(Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7)
For most of the problems and hurdles of life, there are no quick fixes.
Need to lose 15 pounds? It won’t be fast. Need to find a new six-figure job? It won’t be easy. Need a plumber to install a toilet? It won’t be fast or easy – and it won’t be cheap.
You may have seen a complete home renovation happen on TV in under 30 minutes – pausing only for a commercial about the latest flexible miracle tape. But chances are that a rapid-response team isn’t going to show up on your doorstep to offer a quick solution for most of life’s conundrums. Sometimes we’re forced to live in the “in between,” or “meantime,” periods of life – those years when we’re waiting for circumstances to change or be altered, knowing that, perhaps, they might never change.
This was the bleak future awaiting those in 606-586 B.C. who had been exiled from their homeland. It was in these years that their nation had ceased to exist. The glory years of Saul, David and Solomon were now only shop-worn tales told by bearded scribes and hoary elders. There was no Israel now. No Judah. No nothing.
But the critical piece in this text is the fact that the Hebrews were in exile because God moved them into exile. This being the case, Jeremiah says stay where you are. Don’t plan on moving; don’t start packing until God sends some moving trucks.
If we are where we are because God has led us, pushed us, or dragged us, then we better stay put until otherwise notified. If, on the other hand, we got into our present muck up without any help from God, then we might need God to unmuck it. God might do this when God is good and ready.
This is not encouraging. In other words, there’s no quick fix here. No Instant Pots, instant coffee, Instagram, instant gratification and no instant messaging. The expatriate pilgrims of Babylon quickly learn to embrace the Mosaic wisdom of Psalm 90: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,” (v. 4), which was revised centuries later to read, “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Therefore, Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish expats – and by extension to us – is to do two things. First, decide if we’re “here” (wherever “here” is) in the will of God; and second, if so, settle into a life as though we’re here for life – or until God moves us on. Jeremiah’s counsel is that in life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not always amenable to an easy solution. It might be best to adapt to your surroundings, adjust to make life bearable, and adopt the lifestyle that’s the social norm for your neighborhood.
This does not mean you compromise your faith, but that you’re willing to take the long view. This problem, this situation, this context, is here to stay for the indefinite future. When I find myself in a new place, new life, new experience, I had better decide how I can live a meaningful life within the situation, rather than outside of the situation.
The theme, then, is how to live when you’re an exile, or feel like an exile.
One of the best books on the topic is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (1989) by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. There they argue that “More than needing ‘great theologians,’ the church needs the renewal of intelligible theological discourse for ‘anyone,’ the kind of discourse a community does. That comes as the church awakens from comfortable life as a civilizational religion and as Christians recover their status as ‘resident aliens.’ The task is to disengage from long-held habits that have led us to confuse America with God’s salvation.” Elsewhere, they remind us that “the theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”
Now, jump back with me about 2,500 years before Willimon and Hauerwas to when Jeremiah was the first theologian who spoke before the exile and during the exile as one of the exiled. Although Jeremiah had not made the trip from Jerusalem to Babylon yet, he would. Before he is trundled off to exile, he writes a letter. It’s part of today’s text: “These 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” (v. 1). This admission gives Jeremiah a sense of intimacy and legitimacy.
This is from the prophet himself. And his advice is very practical. There are no platitudes in this letter. No theological speculation. Instead, Jeremiah responds to a similar question posed by the British punk rock band, The Clash, in their 1982 hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Jeremiah answers in terms of dollars and cents, of marriage and family, of houses and farms. Bottom line: the exiled community must get a grip and get a life, face the harsh facts and begin a major adjustment, he says.
- They might wish they still had the temple. But they don’t.
- They might wish they still lived within the walls of Jerusalem. But they don’t.
- They might wish they could still drink the wine of their own vineyards. But they can’t.
- They might wish they could sing their songs in Judah, but they can’t.
Jeremiah tells them they must build a bridge and get over it, and he gives them a brochure with six handy-dandy relocation tips.
Step 1: Reimagine the Journey The destination has changed. Getting “home” will not happen for another 70 years minimum. For now, Babylon is the destination. Like the sign says in a mega-mall, “You are here!” Don’t move unless God moves – and by the way, God is not moving … yet. Your Jewishness is not tied to a location. You can still be a people of the book, a people of faith, a people of your religious traditions, wherever you are.
Imagine a journey in which God has not abandoned you.
Think of a journey in which you do not lose your faith or your traditions.
Imagine finding God in strange and unexpected places.
Think of a trip in which you live for the present and not the future.
Step 2: Check out the Housing Market The first thing any family might do before moving to a new part of the country, or before moving to a foreign country, is arrange for housing. This is probably done before you ever set your trip odometer and head out on the interstate. You need a place for you and your family to reside.
Jeremiah says, “Build a house.” He’s doing more than offering practical advice. He’s reinforcing the message that three generations of families are going to live in Babylon. This is the context of your new life.
In your house, you will cook kosher, sleep and take care of the dog. You will take singing lessons, study and memorize the Torah, and go to Torah school.
Step 3: Explore the Job Market You will pay your way. The government may offer you some jobs, probably manual labor. You will plant gardens, do some farming. You need to make a living.
Step 4: Start a Family You will have babies. “Multiply there, and do not decrease” (v. 6). You will sing songs and find husbands for your daughters and brides for your sons. This is Israel’s second exile if you count Egypt as the first. A metaphor for being fruitful, productive … and political. In numbers there is strength.
Step 5: Beware of Scammers! Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream. See verse 8.
Step 6: Pray and Prosper Jeremiah says, in effect, that “If your host city prospers, you prosper. Therefore, pray for its success.” His exact words are: “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” (v. 7).
The apostle Peter also wrote to a beleaguered community – groups of exiles and expats in the first century. They, too, needed encouragement. They were living in all parts of the Roman Empire, including Rome, which the apostle John refers to as Babylon. Peter writes: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds” (1 Peter 2:11). Sounds much like Jeremiah’s advice.
They will pray, and they will prosper. They will sow gratitude and reap hope. Pastor Doug Scalise puts it this way: “Gratitude is how faith responds in remembering God’s faithfulness in the past; hope is how faith responds in trusting God’s faithfulness in the future.”
But Wait, There’s More … The truth is that we are not long for this world. As the gospel song reminds us,
This world is not my home,
I’m just a passing through,
my treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
from heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home
in this world anymore.
So true. We must not forget where we are, where we’re from and where we’re headed. If we’re not careful, we’ll get so wrapped up in the here and now that we’ll fail to live for the then and there. Amen.