Because I don’t preach as often and Hamilton and Susi, I thought I might take a moment to describe my preparation process. I think anyone preaching has some sort of “pulling it all together” method of writing. For me, it is all about saturation and response. First, I look up the verse on a Bible website, copy it, and then I print out the lectionary portion for the given Sunday. I also will frequently add one or two other very different translations for comparison. And sometimes, if it is a difficult passage, I will add a couple of commentary notes from gifted thinkers or Bible historians.
Then I live with the verse for a week or so. I put it foremost on my desk. I take it with me in a folder if I am going to be someplace where I might sit in a waiting room. I take it home if it looks like the evening will allow for some reflection time. I read the verse and make notes. I sort of live with the verse and trust that the verse will instruct me on what I might say to you on the occasions in which I preach.
I tell you all of this to tell you that there was no way, when I discovered my error on Wednesday that I was going to change my lectionary verse to the correct verse for today. The lectionary is from Jeremiah 28, not 29. It’s an understandable mistake. After all, the number 8 and 9 are right there next to each other on the computer keyboard. Maybe it was an interruption, or a phone call, or a twitch of my finger that landed on 9 and not 8. So instead of hearing all about Jeremiah 28, you get to hear all about a very different line of thinking in Jeremiah 29.
In apology - I love the Bible, the lectionary, and all of you – but not enough to trash all of the work I had done just to get it right in the lectionary.
And personally, I am glad that I did stay the course for my error. While the other chapter in Jeremiah was good, this one became memorable for me. Having read the Book of Jeremiah a number of times, I was surprised that most of this portion had never stood out to me. I even checked for side notes in my Bibles from over the years and not one note in any of my three main Bibles – one even dating back to high school. And this section is such a powerful bit of guidance from God that I think I must have skimmed over what Jeremiah was telling the Jews who had been sent into exile.
Some quick points about Jeremiah that I gleaned from some Bible history sites. The book preserves an account of the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah, whose personal life and struggles are known to us in greater depth and detail than those of any other OT prophet. His ministry was primarily in Jerusalem and spanned the years from 626 B.C. to sometime after 586 B.C. Jeremiah was commanded by God not to marry and raise children because the impending divine judgment on Judah would sweep away the next generation into captivity and then exile. Jeremiah began prophesying in Judah through the reign of five different Kings in Judah. It was historically a period of time when the doom of entire nations – including Judah itself – was being sealed. The power giants of the day - Egypt, Assyria and Babylon were shifting, competing and moving their land boundaries, causing upheavals in the smaller nation states in the area.
During that tumultuous time, King Josiah of Judah was killed near Megiddo in 609 at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco II and Jeremiah, who had found a kindred spirit in the godly Josiah, lamented his death. Other kings came and went. Finally, Je.hoia.kim was made king. This change of kings marked a significant turning point in the court’s attitude toward Jeremiah, as Jehoiakim was relentlessly hostile toward Jeremiah. From that point on, Jeremiah would be persecuted and imprisoned, enjoying only brief moments of freedom.
Jeremiah prophesied to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judah about 50 years before Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jeremiah continually preached against the folly of idolatry and pleaded with the people the Word of God. As God’s mouthpiece, Jeremiah asked the people, "what injustice have you found in me?" he cried, "why have you gone far from me and followed idols, and have become idolaters?", "I brought you into a beautiful country to eat of its fruit and its goodness, but you have defiled my land and made my heritage and abomination." Jeremiah warned that Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Jews would be taken away as captives to the land of Babylon.
The words of Jeremiah were violently rejected and he was continually persecuted. Eventually he was turned upon by the King and court and jailed mostly for being irritating and for reminding the People of Judah that they had strayed far from the Lord God.
While Jeremiah was in prison grieving over the sins of his people, the Lord came to him and said "behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant" Soon afterwards Jerusalem was indeed destroyed in 586 BC just as Jeremiah had prophesied. He claimed that their captivity would only last 70 years and then they would return to their land. And that is where we pick up here in chapter 29.
Through Jeremiah, God instructs the Jews who were exiled now living in captivity by Babylon, to do some fairly foreign things, not before seen among the Jews. As monotheists, the Children of Israel were the only nation to worship a single God. The great I Am. To keep them pure from pagan influences, God had always instructed them to live apart. They were not to mix with other nations, because that always led to idolatry and betrayal of God.
But here, in Babylon, God instruct these exiles to take a different approach. And I think God’s plan here is simply beautiful. Here is what God says:
“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.
• 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.
And then God gives them some cautionary tips.
• 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.
Now to us, in our hugely transitional and mobile world, we have family all over the world. It is nothing to us to move around.
Kathy and I had lunch with some friends yesterday. They have lived in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Trinidad, the United Emirates, Erie, PA, and one or two other places. Now work has taken them to Houston, TX. They move and settle in a blink of an eye. They have the freedoms to worship at the local Catholic Church wherever they go. The become part of the community. It is easy and doable. No sweat.
And I imagine many of you have the same story from your professional lives. Moving is part of our lives these days.
And that is what is so radical about this portion of scripture. God is telling His children that while in exile, become part of the community. Be involved. Build families and have children. Put down roots, as you would if you were planting a garden. Most astonishing to me was God’s command that they pray for the Babylon – their conqueror. God tells them plainly, if Babylon is doing well, then you will also do well. That is the level of collaborating and involvement that God expects.
But they are not to follow the prophets of that land. God is telling them to avoid the false. God’s saying, “don’t become part of their paganism. Don’t listen to their false prophets. Remain in the worship of the one, true God. And then God promises them that, after 70 years, they will be delivered. The message the false prophets – prophets who pretended to have God’s insight - were 180 degrees from what God spoke through Jeremiah. They were telling the people the easy message that the captivity would soon be over, so don’t invest in this land. Be ready for God to quickly move you out.
But Jeremiah’s message is very different. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” God is telling the exiles, whom history clearly shows were not slaves, as their ancestors were in Egypt, but relatively free in their movement and decision-making, to build the house and plant the garden – but also to live in those homes and be around to enjoy the fruit of their efforts in the fields. Don’t starve. Protect your family. Continue to invest in the future through marriage and having children. It is as positive a punishment as one could wish for.
Interestingly, Jeremiah made this prophecy some 50 years before the actual event occurred. Yet it happened just as he had said and recorded in the book of his prophecies. Remarkable.
God is giving these Jewish exiles permission to be part of living in and creating community. Or, as we can interpret, live with unity with those in Babylon until the day God delivers you.
For some years I was part of a Jesus People group in my hometown of Ravenna. The leaders in that group often stressed that we were to live in the world but not be part of the world. The message was similar to many of the prophets of the Old Testament. Be in the world but not of the world. Be part of the community but don’t get tainted by the beliefs of the world systems that oppose God. The Jesus People clearly espoused these values. Except they forgot the affiliation part of in. As time wore on in that group, we became more arrogant and continually made the circle of our relationship with our community of Ravenna smaller and smaller.
It has too often been similar if we read account of early history of missionaries. They would set out, not as exiles but as ambassadors for Christ. And rather than influence new people groups into the faith by living the love message of Jesus, they would seek to change the culture in an effort to capture the in indigenous people for God.
It was this attitude that one Dutch Reform pastor was trying to prevent when he initially preached a sermon to a group of white South African ministers which was perverted and distorted to later create apartheid. Apartheid is a governmental system of separation. As this pastor saw it, he believed that the message of Jesus should not upset the indigenous culture of tribal groups. So he proposed a system of separating the growing practice of imposing European values as part of the Christian message. He wanted to share Jesus, but not make people wear shoes, or blouses for that matter, before accepting them as Christ did. He believed that the native people should be left to their culture as they were hearing about Jesus.
In 1948 the white government of South Africa adopted these ideas of separation, of apartheid, as a means to subjugate non-white communities. The stories of how the Afrikaners separated the races to make those of European descent the superior race are horrible.
Jeremiah told the people that God wanted them to be a supportive part of the culture and people that were their captors. Jeremiah’s message reminds me of Jesus in his Great Commission, telling his followers to go to the entire world and make disciples of all nations or, as the word often translated in our Bibles for nations would be better translated, people groups. Go all people and share the love of God. Create an influence upon any community in which you find yourself by using Jesus’ method of being salt and light. Salt preserves and light illuminates. Being in a community as a Christian is best played out through the message of love and acceptance.
For today, this theme of with unity fits us perfectly, for it is with unity that we now shift to our service of communion. Latin – with unity. We join with each other and with Christians the world over as we share this sacrament. Communion is uniquely Christian. It is our sort of “in the family” meal to think about and remember the goodness of God that we have in Jesus Christ. It is the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood that reminds of his sacrifice that we might live lives not subdued by sin and aimlessness. It is the bonding of our community, not in any way as exclusive or as a cut above, but bringing us together to be strengthened to take our message to our larger community and world.
A few verses after Jeremiah tell the people of Israel to be productive and invested in their community, he then share with them these words, words which were highlighted and underlined in all three of my Bibles when I looked to see if this chapter had ever stood out to me. Many of you will recognize these words, for they are filled with hope and anticipation of the goodness of God in our lives. As a conclusion to this important portion of scripture, these words from God are shared, “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. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”