If there’s one voice that cannot be silenced in our modern era, it’s the fierce roar that rises from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s forthright account of his escape from slavery is so raw you can almost smell the stomach-turning metallic wreak coming off the blood-spattered pages. Rising from beneath the systematic brutal and psychological dehumanization that was American slavery, his Narrative of the Life is the tale of a man who insisted on being man not beast.
Douglass was an American hero of which our nation was utterly unworthy.
In the introduction to his story, Peter J. Gomes writes incisively about the way werob books like Douglass’s of their power–and keep issues like racism at a tidy arm’s length:
“Race is the continuing moral dilemma of America, and the inheritance of slavery its ineradicable moral stain. The further we are removed from the circumstances of legal slavery and legal and social racial segregation, and the more eager we are to move beyond that inheritance and on to other issues, the more persistent that awful legacy becomes. The problem of race in America is not simply a ‘dilemma,’ as sociologist Gunnar Myrdal styled it in his famous study of the 1940s: it is a tragedy of Greek, even of biblical, proportions, where indeed the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, and beyond. It is increasingly fashionable to consign our tragedies to sepia-colored documentaries and to see them as part of the pageant of the growth of a great nation, and it is all too possible to do this when we read the tidy analyses of the historians or watch such brilliant productions as Ken Burn’s The Civl War on television–that marvel of technology which transforms reality into fantasy and reduces even the most brutal facts of history into a theme park montage. Thus our cultural amnesia is encouraged rather than confronted by the fascination with a past which we prefer to examine in sanitized tranquility, lest we be disturbed by facts and images too dangerous and frightening to contemplate.
One of the ways in which we protect ourselves from disturbing ideas is to label the medium in which those ideas are communicated as ‘classic.’ This provokes a certain reverence and ensures that the ideas will be isolated within their appropriate historical and literary period, and will not have the power to disturb us. For over a century and a half the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass has been branded a classic, assigned to the category of slave narrative and read perhaps only be specialists in the field, or cited during February celebrations of African-American history month. To read Douglass’s narrative, however, is to risk experiencing the power it unleashed upon its first readers, and to recoil in horror at the heroic and terrible tale that Douglass tells of his own experience of slavery. Time has not tamed the tale, and old wounds covered over by the scar tissue of history are capable of being reopened by the prose of this fugitive slave who was taught to read by his slave mistress; and who, as an ex-slave, became the most famous and articulate rebuke to the monstrous institution of slavery ever to speak or to write in America.”
My wife does such an intentional job about putting together the school year for our kids, as I’m sure thousands of educators have been doing all summer for their own students wherever they may be.
It’s a strange year, and many of us are trying to figure out how to teach and nurture our students in new and awkward ways. Whether in public, hybrid, virtual, classical, home, or some other type of school, both parents and teachers need encouragement.
Mindy put together this great collection of quotes. I thought I’d share them with you here. You can download the two-page spread by clicking below (PDF):
Premodern exegesis is sometimes summarized as the fourfold method of interpretation. This means my preaching…
…is a slave to the text (Literal)
…delights in the canonical context (Allegorical)
…drives at the transformation of the soul (Tropological)
…speaks of the Eternal (Anagogical)
It’s important to realize that the premodern exegete doesn’t siphon his sermon (although I guess some might) into four tidy bins of interpretation. Trying to neatly separate these senses would be like trying to dissect a peach cobbler.
In this past Sunday’s sermon, all four senses are baked in, so to speak. You won’t hear me use any of these terms, but here’s a taste of what premodern exegesis sounds like from the pulpit:
Read the Manuscript:
2 SAMUEL 15:1-12–ENEMY AT THE GATES
It was a privilege this past week to listen to sermons from Nathan Wolfe and his father Joe Wolfe who were so kind as to fill this pulpit while I was away with my family on vacation. We’ll make sure to get those posted to the church website this week on the Sermons Tab. If you weren’t here the past two weeks, I would encourage you to go back and listen to Nathan and Joe if for no other reason than to hear a testimony to God’s faithfulness in the Wolfe family as the faith is passed from one generation to the next. Perhaps in a few more years, the Lord will allow Joe and Nathan to sit under the preaching of one of Nathan’s sons. Wouldn’t that be something.
