Well Peter is deliberately and consciously alluding to the experience of the OT Jews in exile in Babylon.  An alien is someone who doesn't belong in the culture in which they live.  Like the Jews transplanted to Babylon.  A stranger is different, easily misunderstood, coming from different place.  They operate with a different set of assumptions and expectations, a different world view.  Like the Jewish believers among the Pagan

Their home was far away, and their old lives could never be recovered, because their homeland had been invaded and destroyed.  Everywhere they went there were reminders that they a conquered people, far from home.  They didn't speak the language, couldn't take part in the civic events because of their religious elements, they were foreigners and second class citizens.

In a similar way Peter says that we're foreigners in our own lands, aliens and strangers to our own culture, our home isn't home, our citizenship is elsewhere.  There is no place on earth where we can feel completely at ease, because our citizenship is in heaven, in God's presence.

Why is that?  Flick back over the page to chapter one verse three:

NIB 1 Peter 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-- kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

We don't belong here because we've been re-born and our hopes and dreams are centred on heaven.  We might have houses and cars and all the rest, but our true and lasting possessions are kept for us in heaven, our inheritance, our birth right, is elsewhere, and we have to be there to share in it.

And this is a good thing, a fantastic thing.  If we fully understand and appreciate what Peter is saying here we can't help but celebrate what God has done.  Think about what that means with me:

If you're a Christian, then you've been raised with the Lord Jesus and given new birth into his eternal, heavenly, inheritance.  God is now keeping it for you, and keeping you for it, so that you won't miss out.  And it isn't like the things we might inherit here – it doesn't perish, spoil or fade – it doesn't have a used-by date, doesn't rust or wear out, doesn't get worn down or used up.  It won't go rotten, it won't stop satisfying us, it won't be superseded by a new improved model, and it won't fail to live up to our expectations.  I will be greater by far than anything we might experience or even imagine – and it will go on getting better and better and better.

If you're not a Christian, what I've just said should be reason enough to want to check out the claims of Christianity – that's what the Lord Jesus offers to everyone who puts their trust in him.

And if you're a Christian and you don't belong here, that should change just about everything shouldn't it?

Here in 1 Peter we find the Christians suffering for their faith, scorned, ridiculed, even persecuted.  And Peter encourages them to endure it, even to see it as a good sign that they don't belong here – an encouragement to focus on their heavenly inheritance.    For instance in chapter four, verse 16 Peter says:

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

So their attitude to suffering changed.  So did their moral standards.  Listen to chapter 4 verse 3

you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do--living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

I could go on, but I think the point's been made - the early Christians lived as if heaven was a concrete reality that they had every hope and expectation of experiencing.  They eagerly looked forward to the day when the Lord Jesus would return and take them home to be with him.  They lived as aliens and strangers in the world; this world was not their home, all their lives revolved around the world to come, the world that was their home.

But I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear me admit that I struggle to maintain anything like that focus.  My day to day experience is quite a long way off that – I'm more likely to hoard stuff so that I don't miss it, to want things that I don't have, to long for newer cars or bigger houses or better gadgets or fancier clothes.  Am I the only one, or is that you too?

There's a radical challenge to us in these verses.

We are aliens and strangers.  We don't belong. No good trying to fly under the radar, no good trying to fit in with the crowd anymore.  We're outsiders.  So don't forget it, don't keep living as if you belong here.  Don't live for this moment, don't forget that our citizenship, our inheritance, our better and more lasting possessions don't belong to this world, but to the next world, the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness.

Our whole lives should be shot through with longing for the world to come.  Our hopes, dreams and desires should be focused on the things that will never perish, spoil or fade.

If they're not, we need to meditate deeply on what this means, we are resident aliens here, our home is heaven.  We're not locals, this world is not our home, we're just passing through.  And the things of this world are not sufficient to meet our deepest hopes, dreams and desires, they will only ever let us down.  We need to ask the Lord to change our hearts and our minds, to make the hope of heaven real to us as it should be, and to give us a true longing for better things – the things that God holds in store for us

So that's point one – if we belong to the Lord Jesus then we don't belong here.

So that being the case – how should we think about the world around us?   It sounds like all this is pushing us away from any interest in and care for the world.  We're passing through, strangers here – what do we care about this place when our hearts are elsewhere.

But that is the exact opposite of what God expects from us.  He says you don't belong here – but work for the good of this place all the same.

That's our second point:

Second: Though we Don't Belong Here, we're to Do Good Here

You can see it there in verse 12:

NIB 1 Peter 2:12 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.

Live such good lives that your good deeds are seen and cannot be denied, even by your worst enemy.

Now this certainly includes our personal standards of morality and behaviour.  We should be scrupulous in doing good.

I was reminded of the example of Billy Graham this week – in the late 1980's there were a number of famous tele-evangelists exposed in sin and their TV ministries destroyed.  Well the TV networks went after Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist of them all.  They figured that if they could discover anything shady in Billy Graham's life then they could cause the biggest scandal of them all.  You can be sure that the TV networks used every trick in the book to try and catch him out in some impropriety.

But they could uncover nothing incriminating – why?  Because Billy Graham has lived a life beyond repute.  His personal standards of behaviour are exemplary.  And so they should be.  He has lived such a good life that though people want to accuse him of doing wrong all they could find were good deeds.

Like Billy Graham we should aim to be above reproach.

But this goes far beyond avoiding bad behaviour.  As we read on through 1 Peter 2 we find that Peter expects us to be, variously: Verse 13 – in submission to rulers, to be good citizens, showing proper honour and deference to civil leaders; And Verse 18 Peter expects us to be good slaves, which must include being good employees, doing our best to serve our masters, even if they're harsh and unfair – doing our best to serve them whether they see our work or not, whether they appreciate us or not.  And Chapter 3 verse 1 Peter expects us to be good husbands and wives, upholding the institution of marriage even if our husband or wife doesn't believe and doesn't treat us right.  And 3: 8 Peter expects us to live in harmony with one another, to respond to cursing with blessing, to respond to bad treatment with good deeds and best wishes. See there is something radically greater here than simply keeping our heads down and getting on with living good lives.  We are supposed to actively do good to those who wish us harm.  We are supposed to be such good citizens that the city is improved for us being part of it.

Where we see injustice we should work for justice.  Where there is corruption and vice, we should work to bring peace and right order.  We should be actively at work in this world, in this society where we are aliens and strangers so that our presence will be a blessing to the whole.

That's how the early Christians lived, and that's why they turned the world upside down.  We take it for granted, but the growth of the early church over its first 400 years was simply remarkable.  Rodney Stark is a sociologist and historian who set out to work out how the church was so successful that the entire Roman Empire was converted.  His book The Rise of Christianity has become a classic.

He estimates that the early church grew by 40% per decade.  How did they do it?  Stark argues that one of the main drivers for growth was the way that Christians did good for the whole society, Christianity was a re-vitalising movement that reversed decline in a society that was otherwise crumbling.

For instance the Roman Empire was decimated by two significant plagues and at the time pagans fled from each other and simply left the ill to die.   But Christians cared for the sick, saving many from death – even thought many of them were infected and died as a result. The Roman Empire enjoyed violent amusements like gladiators fighting to the death and Christians and criminals thrown to the lions; but Christians opposed that callous enjoyment of death; the Romans practiced abortion and female infanticide –  and as a result suffered a massive gender imbalance and negative birth rates – but Christians looked after the widows and the orphans, even abandoned children; Roman society was fractured and uncaring, but Christians practiced charity, cared for the needy and created social networks. In all these and many other ways Christians were so well known for their good works that a pagan emperor commanded the pagan priests to make pagans live like the Christians did – because Christians were so much more generous that pagans were converting!

What's my point?  The early Christians were so well known for their 'love of the city' that hundreds and thousands of people were drawn to them and won for Christ, in fact a whole empire was turned around.

That's a long way away – could it happen here?  Well it has already.  You might be familiar with In the 18th Century evangelical awakening (if not read this book JC Ryle Christian leaders of the 18th C).  It was the time of Wesley and Whitfield and Wilberforce and other influential Christian leaders whose names didn't start with W (like Henry Venn and Matthew Henry).  Have a listen to Ryle's assessment from the next century:

The state of this country in a religious and moral point of view in the middle of last century was so painfully unsatisfactory that it is difficult to convey any adequate sense of it ... England seemed barren of all that is really good … There was darkness in high places and darkness in low places – darkness in the court, the camp, the Parliament and the bar – darkness in country and darkness in town – darkness among rich and darkness among poor – a gross, thick, religious and moral darkness- a darkness that might be felt.'

The good works with which every one is now familiar did not exist one hundred years ago.  Wilberforce had not yet attacked the slave trade.  Howard had not yet reformed the prisons.  Raikes had not established Sunday schools.  We had no Bible Societies, no ragged schools, no city missions, no pastoral aid societies, no missions to the heathen.  The spirit of slumber was over the land.

Ryle's argument is that all those things came about because of the evangelical awakening.  England was revitalised by a great movement of evangelism and action to look after the poor, to promote education, to give aid, print Bibles and do missions.

The Country had been asleep, it had been in moral darkness, you might have called it Broken Britain.  But faithful preaching of the gospel and faithful work to reform religion and morals brought massive and lasting change from one end of the land to the other.

The whole Country was turned around because Christian men and women were not content to see their Christianity as a private matter between them and God, but recognised the massive implications of the gospel.  They loved the people around about them, they loved the city and worked for it's good.  And they were a blessing that no one could deny.

Let's pray that we would do likewise.

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