11 July 2021 A Letter to Exiles Martin Baker
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
29These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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.
8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
It’s a personal thing I guess, but how do we deal with those small annoying events that are part of life?
The wait at the two sets of traffic lights on the Papakura- Clevedon road, the plastic stickers on fruit that end up in the compost bin? The $30 speeding ticket, the dent in the side of the car left by some unseen event in the shopping carpark?
Most of us just end up annoying those around us by complaining or venting about what, in the big perspective of things, are pretty trivial, pretty first world problems.
Most of the time we have these simple coping mechanisms, which place these kinds of events in a perspective that allows us to continue enjoying the things that we have always enjoyed. I can look forward to dinner, or going to see Simon’s play, or coming along this morning, even when I know I’ve got to get the spouting fixed or pay a parking ticket.
But for each one of us there are things that happen, that can be overwhelming. That can make everything else very bleak. That can even undermine the memories we cherish of those very happy times in our lives. Or rid our world of joy. Many of us have those experiences as well. And for some of us, those experiences can hang around for very long time. Things that leave us grieving or depleted or sad about everything else.
We could call those major events, Illness, loss of a job, the end of a relationship, but other things as well, exile events. Times when we find that we are almost in some other land. Strange, unfamiliar.
Jeremiah today is writing to those who find themselves in exile. That’s when that question is asked, “how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ How do we give expression to not only our joy, but our worship, our identity our place, where so much has gone wrong?
29These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
(Babylon is located about 100 km south of Bagdad the capital of Iraq). So, the exiles were taken quite a long way away in their terms.
2500 years ago, Jeremiah asks that question which is still so current. For us personally perhaps, for refugees, for those who for whatever reason have left their homes and countries, for those whose families and worlds have been so disrupted by the Covid epidemic.
How do we go on after everything has changed?
So, just a bit of history here.
Over these last weeks, we have been hearing a lot from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah.
Before getting to this point today in the book, we have learned that Jeremiah’s society, Judah, centred around Jerusalem, is under threat. Babylonians in the North. Egyptians in the South. The destruction of the neighbouring kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians a few years earlier.
What do people do under threat?
And for these ancient Hebrew people, they have been doing very bad things.
Jeremiah has seen human scarifies to Molloch, worshipping Baal, enslavement and terrible treatment of the poorest. Grave injustices.
Like today we might ask the same question - are bad behaviour’s signs of deeper distress?
A few chapters earlier, before this exile, we hear Jeremiah warning this corrupt King who actually tried to destroy the Book we are reading from today. Jehoiakim did not want any of us to read about the consequence of his bad rule and he burned the first copy of this book. Jeremiah is told by the Lord:
I will bring on them, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and on the people of Judah, all the disasters with which I have threatened them—but they would not listen.
So, for years and years, Jeremiah has been warning them of what would happen if they didn’t change. And they didn’t change.
Things happened just as Jeremiah had warned.
The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BC. The Babylonian armies have invaded and crushed the small army of Judah. Destroyed the beautiful temple that was there in Jerusalem.
With this devastation the elders and priests and the educated suffered terrible violence and the ones who survived were forced virtually as slaves to move to Babylon as cheap labour for their overlords.
The generation who suffered this defeat expected the exile to last only a short time. They had thought their exile would only last for a generation – 20 years.
But Jeremiah is warning them that their exile is going to be much longer.
So, he writes to this exiled community about resilience:
4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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 is writing to them not just about sons and daughters but grandchildren as well.
Some damage is so profound that it takes three generations to heal.
Think about how difficult Jeremiah’s perspective might be. To think not just about ourselves, not just about our children maybe, but to think about the benefit to generations beyond them? This is what I am going to do now for a generation I may never even see?
So here we are with the pain and experience of exile, and Jeremiah, very practical, says - build a house, plant a garden and think about how you will bless not only future generations but bless where you are living here and now.
Have you noticed? All these events that Jeremiah speaks about, are events of joy.
A house, a garden, children, grandchildren, weddings, births, celebration. We don’t all have children and grandchildren, but Jeremiah is saying that past doesn’t limit, doesn’t determine, what will happen for the future. There are going to be hope filled, joyous events of celebration in the future. Even recognising that you have just gone through the worst imaginable experience. The Lord is promising that there will be moments of joy.
It’s tough, and at times hard to imagine, but the story of God working in your lives is still being told.
These people of exile are also advised to actively work for the wellbeing or peace, the shalom of their newly adopted city — even praying to God for the city to prosper.
We were talking in the men’s group last Wednesday about how much our neighbourhoods are changing, different religions, people, cultures. Jeremiah recognises that things are very different, but rather than closing down, feeling fearful and being threatened, closing in, he says pray for the wellbeing and peace of the city. And that city is Babylon.
As we move on our reading we read:
8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord
Jeremiah has been battling false prophets for his entire life. These figures who have justified the violence, the injustice, the human sacrifices, the worship of false idols. These deceivers who have been whispering into the ears of those corrupt leaders.
Some of these diviners and prophets have come into exile along with the people whom Jeremiah is speaking to in the name of the Lord. Some of them, like Hananiah, have even said, don’t worry you’ll all be heading back to Jerusalem soon.
We find a similar voice from politician’s who assure people, promise people, that they can just resume normal life, as if nothing has changed after Covid.
Jeremiah is saying to them and us, don’t be deceived by these baseless words, or those from our past who have led us so far away from worshipping and living as the Lord would want us to live and worship.
In troubling Covid times people seem especially inclined to be listening to conspiracy theorists and rumours. The Department of Internal Affairs, have just reported on the false news so prevalent on the internet. News which has been the source of so much deception. Particularly to do with the virus.
Jeremiah is saying, there are new opportunities here, don’t bring the damaging things of the past into this new life.
And a repeat message from Jeremiah, think about the truthfulness of what we are listening, what information is trustworthy? What are we feeding hearts upon?
As traumatic as this event has been it also represents a new story, a new chance.
But most of all, what comes through in Jeremiah’s message, is a word of hope and promise that God will never abandon us, that wherever we go God is with us.
I talked earlier about the experience of exile. Those experiences that leave us feeling displaced, as they we are almost living in a foreign strange land.
So what is the basis of this new life?
Well these words of hope run so deeply though these passages. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord
We read these words as people who follow Jesus and who celebrate the hope in his resurrection.
We hear about planting gardens, building homes, we hear about the promise of joy.
We hold those promises in one hand, and in the other we also are people who have heard the words from Jesus, called to be disciples. People of the way.
And in this sense the Gospel recognises that all of us are displaced persons, no matter where we live, no matter our circumstances. We are all pilgrims on a journey, longing for our true home. In the book of Hebrews, it says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” —Hebrews 13:14. There remains a tension with how things are, a powerful longing in our hearts, to work and pray for a time when all things are made new.
Here’s the final word from Jeremiah, and from the gospel. Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, you are assured of God’s presence with you. At home, away from home, in life, in death, in life beyond death God is with you. And we say Thanks be to God! Amen.
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