One of the hardest things you have to do in life is to adjust to finding yourself in circumstances that you did not plan to be in and do not want to be in, but for the time being you cannot get out of.
Most of us have expectations of what we want our lives to be like. We have dreams of the perfect job, with work we enjoy doing and people we enjoy working with and salaries that will allow us to live the kind of life we want to live. We have dreams of a house in the country or in the suburbs or a condo in an exciting downtown area. We have dreams of getting finished with school and out of the house and finally free from the tyranny of parents and teachers. We have dreams of the perfect marriage and beautiful, intelligent, well behaved children.
Then real life happens and we have to learn to cope with disappointment. We find we have to start at the bottom of the job ladder, or we find that the job we have idealized has lots of drawbacks. That dream house is way out of our price range. Freedom from parents and school brings the harsh reality of a full time job and monthly bills. The best of marriages brings plenty of challenges, and parenting often feels like trying to navigate a mine field in the dark.
How do we cope with having to defer our dreams or even accept that they might not become reality? I think, as in most things, there is a fine line of balance to be sought to negotiate this challenge in a healthy and faithful manner. With Jeremiah’s help, I’d like to address this topic this morning. Given the rest of the biblical witness, the message Jeremiah delivers from the Lord in today’s passage is rather astonishing.
The last of our texts in the “Promises of Hope” subtheme is this fascinating text from the prophet Jeremiah. The northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and now it is the southern kingdom’s turn to taste the bitterness of defeat at the hands of the Babylonians a little over a century later.
Here’s how it all went down. The Babylonian Empire, which included present day Iraq, had been threatening Jerusalem for a number of years. The king of Judah, Jehoiachin, had agreed to send an annual payment to Babylon in exchange for being left alone. It’s like blackmail. It’s kind of ironic when you look at how it works in football today. The Woffords and Citadels go the the South Carolinas and Clemsons of the world and let them beat up on them and get paid a lot of money to do it. Back then the little guys had to pay a lot of money so the big guys would not come beat them up.
Naturally King Jehoiachin chafed at sending this annual payment to keep the Babylonians from invading. So in a clandestine manner he was cultivating an alliance with Egypt so that he would have enough strength behind him to stop making those payments. Eventually he could stand it no more and stopped sending payments. The Babylonian army promptly came to collect. What they collected were people – King Jehoiachin himself and 10,000 more of the leading citizens, all of whom were taken hostage into Babylon. This, they said, is what happens when you fail to make your payment.
The prophet Jeremiah was not exiled at this point. He stayed in Jerusalem and continued to preach the unpopular word that Judah should submit to the rule of Babylon. His message was not heeded, and ten years later Judah rebelled against Babylon. The Babylonian army came back and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and took all but the poorest of the poor into exile in Babylon.
Today’s story takes place between those two visits from the Babylonian army. It is a letter which Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem and sent to those who had been taken into exile in Babylon. Before I talk about the advice he sends in the letter, I want to focus on those exiles in Babylon who would be receiving the letter. How were they feeling about things?
Psalm 137 dates from after the second invasion when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, but it gives a good look at how it must have felt to live as an exile in Babylon.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, how happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
The hatred in those rivalry games yesterday doesn’t hold a candle to this.” What a joyous experience it will be to repay you for every single wrong you have done to us. See how you feel when we raze your city to the ground and take your babies and smash their skulls on the rocks.” It is important for us to hear this raw hatred that permeated the Jewish attitude toward their captors, the Babylonians. It is against the backdrop of Babylonian atrocities and Jewish hatreds that Jeremiah’s astonishing message must be heard.
When Jeremiah wrote his letter, the final disposition of the matter was not yet clear. King Zedekiah, the next king after Jehoiachin was taken into exile, was cultivating that alliance with Egypt and it was at least theoretically possible that with Egyptian help they could wage war on Babylon and bring the exiles home. This was the deepest hope of the people still in Jerusalem and of the exiles in Babylon. Two men among the exiles in Babylon claimed to be prophets and told their fellow exiles that God would act soon to destroy Babylon and restore his people to their homes. I expect this would have been what we were banking on as well – send in the troops and bring our people home.
The message God gave Jeremiah to send the exiles was so dissonant with the other notes being played that it must have brought all the music to a screeching halt. Listen to his advice again, against the backdrop I have described to you.
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Built houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, 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.”
Can you imagine the jaws dropping among the exiles upon hearing this letter read? Indeed a message came back from the exiles to the priests in Jerusalem asking, “Who is in charge there? You should be putting madmen like Jeremiah who claim to be prophets into the stocks and neck irons. He sent us a letter saying, ‘It will be a long time. Therefore build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
Jeremiah was convinced that the exile was within God’s plan and that it would last a long time – he said 70 years. The thing to do is quit whining and complaining; quit plotting rebellion and planning for revenge; and get on with the business of life and learning the lessons of exile. Bloom where you have been planted. Establish homes and communities, plant gardens, have children and raise them, encourage them to marry and have children, pray for the peace and welfare of the people whose land you dwell in, because your fate is tied to theirs for the foreseeable future. Bitter advice indeed, and initially it received the reception you would expect. It was the same reception you would expect today if a group of Israelis were captured and taken to live as hostage in the same place, which is now Iraq, and you told them God said to make it home and pray for the welfare of their captors.
But let’s look down the road for a minute now at the outcome of things. The Babylonian exile did come to an end, just short of 70 years, and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Many did, though a fair number chose to stay in Babylon and continued living there. Many of those taken into exile undoubtedly did not live to return. Many who made the return had been born in exile and had never seen Jerusalem.
After the exile, the scroll of Jeremiah was preserved and treasured by the Jewish people. Though his message had been consistently disliked and disregarded, history proved him right. I expect that after the initial shock and discouragement of exile wore off, the people were able to see the wisdom in Jeremiah’s message. They settled in for the long haul, got on with the business of life, had children and grandchildren, reinterpreted their faith and taught it to the next generations, and kept the dream of going home alive. They bloomed where they were planted. So when the time came for the exile to end, there was a people who were prepared to go forth and remembered who they were and where they were going and why.
Jim Newsome goes so far as to say that Jeremiah may have empowered the Jewish people to survive the exile by giving them this word from the Lord. The northern ten tribes of Israel which had been exiled to Assyria 125 years earlier, never returned. They are referred to as the lost tribes of Israel. Newsome writes, “Much of the credit for the survival of the Jewish exiles may be laid at the feet of Jeremiah. For it was Jeremiah who provided those words by which the people could come to terms with the tragedy of their nation and, thus, rise above it.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 547) In a sense, Jews have been doing this through much of history – living among other peoples, working for the welfare of the places they lived, trying to bloom where they have been planted.
Jeremiah has given us a great gift in offering this paradigm for dealing with exile experiences in our lives. I do not think it means that in every circumstance we have to meekly accept what is happening to us. But I do think that in every case it is worth considering the possibility that God want us to accept our circumstances for the time being and do what we can with it. Feeling exiled by a job transfer to a place you didn’t want to go that is away from family? Feeling exiled in a marriage that isn’t quite what you expected it would be? Feeling exiled by the disorienting experience of grief or chronic illness? What difference would it make to shift from self pity and anger at God to asking the question, “Is God calling me to be patient and bloom where I am planted until further instruction?” What if we focused on working for the shalom of the city we were transferred to; planting a garden in our marriage which seems to have become dry and lifeless; expecting that God still has a plan for us on the other side of grief and illness?
Israel’s faith matured tremendously as a result of the exile, but no one would choose such a painful way to grow. It takes a lot of patience and courage to learn to bloom where you are planted when where you are planted is not at all where you want to be.
The promise of hope in Jeremiah’s message is that while the exile will last 70 years, it will come to an end and exiles will return home. The message from God is, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This continues to be the message for us today. As we move into Advent next Sunday we will look at a story about some men who followed Jeremiah’s advice, and it meant jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Come back next week if you’d like to know how it ends!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 26, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church