“You can’t go home again” is an old adage we sometimes address to people who aren’t where they long to be. Some of those “exiles” are homesick. Others have in some way grown too much to be fully comfortable where they grew up anymore.
You might say, “You can’t go home again – yet!” is the theme of the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Its preachers and teachers don’t have to guess its historical context. Jeremiah 29 lays it out. Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar has deported elders and other important leaders from Jerusalem to Babylon. Those deportations happened in 597, 586 and 581 B.C. It has left much of Israel far from her home in the land God had promised and then given her ancestors.
However, the even more immediate context of Jeremiah 29 is Hannaniah’s prophecy that the preceding chapter describes. There that false prophet raised the exiled Israelites hopes by promising that Babylon would release them from captivity within two years. While Jeremiah initially expresses his hope that that prophecy is true, he quickly learns Hannaniah has spoken not for the Lord, but for himself.
Jeremiah 29 provides the basic heart of God’s response to the false prophet. It begins with God’s assertion that it was God, not King Nebuchadnezzar or Babylon that had carried Israel into exile. Verse 4 asserts it is “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel,” not the most powerful sovereign on earth, who is in charge of Israel’s destiny. God, not Nebuchadnezzar, determined when Israel’s exile began and will determine when Israel’s exile ends (in seventy years, as verse 10 promises).
In the meantime, however, the exiled Israelites seem to wonder how they should live outside of the land of promise God had given their ancestors. To use another adage my own parents used to use on me, God challenges them to “Bloom where” they “are planted.” The Lord invites the exiled Israelites to accept their predicament.
God has carted them, after all, off to Babylon for the long haul. So Jeremiah says the Israelites may as well do all they can to flourish in their temporary home. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce, he says. “Marry and have sons and daughters … 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” (5-7).
So God doesn’t want Israel, in Michael Lindvall’s evocative words, to withdraw from the world of Babylon and retreat into a Jewish ghetto. God doesn’t tell Israel to foment revolution in Babylon. God doesn’t even invite Israel to camouflage her religious identity so that she may fully blend into her new, if temporary home.
No, the Lord calls exiled Israel to fully invest her energy and herself in the well being of the nation to which God has exiled her. God invites her to live well where God has planted her, to do quotidian things like get married and have children. In Scott Hoezee’s words, God challenges the Israelites to remain healthy so that they not only flourish in exile, but also are also fully ready for the time when God sends her back to the land of promise.
Walter Brueggemann summarizes God’s message as, “Even in exile, Judah is to multiply, just as the old, enslaved community of Exodus 1 multiplied. Even in displacement, Judah continues to be the people over which God’s promise for the future presides with remarkable power.”
Perhaps the most striking of Jeremiah 29’s commands is verse 7’s “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” “Seek,” in other words, “the shalom, the well-being of the Babylon to which God has sent you.” The heathen Babylon. “Because if it prospers,” the prophet adds, “you too will prosper.”
Here God calls God’s exiled Israelite people to pray not just for their own well-being, but also for the well being of their Babylonian captors, their enemies. In it we hear a kind of precursor of Jesus’ own “Love and pray for your enemies.” Not that they may succeed in their goals of harming us, but so that together we may flourish.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, Jeremiah 29 is a fertile field for its preachers and teachers to harvest. It presents all sorts of possible themes for preaching and teaching. Few of our hearers will consider themselves exiles like Jeremiah’s audience did. Yet many of us feel displaced in other ways. Some of us don’t live where we’d like. Others find ourselves in families and relationships, in workplaces and situations in life where we feel displaced. Those who preach and teach it may want to ask how Jeremiah 29 speaks to those situations. What are this text’s challenges for its audiences? Where is its comfort for all sorts of exiles?
What does this Old Testament lesson say about seeking the common good of all of our neighbors? For whom does it invite us to seek that welfare? We tend to be people who want to do something to advance the peace and prosperity of our communities. What does Jeremiah 29 say about the role of prayer in that seeking?
It’s regrettable that the Lectionary cuts this Sunday’s reading off before we reach verses 11-13. After all, those famous words in some ways anchor this reading. “’I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’.” The prophet’s message is that God’s Israelite sons and daughters can make themselves physically at home in the Babylon to which God has sent them. After all, while God has been angry with God’s people, God still has plans for them to prosper.
Jeremiah 29’s call to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (7) invites preachers and teachers to reflect with their faith communities on how they’re carrying out that mission. It summons those communities to share just how they perceive themselves to be seeking that peace and prosperity. Jeremiah 29 also invites faith communities to explore how they might even better seek the peace and prosperity of their communities.
The church I serve is suburban. Most of its members commute at least 15 minutes to church. Yet I’m deeply grateful for their commitment to the well being of the community in which God has put it.
For many years we’ve participated in feeding hungry people in downtown Silver Spring, MD. In the past few years we’ve begun ministries of mentoring at-risk schoolchildren as well as serving our hungry neighbors through a monthly food pantry. We’ve also prepared ourselves to co-sponsor a refugee family.
By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to seek the welfare of the community in which God has planted us. Yet that same Spirit is also constantly prodding us to ask how we can do that even better.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 Commentary