- To whom was Jeremiah’s letter addressed?
- What’s the bad news? Exile, 70 years
- What’s the good news?
- God is with them
- The people would grow in faith and fruitfulness
- God would bless their neighbors, too.
- What does this mean for us?
- We are exiles too
- A warning against Israel’s two main temptations
- God is with us
- God will use us
I invite everyone here to think about a favorite place in your childhood where you felt most at home, most at one with yourself, most at peace with God and with the world, where you could go for safety, solace and security in troubled times. Take a minute to think of that time and place.
Is it where you live right now? Or reasonably nearby, like Drift Creek Camp? If so, good for you. But that’s much of the world’s experience anymore, especially not for the world’s 65 million refugees. For them, there’s no going back to that place where they once felt most at home. If we know what it’s like to feel any kind of restlessness, change, or the fear or pain of not entirely belonging somewhere, then that gives us a handle by which to understand today’s Bible passage. It is a letter which the prophet Jeremiah wrote, six hundred years before Christ, from prison, in Jerusalem.
Which brings us to the first question in the outline: To whom was this letter written? It was written to the first group of captive Jews exiled in Babylon, in what is now Iraq and Iran. There would be three major deportations of Jews to Babylon, eventually. The last one was the worst and the biggest. Oddly enough, Jeremiah wanted to go into Exile with the recipients of this letter. But he was held captive in Jerusalem by certain desperate, to-the-bitter-end hyper-nationalist super-patriots who insisted that God would never let a foreign enemy destroy Jerusalem or the temple and disperse all of God’s people. And they had their false prophets who kept promising and prophesying as much. In the letter we’re about to hear, Jeremiah takes them to task.
For Jeremiah was given by God to see the unthinkable: that Zion would soon be destroyed, its people exiled, and the Temple flattened. Yes, the place where they felt most at home, God’s footstool on earth. Yet, listen then for the word of hope within Israel’s most desperate circumstance:
Jeremiah 29: 1”This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin [a] and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. 10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Seventy years later, God made good on his promise to return his people to Judah and Jerusalem. But almost none of the people who received this letter would live to see the fulfilment of God’s promise. Which brings us to question number two: What’s the bad news in this passage? Exile. Seventy years of being second and third class citizens, seventy years’ worth of living with the stigma of defeat and the confusion of wondering, if God is God and if God is for us, then why did this happen? Their pain and confusion finds powerful expression in Psalm 137:“1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
“How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” Where so many of our children and grandchildren are forsaking their Hebrew heritage and blending in with the culture and religions of our captors? Where every day we are distressed, oppressed and provoked in our spirits by the imperial civil religion, with its cruel and gaudy golden idols, some of whom they worship with unspeakably lewd and violent rituals, sometimes even with human sacrifice? So much so, that the very word “Babylon” has come to signify the in-your-face celebration of idolatry, immorality, vanity, arrogance, greed and cruelty on a grand, imperial scale? Where our new neighbors are suspicious of us, where they even say that they feel oppressed and offended when we refuse to blend in and to join in their idolatry, or to worship their divine kings, so-called?”
What possible good news could there be in that? That’s the third question in the outline: What’s the good news in this letter? I see three rays of hope in Jeremiah’s letter. The first, subpoint A, is that the exiles are not alone. God is with them. They are exiled from the Land, but they are not exiled from God. The promise of God’s presence is embedded in those words, “where I have “carried you into Exile.” The people don’t have to carry God with them into Babylon and hold onto their God against all odds and opposition. God is doing the carrying, and God is holding onto the people. Even amidst the grief, the fear, the humiliation, the shame, the pain and the loss of Exile, and the difficulty of singing the Lord’s song in an alien land, God is with his people, turning what others meant for evil into good.
That’s the second subpoint, B, in this question, “What’s the Good News in this letter?” God would turn Israel’s time of painful dislocation into something fruitful for Israel. Even in the belly of the Babylonian beast, good things started to happen for the Hebrews as they took Jeremiah’s advice, to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens…..[To] Increase in number there; and not to decrease.” So much so that they grew into a large Jewish community that became at least as big and influential as the one in Jerusalem. It remained so for centuries.
Being confronted with the assertive, confident and triumphant idolatry of Babylon also forced captive Jews to think long and hard about their faith. Thus the Exile launched for them a time of great doctrinal development, of revelation, scholarship and learning. Babylon’s rabbis and scholars would come to stand head and shoulders with those in Jerusalem. Their faith became purified of idols. It also became more portable. They found they could survive and thrive without a temple, without a priesthood, without ritual sacrifices, even without a country.
But in Jeremiah’s letter, God did not say, “Seek only your own peace and prosperity.” He said, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city….” That’s the third item of good news in the message outline, subpoint c of question 2: God was not only with the Hebrews in Babylon. God did not bless only the Hebrew Exiles while in Babylon. God blessed Babylon, even if the Babylonians didn’t always see or appreciate the blessing. Even to their captors and oppressors, God was fulfilling his promise to Abraham and Sarah, to make of them and their descendants a blessing for all nations. Later in this sermon series, we’ll see how Babylonian government benefited from the wise leaders and public servants whom the Jewish community contributed, leaders and servants with wisdom, capability and integrity, such as Daniel, Queen Esther, and her uncle Mordechai.
That’s not all that different from the experience of Anabaptists in the 16th Century who fled ruthless persecution in Switzerland, Austria and South Germany to settle in a place of relative tolerance, in Easternmost France. There, too, they married, raised families, and prospered, while their majority Catholic neighbors scratched their heads and said, “They’re not blending in as much as we’d like. But they’re peaceful, and they’re useful for settling lands that were either destroyed by war or that our ancestors never could settle, for being too wet, too rocky, or too remote. And we all benefit from that. So we’ll leave them be, mostly.”
Or they did, until the French Revolution, when militant secular crusaders said, “You have to give up your faith, your language, and your culture and become our new model, secular French citizen.” Then came Napoleon and his crew, saying, “We want your men for our armies.” Time to go sing the Lord’s song in another alien land. Successive waves of Mennonite and Amish exiles left Alsace and Lorraine for Ukraine, or for North America, to repeat the process.
That is also the story of many of our neighbors, who have fled violence and crushing poverty in Mexico, Central America and Somalia. They undertake a frightening, desperate and difficult journey, grieving lost friends and family and familiar places, wondering if they will survive a journey of exile and dislocation that they would never have chosen for themselves. But they were effectively forced into it. And then, Thank God, you arrive to find other friends, family and familiar sights, sounds and smells in places like Front Street in Woodburn. And they bless our communities and economies with energy, enthusiasm, entrepreneurship and strong family lives.
Again, the three items of good news from Israel’s exile are: a) God is with the exiles; b) God would bless the exiles, so that they would grow in numbers, faith and fruitfulness; and c) God would bless the exiles’ neighbors, even the very people who exiled them.
Good news for ancient exiles. But what does it say for us, 26 centuries later? Four things, briefly: a) the exile gives us a way to look at our own experience today; b) it gives us a warning against two temptations common to the exiles; c) it tells us how God is with us; and d) it tells us how God will use us.
As for the first, a way to look at our own experience…. We find this word, “Exile,” not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St. Peter. He opens his first letter to his friends with these words: “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood.”
Then again, in that same letter, Peter says: 17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” And again: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.”
Yet the people whom Peter addressed as “exiles” were Gentile Christians, not Jewish ones. Think about that a minute. When Peter, a Jew’s Jew, evangelized Gentiles into the Christian faith, in a way, he was inviting them to join his fellow Hebrews as God’s pilgrim people in Exile, a people who “sing the Lord’s song in an alien land.” Even if this alien land where we stand and sing is the land where we were born, and where generations of our ancestors were born, it’s still a land of exile, spiritually speaking. To be a believer in Christ then is to share in the spiritual Exile of Jeremiah’s friends in Babylon. Christians are like the Hebrew exiles, because of the differences and the disconnect between so many of our values, our hopes, our aspirations, our loves and our loyalties, and those of our surrounding lands and cultures.
If at times, the news headlines, or the commercials in the media, or the fake news, the propaganda and the pornography that seek us out online leave us praying, “Beam me up, Lord, it’s getting scary down here,” we’re supposed to feel that way, out of place. Wherever we stand on great questions of the day on politics, immigration, sexuality, militarism, you name it, if we have never wondered, “What planet am I on?” and “How did we ever get to this?” we either haven’t cared or we haven’t paid attention.
In such times of feeling like aliens and oddballs, we risk going down one of two wrong turns. Which brings me to the warning in this passage for us, subpoint b: there’s a warning against the two main temptations that the exiles in Babylon faced: 1) “Don’t give in to the Dark Side!” Don’t give in to the Dark Side of resentment and hostility against your neighbors, don’t give in to self-pity and paranoia, and plot violence and vengeance against the imperial overlords. Provoked in their spirits by the idolatrous temples and the wanton luxury, brutality and sensuality of Babylon, the Exiles could have organized bands of Hebrew holy warriors, terrorists to carry out attacks like the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Toronto or Berlin.
That will make the Babylonians wish they had never messed with the Hebrew people!
The other temptation, was to just go with the flow because, hey, nothing succeeds like success, right? When in Babylon, do like the Babylonians! If you can’t beat them, join them!
But captive Israel was neither to condemn their neighbors, nor to conform to them. Nor should we. Do instead like Daniel and Esther did. Be genuinely interested in and gracious toward your neighbors, whoever they are, to love and serve them, because, deep down, we are all scatterlings, exiles and aliens in this world. Don’t let the Babylonian swagger and sneer fool anyone; to be human is to feel homeless and out of place, even in our own bodies sometimes. God creates and calls everyone for something better than the flesh pots of Babylon. Deep down, I bet the Babylonians knew that.
Because—and this is subpoint C– we’re not alone. God is with us in our Exile, too. God is still carrying his people. And God is still using his people to “seek the peace and the well-being of the community” to which he has carried us. That’s subpoint d: Not only is God with us in our exile sojourn, God can and will use us to bless others, the way God used captive Israel to bless Babylon. That’s why I wish to preach and teach this summer from those parts of the Bible that come from ancient Israel’s Exile experience, from books such as Daniel and Esther, or some of the Psalms: so that we can better face the perils and the promise of our times.
If Jeremiah were writing his letter with Zion Mennonite Church in mind, his letter might read like this: “Seek the peace and the well-being of the place where I have carried you in Exile, for I am with you, to bless you and to make you a blessing. Keep seeking the peace of your local community as you do through Bridging Cultures Canby, with the Canby Center, with Jubilee Food Pantry, with Hope Village, through Mennonite Disaster Service and Habitat For Humanity, through English as a Second Language and Citizenship classes, and other agencies. Seek the peace of the community by tending to the health of the soil that you farm, and to the wellbeing of any employees who work in your fields or your shops. Seek the peace of the community in that extra measure of love and care that you offer to your patients at the clinic or the hospital or the nursing home, to the students in your classes, to the children and the grandchildren in your care, and to the aging and the elderly among you and around you.
Seek the peace of your church community in your prayers, your care of those in need, in service on our commissions, and in your offerings of time, talents and treasure. And since the world is our community, seek the peace through Mennonite Central Committee, through our friends and partners in Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Honduras. And of course, seek the peace by sharing the gospel of peace, of the Prince of Peace.
For as we seek the peace and well-being of our community, we are imitating the God who joined us in our place of exile in the person of Jesus. As we week the peace of our community, we are also modeling that city which is yet to come, the home for which we long, where lies our true citizenship: the New Zion. It is the home for which we pray, every time we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”