>What will be the most important city in the world this year (and decade) ?
Jerusalem? Beijing? Moscow? Bombay? Washington DC? Baghdad because of the war? Tokyo because of the economy? Johannesburg, South Africa because of the World Cup? Maybe that old favorite Rome & it’s Vatican City.
I say “none of the above”. But for I tell you why let me tell you why cities are important in general, why they are important to God and then I’ll tell you what I think will be the most important city in the world this coming year.
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Why Cities Matter:
Whatever ever reason we would have given that cities are important in the past – for instance that they are place where people and ideas collect and collaborate so that (I have heard it said) “The future is created there”.
For us there is a much more practical reason. 100 years ago only 13% of the worlds population lived in cities. Statistics are saying that by 2050 over 70% of the worlds population will live in cities. IBM Has compared this (in a recent advertisement) to adding the equivalent of seven New York Cities to the planet every year.
The challenges for education, commerce, safety and health concerns are massive. I think that the ramifications and implications for spirituality and the way that we are the church. Christianity historically is based in community constructs that come from a far less urbanized and far less transient world. Christian Spirituality, by necessity, needs to look different in cities than it did for farm communities or monasteries out in the country. Christian community will need the same.
Just think about how much things have changed in these areas in the past 150 years. literally in the late 1800s (150 years ago) you could set up a big tent and – I’m not kidding about this- if it had light it would be a huge attraction. The revival meeting was born. people didn’t have electricity. So a big gathering of people in the evenings with live music and good preaching was an attraction. Just think about how to different church Community now that people have cars. think about how different the services now that people have television and get their entertainment elsewhere. think about how to different communication has become with cell phones. The Internet, e-mail, FaceBook and texting have really affected how people spend their time, their expectations for where God fits in.
Technology has radically impacted most peoples devotional life. the Industrial Revolution did – when people don’t work at home either in their trade or on their land – it will impact how they spend their day. Electricity is another example. When people can read at night, watch TV and set their alarm in the morning – they behave differently. In fact impacts their spirituality. This move towards cities will do the same.
How God relates to cities:
Laodicea - in Revelation Chapter 3 there is a message from the Lord to the church at Laodicea. One of the things in the message is that they should be “neither hot nor cold — but if they are lukewarm they will be spit out”. this has become a pretty famous passage though it is not the only thing in the message ( there are many other parts including where they have grown rich and arrogant and think they need nothing).
When I look at this passage with people after I read it I usually stop and ask “what is the most important word in this passage”. There is always a huge array of answers ( mostly ‘lukewarm’ though). then I say “its Laodicea”. To whom the letter was written is the most important thing. Not universal principles that we can draw out of it. Not modern applications. All content happens in that context. This letter was written to the church at Laodicea. If there is some principle or lesson that we can draw out of it as modern readers and communities that’s great. But we need to understand that it wasn’t primarily written to us or for us. It was written to a specific place and a specific time.
Leodicea is the most important word in the letter. It is here that we understand that the city to whom the letter is written had built an elaborate aqueduct system. They brought the famously cold clear water from their neighbor city to the east ( Collosea). They also brought water from a hot springs 6 miles awat into the city. The aqueduct system was magnificently designed and impressively constructed – hot healing water from one place, cool drinking water from another – but by the time the water got to Laodicea – guess what ?
Now however you want to interpret the message to that city ( I think it’s about usefulness) that thing I most want you to see in this is that the message was in a language they can understand. God was speaking to the Laodiceans using Laodicean imagery and metaphor. God was not using something general but something specific. Not something universal but something local. And my theory here is that this is how God relates to the people in any location.
This is my theory: that God does not speak in general principles as much as specific examples. That God is less concerned with communicating something universal than something local. And this makes sense because love happens locally. Truth is known contextually. Faith is experienced relationally.
Athens - mean Acts chpt. 17 Paul visits Athens. There’s this famous story where he gives a presentation based on one of their many monuments and statues that served as idols to gods. He found one that had an inscription below it entitled “to an unknown God”. This has generally been preached that they were so fascinated with idol worship if they wanted to make sure that they didn’t leave any gods out so they had this one token cover all. The problem is that this story happened in Athens. Paul’s message was to a specific people in a specific place in a specific time. All content happens in the context.
And if we were in that place we would know that Athens had as a part of its past a legendary battle. Hundreds of years before Paul walked into Athens there had been a miraculous event. In that event of their salvation from a plague and the war had come after they had made sacrifices to every god they could think of. Having no relief from the sickness they said ( as people in that day did) is there any other god he may need to appease – any god we have left out – any god we don’t know about? it turns out that they had to Hebrew young man among their ranks who told them of the Hebrew God. they made sacrifices and the curse was broken. In remembrance of that day they erected a monument. So ask yourself why didn’t they know that God’s name? Because Hebrews don’t say the name of God. This is the unknown God.
Paul walks into that place and says “ I can see that you are very religious people.” And then proceeds to tell them what the great God of heaven had done on the earth through the son. Most people don’t know about that story behind that encounter in Acts 17. I think it’s because we try to read everything as a universal story. But that story happened in a specific place in a specific time and if we miss that we miss the point of the story. God had a message for Athens that day, but it was not the first time God it done something for Athens or in Athens. The message that day was not universal, it was local. it was not generic it was specific.
Bethlehem – In John chapter 1 we have the Hymn of the Logos. this is John’s ‘ Christmas story’ and it says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. That word dwelt would be the equivalent word to the Old Testament idea of Tabernacle. A tent that moves with the people. The idea is that for a time God camped with us – where we were. not generically but specifically. Not just universally but locally. God became one of us. This is a very powerful idea (obviously – as if that needed said) and still draws a negative reaction from some people. now the debate is probably more about how his followers behave more like the Romans who killed him then they behave like him – but that is for a different podcast. The point I want to focus on today is that the incarnation – what Christians believe to be the central event in human history and the one we attempt to orient all counting of years around – the incarnation did not happen generically it happened locally. It did not happen universally as much as contextually.
It has been pointed out that Jesus could have come to earth as a baby and appeared in Antarctica. He could have never talked to a single person — in fact he could have never even learned a language — and still accomplish the atonement. God comes and indwell flesh, then dies: the righteous for the unrighteous. And that would have been enough. But that is not how it happened! Jesus came to a specific people who lived in a specific place in a specific time. He learned their language. He learned their scriptures. He used examples from their lives. He touched their bodies. He talked through their stories with them. He called them by name.
He did not call everyone “earthling” and wave his hand over crowds and everyone was magically healed. He taught each each person in a way that was significant to their illness and understanding. to the blind man he touched his eyes. To the woman ostracized from the community for 12 years he called attention to her as a restored one. To a fisherman he pointed out where the school of fish was and made breakfast on the shore.
Jesus’ content happened in a context.
The Most Important City:
So this is my theory: that God does not speak in general principles as much as specific examples. That God is less concerned with communicating something universal than something local. And this makes sense because love happens locally. Truth is known contextually. Faith is experienced relationally.
Which brings us to the question: what is the most important city in the world to God?
And the answer is: the one you live in. Where you are… There — Now.
Some people who think the old way will stick with the answer that Jerusalem is always the most important city. I would say that Jerusalem is the most important city — for those that live there. God has something very important and unique for them. But God also has something important and unique for Rio de Janeiro and Soa Paulo, Brazil… and it might not be the same thing as Jerusalem or even as each other.
Some people will always think that Rome is the most important city because the most important person in their faith lives there. The good news is that God doesn’t only live your ( because he does live there) but he also lives in Sarajevo, Paris, and even Riga Latvia. God has something important and unique for each of those cities. The specific people in fact specific place in this specific time are of interest to God.
Maybe the gift is to ask God, not what God wants to say universally but locally. not what God wants to do generically but specifically.
When we think in generals we are in danger of missing how important our city is and either trying to important something that God did in a different city (say like a model of church that works in suburban Chicago called ‘Seeker Sensitive’) or something God did in a different time (like the stuff we see in the Book of Acts).
I think that what we see in the Book of Acts is that God works in context in each place. THIS is why I think that the books of the New Testament Bible are entitled after the cities that they were written to! Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc. and why they are not entitled topically “Haven & Hell” “How to run a church” & “Salvation”.
They come out of a narrative that comes out of a context.
To God, the most important city in Earth is where you live. This is true even if it’s not a city. Your town, county and neighborhood matter to God.
Not generically but specifically.
Not just universally but locally.