“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” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV)
The Importance of Cities to God
Recently, I heard Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and prolific author, speak. He spoke to a small group meeting urging pastors and church leaders to take seriously our call to plant churches in the great cities of the world. “Cities,” he said, “are important to God.” 
Today’s cities are large and complex. The size and complexity of our cities can make us oblivious to what a city is. In the ancient world, cities were primarily places of safety. A basic ancient difference between a city and a town was the existence of a wall. Ancient cities were walled, and so people were safe. When we work for the peace of our city, we work for it to be a safe place for us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, and everyone else that works in a city.
From the most ancient times, cities were also places of culture. Alexandria in Egypt, Babylon in Iraq, Athens in Greece, Troy in Asia Minor, Rome in Italy, these were places of beauty and culture. When we seek the peace of our city, we make of it a place of safety, cultural growth, excitement, prosperity, and peace. We want it to be a place where people can find good jobs, build houses, raise families, and prosper.
Christians are “Exiles” in any Earthly City
When Jeremiah 29 was written, some of the Jews already had been been transported from their homeland, most of them from Jerusalem, to Babylon. In Babylon, they had to live as exiles in a strange city. It is hard to live in a foreign land, especially at the beginning. First of all, there is the disorientation and fear that goes with not knowing a language. Even if one speaks the language, there are customs and habits an outsider find hard to adjust to in the beginning. The people of a different land may have a different religion or no religion at all. Finally, a stranger finds it hard to navigate a city. A newcomer don’t know where the grocery stores are, where the banks are, where to get common needs met. It is difficult to adjust to a strange city in a strange land.
The Bible speaks of Jews and Christians as being “strangers,” “sojourners,” “pilgrims,” and “exiles” in a strange land, wherever we live. The word “exile” is an interesting and even threatening word. An exile is someone who can’t return to his home country for one reason or another yet is not a citizen of the nation in which he or she is actually located. An exile lives in a legally precarious situation all the time. In most nations, such a person has limited if any civil rights. They may be limited in the amount or types of property they can own. They may lack access to public services. The Jews were exiles both in Egypt and Babylon. They understood that exiles live in an uncomfortable situation most all of the time.
The Bible says that Christians should look at ourselves as exiles in this world. Our true home is heaven, but we can’t go there just now, just as the Jews could not return to Jerusalem. Peter puts it this way:
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 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 (I Peter 4:11-12).
Among other things, Peter is saying that First Century Christians were never going to be completely at home in this world. They lived among people whose customs and values, morals, and world-view were different than theirs. In response to this situation, Peter says, “Just be such a great person that those among whom you live see your good life and thank God for you, even though you are different.”
I think if Peter were here today, that is exactly what he would say to us. He would say, “You American Christians, and especially American Protestants, are used to being in the majority and being in control. Things are changing in your country. What you need to do is recognize that you are now in the same situation we were in with respect to the pagan Roman world. The way to endure is remember that you are an exile and a foreigner even in your own land. Stay faithful. Live like a Christian. Don’t be afraid to be different. Keep the faith. Pray for your city and nation. Finally, lead such pure and good lives among the people that everyone is glad you are part of the culture. Be content to be an exile, because you have an eternal home.”
Pray and Work for the City
How do we do this? As Jeremiah says, we pray for the city. We work to make our city more prosperous and peaceful. We build homes, and we look after our neighborhood and businesses. We get involved in community organizations that work to make our city a better place. We share Christ and the love and wisdom of God with our friends and neighbors. We live as exiles, but not in a religious ghetto of our own making. We live in the city and we become engaged in it culture and life, all the while remembering we are exiles.
American Christians are accustomed to being at home in our culture. We were cultural leaders. The denomination to which I belonged for much of my life loved to point out how many Congressmen, Senators, Presidents, and Judges had been Presbyterian. Since the end of the Second World War, slowly but surely, America has become more and more secular. Today, our culture is a giant mission field. We cannot, if we are wise, engage that mission field the way we engaged our culture in the past. We have to engage our culture in with self-giving love, the same love that God showed for the world when, as John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, what whosoever believes in him should have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Look Forward to a City to Come
There is a tendency to look backward and to seek to return our culture, our city, and our nation to some point in the past where we feel we would be more comfortable. It is important to remember that time has only one direction, and it is forward. History has only one direction, and it is forward. We need to study the past, honor the past, and seek to preserve what is most precious about the past of our families, businesses, neighborhoods, city, nation, and culture. However, we must remember that we can’t return to some imaginary point in history when things were better for us, or our families, culture, race, or whatever.
God is taking the world forward. God is moving history to that day when Truth and Love will rule and there will be a Peace that will never end. God even says that our future involves a city—not a city as we know it but a heavenly city. Here is how John describes that city:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4, NIV).
One reason for God’s people to pray and work for our cities, all the while remaining faithful to God as revealed in Christ, is that we are meant to be the presence of a City of Peace unearth today–foretaste of a city yet to come.
 Tim Keller, Why Cities are Important to God (Pamphlet from Sermon of November 7,1993.
Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved