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Dear Lord, please bless us now as we come to Your Word. Help us to know what you want us to know, believe what you want us to believe, do what you want us to do. Open my lips, that I may speak only what is true and edifying, and open our ears that we may hear Your voice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Church father and in the Catholic church a saint, Augustin, lived from 354 to 430. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He is, by most accounts, after the close of the biblical canon, the most important theologian in the history of the Church. He was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa and he was 56 years old when he was told the unthinkable, that the great city of Rome had been sacked. Everyone was shocked. How could you not be shocked? How could Rome have fallen? And to these crude, Germanic people, probably originated in Scandinavia, the Visigoths. They just sound like scary people.
How could this civilization of the Greeks and then the Romans, be coming to an end? Rome was ancient. Rome was, seemed to be, the most important city in the world. It was in the center of the world as they saw it. Rome was invincible, wasn’t it?
It would be as if on September 11, 2001, not only did the planes crash into the twin towers and we saw that great tragedy and act of violence and war, but then jihadist extremists took over the entire city, or laid to waste the entire great city of New York. To crash into the twin towers and unleash that damage was shocking. To take over the entire city and on its way the collapse of an entire civilization unthinkable. That’s what Augustin faced.
For the next 16 years he worked on one of the most important books ever written. Here’s the title in Latin: De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos. The City of God Against the Pagans. Or you may have heard of it, The City of God. There were chiefly two purposes in writing this massive work. One, he set out to defend Christianity. If you know something of Church history, you may recall that it wasn’t too long before this that Constantine had his famous conversion and began moving the Christian church from a place of persecution to a privileged place in the Empire and it was on its way to becoming something of a Christian empire. So it occurred to many people now when did this great cataclysmic event happen? Well, it happened after we turned away from the gods and goddesses of our fathers, the Roman pantheon of gods, and we turned to this strange God, Christ. So Augustin set out to defend Christianity against these charges.
Then the second main purpose was to explore the relationship between what he called two cities, the city of man and the city of God. How do we make sense of such a cataclysmic upheaval in the world as they know it? These two cities, city of man, city of God, are not exactly heaven and earth. It’s related to that, but in Augustin’s reckoning they are actually two cities that exist on earth at the same time.
Here’s what he says: This race we have distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, and the other of those who live according to God. And these we also mystically call two cities, or two communities of men, of which one is the predestined to reign eternally with God and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil.
So Augustin traces these two cities. He uses that as a metaphor, not a literal city but two communities of people throughout history, all the way from Cain and Abel. He shows how the world is divided into these two groups. The earthly society he says expresses itself in Rome and Babylon and lives according to the values of the world. Then the city of God was present in Israel and now he says is present in the Church and lives according to heavenly values.
The city of man, he says, no matter how impressive it looks, as impressive as Babylon or Rome or New York City or London or Paris, no matter how impressive, it will always pass away. Should the Lord delay in coming, the great cities of the world pass away.
The city of God, however, no matter how small, no matter how troubled, no matter how seemingly unimpressive, that city will last forever.
So the question uppermost in Augustin’s mind, and it’s a question relevant for us – How do we live as the city of God in the midst of the city of man?
It’s not a simple question to answer. On the one hand, you might say, well, the city of God must live in opposition to the city of man. And that is part of the answer. We have different values, different beliefs, different goals. Increasingly in this country, Christians, I mean real, Bible-believing, born-again, love Jesus with all our heart, believe every single word in this book kind of Christians, will have to get used to living as cognitive minorities. There will be an opposition. We will be distinct, and at times we will have to work against the city of man for the sake of the city of God.
But it’s not as simple as just saying the two are mortal enemies, because the city of God should also influence the city of man. We are to be salt and light, we make things taste better, we make things brighter. So navigating these two cities, how to live as the city of God in the midst of the city of man, is not easy.
Now if you saw the preaching schedule on that little bookmark, you see that for most of this fall we’re going to be in two 7-part series. We’re going to look at the seven churches of Revelation, which has everything to do with how do we live as the people of God in the midst of this fallen world, that’s what they were facing, and then we’re going to do a second 7-part series on the person of Christ and the famous 3:16 passages in the New Testament, John 3:16, but there’s a lot of other famous 3:16 passages, and we’re going to focus on the person of Christ and what that means as we live in this world.
These two weeks, this morning and next week, and it coincides very nicely with the Sunday School class that Eric is teaching, are here to orient us and re-orient us at the beginning of this fall semester, the beginning of this new ministry year, to think about this question – How does God want us to live in the world but not of the world?
Now, thankfully, we’re not facing the total collapse of civilization, let’s be thankful, it’s not quite as bad as Augustin’s day. But we can see the foundations being shaken. What does it mean to be salt and light? What should our posture be toward our city, toward our country? How can we be prepared to talk to our neighbors about Christ when they may disagree fundamentally with not only the conclusions we reach but the very starting places and assumptions we have? These are the sort of questions I hope we’ll be thinking about in these two weeks together.
So I want you to turn in your Bible, and yes, I know that introduction counted against my time, I understand that, don’t fret, I’ve done this before.
Jeremiah 29, verses 1 through 14. Jeremiah 29,1 through 14. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles.
“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.”
So that’s all introduction. This is going in the royal mailbag and it’s heading off to Nebuchadnezzar to read and share with the exiles.
“It said: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 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. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.”
““For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. ””
Here’s what’s going on. Jeremiah, the prophet, was born in a little town called Anathoth, just a few miles northeast of Jerusalem, and he was called to be a prophet around 627 B.C., and he ministered for 40 years. Those were 40 terrible years. Jeremiah began his ministry under the reign of Josiah, the last good king, the last real king, and then came a series of puppet kings, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Didn’t even go to the trouble of giving them different-sounding names.
During this time Babylon overtook Assyria as the superpower in the region, Judah tried to do everything it could. So Israel was already overtaken by Assyria in 722 and now the superpower in the region is Babylon, and Judah, the southern kingdom, is left, and Judah did everything it could think of… Well, except obeying God… Everything else it could think of to put off the eventual Babylonian destruction, and so it sided with Egypt and it sided with Babylon, and then it tried to rebel. Nothing worked. Judah was in big trouble from this big bully Babylon.
Jeremiah’s job was to give Judah bad news. In fact, he was almost always telling them what they did not want to hear. The people wanted to believe the false prophets, that Babylon would not be victorious, or if it was, it would not be for very long, but Jeremiah had a word from the Lord and he said Babylon, though they are wicked, that’s true, don’t miss that part. He wasn’t on the side of the Babylonians, he wasn’t in cahoots with the Babylonians. They’re wicked, but God’s going to use this wicked instrument to punish our people.
This did not make Jeremiah popular. His hometown plotted against him. People tried to kill him. He was persecuted and reviled. If there was an autobiography, he could have entitled it, “Hey, Don’t Shoot the Messenger – The Life Story of Jeremiah.” They did not like Jeremiah.
He never married because the Lord told him not to take a wife. Any future wife of Jeremiah probably appreciated that.
In the whole book of Jeremiah we only have record of two people who listened to him – Baruch, his scribe, and an Ethiopian eunuch named Ebed-melech. It was not a glamorous job that the Lord gave him, but he spoke the truth.
In 605 B.C., Babylon took the first exiles from Israel, from Judah, off to Babylon, and there were multiple deportations over a couple of decades, more and more exiles were sent from Jerusalem over to Babylon, all the way until 587 when Jerusalem was destroyed.
So here we are in chapter 29, probably sometime in the 590s before Jerusalem has been destroyed because Jeremiah’s back at Jerusalem but he’s sending a letter over to the north and to the east to Babylon in order that they may have instructions on how to live. He is going to tell them how they are to live as God’s chosen people in a strange land. How do they exist as the city of God in the midst of a very corrupt, wicked city of man?
Now though we are not in this same situation, thankfully, the New Testament does put us into an analogous situation. So we’re right to draw application from this letter. True, we haven’t been deported, we’re not facing 70 years of explicit punishment, and yet doesn’t the New Testament depict God’s people not so much like the Israelites in the Promised Land as we are exiles?
You think about the garden of Eden. In the garden of Eden you have the city of God and the city of man are the same. After that the cherubim puts a flaming sword, you can’t go back in there. It isn’t until the end of Revelation where the city of God and the city of man become the same again. You remember that’s from Revelation 11. You may now have known there but you’ve heard it from Handel’s Messiah, and the kingdom of this earth, this world, becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. That happens at the end when the new heavens and the new earth literally come down, that’s the picture, and we have this new garden city. So in between the beginning of Genesis and the end of Revelation, the city of man and the city of God do not completely overlap.
That’s why in 1 Peter we are often called strangers and aliens. Some translations we are called exiles, the elect exile of the dispersion. We are those people who are not yet I the Promised Land. No matter how much influence we may have, and certainly throughout much of history in this country there has been a tremendous Christian influence and that is to the good and we ought to do that as we’ll see in this text, and yet we must always keep in mind that the city of God and the city of man have not come together fully, and they won’t until the end.
We, too, no matter how godly your neighborhood may be, or even if you live in the South, we’re strangers, we’re aliens, we’re exiles.
I belabor that point for you to understand that Jeremiah’s letter is for people like us. Not identical, of course, we’re not promised this, we’re not 70 years, it’s not identical, but the basic contours are the same. Israel of God in the midst of Babylon, because Paul will later call the Church the Israel of God, and Revelation makes clear that the worldly system is like Babylon. So Israel of God in the midst of Babylon. That’s us.
There are three commands for the exiles in Babylon, and these three instructions will be useful for us as we think about living in the city of God as the city of God in the midst of the city of man. Three instructions.
Number one – Settle down.
Not settle down as much calm down, but okay, get some roots, get established. You see this in verse 5. Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, eat their produce, take wives, have sons and daughters, get wives for sons, give your daughters in marriage, they may bear sons, multiply, do not decrease.
You have to remember they are in Babylon, the Babylonians crushed the Israelites. They crushed their enemies. Killed men, women, and children. Dashed infants against the rocks. This was a godless, corrupt, punishing, despicable enemy. They were certainly more godless than this country. And yet as one author puts it, Jeremiah sounds like he works for Babylonian Realty – check out our 4-bedroom homes, our lush gardens, our bustling commerce, come to Babylon, a wonderful place to raise your family.
Now it’s true they didn’t choose to relocate to Babylon, they were forced there, but now Jeremiah absolutely astonishes them. Remember the false prophets are telling them this is going to be quick. There’s a false prophet named Hananiah in chapters 27 and 28. There’s another false prophet in chapter 29 Shemaiah. They’re all saying basically the same thing – this is going to be short, two years tops. So this is uncomfortable, but don’t worry, don’t make long-term plans, best to just bring your tents, not your bricks and mortar.
Jeremiah says the opposite. Nope, it’s not going to be short. It’s going to be 70 years and so you need to settle down.
You don’t plant crops if you’re only going to be there for a couple of months. You don’t bother to be giving away sons and daughters in marriage and be looking forward to increasing and having children unless you’re going to be there for many years.
So Jeremiah says you’re going to make a home in Babylon and you’re going to multiply, I hope. I don’t want you to be scared, I want you to stay put. I want you to carry on with life. It’s not a vacation. It’s not like two years of graduate school. It’s not even a short-term prison sentence. This is your life for a full 70 years, and the psalmist says that the span of life is 70 or by reason of strength 80 years. This is a lifetime you’re going to spend in Babylon.
Now for sure the Israelites were not to be corrupted by the Babylonians. While they were there God gave them through the Babylonians certain amount of freedom. We can read from Ezekiel and he’s ministering there to the exiles. We see that the prophets were able to minister to them. They still have elders so they have some sort of their own worship, they’re own religious system, so the Babylonians deport them, but they’re not constantly putting them under their thumb. They were allowed to live a fairly normal life.
Even though they had no choice in the matter, God says you’re there and you ought to make the best of it.
So He says to us, as strangers and aliens, settle down and try to live a fairly normal life. Stick around if you can. Get involved where you are. You are here, and I know we live in a transient society and people are moving all the time and there’s good reasons to do so, but where you are, the old adage is true – bloom where you’re planted. If you’re here, make roots. Grow. Blossom.
You can think about how this word from Jeremiah to the exiles must have been initially so discouraging, but if they step back and think about it, it should have been encouraging. The discouragement, of course, is we are going to be here for a long time. Maybe you’re discouraged today. I want heaven, you mean Jesus isn’t coming back tomorrow? Well, check back tomorrow.
Yeah, you’re going to have to find a way to make it in a fallen world that sometimes is nasty and brutish and sometimes doesn’t like Christians.
So that’s discouraging, but hopefully they would have also been encouraged, because it means though we’re in Babylon, though we’re exiles, though we’re strangers, though this is not our permanent home, there is a way to be faithful here. Settle down, find a place to live, get a job, get married, have children. That’s what he tells them to do.
To have, now the Lord may not give you all of those things, we understand sometimes you want the job, you can’t have it; you want marriage, it doesn’t come, etc., but in so far as you’re able, settle down.
I remember when I was in college and I grew a bunch in my faith. I often say I grew like a weed and that’s the right analogy because I grew fast and there were also a lot of weeds, and maybe you had this experience, or young people, maybe you’ll have this experience in college. I was on fire for the Lord and that was good, but I remember talking to my roommates and we’re both on fire for the Lord, thinking about how radical we were going to live our lives. And I had this serious moment, I didn’t act on it, we had this serious conversation – do you think we should just probably never get married? We should probably, we should maybe drop out of school. If we were really spiritual, aren’t we wasting our time learning these things? Shouldn’t we just be in a kibbutz somewhere reading our Bible? Or just soaking up all we can?
And you have that radical edge where you think if I’m really, really faithful to Jesus, nothing about my life is going to look normal. All of these bougie people. I picked that up, I think that’s what the kids say.
But Jeremiah tells the exiles, no, it’s all right. In fact, I’m telling you, radical life. You what radix means? Roots. A radical life mans you have rootedness.
So if you’re there in Babylon, you’re saying what are we going to do? I’m going to serve Yahweh. I’m on fire for Yahweh. Jeremiah says that’s good, but you’re going to be there for a while, so get a house, get a job, get a wife, get a husband, have some kids. I want you to settle down.
Number two. Settle down, number two, seek the welfare of the city.
You’ve heard of this verse, many of you, in verse 7, but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. You may know that that Hebrew word is shalom, well-being, contentment, wholeness. God is telling the exiles seek the prosperity of the city, do everything you can to further the good of that city. Yes, even Babylon.
They sang imprecatory psalms against Babylon. Psalm 137. This is why as a Christian you have to hold a lot of things true at the same time. On the one hand they could sing imprecatory songs because Babylon was wicked and they deserved to be punished, and at the same time Jeremiah can tell them, yeah, but as Babylon goes, so you go.
Now notice we don’t want to overstate verse 7. It doesn’t actually say anything about “and then you’re going to build the kingdom.” No. It doesn’t say that you’re going to work and bring this tremendous revival. Well, that would be nice. Actually, it says rather matter-of-factly, if you’re smart, you’re going to work for the welfare of Babylon because you know where you live? Babylon.
So if Charlotte falls into disarray, that’s not good for you. And if you pretend to be super-spiritual and say it doesn’t matter what happens, it doesn’t matter what happens in our country and we don’t care about liberty, freedom, no, you will be made to care. And as the city goes, and as your state goes, and as your country goes, it will mean things better or worse for you. In its welfare, you will find your welfare.
This is why being in the world but not of the world is a complicated thing. It means that we give no ultimate allegiance to a country, a city, a school. Only Christ is Lord. If we have to choose between serving Christ and serving some other interest, we always choose Christ.
But that doesn’t mean that under the lordship of Christ we don’t also pursue and support other good things. Come back to Augustin. He used the language of ordered loves. You’ve heard of a love or something being disordered. Well, think about what that word literally means. It means you love something out of order. You love God, you love Father, Son, and Holy Spirit most and underneath that love and devotion to God, you can love other things. In fact, you should. You should love your parents. You should love your children. There’s a very appropriate way, a patriotically, to love your country. You may be able to love your college football team. Maybe you can even love your favorite TV show.
But if the order gets out of whack and all of a sudden you’re favorite pizza place is higher than your child, not a good order, or if your family and having great times at the lake comes ordered all the way above Jesus, that’s not the right order, either.
Ordered loves. Seek the shalom of Charlotte, seek the welfare of America. It’s a mistake to always be against the place you live, never for it. That’s why we get involved, government, education, art, literature, media, or you work with the poor, you work with the addicted, you work with prisoners, or you work with at-risk moms, or you learn how to fix things or build things or grow things.
Listen to this very carefully. This point is very critical – the mission of the Church is not the welfare of the city. This is not the mission of the Church. This is not what Jesus told His disciples before He ascended into heaven – now you’re going to be clothed with power from on high and I want you to seek the welfare of the city. No, as we heard in Sunday School class, make disciples.
So seeking the welfare of the city is not the mission of the Church. However, as disciples, as we’re scattered in our various communities and jobs and schools throughout the week, we do seek the peace of the places that we inhabit. So you understand there’s a difference between the Church as the church and the Church scattered throughout the week, as we go into our places of work and school and neighborhoods and extra-curricular activities. We do seek the peace of this place.
But our marching orders, the reason we send out missionaries into the world, is to make disciples.
This wasn’t Jeremiah’s way of saying I want you to redefine what temple worship is about, or I want you to think of synagogue worship in a different way. No, the great commission’s focus on testifying, bearing witness to Christ, making disciples, and yet as disciples we are given this opportunity to seek the peace of our city.
Look at verse 7. It says now how we do that. Well, one of the best ways you do it – pray to the Lord on its behalf. We often get so overwhelmed, I do, this is a massive thing, I gotta reform the whole country. Well, no, you can’t do that. You can’t change the world in that way. But can you pray?
Prayer, one author says, is the civic responsibility of the Christian. Another author pointed out this is the only verse in the Old Testament where God’s people are specifically told to pray for their enemies. The world around you may seem like your enemy, and sometimes it is, but you must always pray for your leaders, pray for your school, your government, your country. Pray for the welfare of the place in which we live.
So settle down, seek the welfare of the city, and finally, keep the ending in mind.
Sorry, I tried to get an “S” word, but keep the ending in mind.
Jeremiah’s very clear in this entire book about the ending for Israel. The ending, we even read about it here, is restoration and return in 70 years. Look at verse 11 – I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
So it’s not all bad news from Jeremiah. Some of you have this in some cross-stitch hanging up on your house or you’ve got a sticker on your phone. It’s a great verse. And then you get the Christians who swoop in, maybe they got a semester of seminary under their belt – hey, you like Jeremiah 29:11? Are you coming back from exile in 70 years? Get the sticker off.
Well, it’s true, it is about the immediate context of returning from exile in 70 years, but it’s a good verse. It’s good. Have the verse. Love the verse. Put the bumper sticker on your car. It’s a good verse. As long as we understand some of the immediate context and we don’t misunderstand “prosper” to mean you get rich, you get everything you want. It’s a wonderful promise to God’s covenant people, to us, that God’s ultimate plans for us, even in the midst of difficulty, are for good.
