Last week I had the opportunity to speak at Toowong Uniting Church (my family’s local church). I don’t do it all that often, but enjoy the opportunity when it arises. This week I spoke from the bible passage of Jeremiah 29:1-14 as part of the congregation’s series on Jeremiah. Take a read of the passage, and then continue on for the thoughts I shared. It’s a fascinating story (Jeremiah’s) and I found it a really interesting one to dig into. One cautionary note as you read – this text is written to be spoken – so it might lose something as a pure piece of text….sorry!
Let’s start his morning by setting a little of the context for this passage. We find ourselves reading the story of the Israelites in a period of exile – royalty, senior figures, priests, prophets, artists – have been removed from their land and carried off to Babylon in the north.
Jeremiah had been prophesying about this event for a couple of decades or more – Matt pointed that out for us in his introduction to Jeremiah last week. This message from God via Jeremiah hasn’t been popular, and it hasn’t been well received, but Jeremiah has been consistent and steadfast in his word to the people. Geo-politically over this period the Babylonian empire has been on the ascendance, and they’re taking power, spreading their wings. Theologically, these events are foretold as God’s judgement on the people of Israel for their behaviour.
And so they’re gone. Captive. Hauled off to the Babylonian city. Removed from home, land, temple. Prisoners. Broken. Frightened. Huddled together wondering what next. Probably feeling abandoned by God, and maybe, just maybe, starting to wonder whether they should have been listening to Jeremiah all along.
In Jeremiah Chapter 28 another prophet, Hananiah, comes along and essentially says “you’ll only be here two years, so hang in there”. Hananiah tells the people that God will rescue them from the Babylonians; will set them free; will defeat this dastardly northern empire; will restore this people to their home and place. It’ll take 2 years.
I don’t know about you, but 2 years sounds like a pretty long time. In a former life I worked in outdoor education, taking kids on school camps, hiking and canoeing into all sorts of interesting places. We observed the capacity for school students to “fake it” for the length of a 3 day camp – to pretend to get along with one another, to manage bodily functions so as to not have to dig a hole in the bush (if you catch my meaning there). They could make just about anything happen to keep from having to engage in the messiness of life and real community. But when camps extended out to 4 or 5 or 7 days – that capacity to fake it was much reduced. As facilitators we were delighted when that messiness of real life crept in to our programs – so we could help students process what was going on, figure out how to manage conflict, build healthy relationships, cook proper food that would sustain them, figure out hygiene in the bush – all those sorts of things.
But that’s only 7 days! Hananiah is telling them they’ll be in exile for 2 years – as if that’s some kind of good news!
The truth is, compared to what Jeremiah had been suggesting, two years WAS good news.
Now I imagine some of you have a history that in some way parallels the experiences Sheri and I have shared. In the first 18 years of our marriage we moved to a new house quite often – 10 times in fact. So, we experienced something of what it’s like to live in a place for two years. And you know what? You can do it without really engaging in the messiness of real life. We’ve lived in houses that we knew were short term – and so we didn’t really bother getting to know the neighbours, or even the neighbourhood. We could keep to ourselves, stay below the radar, secure in the knowledge that sooner rather than later, we’d be moving on. We learnt that you can kind of fake it for two years. Be there, but not really there if you know what I mean. Not all of our residences were like that of course, but some were.
So too for the Israelites. Even in exile, even removed from all the things that secured and defined their identity – home, the promised land, the temple (which they knew as the house of the Lord), the notion of two years would have seemed survivable. Stay quiet, keep your heads down, don’t rock the boat, don’t do anything drastic, don’t upset the Babylonians any further – and in two years God will rescue us and we can resume life as normal. Just put things on hold until then. It’s only two years.
That’s what Hananiah was offering. And into this relatively comforting scenario wades Jeremiah. First he takes on Hananiah in Chapter 28 – and I’ll leave that for you to read, but then some time later sends a letter to those who’ve been exiled, who’ve been carried away.
And what does he say? He passes on the words of the Lord Almighty:
Don’t keep your heads down. Don’t stay out of sight. Don’t wait. Instead press into the messiness of real life. Settle down. Build houses. Plant gardens. This is not the stuff of “making do” or “staying quiet” or “faking it” in the manner of kids on a 3 day camp under canvas.
He goes further: Get married. Let your family lives be entwined. Have kids, watch them grow up. Watch them grow up so much that they can get married and have kids of their own.
These are the actions that will define a community, shape an identity. Home, relationships, new generations, building and planting and sowing and reaping. These are not the tasks of a short term, temporary community that is surviving two years. Be fruitful and multiple, the message says – echoing the words of Genesis.
But even that isn’t enough.
Don’t just look after yourselves, staying out of trouble, staying quiet, doing your own thing. In verse seven we find one of the truly unexpected and profound parts of this letter:
“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.”
This is really hard stuff.
Seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon. The very people who have carried you away. Seek their prosperity? Seek peace for them? Does this remind you of something Jesus once said? “You have heard it said, love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.”
This is a difficult challenge, for sure. But to be honest, I think it’s at the heart of the gospel message. And it’s at the heart of the call to be missional – to join in God’s plans for the world, to be part of making the world a better, healthier place.
Join in the messiness of real life. Invest. Plan. Sow. Dig into the life of your community. Want the best for it. No conditions. No holds barred. Seek the peace and prosperity of your neighbourhood. Even those you might not like so much. Yes, maybe even those who do harm to you. Love your neighbour. Seek peace for them.