This morning, we return to 2 Samuel and to Absalom’s unfolding sinister plot in chapter 15. If you have a Bible with you, go ahead and turn there. 2 Samuel 15.
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress depicts the journey of a man named Christian who is on a journey to be freed from a great burden that weighs upon his back. A man named Evangelist tells him to head for a narrow gate, and through that gate he will find relief from his heavy load. As he approaches the gate, he is waylaid by a sly fox named Worldly Wiseman who asks him where he comes from, where he is headed, and for what purpose. Christian explains that he is headed toward the narrow gate in order to be free of his burden. Worldly Wiseman shakes his head at the naivety of Christian, “Don’t you know you can be free of your burden without going through that treacherous gate? There are all kinds of dangers and enemies along this path. Turn aside. Go to the city nearby called Morality where a man named Legality and his beautiful son Civility live. They will give you what you want at half the cost to you.
Bunyan’s story is an allegorical rendering of Genesis 4:7—“Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” There is an enemy at the gates who would turn you away from the city of God. There is an enemy at the gates who would prevent you from finding wholeness at the cross. There is an enemy at the gates who would turn you aside from making Jesus Christ your king—he would be your king instead. He is patient, he is proud, and he is a thief. He goes by various names—you may call him the Worldly Wiseman, you may call him Absalom, but this enemy at the gates is not an enemy without, he is an enemy within.
If you’ve found 2 Samuel 15, let’s stand together as we read the Word of God:
After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him. And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, “From what city are you?” And when he said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,” Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. And at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, ‘If the LORD will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the LORD.'” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he arose and went to Hebron. But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!'” With Absalom went two hundred men from Jerusalem who were invited guests, and they went in their innocence and knew nothing. And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.
2 Samuel 15:1-12
After years of brooding, in 2 Samuel 15, Absalom finally makes his move. Absalom, the disarmingly beautiful son of David, the most handsome man in Israel is the enemy at the gates. And nobody seems to realize it until it’s too late.
Three things characterize Absalom in this passage: his patience, his pride, and his theft. As we survey Absalom, we need to realize that Absalom is a picture of a Sinful Man, a Sinful Woman, who crouches at the gate of our own hearts.
First, this morning, we see (1) The Patience of Absalom. Normally we think of patience as a virtue, which is what makes Absalom an all the more dangerous enemy. He is calm, collected, patience, intentional, biding his time, waiting for the right moment. This is the man who back in chapter 13 after the humiliation of his sister Tamar said nothing for 2 years. And for 2 years waited patiently for the opportunity to get revenge on Amnon his brother for what he had done. This is the man who endured 3 years of exile with his grandparents at Geshur. This is the man who patiently abided humiliating house arrest for two years in Jerusalem. And here we see in verse 7 that Absalom put in another 4 patient years before making his move.
And see what patient diligence Absalom goes about his work in verse 2: “And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate.” He got up early every morning. He stood by the gate all day. Patiently, diligently, daily, working to win the people one man, one woman at a time. This is no overnight revolution. This is a takeover 9 years in the making. A quiet, patient work.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “How do you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” We often imagine sin as being a sudden impulse, an immediate temptation, but there is a patience to the plots of Satan. Luke 4:13 tells us—“And when the devil had ended every temptation [of Jesus], he departed from him until an opportune time.” Satan studies his victims. He learns their weaknesses. He ponders patiently. He waits for the opportune time.
We see signs of Absalom’s patience all over this plot. Nothing about Absalom’s move is hasty. He is methodical. And each step is purposeful. His complaint to each man about a lack of justice in verse 4 is a veiled reference to the way David mishandled Tamar’s assault. His deception in verse 7 is a three-pronged barb: ““Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, ‘If the LORD will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the LORD.'” Barb #1: Absalom is deceiving his father with a trick out of David’s own playbook. David used this same excuse to deceive Saul in 1 Samuel. Barb #2: Absalom’s vow is brings up a sore spot—the 3 year exile David imposed on Absalom. Barb #3: Absalom plans to launch his revolution at Hebron. There is a poetic justice to Absalom’s patient plot. He will rob his father of the kingdom at Hebron—the very place where David’s kingdom began.
