But you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18
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 29:7
Tucked away in Leviticus chapter 19 is an explosive little verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And may I point out, first and foremost, that God practices what he preaches? God is a good neighbor. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). “I will dwell among the people of Israel” (Exodus 29:45). “He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble” (Psalm 27:5). “My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Psalm 27:10). “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3). “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). God is a good neighbor. He’s never far away, and always within the sound of your heartcry. We never need to lock the doors of our hearts with God around. He proved his love when he came down among us, and suffered and died for us, before we had any desire to be around him. To this day, when we avoid him, he still comes and reconnects with us. When we sin and look foolish, he doesn’t mind being seen with us. When our hearts get weak and we don’t love him, he still cares for us and draws near. God loves his neighbors. No wonder then, that God says to us, “Love your neighbor.” Our hearts say back to him, “Yes, Lord. I’m not good at it, but I’ll try, because your love that commands me will also help me.” So we’re all in.
What a beautiful command this is: “Love your neighbor.” Where would the world be by now, if God had never said that? Without God, all our relationships are predatory. In the pagan religions, the gods were hungry and had to be fed, even with human blood. To this day, when abusive people do what they do, it’s not in spite of their religion but because of it. They can’t stop practicing human sacrifice. It’s their religion. But in the gospel, God gives his own blood for his enemies, whom he loves as neighbors. So this little verse, tucked away in Leviticus 19, stands out. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament knew this little command was huge. The New Testament quotes Leviticus 19:18 nine times. Jesus said loving our neighbor is the second most important commandment in the entire Bible (Mark 12:28-31). The rabbis counted them all up, and they found 613 commands in Old Testament law. But which of those 613 is the top one? Jesus said, loving God. And then, second, loving our neighbor. The apostle Paul went so far as to say that the whole law of God is summed up in that one command to love our neighbor (Galatians 5:14). The Bible is clear. Our lives should be preoccupied with love. Love is the primary reason why we’re on the planet – not productivity, though that can be loving, not correctness in our opinions, though that can be loving, not even doing the right thing, though that can be loving. But the primary reason why we’re on the planet is not success or popularity or anything else but loving God and loving our neighbor. Only God himself should be dearer to me than my neighbor. That’s what the Bible clearly and repeatedly says. We need the Bible to be clear and insistent, because we’re not like that. It’s very easy to go through day after day with many thoughts and concerns and efforts but barely a thought about loving God and loving our neighbors. It seems to me that our typical pattern, that we call Christian, is we go to church, and we work our jobs, and we love our families, and we ignore our neighbors, though we smile at them on the odd occasion when we can’t avoid them. That pattern of life is very acceptable to us. But is that lifestyle in the Bible? It isn’t of God. There’s nothing divine about it. It isn’t the power of the gospel. It isn’t Christianity. Have the first and second most important commands in the universe actually landed on us? Have we compared our Christianity with the Christianity in the Bible? Where did we get our Christianity? Is there any reason not to rediscover the real Jesus and open up to his radical ways?
Several years ago author Anne Rice said, “Christians have lost credibility in America as people who know how to love.” I don’t consider that a cranky exaggeration. The culture wars and the Moral Majority have been a disaster. We have offended our neighbors. But God says that loving our neighbors is the second most important reason why we exist. So, losing credibility as people who know how to love is a catastrophic loss. Only our worship of the Lord himself is a higher calling. It’s time to love our neighbors, whoever they are, because God knows what’s best.
Today we begin a new campaign here at Immanuel: “Love Your Neighbor.” And here’s what I’m hoping for and praying for – that this focus on the second commandment will be another step-through-the-wardrobe-into-Narnia moment for us as a church. Several years ago we discovered walking in the light – an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow. That honesty about ourselves and our problems is one of the most beautiful things about Immanuel. The Lord gave it to us. Then we made a second great discovery – gospel culture. The Lord gave us the little green book as, in effect, Immanuel 101. So gospel culture was another step through the wardrobe into Narnia, and we’re not going back.