Then comes the next shock in a long line of them. Jeremiah calls out Hananiah again. “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams YOU ENCOURAGE THEM TO HAVE. Remember what I’ve already told you that the Lord has said – you’re going to be there 70 years.” 70! Jeremiah calls Hananiah out – but he also lays the blame squarely at the feet of those he’s writing to – Hananiah, and maybe others like him, is just telling you what you encourage him to, what you want to here. Don’t listen. You’re here for a long time.
I said earlier that Sheri and I moved ten times – often living somewhere for quite short periods.
Our last move was 3 ½ years ago, to a house we’ve purchased in Kenmore. And this time it was different. We were shopping for a house that we could make home for a long time. And we’ve made that commitment to not just ourselves, but to our kids. “We’re going to live here for a long time”, we’ve told them. “You’re going to finish school from this house. You’re going to go to university from this house. You might get married from this house. You might bring your kids, our grandkids, to visit this house. We’re going to be here a long time.”
I mean, probably not 70 years, but a long time by our standards! The difference that has made as we’ve moved into the house and the neighbourhood has been remarkable. We’re investing in making the house just the way we want it. We’re landscaping. We’re extending and renovating. We know our neighbours. I mean we’re a long way from perfect, but far more invested in our neighbourhood than we’ve ever been. We run into people at the shops that we know. We chat to the neighbours in the street. We watch local sports clubs play in the park at the end of the street. We eat in local cafes and restaurants because we want those local businesses to prosper. We’re there for the long haul. And it’s helped us feel settled, and secure. Safe, and at home.
Maybe you’ve had experiences like this as well. When you are committing to something long term, it makes a difference to your mindset sure, but also to your own health, to your own sense of identity. We’re defined not just by our job, or our busyness as is the modern temptation – but by our relationships with those around us, and in a quite tangible way by the place in which we live. This, I think, is partly behind this letter of Jeremiah 29.
As these people, who’ve been carried into exile, removed from all the things that define them – friends, family, home, temple, promised land – as they settle in, build new families, build new houses, make homes, as they invest in their neighbourhoods – they’re actually rediscovering and redefining their own sense of self. They’re re-establishing a sense of identity and wellness, even when removed from the things they’d previously known that defined them.
Then we get to probably the most quoted verse in all of Jeremiah. Verse 11: “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.” It’s a Sunday school classic. It’s on bumper stickers and bookmarks and t-shirts and motivational posters. God has my future under control. God’s plans for me are good. I mean it’s a lovely sentiment, but I wonder if it loses something when it’s separated from the context in which we read it here. I wonder if there are two things going on here. Let me test them with you.
First, I wonder if God is actually saying “AS you settle in, build houses, plant gardens, make families, as you seek the peace and prosperity of the place you find yourselves – as you do those things, I’ll prosper you, not harm you. God’s plan for you is to prosper where you are right now, as you deal with the messiness of real life. Not later in some utopia, but now. Right now. Right here. Even when it seems unlikely.
Second, of course, there’s this long term promise that comes at the end of the passage we read today – that God will rescue the Israelites and return them to the temple, to the promised land. That’s the future promise that will hold. God can be trusted to honour it. But remember, that’s a promise that comes with a timeline – 70 years.
Some scholars suggest that this number 70, as is so often the case with numbers in scripture, is not necessarily (or only) to be taken literally, but has a deeper meaning. The suggestion here is that the number 70 equates to a lifetime. So, for all of those receiving this letter from Jeremiah, this number reminds them that this promise to return to Israel in 70 years’ time is not for them personally. Those who receive this letter won’t live long enough to receive the promise. So, when God says “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you, to bring you home” – that’s not a promise to the individuals who receive the letter that they’ll personally return home. It’s a very different promise to that made by Hananiah in Ch 28 that they personally just have to hang on for two years before they’ll be home again. This is God making a promise to the whole community that God’s plans are for them as a whole. The “you” in this verse isn’t you the individual, it’s you the community. It’s you the collective. It’s you the people of God.
In our individualistic world today, the world in which we buy into the advertisements that say “you are the most important person in the world” we sometimes lose sight of the power, the meaning, the nature of community.
Here Jeremiah helps the people of Israel, in a strange land, far from home, removed from the temple, frightened, lost and lonely, to remember that God’s plan for them is community. God’s plans for them to prosper is found in their relationships with each other, their families, their neighbours – and even their enemies. Their faith is a communal faith. The promises of God are made to them as community. Their future, their hope, their redemption is in community.
I find that both an incredibly powerful message, and incredibly confronting.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a child of this age. I’m a child of the age that says it’s about the individual. It’s about my job. My hobbies. My satisfaction. My wealth. Even my faith, my salvation, my relationship with God. And not so often about us, our, we, together, community.
What a difference it might make in our world, in our city, if we were to know this message. Jeremiah, is so often a lone voice. So often on the outer with his people. Himself certain that marriage and children were not for him personally – because of this life that God has called him to live. This very Jeremiah gives these words of challenge and encouragement about the value and nature of community to the broken, fractured, lost people of God.
“Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Get married. Have kids. Watch them grow up, get married and have kids of their own. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city you’re exiled in. And remember I know the plans I have for all of you. Plans to prosper all of you, not to harm you. Not in your timing, or the way you might want, but in the ways I know and I have in mind. Seek me, and you’ll find me.”
The message might have been delivered to a bunch of Jewish royals, priests, leaders in exile in a strange land, a long way away, a long time ago. I guess I can’t help wondering if it might still ring true for us today.