“How do you go spiritually bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” The enemy is patient. Adultery doesn’t happen suddenly. It happens patiently, it could be 9 years in the making. Little weaknesses here and there, a look, one little temptation after another, until it happens all of the sudden. Corporate fraud doesn’t happen suddenly. It happens patiently. It might start in school, being a bit dishonest about how much of the reading you actually completed. A little plagiarism, a few lies on a college application. Satan plots with the patience of Absalom. Absalom’s revolt is the result of years of patient plotting, seething anger, seeking to make his blow as lethal as possible. When the opportune time comes, your downfall will be just as tailor-made.
Secondly, we must spend a few minutes looking at (2) The Pride of Absalom. There is a reason why verse 1 opens this story. It colors everything we see and hear in the story, “After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him.” Even without help, you can sense what Absalom is angling for. What kind of a man rides in a chariot with an entourage of horses? What sort of character has fifty men running before him? And in case we might have any doubts about Absalom’s intentions, we read about Absalom’s younger brother in 1 Kings 1:5—“Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.” I will be king. This is the pride of Absalom.
Then we find this man who would be king standing at the gates, pulling every man of Israel aside and implying that he could do his father’s job better, verse 3: “Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice…” Then we find this man who would be king inviting men to bow before him in verse 5: “And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him.”
Absalom was David’s second son, his heir apparent, and like the prodigal son, he wasn’t willing to wait for his father’s death to get what was coming, he wanted his inheritance now. He would be king–now. Verse 10: “But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!'”
What is it in Absalom’s heart that lead him to make this move? It’s what Thomas Aquinas describes as “inordinate self-love”—pride. Aquinas writes that the root of pride is lack of submission to God, and therefore is “the beginning of all sin.” So in wanting to be king, Absalom is not merely rebelling against his earthly father David; he is rebelling against his Heavenly Father, God himself. In verse 12, we find Absalom coordinating his overthrow from his iPhone while he’s at church: “And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.” His sacrifices, his religion, his church attendance, his giving, his offerings, all just a cover, a distraction, a smokescreen for his revolution. All just an effort to dethrone every power—including God himself—and make himself king.
Karen Swallow Prior writes in her book On Reading Well, “The paradox of humility is that through it we are exalted (Matthew 23:12). And the paradox of pride is that through it we fall…” (232) 2 Samuel 15 is the beginning of Absalom’s exaltation. It is the beginning of David’s humiliation. Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12).
The Pride of Absalom says, “I could do better! I am just! I am right…always! I never sin! I am always just and righteous! My dad doesn’t know best. My teacher doesn’t know. My mom. My pastor. My boss. My friends. Not even God. I deserve to be king!” Absalom is certain that if he were in his father’s shoes, he would have done better. He would not have failed to bring about justice for his sister Tamar. He would never have banished his own son and treated him like the family pariah given the chance. He would never be like his father. Never!
Brothers and sisters, to believe in original sin is to believe that the pride of Absalom is pent up in each of our own hearts, too. We all want to steal away to Hebron and make ourselves king. And the only way to be rid of self-exalting pride like Absalom’s is to walk the road David is about to tread. It’s a road that leads through the Mount of Olives. It’s a road that Jesus himself walked, one that says, “Not my will but Yours be done.” It’s a road of suffering. Humility is not gained without humiliation. This is why Jesus himself invited his followers, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”
But in his patient and his pride, Absalom had a goal. There was a prize for his patience. There was a trophy that his pride demanded. Thirdly, we see (3) The Theft of Absalom. Verse 1 begins with two words we skipped over quickly. “After this…” But these are connecting words that intentionally tie what comes after to what lies before. “After this…” What is “this”? Look just above in verse 33 of Chapter 14: “…and the king kissed Absalom.” After the king kissed Absalom. The king thinks their relationship is healed. King David believes his son is back into the fold. He does not realize that he has kissed his betrayer. And as each man passes through the gate, Absalom plants the seeds of revolution with what? Verse 5: “And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him.” The kingdom betrayed by a kiss. With affection, false sympathy, false love, false brotherhood, Absalom commits the ultimate theft, verse 6: “Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (3) The theft of Absalom. Absalom stole their hearts.
The people were robbed blind. On the day of Absalom’s revolt, the people didn’t even realize what was happening. Sometime, when they were busy attending to urgent matters, seeking their own purposes, quietly in the darkness, their hearts were stolen.