Now it’s time to take another step forward. Here is what all your leaders here at Immanuel are praying for – that together the beauty of “love your neighbor” will change us permanently. We are not talking about evangelism. If you are not actively loving your neighbors, please don’t tell them about Jesus. You will give them the wrong impression. Let’s stop evangelizing our neighbors, until we love our neighbors. Evangelism without love makes everything worse. So “love your neighbor” is not code language for “evangelize your neighbor.” “Love your neighbor” means “love your neighbor” in costly and beautiful ways. Then we can evangelize. But let’s first figure out what love looks like. And our “Love Your Neighbor” campaign will funnel down to our Peace in the City event on April 18 with Russell Moore. I am asking the Lord to mess with us all so significantly that we come to that event with a radical new openness to what it really means to love and serve our neighbors. The door to the wardrobe is open again. Let’s walk through it, together, right now.
Our first step together is this wonderful verse, Jeremiah 29:7. This is the verse that gave us our Peace in the City theme. And this verse is all about loving our neighbors. I wonder if you’ll agree with me that what God says here is opposite of how we often think:
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.
Our pattern of Christianity is to seek our own welfare within the city. Our pattern is to build our own little world of shalom and shut the city out. Our pattern is to use the city to our own advantage, rather than seek the advantage of the city. If the city falls apart, if the city goes to hell, how is that our concern? We have to look out for ourselves, don’t we? If our kids get into good schools and get good jobs and have a decent future, how is it our concern what happens to other kids, and so forth? Let’s all admit we tend to think that way. It’s embarrassing, but let’s admit it. And let’s look at God’s pattern and God’s heart. Here it is: “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.”
That’s amazing. The city God is talking about is Babylon. Not Jerusalem, the city of God, but Babylon, the city of idols, the place of crime and mess and brokenness, like our city today. The city God wants to bless through us is a hard place. God loves to bless hard places.
Here’s the back-story to the verse. The Babylonians had conquered the Jewish people and deported them from Jerusalem to Babylon. And the Babylonians were not just a different denomination. They were a city defiant toward God. In fact, when we read to the end of the Bible, the name “Babylon” has become code-language for everything horrible (Revelation 17:5). And God is saying to us, “I know how hard it is. And that’s where I’ve sent you – with my blessing, for their blessing.”
Let’s think for a moment about what a city is – not just Babylon but any city. A city is not just a collection of buildings. A city is a man-made social construct for making life without God workable and even impressive. That’s what a city is for. Who invented the city? Cain. After he murdered his brother Abel, God cursed Cain. So the Bible says, Cain left God behind and went and built the first city (Genesis 4:17). That is significant. A city is a device for human flourishing and accomplishment and glory while leaving God out and replacing him with our own made-up ideals. For example, as the Jewish exiles entered the city of Babylon through the Ishtar Gate and then walked onto the great Processional Way, every step they took was on slabs of imported limestone, each one three-and-a-half feet square, and along the beveled edge of each slab was inscribed “To the honor of Marduk,” the patron god of the city. With every step the people of God took, what did they see? “To the honor of Marduk, to the honor of Marduk.” And it really was a world-class city. In fact, the name Babylon, Bab-ilu, means “the gate of the gods.” In other words, Babylon thought of itself as the way to heaven on earth. Isn’t that the meaning of our own city? And we decide for ourselves what our heaven will be, and who our gods will be, and how we’re going to leverage our average experience into our heaven – without facing the God who created us and loves us and brought heaven down to us in Jesus. But everywhere we step, “To the honor of ___________.” That is what’s going on in the soul of the city. No wonder the city is a place of broken dreams and broken hearts.
But could I show you the amazing grace of God? Look where this proud human invention ends up. At the end of the Bible, after all our crime and dirt and graffiti and failure, God doesn’t just return us to the Garden of Eden. God takes the city and makes it into heaven: “And I saw the holy city . . . coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). That’s what our Redeemer will do. In the meantime, he is calling us to bring some of his heaven into our city right now.
