By Jeremy Worthen
In Jeremiah 29, the Israelites suffered what many have suffered throughout history: surrender to an invading army leads to part of the population being forcibly taken away, to weaken the country or city from which they were taken so it cannot easily revolt against foreign rule, and to become slaves and servants of the invading power.
Chapter 29 begins: “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 carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jehoiachin 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” (1-2).
The Babylonians meant this to be a final warning to the kingdom of Judah to submit to their rule; as we know, King Zedekiah and others around him refused to accept Babylonian authority and rebelled again a few years later, leading to a crushing military defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
But when Jeremiah wrote the letter, that was still in the future, and clearly there were voices — including what claimed to be prophetic voices — both in Babylon and Jerusalem telling the traumatized exiles that their stay would be short, and that God would soon bring them home.
The God who promised the land to Abraham, the God who promised the kingship to David, the God who set his name in the temple in Jerusalem as the place where he chose to dwell forever — this God would surely bring them back soon. God would not allow this intolerable situation to go on and on.
God was bigger than the Babylonians and would show them his power. So those voices could muster some plausible-sounding theological arguments, as well as feeding the exiles in Babylon the message they longed to hear: exile, defeat, humiliation, loss — these would soon pass away, to be replaced by homecoming, victory, glory, restoration.
As seems so often to be the case, Jeremiah was sent by God to be the bearer of bad news. Or rather: he was sent to proclaim the true good news of God, but it would not be easy for people to hear. Jeremiah has three key messages for the exiles in Babylon.
The first message is: God’s hand is in what has happened to you. In that first verse, the writer refers to the “people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” That’s how everyone saw what had happened, the Babylonians and the Judeans alike: the king of Babylon had forced them into exile. It was his doing, his work.
But look how the letter begins in verse 4: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” In case they miss the point, it’s repeated a few verses later, when they are told to seek the peace and prosperity of “the city to which I have carried you into exile” (7).
This is not about God being defeated, or absent, or indifferent. God has “carried them into exile”: God’s hand is in what has happened to them, however terrible and painful and unfair it may seem to be, indeed may truly be, but somehow they need to learn to see God’s presence, wisdom, and love in this situation, God’s purpose and providence. That’s the first message in Jeremiah’s letter.
The second message is equally radical for these exiles who were being told by those who claimed to be God’s representatives that this was just a temporary short-term setback that would soon be put right so they could return to being God’s people in Jerusalem. The word that Jeremiah has from God for them is that they can and should live as God’s people here and now, where they are. They don’t have to wait until they are back in Israel to be the people of God — they can serve him and live for him in Babylon, the heart of the enemy power, the nerve center of the occupying forces threatening to obliterate poor Judah completely.
That means taking seriously the place where they find themselves. It means settling in for the long haul. It even means caring about Babylonian society. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters in marriage; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there, do not decrease. 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’ (4-7). So that’s the second message: live as God’s people here and now, where you are.
The third message begins at verse 10: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 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 means that the people reading the letter from Jeremiah will not live to see the fulfillment of this promise, and yet they still need to hear it and to know it. They need to remember that Babylon is not their final home, not the place where they finally belong. As they build their houses, plant their gardens, get married, and see their children married too and seek the common good of the city where they are living, they need to keep singing Psalm 137: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy” (5-6). They must never lose sight of who they truly are, and the place they truly belong, which is the presence of God, the place where his glory abides.
It’s only a short letter, but it must have been very difficult for those Judean exiles in the early sixth century B.C. to hear these three messages. One would be hard enough, but together they are even more challenging — and remain so for us today.
God’s hand is in what has happened to us, that was the first message. Easy enough when things are going well, when life is comfortable; easy too when we see our prayers answered, we see people coming to faith, growing in discipleship, knowing Christ’s victory. But what about those times when life seems to be random, a chapter of accidents, without any purpose of meaning?
What about those times when what we experience, what we witness others experiencing, appears to go directly against what we believe is God’s purpose and promise? I don’t think Jeremiah is telling us we have to learn to resign ourselves calmly to everything that happens as the will of God. There are times when we should cry out to God in rage and pain and bewilderment, and call on God to put right what is wrong — just read the Psalms.
And yet we also must learn, as disciples of Christ, to discern the hand of God even in such situations, perhaps above all in such situations. On the cross, Jesus prayed from the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he also prayed from the Psalms: “into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those whom he has called according to his purpose, which is that we might be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Rom. 8.28-29). In everything that happens to us, God’s hand is there, shaping us into the likeness of Christ if only we will see his hand and welcome his transforming work in our lives.
Maybe that’s a message you need to hear today. Or maybe it’s more about the second message I highlighted: we can live as God’s people where we are, here and now. There can be a subtle temptation in the Christian life to imagine that if our circumstances were somehow different, we could be more faithful to God, we would be more serious in our discipleship, so until our circumstances change, we’ll carry on being a bit half-hearted, perhaps a bit lukewarm.
One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll really live for Jesus, we’ll commit ourselves to prayer, we’ll shine as lights in the world: when we’re connected to a really vibrant church fellowship, when we find an inspiring pastor to guide us, when the kids have grown up, when we’re through with this period of illness, when we’ve got more time, when the pressures are less.
But God says: you can live as my people where you are, here and now. Settle down, stop wishing your life away, and flourish and bear fruit in the place where I have sent you, in the position to which I have appointed you. That doesn’t mean you’ll be there forever, and it doesn’t mean you may not need to make some changes in your occupation, your relationships, your habits: but live for God today, follow Christ in this city, this community, this situation. There is space, here and now, every day, to shine with the light of Christ and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. There are no circumstances that make can that impossible for you or put it beyond you.
The good news is that God’s hand is in everything that befalls us. The good news is that we can live as God’s people where we are, here and now. And the good news is that God has plans to give us hope and a future that exceeds all we can imagine or ask or desire, and that death itself cannot block or extinguish.
Our citizenship, as Paul tells the Philippians, is in heaven. Or, to quote the letter to the Hebrews, here we have no abiding city, but we seek a city that is to come — the new Jerusalem, as Revelation describes it, descending from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.
We too need to remember that wherever we find ourselves, wherever we live, however easy it is to call the house we inhabit our home, however deeply we feel we belong in our community, our final home is not on the earth as it is now, estranged from God’s purposes by sin and death.
And perhaps it is just a little easier for those who have lived in more than one country to do that — to be conscious that as followers of Christ and friends of God, we can never quite fit in, never entirely be at home, because God has called us to a fullness of life that cannot be contained in this life, but must await its breaking out at the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come.
The last we hear of Jeremiah in the Bible is that he too eventually becomes an exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem — in Egypt. He’s taken there against his will, and he’s clear that the escape to Egypt of the remaining Judean leadership is against God’s will.
But the good news he sent in the letter to Babylon contained messages that would still have been relevant for him, as they are for us this morning. Whether we are here by choice or not, whether we feel at home or not, God’s hand is here and his presence goes with us, and because of that we can know God and grow in discipleship and flourish as his people, seeking the common good of the society where we live but always having as our horizon the city that is to come, the communion of all the saints praising God forever, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.