When most preachers think of Jeremiah 29, they will focus on the oft-preached optimism of verses 10-14. Who hasn’t quoted those words to discouraged believers? “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
But the Lectionary doesn’t take us to future hope today; it dwells in the difficult present to deal with two huge questions: how do God’s people live in a hostile foreign land and how do we know what prophetic word to heed when times are tough? The prophetic word of Jeremiah can be summed up with prepositions—“In, not of, but for.” That would be the title of my sermon on this text.
It’s important to place this brief text in the narrative/theological arc of Jeremiah. We began our study with the call of Jeremiah to be a prophet who would uproot and tear down, and then plant and build. Then we heard stern words about sin and judgment, coupled with a call to repent and the promise that God would relent if Israel would repent. As God’s punishment was about to fall upon his sinful people, Jeremiah performed an act of prophetic hope by purchasing a piece of land in a soon to be conquered country. Then God’s judgment came crashing down and Jerusalem was devastated. In our last reading, we heard the deep sorrow of Jeremiah and Judah and, maybe even, Yahweh over the desolation of Jerusalem. All was lost. It was the end of the world.
But it wasn’t the end of the world, because there were still people alive. And so was God. Here the living God tells his surviving people how to live now that the world as they knew it was over. It is interesting that the Lectionary doesn’t focus on those optimistic verses later in Jeremiah 29. I think there is a good reason for that choice of text. It points to the great issue between Jeremiah and the false prophets—the latter said we should be optimistic about the near future while Jeremiah said that we should be realistic about the immediate present.
As Jeremiah 28 reveals, the false prophets were saying that this exile was a temporary thing; in fact, in two years you will go back to the Promised Land. So, you should struggle against the Babylonians. Don’t submit to them; they are not part of God’s will for you. Instead, rebel and win your freedom. That is the will of God for his people in that foreign place.
Jeremiah agreed that Israel would go back to the Land, but not for a long time, not for 70 years, not until Israel had learned its lesson there in Babylon. It was a terrible mistake, a total lie, to think that Israel could win freedom by waging guerilla warfare against the all-powerful Babylonians. So, don’t listen to those prophets. Listen to the Word of the Lord through Jeremiah.
The word of the Lord came to the Exiles in an unusual form—a letter sent in a diplomatic pouch to Nebuchadnezzar himself (as we learn in verses 2-3, which are not part of our reading). Those unassigned verses reveal that the letter was sent after the first deportation of Judah in 597. Rather than being the end of deportation, two more would follow in 586 and 581. Clearly, the false prophets were dead wrong about a two year exile.
Anyway, this letter from Jeremiah contains the word of the Lord, as its very first line announces clearly. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” There is a world of meaning in those few words. In a letter that would be channeled to the Exiles through the great King Nebuchadnezzar, the God of Israel claims that he is still in control.
He is “Yahweh Almighty,” the Lord of hosts, whose armies could defeat the armies of Babylon, if that is what God willed. But God willed, instead, to use Babylon to accomplish his own purpose, namely, to carry Israel from Jerusalem to Babylon. Indeed, says Yahweh, “I carried them into exile.” Exile is my will for you right now, so submitting to Babylon is submitting to me. But don’t think for a moment that I am done with you, because I am still “the God of Israel.” You are exiled, but not forgotten. And as Yahweh will say in a moment, I will bring you back to the Land and to myself.
In the meantime, here’s what you must do. Live in the present, not the future. But lay foundations for the future by living normally. No, you are not in the Promised Land, in the Holy City with its Temple, but you can still live by faith away from all those props for your faith. Maintain faithful living no matter where you are living. Transfer your faith to that foreign place and let it be your not-so-temporary home.
That is exactly what God commands—make Babylon your home away from home. Build houses and settle down; Ezekiel the prophet lived in his own home as he spoke to the Exiles (Ezekiel 8:1). Forget about temporary dwellings, like tents. You will be there a while. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Become self-supporting in captivity; your captors expect that. Most important, continue to have families, so that there will be a people in existence when I finally bring my people back to the Land. Don’t sit in misery; get married and have children, so that your children may have families, and their children may have families, for three generations (about 70 years). Be like the Israelites in Egypt long ago; “increase in numbers; do not decrease.”
The false prophets were saying that the future lay with the remnant left behind in the Promised Land. God was punishing the exiles for their great sin and blessing the remnant for their faithfulness. That seemed the most reasonable reading of the historical circumstances. But through Jeremiah God said that it was exactly the opposite. That remnant would be mixed with foreigners and become the mongrel Samaritans, while the cursed exiles would be the hope of Israel, once Yahweh completed their chastening.
From our perspective, that all seems like good advice. Maybe the exiles thought so too, eventually. But the last part of God’s will for them in exile must have gone down hard. It was shocking, unprecedented, a “you have got to be kidding me” order. “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile….” Well, okay, that makes some sense. If Babylon is war-ravaged and sinks into poverty, that will affect us, too. So, we can see that it pays to seek the welfare of this foreign land, because as God says, “if it prospers, you too will prosper.” But, “pray to the Lord for it?” Wait a minute! These people have ruined our lives. These people are the enemy. We want to call down God’s curses on them and you are telling us that we have to pray for them. That’s too much.
But it was the will of the Lord, not just for the Jewish exiles, but also for Christian exiles. Remember how Jesus put it? “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44) And Jesus practiced what he preached. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
So, obviously, the word of the Lord for the exiles in Babylon has relevance for Christians in America or Canada or wherever you live. Peter calls all of us “aliens and exiles” in I Peter 2:11 and give advice that sounds much like Jeremiah. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits (verse 12).”
The problem is that we probably don’t need to be told to settle down and live normal lives among the pagans. We already do that very well, too well actually. Indeed, often our lives look very much like the lives of the pagans around us. Even worse, we not only pray for our “captors,” we even treat them as though they are our Saviors. Think of the zeal and the hope American Christians exhibit in their political allegiances. Nebuchadnezzar is the one who can make our lives great again. And if not him, then Cyrus the Great will change things in our favor when he takes control. (Plug in the names of your favorite political or economic or military leader.) Have we made America (or Canada, etc.) our hope, rather than simply our home away from home? Is our country more important than the church and the Kingdom of God?
This is very tricky and troubled water to navigate. I mean, Paul does tell us at least twice that we should pray for (even, maybe especially) our pagan leaders (Romans 13 and I Timothy 2). We are to invest in the peace and prosperity of our native lands, for if they prosper so will we. But we must never forget that we are, in fact, “aliens and exiles.” And the day will come when our Lord will visit this earth again and the nations will be judged for their rebellion (see the book of Jeremiah in many places).
As we look forward to that “day of judgment, day of wonders,” we must live normally in the present, “in the world, not of the world, but for the world” that God loves.
Is there a place for rebelling against the powers that be, as the false prophets urged the exiles to do? Is Jeremiah’s advice applicable for every situation, or was it directed to a specific time and place? One thinks of Jews in Nazi concentration camps, their twentieth century Babylon. Does Jeremiah 29:4-7 apply to them?
In my Dutch Reformed circles we are mourning the death of Diet Eman, author of the memoir, Things We Could Not Say. She was a survivor of WW II and Nazi atrocities. She joined the Dutch underground and fought the Nazis with everything she had. Her recent death was commemorated with great praise and honor for her courageous rebellion. Was she disobeying the will of God as enunciated in Jeremiah 29?
Or was the situation in Babylon qualitatively different than in Nazi Germany. Their Babylonian captors, after all, did not forbid the Exiles to worship Yahweh and the Jews in Babylon were given freedom to build and plant and marry and live normally, albeit in a foreign land. Very different than Nazi Germany. And maybe very different than situations in our world today (think of Christians in Iraq), maybe even in an increasingly secular North America (where there is a huge culture war with sexual rights battling religious rights). Christ is coming to judge the living and the dead. How shall we then live in the meantime?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 13, 2019
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 Commentary