'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'. (Jeremiah 29:11)
How often have you quoted these familiar words of Scripture to a brother or sister in need, or gained strength from them yourself when facing a new challenge? Jeremiah was writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, where they were to stay for 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem and deported them. It was a time of difficulty for God's people, as described in the memorable words of Psalm 137: 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion'.
During that period of reflection and uncertainty after seeing their beloved city destroyed, the exiles needed to know that God was still with them and had plans for them. It turned out to be a very fruitful time of growth and consolidation as the nation rebuilt itself before the return to their homeland under Ezra and Zerubabbel. New leaders like Daniel and his friends, Nehemiah and Esther emerged during the course of the Babylonian, Mede and Persian Empires and were able to make a huge contribution to the societies in which they had been placed while not succumbing to moral compromise themselves.
In Jeremiah 29 the prophet encourages God's people not to separate themselves from the prevailing culture, but rather to get involved in helping to shape and serve it. They were to be 'in the world, but not of the world'.
'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.' (v 5-7)
As the apostle Peter reminds us (1 Peter 2:11), as Christians we are also living as 'aliens and strangers' in a society that is in the main hostile to Christian faith and values. And many of us already occupy places of responsibility in it, or will move into them in the future.
We are called to be faithful to Christ by witnessing to him through our words and deeds, and in our concern for the society into which he has placed us. Like the Jews we also await our certain restoration to our 'promised land' – not an earthly Jerusalem, but rather the new heavens and new earth.
Let's equip and encourage each other to play our part well in the generation and situation in which God has placed us.