Brothers and sisters, a conspiracy is afoot. The swindling of hearts in the darkness. The powers of darkness do not care about money, possessions, or even politics. Those things are not eternal. They care about hearts. They care about human souls. And while you are playing politics, fighting tooth and claw for money or success or grades or toys or homes or political points or likes on Instagram, your heart has been stolen and you didn’t even know it. Because this is where the King of the Universe ultimately reigns. Not on thrones made of gold and silver, but on the throne of human hearts. All the people, David himself were taken in by Absalom’s kiss.
There is one man who was not swindled, whose heart was never stolen by the betrayer’s kiss. John 10:18, Jesus Christ, the Son of David says, ““No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus tell his disciples that he knows he will be betrayed. He may be walking the path of King David, but he KNOWS where he treads. He is not taken unawares: “And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21). Luke 22:47-48—“While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”
What took place with Absalom is the patient, proud work that Satan has been working since the Garden of Eden. The Theft of Human Hearts. The highest throne in heaven and on earth is the human heart.
I wonder who is enthroned in your heart this morning? Satan comes with charm and deceit. He tells you what you want to hear. “You are good and right. You deserve better! God is holding out on you! Turn aside to me, and I will give you the kingdoms of this world!” Jesus Christ the son of David patiently walked the path of 2 Samuel 15 and following. The footsteps of his father David that lead out of Jerusalem, into humiliation, rejection, and affliction. He patiently waited on God the Father to vindicate him before the eyes of the world. He humbled himself and submitted to the humiliation of the cross, setting aside the throne that was rightfully his, and winning the hearts of men not by flattering words or false kisses, but by shedding the blood of his own heart for his brothers.
This Jesus who suffered outside the gate calls to you: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets…” (Matt. 7:13-15) Beware the enemy at the gates. Beware the Worldly Wiseman. Beware the Absaloms. Most of all, beware the sinful man inside who would turn you aside to another kingdom. In your heart, honor Christ the Lord as king. Let us pray.
I’m teaching Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables this fall. First published to international acclaim in 1862, the novel’s inception actually took place in 1845 under the working title Jean Tréjean, which translator Julie Rose characterizes as “the story of a convict, a poor man persecuted by a system in which justice has been overshadowed by the law.”
Rose’s striking summary of the world of Hugo’s Les Mis could easily fit the struggle of 21st century America as we try to figure out why the dark shadow of injustice continues to grow long over the poor, minorities, and the oppressed.
This scene from the beginning of the novel is meant to characterize Monsieur Myriel, the affable bishop of Digne, and the way justice operated in society:
Monsieur Myriel would also say, “The sins of women and children, domestic servants and the weak, the poor and the ignorant, are the sins of the husbands and fathers, the masters, the strong and the rich and the educated.”
As you can see, he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel.
In someone’s drawing room one day he heard a tale about a criminal case that was about to go to court. Some miserable wretch, for love of a woman and the child he’d had with her, found himself at the end of his rope and had gone in for a bit of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting was still punishable by death in those days.
The woman had been arrested trying to pass the first false coin the man had made. She was held in custody, but they had no proof against the man. She was the only one who could point the finger at her lover and sink him by telling all. She denied his guilt. They put the pressure on, but still she denied his guilt.
At that point, the public prosecutor had a bright idea. He told her that her lover had been unfaithful and he managed to cobble together fragments of letters and so persuade the poor woman that she had a rival and that the man was betraying her behind her back. She was immediately overcome by a fit of jealousy and swiftly denounced her lover, admitted everything, offered proof.
When the tale was told, everyone there was in raptures over the cunning of the prosecuting magistrate. By bringing jealousy into play, he had provoked the woman’s rage and the truth had shot out of her; he had brought about justice by sparking revenge.
The bishop listened to all this in silence. When they were finished marveling, he had a question.
Shouldn’t church be easy? Shouldn’t I just click with the people in my church? Shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world for me to spend time with my brothers and sisters in Christ?
…but what if it isn’t?
Is something wrong with my church? Is something wrong with me?
We look at our neighborhoods and see houses where cars gather every Saturday to drink and watch football. Every Saturday. And they seem to really enjoy being together. Why can’t it feel that natural when I get together with my small group? My church must be sub-Christian or something, right?
Or what about blood relatives? I feel more warmth and love at family birthday parties and Christmas gatherings than I’ve ever felt with my church. When that turkey’s being sliced and pumpkin pie is on the counter–that’s real family. My church is never going to even come close.
How Did We Become Family, Anyway?
First off, if we are expecting our churches to feel like a family without any effort, we have misunderstood the Gospel. In order to become our brother, Jesus Christ had to be made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). When John reaches for an explanation of true family, he doesn’t say, “Real brothers sit down and have a beer” or “Real family pulls for the same basketball team” or “Real love comes from shared background and skin color.” No, he speaks of pain: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16).
We are too quick to interpret this verse metaphorically–as in, “how do I metaphorically lay down my life for my brothers and sisters?” But Jesus actually laid down his real life–as in whipped, beaten, insulted, nailed through, suffocated, and killed to make us family. If we think love in the family won’t require work and pain, we aren’t listening to John.
Jesus went through tortuous death to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10). And we expect to just be able to feel “all the feels” for our brothers and sisters because our names are on the same church roll? No. We become family through the fight.
We fight ourselves. Paul describes this as putting to death the old man (Col. 3:5). We are the biggest obstacle to intimacy in the body of Christ. Our sin. Our selfishness. Our desires: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Col. 3:8-9).
Paul tells the Philippians that the body of Christ is meant to give us opportunities to kill the flesh. Church isn’t all comforts and laughs. Brothers and sisters are going to rub us the wrong way. And when they do, the problem isn’t them, it’s us: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
The way to grow is to endure conflict and hardship–especially in the church. However, God brings conflict in order to forge unity through sacrifice. Did you hear that? Unity through sacrifice. This is the name of the Gospel game, guys. Rule of thumb: once you’ve humbled yourself lower than Jesus did, you can stop deferring to your brothers’ and sisters’ needs over your own (Philippians 2:5-11).
Fight Club 2.0
We kill the old man within, but we also fight for our brothers and sisters. The thing about being born again is that it’s like being born the first time: we don’t get to choose what family we are born into. I didn’t get to pick my two brothers and sister. And I don’t get to pick who God saves and draws into my church either.
We know that God is intentionally confounding man’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). The wisdom of man says to make a church out of a bunch of people who already have everything in common: same color skin, same interests and hobbies, same sports teams, same income, same education level, etc. The wisdom of God saves people like Peter and Cornelius–who wouldn’t be caught dead in each other’s neighborhoods–and makes them brothers.
When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the whole church had to sit down to figure out if it was okay that he ate dinner with Cornelius (Acts 11:1-ff)! A church business meeting over one meal! Christ’s church is a place where the tallest walls in society are torn down (Ephesians 2:13-16), and that doesn’t happen without intentionality and struggle.
Paul talks of Jesus’s work for the family in violent terms: on the cross he was “killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:16). The brothers and sisters who are reconciled to God were “alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). If that’s how they acted toward God, imagine how they treated one another before Christ entered the picture! It’s going to take a fight to keep the family of God together.
Love Is Worth the Fight
In the church, we don’t have the superficialities to fall back on: we aren’t blood relatives, we don’t have the same color skin, we don’t make the same money or come from the same schools or go to the same clubs. We have Jesus. That’s it. And he’s enough.
Jesus draws together people who wouldn’t naturally hang together. This is why church feels unnatural. It feels forced at times. And so it should. Love is not just a feeling. Love takes work.
Young people don’t naturally love old people. Whites don’t naturally love blacks. Rich don’t naturally love poor. But when we begin to experience glimmers of this kind of impossible love in our church families, we shouldn’t complain about how imperfect it is or how small it is or how fragile it is. We should treasure it as evidence of the Spirit’s work–and desperately pray and plead with the Father for more.
#GeorgeFloyd sparked this post, but by the time you read it, it could be another.
The video popped up on my Twitter timeline yesterday, and before I even watched, I could see what was about to take place from the posture of the policeman.
Oh, Dear God, no.
A sinking feeling. A sense of powerlessness. Despair.
I want to look away, but what I have to see, others have to live.
Worse is the realization that these murders of black men and women have not simply proliferated in our modern age. Camera phones have just given black communities the ability to put these images in front of willfully ignorant white folks like me. People who hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. People who really would just rather not know.
The whole situation reminds me of Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), a missionary to India white evangelicals love to champion. When Carmichael arrived in India, her ministry began simply enough: going house to house, village to village, with a group of ladies seeking to spread the gospel with whomever would listen.
