What do you know about the relationship between the crocodile and the plover bird?
Here’s a picture of the two of them together:
Sweet huh? It’s like they’re almost friends. It’s like that big fangy croc is smiling at his little feathered pal. They’ll be writing children’s books about it next. Oh they have? And it’s here! Thanks! It’s a lovely tale of true friendship and cooperation.
Except it’s not.
The plover and crocodile exist in a symbiotic relationship – the plover pulls the annoying bits of meat and parasites out of the crocodile’s teeth and gums for its own food. There would be no relationship – and no plover – if the crocodile suddenly found another way of dealing with its problems.
The symbiotic relationship between the crocodile of modern western culture (aka the city) and the plover of the evangelical church is just about over. And the pace of change is catching many evangelicals by surprise. Not only that, the preaching and teaching of some of our most culturally savvy churches has not prepared us for this change because it has failed to understand the nature of the symbiotic relationship.
This is highlighted by the frequent misappropriation of a key verse of scripture – one of the most quoted verses these past ten to fifteen years by those who were keen to engage “the city” or “the culture” in a positive manner as the people of God. That verse is, of course, Jeremiah 29:7. Remember it?
Let me give you some Jeremiah 29 context first. The bulk of the Jerusalem Jews are in exile in Babylon for their sins. Meanwhile all sorts of false prophets are claiming exile is ending soon and that the Jews will return home. Jeremiah, however, is the fly in the ointment. He sends to the exiles and says “No! Exile is God’s plan for you! All who remain in Jerusalem are the disobedient ones. Stay in exile and ignore the false prophets.”
And then he says that famous verse – the one that has launched a thousand cultural sermons – “Seek the welfare of the city…”
Go on, finish it for me, if you can remember how it goes. Oh. alright then:
“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.”
Simply put – Jeremiah is announcing a symbiotic relationship. Seek the welfare of crocodilian Babylon for the sake of plover-like Jerusalem.
It’s a brilliant strategy is it not? Is there a safer place for the Jews to flourish, to rekindle their love for God and his word, hanker after true worship rather than idolatry other than the mouth of the biggest baddest leviathan around? If it suits Babylon to have them there, then what other enemy is going to touch them?
The problem is that this paradigm has been stretched to mean far more than it does by many well-meaning commentators and pastors, and is used as an example of how the Christian is to engage in their world, or do “kingdom work” or find meaning in all sorts of employment, without referencing that final important caveat.
And to an extent, when the symbiotic relationship is clear, that is fine. But do not mistake a symbiotic relationship for true friendship. Or, more dangerously so, do not, if you are a plover, assume that it is friendship that keeps those gnarly jaws from snapping down on you.
And that is precisely the problem we are facing. Too many Christians are shocked at the rising level of antipathy the modern western framework is displaying towards them, which as one commentator has said recently flows from cultural power, down to political power and finally to legal power. Why the shock? Because they assumed sympathetic friendship rather than symbiotic relationship.
Still tracking? Good! Still not assuming I am saying let’s head for the hills with beans, spam and shotguns? Good again!
Now do I believe that engagement with the city is noble and good? Yes. Do I believe in working in our world productively and positively? Yes. Do I mean that we should find a level of meaning in our employment? Yes again, I do. But let’s not provide blanket coverage from that verse in Jeremiah, because to do so is to isolate the passage from its context, and hence misunderstand, and then misappropriate, it.
How does Jeremiah preface his call in ch29?
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.
The call then to live in, settle down in, and marry within Babylon is presented not as a way to enable Babylon to flourish, but a way for Israel to flourish. History bore that out. God finally ends Babylon’s dominance via the Medes and Persians in order that their foreign policy would be used to permit the Jews to return home.
God used Babylon’s flourishing as a means to an end, then when its purpose was done, he replaced it with another super-power. Don’t forget the city of Jeremiah 29 is also the city of Psalm 137, a place to weep and mourn for your true homeland.
Folks, Babylon has been good for a while in that it’s been a useful place for us to flourish. But only as long as we flourished in Babylon for the sake of Jerusalem, not as an end in itself. Only if we have recognised that Jerusalem is our true home and have found our significance and security there. But Babylon has been positively dangerous when we’ve hankered for more than a symbiotic relationship, and that has played out on both the left and right of the evangelical agenda in unhappy ways.
There are deep cultural under-currents in Babylon that move and shape us in ways that we don’t even recognise, even when we are as culturally savvy as we think we are. (Check out James Davison Hunter’s thinking on this in his book To Change The World.)
Never forget that Babylon is a crocodile. If the plover ever outlives its usefulness to the crocodile it’s game over. If the crocodile ever demands a service from the plover that the plover is not willing to provide it’s game over. And if the crocodile discovers the wonders of flossing it’s game over.
In the plan of salvation God used Babylon unashamedly not for the sake of Babylon, but for the sake of Jerusalem. Yet even that city was not God’s true goal. The hankering of God’s people today is not for an earthly version of Jerusalem – a sub-cultural gated community of like-minded people hiding from Babylon and playing music that ‘sounds just like’ and watching TV channels that ‘look just like”.
No. We wait for the Jerusalem that is coming down here from above, for that is our true home. In the meantime by the power of the Holy Spirit we enact a robust exile theology full of love for God and others, clarity and vision, bravery and beauty, all in the face of a watching Babylon. Why because those are all the things that our true city will be like. Might as well start now!
God used Babylon to protect the Jews so that one day Jesus could come, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. Tragically (though wonderfully within God’s purposes) and ironically, Jesus died outside the walls of his own city – Jerusalem – because she too had forgotten that friendship with the world is enmity towards God.
So let’s keep cleaning the crocodile’s teeth whilst it permits, but don’t assume a true friendship that isn’t there, and biblically has no warrant anyway. Keep seeking the welfare of Perth/Melbourne/SydneyNew York/Whereverland, but don’t be disappointed, angry or horrified when and if the jaws finally snap.
Babylon is not simply YOUR city, Babylon is EVERY city that is under the spiritual rule of the kingdom of this age. Babylon’s true nature is revealed in St John’s Apocalypse and its welfare is the farthest thing from God’s mind:
6 I saw that the woman (Babylon) was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
Sometimes those jaws snap without warning, sometimes they stay open longer than we expected, and and sometimes we ignore the warning of their imminent closure at our peril. Whatever the case, hope for plovers such as we, is found not in the mouth of the crocodile, but in another city altogether.
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. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 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. 4 ‘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. Rev 21:1-4
In that city we won’t be symbiotically reduced to picking food from the teeth of crocodiles. No! That ancient beast will be long gone, as the holy eternal God himself, with deep tenderness and truly relationship, comes close enough to us to be dangerous, before gently and lovingly wiping the tears from our eyes.