A Time to Plant and to Build

Jeremiah 29:4-13
October 6, 2019
Matt Goodale

In our text today, Jeremiah addresses a letter to the exiles in Babylon. His words bring them unexpected news. His message is the last thing they expect or want to hear. Speaking as God Almighty’s prophet, he delivers no announcement of imminent deliverance; in fact, he gives no announcement of deliverance at all. Instead, he tells the exiles to put down roots in the foreign place they now reside; he instructs them to build houses, plant gardens, marry and have families, pray for the welfare of their new city, Babylon. They are to settle in and make the most of their time in exile because they will be there for the long haul. This is not the news the exiles had hoped to get from God’s prophet!

Israel was taken into exile in 587 BC. Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians – the world superpower at the time – and many of the people, including all of their leaders were taken captive and marched 700 miles across the Middle Eastern desert into exile. The people were uprooted from the place they were born. The land promised to them by God, the land they had inhabited for centuries, which they had built upon and poured their sweat and blood into, was violently seized from them. They were gathered together and marched against their will to a foreign land, Babylon. 

In their new land, Babylon, the customs were strange, the language incomprehensible, the religion and landscape are new and peculiar. All their comforts and familiar parts of life– their home, their food, their temple, their landmarks – are gone. They’re in a place they don’t want to be, surrounded by people they don’t want to be around, and they wonder whether or when God will intervene. They wonder if they’ve been abandoned by their God who promised to take care of them. 

Israel’s exile was a violent and extreme form of what we all experience from time to time. Inner experiences of exile take place even if we never move from the street we grew up on. At birth we are exiled from the womb into the harsh and strange environments of our world. As children we are all exiled from our homes as we enter into the stressful and demanding world of school. Just as we are getting the hang of school as a way of life, we are exiled into the working world where we must learn to make money and survive as best we can. 

These experiences of exile, both major and minor, continue through changes in our society, changes in government, changes in our bodies, our emotions, our families and marriages. We are just getting used to one set of circumstances when we are forced to face a new set. The exile experienced by the Israelites is a macro scale of the minor and major exiles we all experience simply by being alive. Repeatedly, life throws us curveballs and we find ourselves ripped from our comfortable and familiar ways of living; we no longer feel at home. 

The essential meaning of exile is that we find ourselves where we don’t want to be. Something happens that dislocates us from our preferred or normal ways of living. Illness. Job loss. Accident. Depression. Retirement. Divorce. Death of a loved one. The reality of our lives are rearranged without anyone asking our permission. Our life no longer looks the way we wish it did; it feels disjointed; we are in unfamiliar and uncharted territory; we long for things to return to normal or to return to the way they used be. We are no longer at home. 

But the very strangeness of exile can open up new reality to us. The foreign, disorienting nature of exile can jar us from the false and self-absorbed ways we often try to live. Exile, if we let it, has this ability to peel back the many layers, comforts and routines we build into our life and that we often mistake for being a true and genuine life. An accident, a tragedy, a disaster of any kind can force the realization that the world is not predictable, that reality is far more extensive than our habitual perception of it. Exile, if we let it, has this ability to reveal to us what really matters and frees us to pursue what really matters. Because it is in exile that we most clearly encounter the Living God and are invited into a new way of life – an abundant life that is faithful and courageously human.

The reason for Israel’s exile is clear enough from the text: Jeremiah and the other prophets had preached for centuries that Israel’s security was dependent on a certain type of faithfulness towards God. The people scorned this message and continued to mistreat and ignore the poor and vulnerable of their society; they did not worship God. And so one day the Babylonians show up, conquer Jerusalem and deport a number of citizens to Babylonian exile, leaving the rest behind to serve a puppet king left in power by the Babylonians. 

And how did these people in exile feel? How did they respond to the reality that their entire life has been turned upside down against their will? How did they respond to being uprooted and everything familiar to them left behind? If we imagine ourselves in a similar situation, uprooted and dislocated by a tragedy, an accident, a job loss, a death, then we likely will not be far from the truth. 

As Eugene Peterson aptly writes, their experience can be expressed in a complaint: “A terrible thing has happened to us. And it’s not fair. I know we weren’t perfect, but we were no worse than the rest of them. And here we end up in this Babylonian desert while our friends are carrying on life as usual in Jerusalem. Why us? We can’t understand the language; we don’t like the food; the manners of the Babylonians are boorish; the schools are substandard; there are no decent places to worship; the plains are barren; the weather is atrociously hot; the temples are polluted with immorality; everyone speaks with an accent.” (Eugene Peterson)

Those in Babylonian exile complained bitterly about their new circumstances they were forced to live in; they longed to return to Jerusalem. They wallowed in self-pity.

We can all understand their complaint; we can all understand their self-pity. We might even say it’s justified! We’ve had these same thoughts, these same complaints. God, why me? Why did this happen? I can’t stand this new life I’ve been forced into; it’s not fair.

The problem for the Israelites in Babylonian exile was not in their complaints, but it was that they had religious leaders who nurtured their self-pity. Jeremiah gives us three of their names: Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemiah. These religious leaders, who claimed to be God’s prophets were at odds with Jeremiah. They called attention to the unfair plight of the exiles. They claimed that exile would not last long. How can it? Not one of us deserves such a life, they said. Just hang on a bit longer. Say these prayers, go through this five-step program, read this book and exile will be over before you know it. You won’t be here for long. These prophets described dreams, God-given they claimed, that exile would end soon.

