Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 (NRSV)
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.
It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. But 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.
For 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, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I 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.
As I’ve promised you over the past few weeks, our focus for this new year is on the covenant we make in our membership vows to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church through our witness.
When we think about what it means to witness, we’re likely drawn primarily to the New Testament. After all, the Gospels are a witness to the appearance of God in human flesh. They tell us the definitive story of our faith, and invite us to witness to our own experience of Jesus Christ.
But the entire Christian Scripture is in fact a witness to God’s activity in our world. The Old Testament reminds us from the onset that all of creation is a witness to God’s handiwork. The stories of Israel witness to a God who called Abraham, led the people out of slavery in Egypt, and guided them to a land of promise.
The whole Old Testament witnesses to God’s call of a particular group of people out of oppression, sin, and careless wandering, and into covenantal relationship.
God chooses this particular group of people to love and cherish, no matter what happens.
When we read this story, we realize quickly though that this covenant is not only for this chosen group of people. God’s covenant with Abraham does establish him as a “great nation” that will be blessed with descendants, a land of their own, and an everlasting relationship with God.
But the reason Abraham is blessed is not just for the continuance of his family line. No, Abraham is blessed and made great so that he will be a blessing to all peoples on earth.
Look at the sweeping moves of this narrative: God creates all humanity and humanity becomes separated from God. So in response, God calls out one group of humans so that every created person will be restored into relationship with God.
When we think about the calling of one group of people, we often think in terms of a zero sum game. If Abraham’s descendants are chosen, everyone else is not chosen. But that’s not how God is working here. God is choosing one nation so that every nation will be blessed by God and drawn into relationship with God.
In my reading, the rest of Scripture is the story of how God’s people realize that it’s not all about them. As God’s people, we must continually remind ourselves of this truth.
Quite frankly, it takes a long time in the Biblical narrative for God’s people to live into this covenant of blessing. When they’re freed from Egypt, they assume that their salvation from slavery must mean that Egypt is ultimately doomed. When they come into the land of Canaan, they assume their habitation of the land means the eradication of everyone else who lives there. Israel’s success, for a time, means the failure of everyone else.
It’s not really until we get to the book of Jonah that this narrative is challenged.
Jonah is the first of the so-called “literary or writing prophets” to whom an entire book is dedicated. Now, this is kind of a misnomer, because it’s not likely that Jonah actually sat down and wrote this book about his experiences. Instead, the story of Jonah is a satire that told at some point in Israel’s history to challenge the dominant view of God’s people toward the other nations of the world.
Jonah, the reluctant prophet, represents those who would rather hold onto their special status as God’s people and let everyone else be punished for their sins. You know the story—Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh and reveal their wickedness to them so that they might repent and follow the ways of God. Instead, Jonah goes the other way, to Tarshish, to flee from God, knowing that his message for Nineveh would be effective in getting them to avoid destruction. Jonah would rather see Nineveh be destroyed and judged for their wickedness.
So, God sends a fish to swallow up Jonah to teach him a lesson. After Jonah prayed to God, he was spit up by the giant fish onto the dry land where the word of God came to Jonah a second time, in the text we read earlier:
“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
And so Jonah, covered in fish guts travels to Nineveh with his proverbial tail between his legs. The people of Nineveh repent, as he knew they would, and Jonah goes to sulk in the desert.
Seeing Jonah sulking in his righteous indignation at the withdrawn punishment of Nineveh, God decided to poke some fun at him, again to teach him a lesson. God appointed a bush to give Jonah shade from the midday heat, to which Jonah was pleased.
The next day, God sent a worm to kill Jonah’s precious bush, and so it withered and left Jonah’s bald head exposed to the heat—faint, and once again near death, Jonah says, “oh bother, woe is me, I guess I’m just going to die here.”
In the final verses of the story, God asks Jonah “is it right for you to be angry? You were concerned about that bush, a simple plant which you did not nurture. But you wished for Nineveh to be destroyed? How could I not have concern for Nineveh, that great city filled with people made in my image who don’t know what is right?”
It’s a funny story, right? You get that? But it also has a powerful point:
Like Jonah, God’s people were playing daddy and mommy’s favorite. They couldn’t believe that God could also love others just as God had loved and cared for them. They would rather die under a withered bush than see others come into God’s blessing.
All they had to do was remember the covenant with Abraham: through you, all nations of the world will be blessed.