Carmichael quickly began to realize that there was a system of oppression that served as a stumbling block to evangelism. She writes, “Caste is a thing with an iron hand: it grips, and it grips to death.” Whenever a woman expressed interest in the gospel—for the men had absolutely no interest whatsoever—it was the same story. The brothers of one young lady said, “Baptized! [That is always the crux, because it involves loss of caste]. She shall burn in ashes first. She may go out dead if she likes. She shall go out living—never!”
Amy’s heart was drawn to those most oppressed by the caste system: widows and children. Young girls were often auctioned like chattel to whomever offered the highest caste, wealth, and position. Missionary nurses who frequently cared for these child-brides witnessed heartbreaking atrocities first hand. Carmichael’s publishers censored the grizzliest tales from her books:
Carmichael continued to write feverishly about the plight of young women and children in India, pleading with evangelicals back home to care. She began to unfold for her Western audience in books like Things As They Are and From the Fight the way innocent children were been systemically polluted through the practice of temple prostitution:
In response to this system of oppression, the Dohnavur Fellowship was born—almost by accident. On March 6, 1901, a seven year-old girl named Preena was rescued from temple prostitution and brought to Amy. Word spread of Amma’s compassion (Amma means “Mother”). Three years later, she had care of 17 children. In 1911, she wrote: “We began the nursery work in a little, long, low mud-room, which was kitchen, food-room, night and day nursery, all in one. Now we have spread into nine nurseries and a kindergarten… and are in the throes of building several new cottage nurseries.”
My point is not about orphanages or India. Carmichael’s publishers were worried about offending the sensibilities of their Western readers: They don’t really want to know.
Carmichael’s words will haunt me forever:
“Where the dotted lines come, there was written what cannot be printed…It cannot be written or published or read, but oh, it has to be lived! And what you may not even hear, must be endured by little girls.”
In this era of camera phones, we are being forced to reckon with what lies behind the dotted lines.
In our clean Sunday best and our pristine church programs, we were never forced to look at what was taking place in the neighborhood on the other side of town. We never had to look into the face of a man pressed into the pavement. We never had to witness the truth. But the truth has found us out.
The legacy of Amy Carmichael confronts us. It will not be enough to shake our heads and say, “Well, we just have to convert the lost one sinner at a time.” What Carmichael realized in India was a satanic system of oppression that served as an effective shield against salvation. What is worse, she saw a system that degraded an entire people made in the image of God.
The system had to be dismantled. Holes had to be punched. Tunnels had to be burrowed through the wall. And as they did, masses of women and children came pouring through the breaches to experience the healing and safety of Christ’s embrace in the arms of Amy.
In The Continuation of the Story, Carmichael writes about an eight year-old whose widowed mother passed away in the hospital. A nurse rescued the girl before temple priests could get their hands on her, and brought her to the Dohnavur Fellowship. At first the child was aloof and cautious. However, Carmichael writes:
Brothers and sisters, we cannot look away.
To use the words of Amy Carmichael, what we are witnessing on our Twitter feeds does not even begin to “skirt the abyss” of the wickedness and evil we willingly ignore.
“In the name of all that is just and all that is merciful it should be swept out of the land without a day’s delay!”
Sweeping change requires evangelism. Amy knew that. So do we. Sweeping change also requires the courage to actively dismantle the system. Amy knew that, too. Do we?
Ignorance is one thing. But once we have seen what lies behind the dotted lines, we are accountable.
Will you feel sad again?
When will feeling sad finally prove an empty gesture?
Wherever we have been scattered as elect exiles, God has put us there to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). We are the in breaking of the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world fall and Christ’s Kingdom rises as the Spirit works in us to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)
What will you do about what is happening behind the dotted lines?
I have no doubt that the Amy Carmichaels of America will rise from the ranks of our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. To my white brothers and sisters: Listen to their earnest pleading! Join them! Follow their lead! We must become the breaches in the wall–a wall we have intentionally or unwittingly help build. Only then will “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
If you are an American Christian, chances are you have at least three verses memorized: John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Jeremiah 29:11–
This beloved verse actually comes from a letter Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah 29 is like an Old Testament epistle—like 1 Corinthians or Ephesians or 1 Peter. Daniel and his friends, the king and his officials, the craftsmen and artisans had been captured by King Nebuchadnezzar in Jerusalem and dragged off to Babylon. Jeremiah sent them instructions by mail on how they should live while in exile for 70 years in Babylon.