As Peterson writes in his book on Jeremiah: “These three prophets made a good living fomenting discontent and merchandising nostalgia. But their messages and dreams, besides being false, were destructive. False dreams interfere with honest living.” (Peterson)

Because if the people thought they were going home soon, if they thought their exile would be short-lived, then there was no reason to engage in faithful committed work in Babylon. If there was a good chance they would get back all they lost, then there was no reason to develop a life of richness or depth in the place they lived. There was no need to invest in healthy relationships, because they would be back home soon. There was no need to live intentionally in Babylon because it was only temporary. The prophets manipulated the self-pity of those in exile, promising them false dreams and fantasies of a normal life that would soon return. The people, glad for a religious excuse to be lazy, lived irresponsibly, unintentionally and without any richness or depth to their lives.

And then, one day a letter arrives to the exiles from Jeremiah. It is unexpected news. Jeremiah writes: “This is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and make yourselves at home. Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children…Work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being…Don’t let all those so-called preachers who are all over the place take you in with their lies.’” You will be in exile for awhile – seventy years to be exact – so you should make the most of your time there.

Jeremiah’s message would have dropped jaws and turned heads. You want us to what? To build houses and plant gardens? To marry and work? Here in Babylon!? In exile!?

Jeremiah’s message is a rebuke and an invitation. Jeremiah challenges those in exile: “Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves. The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible – to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love. You didn’t do it when you were in Jerusalem. Why don’t you try doing it here, in Babylon?” (Peterson). Don’t just live in order to get through life, waiting for some miraculous intervention. Yes, you can pray for a miracle, but that doesn’t get you off the hook from living a faithful life where you are in exile. You only get one life, and exile may be your only reality for days, months or years of that life, but will you choose to throw it away, or will you seek out the good where you’re at; will you seek to plant roots and live a life of depth, texture and richness? 

As Peterson writes: “The only place you have to be human is right where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment.” These are the only opportunities you have to live by faith.

Jeremiah’s message to the exiles is one that we all desperately need to hear. We live in a culture obsessed with quick-fixes. We hate exile and will do whatever we can to avoid it. If we don’t like a job, we get a new one. If we don’t like our house, we buy a different one. If we don’t like our spouse, we get divorced. If we don’t like our life at the moment, then we seek out escapes and addictions. We try ten-step programs, new diets, new cars, anything we can get our hands on to help us endure the unhappy and unfulfilled life we are living. As Americans, most of us have lost the ability to be courageously human in the midst of exile. 

Exile, or being where we do not want to be in life, forces a decision: Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself? Or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself right now? It is much easier to focus on problems than it is to live a meaningful life. Daily we are faced with decisions about how we will respond to our exile conditions. Will we live based on what we don’t have, or based on what we do have?  We’re only given one life. I’d be interested to take a poll about what percentage of our lives we spend just trying to make it through. What percentage of our life do we spent merely surviving when we could be learning to thrive?

Jeremiah is rebuking the exiles for squandering their lives, for refusing to explore what faithful living in Babylon looks like. But in the core of his message is also invitation and promise. The core of God’s promise to the Israelites in exile was this: “I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me you’ll find me.” (The Message)

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most quoted Scripture verses: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I also think Jeremiah 29:11 is arguably the most misquoted verse in Scripture. This promise of God is usually taken and twisted into supporting a Christian fantasy life, one that is supposed to be perfect and blessed and beautiful all the time. This verse is used too often to encourage people to just wait and hang on until your life is blessed again. It won’t be long, because God’s plan for you can’t possibly involve exile. However, in context, this message is a promise to the people that God will be with them even and especially in their exile! Exile is not outside of the bounds of God’s grace or God’s plan. This promise is an encouragement to us that the exile experiences in our lives are not a waste. They are not beside the point. God has promised that all of it will be redeemed; all of it will be used in God’s masterplan for the restoration and renewal of our lives. 

Now, I want to make it clear that I do not believe God relishes in our exile experiences; I believe God weeps with us when we weep and hurts with us when we hurt. But Jeremiah invites us into a new way of living in exile. A new way of facing the exile experiences of our lives in such a way that we can find depth, richness and texture even in the face of undesirable circumstances. We have a choice to be faithful with the life we’ve been given, no matter the circumstances, or we can waste it away, waiting for it to get better.

And amazingly, this period of Babylonian exile was the most creative period in Israelite history. It was in exile that the Old Testament Scriptures we have in our Bibles were compiled, edited and embraced. The Israelites did not lose their identity in exile. They found it. They learned to pray and engage God in more profound and deeply meaningful ways than ever before. 

Exile has this way of peeling away our false ways of living that are revealed to be pretty self-absorbed. Exile jars us from our false dreams, our false ways of trying to be human. And it is in exile that we encounter the Living God and are invited into a new way of life –an abundant life that is able to be faithful and courageously human in all circumstances of life.

To be human is not run away from exile, but to seek God in the midst of it. To be human is to be fully alive, to live intentionally and faithfully with all of our life – not just the good parts. 

All of us are given moments, days, months, years of exile. Some of us may be living in exile right now. What will we do with this time we are in exile? What would it look like for us to be God’s people in the places we don’t want to be? There is life and grace to be found in exile. Are you courageous enough to go looking for it? Are you courageous enough to seek God in the places you don’t want to be? Friends, let us live more intentionally, more faithfully where we are at, no matter the circumstances, trusting that God is present with us in exile, shaping us and molding us into a people of faith. Amen.