Saturday, October 15, 2016

In Unexpected Places

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7
Probably each one of us can remember a time when you received some unexpected news.  A friend that you haven’t seen in ages just sent you a text saying that she is in town for the weekend and would love to see you.  Or perhaps your cell phone rings and your boss tells you that you’re being honored for your outstanding work in your field of expertise.  Or maybe, just maybe your daughter in law comes to pick you up for a ‘girls day out’ and she tells you that she and your son are expecting a baby for the very first time. 

We’ve all been there; we’ve all received unexpected news that has knocked the socks right off of your feet or made you squeal with delight.  The memory of those moments probably still, to this day, brings a smile to your face and warms your heart when you think back. 

There is also another kind of unexpected news that you hope you never will receive.  This is the kind of news the breaks your heart.  Surely you think it’s not happening to me or this can’t be for real but there is no mistaking it.  This kind of unexpected news leaves you reeling. There is only profound disappointment, terrible sadness, hopelessness and despair.  I’m sure you can all imagine what that kind of unexpected news might be like or maybe you’ve even received that sullen kind of news.

Back in Jerusalem the prophet Hananiah was prophesying the first kind of news to the people of Israel who had been exiled to Babylon.  ‘Yeah’, he says, ‘you’re going to be back home once again in two years – tops!’  And of course people clamored for his word and unrestrained optimism.  Why wouldn’t they want to shake off the chains of their captivity and oppressors and go home, sweet home? 

Remember two weeks ago we looked at Psalm 137?  They lamented being in captivity and were being tormented to ‘sing one of the song’s of Zion’ when all they wanted to do was to go back home.  So Hananiah’s prophesy would have been, for them, like winning the lottery of hope.  It would have been that pin dot of light in a very murky place, that first ribbon of light as the morning sun begins to pierce a very dark and bad night. 

But you see, Hananiah was a false prophet.  He promised that Israel would be great again and go home, but it wasn’t the truth.  And so the prophet Jeremiah, sent by God, is the one who would tell them the truth and comfort them in their disappointment.

Hear now the words of the prophet Jeremiah, the 29th chapter.     

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.

Now first some historical context.  If you were to take a look at a Biblical timeline that aligns the external and internal political movements of the Ancient Near East alongside of the prophetic collections of such as Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the rest in Judah (Israel) at the time, you will be quite surprised to see that prophets, those called by God to speak on behalf of God, were the busiest during times of geopolitical unrest.  Such is the case with the prophet Jeremiah. 

Jeremiah was from the Southern kingdom of Judah; the Northern kingdom Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians 100 years earlier.  Judah becomes a vassal state of Assyria and then Assyria’s last powerful king, dies.  The Assyrian empire falls as does Judah after some unsuccessful revolts and reforms and Babylonia finally conquers most of the Ancient Near East.  That part of the world has never known true and everlasting peace. 

In 597 BCE Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people were taken into exile in Babylonia.  So this is the political context that Jeremiah faced.  It was not a particularly happy time. In fact, it was rather unsettling.

And then, “Thus says the Lord” to Jeremiah once again – sit down…write a letter….send it to the elders and priests who are in exile.  In your letter instruct them to settle down, do what they’d normally do at home that is to build houses, have children, plant gardens so you can feed yourselves, go to the market, start business’, in fact just carry on with your lives, it’s going to be a long time before you can go home.  This letter must have been a jolt to them.

And to top it all off, to add insult to injury, they are to pray for the welfare of Babylonia and in that way they would find their own welfare.    

I can imagine them saying, ‘Really God?’  We’re in this forsaken place, this unexpected and unwanted predicament and you want us to ‘settle and bloom where we’ve been planted’?  You want us to make this place our home?  How long will this humiliating experience continue?  What are we to do in this heathen place?  And what??? You want us to pray for these people who took us captive.  Well that’s just plain bizarre and cruel and counterintuitive to our very souls. 

But yes.  That is exactly what they are to do.

Sometimes the unexpected happens to us, like the Israelites, and we find ourselves in that exilic place, it’s that place that is so foreign, so strange and unfamiliar that we can hardly understand what is going on, or who we are anymore or even recognize our surroundings.  

It could have 40 years ago and you had no control over your circumstances or it could have been just yesterday receiving unexpected news that put a halt to the world you once knew and transported you to a new and uncharted territory.  We have these trauma splintered lives; no one really is exempt from suffering or pain, it’s a part of human existence.  And, my friends, unfortunately there are no quick fixes.

Jeremiah knew that. So in his message he encouraged the people to embrace this place where God had put them and to find ways to be faithful and heal.  Jeremiah knew that their future depended on the acceptance of their present reality.  The challenge for you and me is how to conduct ourselves in the present in order to live into the future when you don’t know exactly what that future will hold.  It is to accept the reality for what it is, no matter how stinky it might be because in that acceptance you find your footing once again and you can begin to find healing, strength, salvation, and transformation.

The people of Israel did just that.  They accepted their reality and settled in, built lives and, as a faithful people, they prayed to God.  And God was with them; God was with them when they went into exile and when they finally emerged so many years later.  God never left them but encouraged them to pray for the welfare of all and in doing so they would find their healing.  A few short verses later God says to them,  ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope….I will restore your fortunes and…I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you.’  And so it happened.

God is with you always.  No matter where you may find yourself, God is there. It was the Psalmist who said ‘If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.’  Even though you may think otherwise, in your unexpected places God is always beside you working towards bringing you home.


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