The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23), Year C.
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
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.Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The world of the Old Testament can be a strange and troubling place for the modern visitor. Though we glimpse into it every week in our worship, between the violent stories, lists of unpronounceable names, and the seemingly harsh character of God, many breathe a sigh of relief when we move on to the Epistle and Gospel lessons. Many prefer what they understand as the gentler teachings of Jesus. Instead of politics, confounding laws, and brutal stories depicting the horrors of war, we all much prefer to hear about loving our neighbor and how much God loves the world.
The truth of course is that the teachings of Jesus can often be just as, if not more, harsh than anything in the Old Testament. After all, He did say that He came not to bring peace, but fire and sword (Luke 12). Despite this, many Christians find the Old Testament troubling enough that they find it hard to believe that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old. It was actually one of the earliest controversies in the Church, now known as the Marcionian heresy. Marcion was an influential teacher who around 140AD argued that the Old Testament was incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. How could a collection of stories from so long ago with such a different set of values meaningfully speak to Christians today?
Despite the changes and chances of time, place, language, and circumstance, the Word of God speaks the same Truth. Despite being written over 2,500 years ago to address a crisis that we can scarcely imagine, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon speaks the same Truth to us now as it did then.
Like all timeless teachings, our snippet of a letter is very much a product of its time. Jeremiah wrote the letter to the first group of exiles taken to Babylon in 597bc. The exile was punishment for the revolt the Kingdom of Judah made against the Babylonian Empire.
When reading the Old Testament, because we are following the story of the Israelites, we tend to have an exaggerated perception of their influence in the politics of their time. To us, in this story the people of Judah are our heroes fighting a heroic battle to keep their independence from the wicked Babylonians. Yet in reality, at this point in history, the Kingdom of Judah had not truly been independent for a while. They had been a vassal state under the control of Babylon. While it’s easy to get the impression from the Old Testament that the various iterations of Israelite kingdoms were major power players in their day, the reality is that they were more often than not pawns in the games of much bigger empires; the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Ptolemies, and of course the Romans. They had fits and spats of independence as their larger neighbors rose and fell, but throughout the time span of the Bible, they were just a small player on the wider world stage, at least politically and militarily. In the context of Jeremiah’s letter, the Kingdom of Judah had partnered with Egypt to try and throw off the Babylonians. While the alliance was successful in preventing further Babylonian encroachment into Egypt, ultimately it did little to help Judah. As punishment for its revolt, Jerusalem was sacked and many of its high-ranking citizens were carried off to Babylon as hostages.
If that story sounds familiar but the date of 597 sounded wrong, it’s because essentially the same story happens again ten years later, only the exile in 586bc is far more famous, because as punishment for a second betrayal, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile was a national trauma only equaled by the Exodus story, while to the Babylonians, it was just business as usual governing a troublesome province.
Where is God and these timeless truths in the midst of these politics and squabbling between nations? It was this same question that the exiles were asking, the very question that Jeremiah sought to answer for the exiles in his letter to them.
To many in the Kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah was something of a curmudgeon, a stick in the mud, the one giving news that no one wanted to hear. Reading the doom and gloom throughout the Book of Jeremiah, I can’t blame them. While the people were concerned with politics and their standing as a nation on the world stage, Jeremiah was constantly reminding them that they had forgotten their covenants with God. While the people were worried about being a strong nation, the prophets were asking where justice was for the poor. Rather than living into their covenant as God’s ambassadors on earth, they chose instead to be just another earthly kingdom. Yet despite their rejection, they wondered where God was now in their hour of need.
The remainder of the letter, which lectionary cuts out, is concerned with the final distraction of the Israelites from their calling: the other prophets who said that the exile was going to be a short detour on their road to national glory. The false prophets were doing what was most profitable to them, making promises that the exile would be short, that as God’s chosen people, God would surely never let them suffer such a national embarrassment for long.
This was the final piece that makes Jeremiah’s letter. The prophet that was called to tear down and to build up (Jeremiah 1:10) writes this letter to tell the people timeless Truth. The truth that all people in every time, nation, and circumstance tend to forget. God belongs to no nation, no tribe, no single people. While nations squabble and struggle for power and glory, God seeks out justice and righteousness. The bitter exile we have been living in is self-imposed. Because we too, have sought glory, power, and national prestige instead of justice & righteousness, we too have been captured by these desires and held hostage in a nation that we no longer recognize.
So then, where is God in our exile? Has God abandoned us? What are we to do while remaining in exile? Now that we have heard the tearing down, we hear Jerimiah’s call to build and plant.
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and enjoy their produce. Marry, have children. But most of all, pray for and seek the welfare of the place of our exile. God is not found in politics or prestige but in a productive community. Though we are in exile, God is with us. God has always been with us. Whether in the words of the prophet Jeremiah to pray for the city of our captivity, or Jesus’ words to love our enemies, it is the same Word of God. It is the same God who made clothes for Adam and Eve after they were exiled from the Garden. The same God who followed the exiles into Babylon. The same God who took the cross so that we may one day return from exile.
Yes we remain in exile, and pay no attention to the false prophets that promise a quick and easy return. For we still live in a world consumed with politics and power than Justice and Righteousness. Yet God is with us. God walks with us and through Christ has prepared for us the way of salvation. To all exiles, thus says the Lord of hosts, “…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.” Amen.