A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, October 10, 2010.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
As Samuel Proctor mentioned in My Moral Odyssey, the Bible is not one book. Its sixty-six separate documents were not compiled into a single volume until three hundred years after Jesus died. Preachers must translate what was written, spoken, believed, and done by people thousands of years ago for people dealing with situations today.
Today’s lesson from Jeremiah 29 is an excerpt from a letter Jeremiah wrote to Hebrew people who were taken into exile by the Babylonians after the conquest of Jerusalem and Judah in 586 B.C. Jeremiah remained in devastated Jerusalem with others who were poor or who the Babylonian conquerors considered unnecessary or unthreatening. But the leading people of Jerusalem in politics, religion, and culture were exiles in Babylon. Their longing to return home to Jerusalem and Judah inspired the passage we find at Psalm 137:1-4:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD’s son in a foreign land?
So the homesick exiles wondered how long their political, cultural, and religious separation from home would last.
Jeremiah understood their homesickness. He recognized how embarrassing it was in Jerusalem and Judah to be a sacked capitol and defeated nation. So Jeremiah began wearing a wooden yoke in public to demonstrate his nation’s plight. The yoke offended a politically popular prophet named Hananiah so much that he took it from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it. Then Hananiah publicly announced that the Babylonian empire would be overthrown in two years [Jeremiah 28:1-11].
But at Jeremiah 29, we learn that Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon that contained the message we read at verses 4-7:
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.
According to Jeremiah’s letter, the exiles weren’t returning home in two years. The command to build houses, plant gardens, build families, and even expect grandchildren showed that they would be in Babylon for generations! How could people facing the shame, pain, and homesickness of conquest survive that long?
Exile involves being forcibly sent away from one’s home as punishment and dealing with homesickness. Exiled persons are forced to live where they don’t want to be. They can’t return home. They can’t leave where they are. They’re where they don’t want to be and are stuck! Exile means being stuck!
- People who left home, got involved with somebody, had some children, made some bills, feel stuck in exile.
- People who are out of work in a recession feel stuck in exile!
- People who once were young and strong, but now are aged, prone to stumble and fall, and growing less independent every day, feel stuck in exile!
- People living in old neighborhoods that once were familiar and comfortable but which have changed feel stuck. The neighborhood has changed. Familiar neighbors are gone, their houses now occupied by people who live by strange standards, listen to strange music, perhaps even speak strange languages language, and worship in strange ways or not at all. The people left behind didn’t move when the housing market was good. Now the market is flat and they can’t sell and move. They feel stuck in exile!
- People living with a chronic illness such as diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, or cancer feel stuck with medication they don’t like taking, stuck with bills they can’t pay, and stuck with futures that don’t look promising. They’re stuck in exile!
- Someone you love didn’t listen. They didn’t stay away from bad company. They didn’t avoid the temptations of illicit relationships. They didn’t or couldn’t resist the drugs, alcohol, gambling, over-eating, over-spending, or other addiction that gradually caused them to break the law. Now they’re stuck in prison. Now you’re stuck raising their children, stuck dealing with their pleas for help, and stuck with the wreckage they’ve made of their lives and futures. Now the family is stuck in exile!
- The American South was stuck on nostalgia for “Dixie,” in the post-segregation age. Some southerners—black and white—are still stuck judging from how they keep trying to protect systems that glorify white male supremacy.
- The United States and European powers that colonized and dominated Africa, India, and South Asia for decades are now stuck in a world where energy, commerce, international relations, and even military power is controlled by people who are neither American nor European. Many Americans are still stuck on notions of empire, which explains why we stuck ourselves in a war in Iraq, are stuck in Afghanistan, and are keeping thousands of troops in South Korea, Germany, and other places around the world.
Like the exiles Jeremiah wrote, stuck people long for the good old days. We’re not only stuck where we are, we become stuck on homesickness, stuck on nostalgia, stuck on arguing about how we got into this fix, and stuck on arguing about how to get out of it. And there are always Hananiah characters around who offer false hope by telling us things will be back “to normal” soon. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves stuck waiting for “the good old days” instead of living the best and most we can every day.
So how are we to live in exile? How do we overcome when we’re stuck with situations we can’t change and don’t like?
Jeremiah told the exiles to build, to hope, and to love. Build houses in Babylon and build lives there. Hope for their futures in Babylon by creating families there. Love the conquering Babylonians and work for the prosperity of that place. This probably didn’t sit well with people who bought into Hananiah’s two-year forecast. But Jeremiah wasn’t trying to be popular. He was telling the exiles how to glorify God in their stuck situation!
Trust God’s grace to help you build new life where you are. Accept that you’re where you are, that you’re not getting out of that place soon, and that God knows you’re there. God may have ordained this “stuck” place for you to teach you a lesson. The Hebrews in Babylon were there because God ordained exile as punishment for their nation’s transgressions. Jeremiah told them to stop wasting time and energy pining and whining about what they left and lost. That’s what Jeremiah meant by telling the exiles to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and harvest what they produce, and raise families. Jeremiah was saying to them, “Trust God’s grace to help you build new life where you are!”
Trust God to do wonderful things where you are. Even when we’re stuck we aren’t outside God’s power and care. God can bless us even in our stuck places and situations. God sends new opportunities and new avenues of living. God sends new people into our lives. God gives us new insights about who we are. And God reveals new truths about the people we should become and how God can help us get there. God can do wonderful things even in our stuck places. That’s what Jeremiah meant when he wrote, Take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage; multiply there, and do not decrease. Trust God to produce new blossoms even in your desert situations. If you can’t move, trust God to grow where you are.
Live in God’s love where you are! Jeremiah surely shocked the exiles when he wrote, 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. The word we translate as “welfare” is the Hebrew word shalom, which is often translated in English as “peace.” But shalom means more than the absence of war or a state of truce between disputing people. Shalom, in its fullest sense, means wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and good health. Jeremiah urged the exiles to seek the wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and good health of the conquering Babylonians! This is a call to love!
Jeremiah was delivering the powerful message that Jesus proclaimed centuries later in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5:43-45]. In our stuck places we are still God’s people. God’s love still has wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and good for us and for those around us, including our enemies. The love of God that produces shalom for us will also bless those around us.
Remember that God isn’t stuck! So let’s trust God’s grace to help us build new life. Let’s trust God’s power for strength to do wonderful things. Let’s shine God’s love where we are. God’s grace gives us hope for new life. God’s power gives us strength for new life. God’s love gives us new life with wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and good will even with our enemies. God isn’t stuck!
Jesus demonstrated the principles that Jeremiah wrote about. He was stuck onto a Roman cross. He was stuck between two thieves. He was stuck apart from friends, family, and even a sense of God’s favor. Jesus was stuck and forced to endure the sarcasm of one thief and the insults and taunts of his adversaries. Then he was stuck into Joseph’s tomb. Jesus lived the issues of exile that Jeremiah wrote about to the Babylonian captives and that you and I must endure.
Yet in that exile situation Jesus demonstrated trust in God. In that stuck predicament, Jesus prayed for his enemies and showed us how to advocate shalom for those who mistreat us. In that stuck place, Jesus was fruitful and made a redemptive difference to a dying thief. And in that stuck place called a tomb, God’s power worked resurrection.
When this is the measure of our living, we aren’t stuck. We’re planted. We aren’t stuck. We’re growing. We aren’t stuck. God is remaking us in a new place! This is good news, even when we seem stuck. Hallelujah!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas.