Don’t forget, we live in Babylon. And Babylon isn’t Jerusalem – never has been, never will be (in fact, earthly Jerusalem ain’t no Jerusalem either).
In two stages, Israel was taken into exile. First, the Northern Kingdom was conquered carried into exile to the Assyrian empire in 722BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah help off exile for more than a century, but finally fell to the Babylonians in 586BC when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed. For roughly a generation, the people of Israel had to learn how to live as faithful Jews in Babylon. Babylon wasn’t Jerusalem – there were other gods, other laws, other peoples, other priorities, and sins that were appalling in Jerusalem were celebrated in Babylon. It was in this context that men like Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, with Daniel and later Esther and uncle Mordechai (in Persia) lived faithfully and served nobly.
As believers, we share more contextual connectedness with these exiles living in foreign lands than we do with Israelites who lived in the Promised Land. As Peter tells us, we are ‘elect exiles of the Dispersion’ (1 Peter 1:1). We aren’t natural-born residence of this world, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and we are ‘strangers and aliens’ or ‘sojourners and exiles’ in this world (1 Peter 2:11). This is a truth we tend to forget, or maybe a truth we never fully embraced. There were times when we may have been fooled into thinking we lived in a spiritual city – a Jerusalem – because the mores and norms were superficially Judeo-Christian. But, it was a mirage only.
Let me be clear. We aren’t aliens and strangers in America because of cultural decline or unfavorable court decisions. We aren’t aliens and strangers because America is a post-Christian society. We are aliens because America (and England, and France, and China, and Yemen, and every other country) is Babylon. This applies to all civilizations through all time (save one). So Calvin, “For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile.”
American is no more, no less, Babylon now than it was in the 1950s or the 1770s. The US is no more, no less, Babylon than the UK or China.
No earthly city corresponds to the heavenly Jerusalem, not even the earthly Jerusalem. All cities, all nations, all powers, are a part of the temporal, temporary, and corrupted Babylon.
And in Babylon we reside, though only as pilgrims – exiles waiting to go home.
The picture of Babylon is negative, but not wholly so. There are still good things to enjoy and be grateful for. Here in Babylon we, like Israel in its exile, we can
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take 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. But 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 (Jeremiah 29:5-7, ESV).
But, we recognize these good things for what they are – temporary.
And, we recognize the city we live in for what it is – temporary and corrupted. Babylon will never be Jerusalem and we should never expect it to conduct itself like Jerusalem. We shouldn’t be shocked or dismayed when sin is celebrated. Sin is the way of the world. Sometimes my social media feeds are flooded with friends expressing outrage over some new manifestation of Babylon being Babylon. Why surprised? It’s what we should expect (we expect two-year-olds to get grumpy when they’re tired, teenagers to be sleepy in the morning and leopards to have spots).
Expecting it, maybe we can be less shrill – as though our way of life was being threatened. It isn’t, because our life is elsewhere. We reside here, but we shouldn’t expect Babylon to conform to our mores and norms or be shocked or bitter when it doesn’t. It won’t, it never has (and when it appeared to, it was superficial at best).
On the other hand, seeking the good of the city means we grieve sin and we want those who are impacted by its devastation to experience the fullness of redemption and restoration. And working for the good of the city might mean we use the tools of the city to better the city (like Joseph, or Daniel) – working with governments to restrain the most egregious evils, to mitigate against the worst of sins effects, alleviate injustice, remedy hurt and pain.
So, maybe a bit less whining and a bit more hoping and working would serve the evangelical church well. Just sayin.