Here’s how: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” The word translated “welfare” is shalom. It’s the key word in the verse, appearing three times. And God is saying, “Seek the shalom, the humaneness, the true welfare of your city.” God has sent us here for that purpose. We aren’t in Nashville by accident. God sent us here, even if sometimes we feel like exiles. And God is saying, “Don’t resent your situation. Accept it as of me. No self-pity. No victim-mentality. No withdrawal into your own selfish parallel universe. You have something better to live for – the human flourishing of your city, for my glory.”
Consider what the Bible says elsewhere about our attitude and our posture in whatever historical moment we find ourselves. “Overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). “Show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24). “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). “Give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). “Let your reasonableness be obvious to everyone” (Philippians 4:5). As I understand the Bible, it just isn’t right in the sight of our Lord to adopt an angry, militant attitude toward our city. We are not here to show them how wrong they are. We are not here to defeat them. We are here to serve them and bless them. God has put us here for his beautiful purpose.
Do your neighbors feel more loved because you’re there? Is your neighborhood better off because of you? I’m not saying it’s easy. I am noticing it is commanded. We need wisdom, of course. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Don’t take a foolish risk, but do take wise risks. Some of us have afflictions that diminish the very energy of our bodies. But everyone can do something. Up to our capacities, let’s open our hearts and open our homes and love our neighbors as never before. Only an obvious and unusual love, a love that comes down from on high, will make any impact today.
But God always sends his people to Babylon, the suburbs of hell, and he says to us there, “With my help, and for my glory, you create some peace in that hard place. Don’t run away. Make yourself at home right there, and build some beauty for the benefit of others. Don’t just use your city to get ahead in your career, and then toss it aside as a discarded piece of trash. Stop living with your bags packed. Stop scanning the horizon with an escapist dream in your heart. Settle down and make a lifetime commitment to your city. And if I do move you elsewhere, renew your commitment there. But my gospel people don’t settle for a robotic existence of minimal social interface with those around. I love my gospel people, and they love me, and we are partners together to love their neighbors. My obedient people are seeking and promoting the comprehensive well-being, the wholeness, the safety, the justice and mercy and beauty of their city. That is what I’ve commanded, and that is what my people will keep doing until the second coming of Christ.” And we say, “Yes, Lord. It’s a privilege.”
God is saying that when we serve our city and pray for our city, then we experience our own shalom. So many of us can tell stories of how, by sticking our necks out and loving and serving others for the Lord’s sake, we ended up feeling blessed, we felt we were the ones receiving the gift, because it really is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Are we promoting the shalom of our city? Are we praying for our city and for our neighbors? Psalm 122 teaches us how to pray for the city of God. But here in Jeremiah 29 we see that we can take that biblical pattern of prayer and apply it to our own city like this:
Pray for the peace of Nashville!
May they be secure who love you, Nashville!
I will seek your good. Psalm 122, adjusted
Monday evening Jani and I had Scotty and Darlene Smith over for dinner. Scotty was with one of our local politicians recently, who told him that right now we have around 1.8 million people in the Nashville area. And over the next fifteen to twenty years, Nashville is expected to grow to over three million people. God is bringing more people to us. And God loves every single one of them. God is entrusting more people to our love and prayers. Let’s get ready. Let’s love our neighbors. They aren’t going away. More of them are coming. What a privilege!
Over the next few weeks, as we ramp up to our Peace in the City event with Russell Moore, we’ll be pressing into what it means to love our neighbors. Let’s get radical. Let’s obey God. Let’s stop telling ourselves we don’t have the time, and let’s make the time. Let’s stop telling ourselves what we can’t do, and let’s figure out what we’re going to do. Let’s stop telling God he’ll have to go find some other church to use, and let’s start begging God to use us, for his glory, to bless the people of our city and especially our own neighbors. The second commandment isn’t going away. Will we let it fall on us? The Bible says, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the earth, that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his” (2 Chronicles 16:9).