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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
If you are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, you are quite aware that the descendants of Abraham experienced a wide variety of socioeconomic conditions, a wide variety of empowerment and enslavement.
At the end of the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, we find the lengthy story of Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, a great-grandson of Abraham, who becomes second in power to Pharaoh in Egypt, and who saves Egypt during seven years of drought.
He is instrumental in bringing all his brothers and their families from Canaan to live in Egypt. It is by living in Egypt that the Hebrews survive. But these good fortunes are not to last.
We learn, early in the book of Exodus, that “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Racism sets in, and the descendants of Jacob, previously empowered, become enslaved. And it is not until Moses, many years later, that the Hebrews, through the power of God, extricate themselves from their bondage, and make an Exodus back to their Promised Land.
After returning, they take over the land and return to power. And we’re familiar with the reign of the kings, especially of David and Solomon.
But neither does this time of empowerment last. Foreign armies take over the land, and enslavement overtakes the people. But worse, they are taken from their beloved land to live in a foreign land. They are forced to live in exile.
Indeed the writings and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures are often referred to as pre-exilic and post-exilic, as in before and after the exile. And to be quite honest, I have difficulty keeping all of this chronology straight.
But it’s important to know that the Hebrews, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, experienced both good times and bad, just as we do.
Indeed, it was the bad times from which evolved the concept of Messiah, the belief that God would send someone to save the people from their bondage. And what they really wanted was an invincible warrior messiah, capable of leading armies to destroy enemies. Two thousand years ago, when Rome was their oppressor, they were looking for just such a messiah when Jesus showed up.
But the Jewish people had some problems accepting Jesus as a messiah because he had a different idea about what their bondage was and from what they needed to be saved.
But let’s back up before Jesus. This morning let’s back up to the time of Jeremiah, one of the major prophets. This is approximately six hundred years before the time of Christ.
Jeremiah lived during a period when Babylon was a major world power. In overcoming Israel, the Babylonians took some of the Israelites back to Babylon with them, and left some in Israel.
At the opening to the twenty-ninth chapter of the book of Jeremiah we read,
“These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”
So Jeremiah is among those remaining in Jerusalem, writing to those in captivity in Babylon. And this is not a letter being smuggled to Babylon. This is not a covert operation, but, in fact, royal representatives are carrying the letter to Babylon.
And this letter may have taken up to six months to get there.
So, unlike today, when we can pick up the phone and speak instantly to a person in a distant place on the globe, and get an instant response from that person, any response Jeremiah might have to his message could have taken up to a year.
Given this time frame, imagine how seriously Jeremiah is taking the words of his message. Imagine the gravity they carry for him.
But this is not the first time he has sent this kind of message. He sent pretty much the same message to those remaining in Judea, and it is recorded in the twenty-seventh chapter.
Still, one never sends the same message twice. Circumstances change; people change; the times change.
Even a single message sent to a number of different people at the same time, whether as a letter, or an article in a newspaper or a magazine, or even a sermon, will be different for every person who receives it.
But in Jeremiah’s case, the circumstances are decidedly different. It’s one thing to be in your home country; it’s quite another to have been taken--possibly in chains--on a trip requiring months to complete, to a foreign country.
But that is what is happening.
Should Jeremiah be concerned with these differences? Well, on the one hand, he probably wonders how he should adapt to different audiences; but on the other hand, he’s sending a message from God. And this is how it begins:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:”
Now, notice carefully who is in charge. Hear those words, “I have sent.” There is no attribution of power or control to the Babylonians. God has sent the Israelites into exile. God is clearly saying, “this is my doing.”
So if the Israelites in exile are upset with the Babylonians for holding them captive, or with Jeremiah for the message he sends, God has taken all authority in this situation.
What message does this send us for our own lives? When things go wrong, who do we blame? Usually someone else. How could WE ever be at fault? So, do we blame our family? or our friends? or our colleagues? or the competition?
But does it ever occur to us that God might be in charge? Of course, this can open the floodgates of theological doubt. Because then we begin asking, “How could God possibly DO this to me?” Because, in our infinite wisdom, we are without blemish, without flaw.
It’s so much easier to lay blame on some person, or organization, or thing, because then we don’t need to think about it anymore. We need not ask any deep, probing questions.
Now, I am not saying that someone or something is not to blame for our problems. They or it may well be. But I think it is always helpful for us to consider that there may be a divine reason behind our lives. Indeed, if we proclaim that we believe in a creator God, how can we think otherwise?
Well, I suspect that the Israelites probably wanted to blame the Babylonians for their problems. If not the Babylonians, perhaps the kings who had been trying to lead them.
In any case, these folks in exile had a hunger to be free. Not only free, but they wanted to go home, back to the Promised Land, back to the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple.
If they are going to receive any messages, they want assurances that they will soon be LEAVING Babylon. That there will be a revolt, an insurrection, perhaps a messiah to come to take them home.
So what does God, through Jeremiah, tell them?
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
There are at least two subtexts here. The first is “keep yourselves busy.” And that we read in “build houses and plant gardens.” And the Israelites could probably handle that.
But in the process of building and planting, they may not be thinking of FINISHING anything, because their minds are set on leaving, returning home.
I’ve known pastors and churches like that. In fact, they would have difficulty starting things because they could not envision finishing.
A church may think, “Well, the pastor is only going to be here for a few years, to be replaced by somebody else, so why try to start something new?” And pastors likewise often think, “Why start something new that I might not be able to finish?” Actually, churches should be starting and finishing new things regardless of who the pastors are or how long they stay.
But look at the second subtext: “Live in your houses and eat what your gardens produce.”
God is telling the Israelites to think long-term. Nowadays, most folks don’t build houses; they buy houses that other folks have built. And, in a sense, they often don’t place a priority on “living” in houses.
Rather, they think of their resale value and how good an investment they will be.
And I’ve heard stories of folks who were so concerned about buying big houses that they could show off, that those houses were frequently mostly empty, because they couldn’t afford the furniture to fill them.
“Plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
I am not a gardener. Folks have threatened to instill a love of gardening in me, and I have managed to escape them. But I do know pastors who do love to garden.
And I have also known pastors who were reluctant to garden because they were expecting to leave their gardens in the middle of a season, or because they didn’t think they would have enough seasons to develop a garden.
But God is telling the Israelites to cast all doubts aside. Think long-term. PLAN on eating what you produce from your gardens.
Now, this may be pushing the envelope, but there may be a third level of interpretation that God would want us to hear: “Live as if you will never leave.” Of course, for those who live all or most of their lives in one county, that’s no big deal; likewise for those who have retired and have no plans for moving elsewhere; but for those of us who tend to be more transient, putting down roots can raise lots of issues. And for the Israelites who felt utterly out of place in Babylon--well, just imagine how they felt.
To emphasize the duration of the stay they could expect, God tells them,
“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.”
Now, the first part of this is not too threatening--the part about taking wives and having children. But when God says take wives for your sons, we’re suddenly looking fifteen to twenty years down the road. This is NOT something that the Israelites are fond of contemplating. Is it possible that we might be here THAT LONG?
On the other hand, what might happen if they believe that they may be rescued, taken home, at any time? Well, they are likely to delay marriage, thinking instead of such ceremonies in their homeland. They may not delay families, but those families may be smaller. They may delay arranging marriages for their children, wishing to do that AFTER they return home. And the result of all this would be that their population would decrease.
And God is telling them to forget about all their “maybe’s.” Rather, carry on with your families as if you will be here for a very long time.
And then God tells them to “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.”
I’m reminded of a couple of lines from popular songs. One of those is from a country and western song: “Dance with the one what brung ya.” Which I think is precisely what God is asking of the Israelites living in Babylon.
But another line from a classic rock favorite I think is appropriate to this text. A contemporary interpretation of this line is to condone unfaithfulness and even adultery. I do not intend it for that purpose.
The line reads, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
And this was indeed what God was calling upon the Israelites to do. If they could not be in Jerusalem, the city they loved, they should love Babylon, the city in which they currently resided. For, as God told them, “in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
There is a happy ending to this story, but it is not in these verses. The happy ending is that those Israelites, after many years, are returned to their homeland. Of course, it was not according to THEIR timetable, but it WAS according to God’s.
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