The response to this call of God came more out of necessity than it did out of a desire to follow God’s call. We know what that’s like—sometimes we find ourselves backed into a corner in life and realize that the only way for us to proceed is for us to do what God had been telling us to do the whole time!
That’s the case in the book of Jeremiah. God’s people find themselves under a withered bush. Refusing to listen to God’s call for justice and righteousness, they found themselves exiled from their precious land.
Their initial response, I’m sure, was to seek any way to get out as soon as possible. As a people imprisoned in a land that was not their own, they wanted to fight for their release and they were willing to anyone who could promise a way out.
Through God, Jeremiah says “do not let the prophets and diviners who are among you deceive you. Do not listen to their dreams. They are lying to you. They are not speaking my word.”
God says, your sentence has been rendered—70 years. No early release. No chance for parole. But after that time, I will fulfill my promises and bring you back to your land.
God has placed his people, in the Babylonian exile, in a rehabilitation program. To use the fullest meaning of the term, God’s people are in a penitentiary—a place where they will do penance for their sins.
In response to this word, the people may have thought the appropriate action would be to hole themselves up, hiding from the Babylonians and preserving whatever holiness they had left.
But God’s plan for this period of penance was different—he called them not to hide, but to live lives of purpose and fruitfulness.
Thus the Lord God says: “Build houses! Plant gardens! Take wives and have sons and daughters. Be fruitful and multiply! Don’t wish harm on Babylon, but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf. In their welfare, you will find your welfare.”
God doesn’t tell them specifically in this chapter to witness to their God in this foreign land, but I think it’s implied. The fruitfulness of their families and their fields themselves are certainly a witness to the God who preserves and multiplies them. If we looked at the book of Daniel, another book which deals with the Babylonian exile, we might find further examples of this practice of witness in exile.
Suffice it to say that in exile, God’s people must learn that God has a plan for them. It might require momentary afflictions and a reduction in freedom and independence for a time, but God has the best intentions for them and the whole world. Through the pain of exile, all nations of the world truly will be blessed.
I think Jonah and Jeremiah have something to say to us in our own quasi-exile.
We’re not exactly in Babylon, but sometimes it sure feels like it. We are, after all, citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom and right now we find ourselves under the rule of the kingdoms of the world. No matter what earthly kingdom we might dream and fight for, we know that it’s not our final home. We belong, in the end, to God. We swear our ultimate allegiance, not to any nation of this world, but to the one God over all.
Living in this situation, it is tempting for us to imagine then, that our goal is to leave this world behind as soon as possible. We might think that nothing in this world really matters, so we should twiddle our thumbs and wait for the coming of God to free us from this exile
That seems to be Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7. You could make a strong biblical case for the view that none of this matters. Paul says, “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Now, I’m not one to make this argument often, but I think that there is something that we know that Paul did not.
Paul thought that Jesus’s return was imminent. He thought that faithfulness meant that we become singularly focused on running from place to place declaring the good news of Jesus. And in many ways, I think we could learn a thing or two from his difficult message for us.
But I think that perhaps God wanted something different out of Paul than he wants for us. Maybe, in this time when we have waited so long that the “appointed time” no longer seems short, when we know that those prophesying an immediate resolution and end to this world are deceiving us, it is time for us to once again listen to the prophet Jeremiah.
Perhaps, it is time for all of us to witness to God’s goodness, not merely by spreading the message as quickly as possible, but by laying down roots. Because of Paul and others who have followed him, the whole world is receiving God’s good news, but I think our present situation requires a different strategy. It requires that, as part of our witness to God, we care deeply for the place where God has planted us.
That means that we seek the welfare of Eldersville and the people around us who are in need. It means that we care about the issues that face our state, our nation, and the nations of the world. It means we build up our families and our fields. It means that we dig deep so that we have the roots that will allow us to reach out in love.
The call of Jeremiah to us is to be beacons of hope for the world by living lives of fruitfulness and faithfulness as we await God’s future redemption.
Together with the message of Jonah, God is reminding us that in the welfare of Babylon and Nineveh, we will find our welfare. In the welfare of the United States, we will find our welfare. By caring deeply for our families and those beyond our borders of exclusion, we witness to God’s love and faithfulness for the world.
Through Abraham and through us, as we live as exiles in a land of people who are different from us, may all the people of the world truly experience God’s blessing. Amen.