As encouraging as a reflection on Jeremiah 29:11 in the era of COVID-1 might be, I’d actually like us to look at just the first 7 verses of Jeremiah’s epistle. As we slowly emerge from COVID-19 quarantine and survey the life that lies before us, we have many of the same questions the Babylonian exiles did:
Jeremiah’s answers are as true for us today as they were 2500 years ago.
Where Are We?
In the opening address of his first New Testament epistle, Peter writes, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…” Peter’s point is clear. When we read Jeremiah 29, we should think: This is us. We are the surviving exiles.
Where am I? This is the most orienting question we can ask in our lives. And if we fail to ask it or we fail to answer it correctly, it will lead to disaster.
The first summer Mindy and I lived in Louisville, we had to make several trips back to Western PA, where her parents and a lot of our friends lived. We would hop on I-71 to drive east up to Cincinnati and across Ohio. But on one of our early trips, I missed a vital junction in Columbus. We were supposed to get off I-71 and get onto I-70. So, here we are, humming along for hundreds of miles thinking we are on the highway headed for Pittsburgh. All of the sudden, I see Lake Erie. We’re in Cleveland.
The exiles had to realizes where they were. They weren’t in Jerusalem anymore. They weren’t in God’s country and the people around them weren’t God’s people. They were in a foreign land among foreign people in a city destined for destruction.
Brothers and sisters, we’re living in Babylon.
Just because you drive in the same direction at the same speed as everyone else around you does not mean you’re headed to Pittsburgh. When it’s too late, you may find yourself staring at Lake Erie.
The true danger when you are living in Babylon is not that the king might throw you into a fiery furnace. The true danger is that you forget where you are, and when the music begins to play and everyone else around you starts bowing down to the king’s golden idol, you bow down and worship the golden idol, too.
What Babylon needs is not Christians who join in doing or believing what other Americans do and believe, or what other conservatives do and believe, or what other liberals do and believe, or what other social media personalities do and believe, but Christians who join in doing and believing what God’s people in exile have done and believed for thousands of years.
Our imagination and our manner of life must be shaped by the story of the gospel. People who know where they live are a people “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). And when we live this way, the Babylonians begin to realize where they are living, too. Paul writes: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:28).
The Lord God has done amazing things through his people living in exile:
Joseph saved the entire world from starvation while living in Egypt.
Moses’s entire career–the Exodus, the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai, all of it–took place outside the land of Israel.
Esther and Mordecai conquered Haman while living in Persia.
Daniel triumphed over the Lion’s Den in Babylon.
Jesus did most of his ministry and miracles in Galilee of the Gentiles–not in Jerusalem.
But all of these people knew where they were. They knew they were exiles. Do you?.
Why Has This Happened?
The temptation for the exiles from Jerusalem—after King Nebuchadnezzar trounced Jerusalem and looted the Lord’s Temple and took the best and brightest into captivity in Babylon—including the heir to David’s throne—is to think that someone else had seized control of the narrative: Someone else—other than God—is writing the story now! This is why the first words of Jeremiah’s letter are these:
I have sent you into exile. I have.
This is a matter of sovereignty. King Nebuchadnezzar looks across his vast empire and declares to the world, “I have done this!” (Daniel 4:28-30). The Lord tells his people, Do not buy the propaganda coming out of Babylon. I have done this. I am still your Sovereign Lord and King–whether in Jerusalem or Babylon. I am in control.
The Exile in Babylon is the worst thing to happen to God’s people in the entire Old Testament. But what the exiles didn’t realize at the time was that God was saving them. A few years later, Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem and burn, kill, and demolish everything left in the city.
A lot could be said about propaganda in this age of COVID-19, and people are searching for answers. Why has this happened? Why are we here? What the people of God need to know is that this is the Lord’s doing. We can be confident wherever we find ourselves, “for God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Whatever is taking place today is absolutely necessary for sparing you and I from an eternal destiny of wrath. There is no extraneous, unplanned part of God’s plan. What is happening must take place to ensure that “all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.”
What Shall We Do?
