Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jeremiah (3): Build in Exile

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

In this section of Jeremiah, Jerusalem has already fallen to Babylon for the first time (there was subsequent rebellion, conquest, and additional exile). In exile, just as in Jerusalem, prophets are proclaiming what people want to hear, but not what God has declared. Prophets are telling the exiles that Babylon is soon to fall, that they shouldn’t unpack and settle down but instead be ready to head home asap.

In Jeremiah’s time, idol worship was common. Nevertheless, there remained many, like Jeremiah, whose love for the LORD was faithful. In exile, their big (worship) question was expressed in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” That is, when our worship has been linked to temple, city, royalty, and land . . . how can we continue? Even before the temple, before settlement in the land of promise, worship revolved around the tabernacle, God’s mobile home in the wilderness. Now, however, there is no focal point for worship. What shall we do?

Beyond the question of continuing worship was the question of pain. We’re in exile, we deserved something for our sin . . . but, this? It’s not like Babylon is holy or anything. And one of the prayers of God’s people was a prayer for vengeance, also in Psalm 137: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

So, whether you were devout or not, hearing a prophet say, “Thus says the LORD” and promise vengeance and a homecoming . . . those were welcome words. Who wouldn’t want to hear that?

In exile, we find ourselves where we don’t want to be, surrounded by people we don’t want to be with (Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses, 153). Ever been there? Find yourself there now? The easy path is wishful thinking – memories or dreams of a better place with better people. The easy path is ambivalent or adversarial, lazy or oppositional. We don’t feel like worship, don’t feel like devotion, don’t feel like discipline or discipleship. Instead, we fantasize about the ability to impose our will on the situation – if only I were in charge, if only I didn’t have to work with these morons, if only I didn’t have to deal with this stress. We accomplish nothing, we become nothing.

Today is Father’s Day. One of the big ways we feel ourselves in exile is in raising children. The world has changed so much since we were young; how can we be confident for our children? And, now that they have become teenagers, now that they are embracing this world that we don’t fully recognize or trust, now that they respond to us with drama and irrationality, how do we retain control? We’ve become “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22), even in our own households.

Jeremiah, once more, has a message that folks don’t really want to hear. It is a positive word, but not the one they are seeking, not one of vengeance and homecoming.

“Build houses and live in them.” You may be “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) but it is time to make yourself at home.

“Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Don’t just eke by on odd jobs or the generosity of others. Now is the time to invest long term – here in this strange land – for your own stability.

“Take wives and have sons and daughters.” Don’t assume this inhospitable place makes raising a family out of the question. And don’t settle for casual relationships. Be disciplined and holy in your relationships and think long term.

“Multiply there, and do not decrease.” Don’t allow exile to destroy you. Instead, pursue ways to become stronger, better, more than ever before.

This series of commands regarding homes and economic life, families and generations demand a long term perspective and investment, a sense of discipline and stability, and a commitment to living in the world. They aren’t the easy way that we prefer to hear, but they are the true way that Jeremiah calls us to.

How does this translate into daily life?

As parents, we need wisdom. What is appropriate for our children is not adequately reflected in the ratings on video games, films, and music. Every child is different, and every family is different. Jeremiah calls us to find creative ways to “build houses and live in them”, to settle down in the exile of a world that is constantly changing, that doesn’t reflect the values or situation in which we were raised. Not until we put down some roots in our culture will we be able to guide our children within it.

Live and model discipline and hard work. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Make and keep long term commitments. “Take wives and have sons and daughters.” Become productive and successful. “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.”

This is the toughest turn in Jeremiah’s message. He moves from assuming a commitment to living in the world, to living well in exile, to a commitment to the welfare of the world. The Hebrew word for “welfare” here is “shalom”. It is routinely translated peace. But it’s meaning is a good bit more comprehensive than the English term “peace”. It refers to completeness, to being “safe and sound”, to health and prosperity, to “peace and quiet”, to contentment, to peace as friendship – whether with others or with God (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Seek the “shalom” of the city – the full circle of blessing and salvation. Seek the “shalom” of the city – its economic renewal, its spiritual deliverance, its racial and ethnic reconciliation, its daily safety, its access to health care, its political leadership, its schools, its total salvation.

Some theological considerations: In the church we are constantly struggling with how we relate to culture. Sometimes, we place Christ against culture (H. Richard Neibuhr, Christ and Culture), we condemn all that is unholy, and we focus all our energy on kingdom come. We raise the call to “come out” and be holy, a call that Jeremiah himself raised to the Jewish people in Babylon in his judgment oracle upon Babylon (51:45, see also Revelation 18:4 and 2 Corinthians 6:17). I experienced and lived this posture toward culture in a pretty radical way. Not long after my parents became followers of Jesus, they were taught that it was important for their children to be free from the negative influence of the culture – music, television, schools. We destroyed our television, their collection of wonderful LPs, and went to a Christian school.

It is a very different posture from “Seek the shalom of the city”. But they are both in “the book” – not just the Bible but Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah’s call to the prophetic ministry, back in chapter 1, is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). How do you know when it is time to destroy, or when it is time to build? Jeremiah’s message was contrarian, so perhaps we should slow down enough to resist our initial impulse. A healthy posture toward culture requires discernment and engagement, critique and transformation, humility and grace. Jesus, while praying for us, his disciples, said to his Father, “They do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world. . . . As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:14-19).

Our calling is to live Jesus’ mission. “For God so loved the world that he sent his Son” (John 3:16). We are called to love the world, without belonging to the world. We are called to “seek the shalom of the city” for in its shalom we will find our shalom.

How does this translate into daily life?

We worship at the edge of a great city, 5 blocks from the municipal boundary. It is easy for folks to live in fear of the city, the encroaching urban problems, the expanding diversity. We read one more story about problems in the schools or violence on the streets; we shake our heads; we sense our exile; but we don’t pray for the city.

“Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” Our district superintendent is asking all the churches in the city – not just the United Methodist ones – along with churches like ours that are on the border, to actively seek the shalom of the city. And that begins with prayer, with seeking the heart of God and sharing the love of God.

Jeremiah’s words are a call to me as well. It’s much easier for me to talk about the problems of the city than to pray for the city. Talking about problems is “just talk”, but prayer has a way of taking action that is unpredictable, prayer has a way of involving us in its own answer.

Even so, I invite you to risk your prayers, to add our city, and our neighborhood here, to your prayers on a daily basis. Pray for local officials, housing, jobs, health care, schools. Pray for teachers, coaches, law enforcement, business owners. Pray for churches and community organizations. Pray to be sent in the love of God for our city and neighborhood. Pray daily.

Jeremiah the contrarian prophet offers some difficult challenges to the community in exile. He doesn’t stop with challenge; he includes promise as well. He does tell them that Babylon’s time will be “up” – in 70 years; beyond that, he doesn’t say much about vengeance. He does tell them that they will get their homecoming. But when he speaks about the homecoming, it is not just to the homeland, it is home to the heart of God.

“Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me. . . .” The promise is beautiful, and it is linked to the challenge. It is in exile, it is here and now, that we learn to pray the prayers that reach the heart of God. It is in exile, here and now, that we build homes, plant gardens, start families, multiply . . . and find God. It is in exile, here and now, that we pray for the city, and God hears.

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