Repentance and renewal. Look at verse 13: You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. More important than seeking the welfare of the city is seeking the Lord with all your heart. And if you just seek the welfare of the city, you don’t even have to be a Christian to want your city to be good. You have to be a Christian to also seek the Lord with all your heart.
So the ending for Israel is good. The ending for Babylon is bad.
Chapter 50 is entitled in the ESV “Judgment on Babylon.” Chapter 51 – “The Utter Destruction of Babylon.” So there’s bad news here for Israel in the 70 years, but there’s worse news for Babylon.
Which is why we must always keep the ending in mind. The world is not our home, judgment is coming. This is where some well-meaning Christians and churches miss the mark, because maybe they want to hunker down in verse 7 and they get all excited about the shalom stuff, and we’re going to be the shalom Christians and we’re making the shalom in the city. Good. But they forget about the only One who can bring lasting shalom, the only One who can provide the basis for real peace, the only One who can actually bring lasting welfare between God and man.
Jeremiah didn’t say seek the shalom of the city because it’s going to make it into the new heavens and the new earth. He said, no, because this is just common sense. This is going to be good for you.
Don’t think we are just called to be good neighbors in the city. We are. We are also called to point people to the King of the city.
Israel couldn’t see this as clearly as we can because we know the Prince of Peace. We know the One who stood on the mountain before He ascended and told His disciples all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. We know the One who can reconcile Jew and Gentile, strangers and aliens, through His blood.
So as we in our individual lives seek the welfare of the city, as we ought, don’t forget to talk about Jesus. He’s the only One who can give us the peace that we all really need. If you love God and love your neighbor, you will care about their health, their employment, their freedom, their well-being, the well-ordered society. You’ll care about the city. But you’ll care about their souls.
We go forth to seek the welfare of the city of man, but also, here’s where it’s hard to be Christians, we seen the welfare of the city of man but we also are calling people out of it into the city of God.
Do you see how all three of these instructions must be held together and if you just run off to one or the other, you’re not going to be the sort of mature Christian the God wants you to be.
Settle down, seek the peace of the city, and keep the ending in mind.
If you don’t settle down, if you don’t do that part, you’re going to be rootless.
If you don’t do the second part, you’re going to be heartless.
And if you don’t do the last part, you’re going to be Christ-less.
If you don’t keep the ending in mind, that God doesn’t call the Church to some city renewal, civic reclamation project. He doesn’t call us to make America a Christian nation. He does call us to be salt and light and to influence in so far as we are able, and to seek the welfare of Charlotte, of North Carolina, of the United States, unapologetically, because we know that as the country goes, things can go better or worse for the Church of Jesus Christ.
We don’t relish the thought of persecution. There’s a reason why the vast missionary forces in the last 200 years have come from North America, from the British Isles. They’ve come from places where there’s prosperity. Where there’s freedom, where there’s rule of law, where there’s order. And now great missionary forces coming from Korea, from some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, from Brazil.
So we do seek the welfare of the city, but we must not forget to keep the end in mind. It’s okay to love this place here on earth so long as that love is not disordered, because we don’t love this place best and we don’t love the people on it most effectively unless we love the heavenly city to come even more, and we call people to join us on our way to the other side.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your many graces, Your many kindnesses to us. Wherever we need to hear Your Word this morning, for some of us it’s that word to put roots, to make the best of where we are, and that it’s okay to settle down and try to live something of a normal life. Other people may have forgotten the interest we have in seeking the welfare of this place in which we live and perhaps others have forgotten the eternal perspective and the final reward coming and the final judgment as well. So, Lord, keep up us, we pray, walking with You, and we look forward to all the glorious things You will do through Jesus as we follow Him. Amen.