If we are in Babylon, and it is the Lord who has exiled us here, this poses a final question: What shall we do? Jeremiah provides several practical instructions, but he sums up the heart of the matter in verse 7:
Seek the welfare of the city. Seek its shalom, its wholeness, its peace, its prosperity, its wellness. Honestly, this is the opposite of the instructions the exiles want to hear. They didn’t love Babylon. They longed for Jerusalem. They longed for the dwelling of God with men. They longed for the end of injustice and the restoration of righteousness. They longed for the return of the King.
Additionally, this seems nonsensical. What was the point of seeking the welfare of a city doomed for destruction? And yet, may I remind you of one of the three Bible verses you have memorized: “For God so loved the world—a world doomed for destruction—that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Brothers and sisters, if God has loved the world in this way, so should we.
When the welfare of the city becomes the driving, overarching motive in our lives as elect exiles, it reshapes the way we read the commands before it:
“Build houses and dwell in them” (Jeremiah 29:5). How do we build houses for the welfare of the city? All of the sudden we realize, the home I am building is not a compound with walls to keep Babylon out. My home is to bring the citizens of Babylon in. My couch is a place for broken sinners to experience love and forgiveness. My table is a place for lost college students to eat and be fed. My yard is a place for children from broken homes to play and feel safe.
“Plant gardens and eat their produce” (Jeremiah 29:5). Be fruitful. Build businesses. Invest. Watch your seeds grow and prosper. Be creative. Produce art and music and architecture and letters and videos and photos. But plant your gardens for the welfare of the city.
The purpose of your business is not simply to turn a profit. The purpose of your work is not merely to feed your family. Christians in exile build businesses that bless the city. Christians in exile do work that benefits others. Christians in exile produce art and videos and literature and online content–fruitful in a thousands different ways–because they are seeking the welfare of the city. Whatever work you do, wherever you garden, that patch of soil has been given to you to produce fruit that brings welfare to your city and beyond. Are you being a faithful gardener?
Marry and have children (Jeremiah 29:6). Do we envision our marriages and our families as gifts to the city? Your relationship with your spouse is meant to bring God’s peace, his shalom, there. The way you love and relate to your wife is either filling your community with gentleness, love, sacrifice, and respect, or filling it with vitriol, belittling, indifference, and harshness. If God has blessed you with a healthy marriage, you need to share that marriage with others. Your marriage does not exist just for you and your spouse. It exists for the welfare of Babylon.
And children are our chance as parents to bless the future. Our families are incubators for the city’s next policemen, husbands, businessmen, mothers, school-teachers, governors, statesmen, entrepreneurs, doctors, and blue-collar workers. A case is currently unfolding in Georgia–a father and son hopped in a truck together, chased down a black man jogging through the neighborhood and ended his life. Fathers, how are you going to be a part of putting an end to that era of Southern life once and for all? Are we parenting for the welfare of the city?
“Multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:6). The people of God ought to multiply not for their own sake but for the sake of the city. Your city needs churches overflowing with believers consumed with a passion and zeal for Christ. They need men and women whose hearts and minds are not captured by the idolatry of Babylon but by the truth of the gospel. They need Christians flooding their streets and filling their neighborhoods and workplaces and classrooms with kindness and mercy and justice and peace. I was listening to one of Mark Dever’s recent sermons, and he was making the point that your neighbors need you to be committed church members for their sake. Your lost neighbors need you to know God’s Word for their sake. Multiply, brothers and sisters, and do not decrease!
“Pray” (Jeremiah 29:7). Jeremiah writes, “Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” If you want to find young men and young women who took Jeremiah’s letter to heart, go read Esther or Daniel.
There’s an irony to the famous story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. The high officials in Babylon were jealous of Daniel, and they wanted to destroy him. But the problem was, they couldn’t find any dirt on him. He never broke the law. He was always seeking the good of the city. He was wiser than all of them by ten times and advised the king well in every matter. There was only one complaint they could find against him: Daniel prayed.
They tricked the king into making an edict against prayer. Daniel kept praying. They came to his house, found him in his prayer closet and arrested him.
Here’s the irony: Who do you think Daniel was praying for day after day? Daniel had read Jeremiah’s letter. He was praying for them. Praying for the very people seeking to destroy him. Daniel was praying the same prayer Jesus himself would pray from the cross: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Jesus Christ, the exile of heaven, came down to this world destined for destruction to seek your welfare. To rescue you from a city about to be engulfed in flames. Can you do the same for your city?