Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Life in Exile” Jer. 29:1, 4-7
We all know how it feels to live in exile. Our beloved ones die. We labor in stressful, unfulfilling jobs. Our marriages are fraught. We can’t remember things like we used to. Our kids think we are the enemy. The doctor gives us health news that we do not want to hear. The COVID crisis sweeps across the world, cuts us off from normalcy, and fills us with anxiety. The evening news prompts fear and foreboding. We all know how it feels to sojourn in a time and place that feels far from the promised land.
The Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, were well-versed in exile. The armies of Babylon had overrun their promised land, like locusts swarming out of the north to devour everything in their path. They laid siege to Jerusalem, waiting for hunger to bring the city to its knees. When Jerusalem finally fell, the dead lay in the streets, too many to be counted. The Babylonians pulled down the city walls, sacked the palace, and burned the Temple, making off with the material wealth of the kingdom. Then, they plucked up the human wealth, conscripting everybody who was anybody, the royal court, elders, priests, artisans, and metal smiths and forcing them into exile. 500 miles across the desert, the Israelites marched a trail of tears to the capitol of Babylon. The survivors colonized the ghetto of Tel Abib and wondered what to do next. Babylon was a land they had always despised. They never dreamed that one day it would be home.
Life in exile doesn’t feel good. Our grief threatens to swallow us up. Our frustration and anger can explode with little warning. We take things out on others, or we take it out on ourselves with endless recrimination and critique. We fear that things will never get better—maybe things will get worse. We feel alone, alienated, and abandoned by those we have loved the most. In exile, we are existentially uncomfortable, cut off from better times and our better selves. We wrestle with despair. We ask, “Why me, God? Where are you, God?”
The people of Israel, exiled to Babylon, felt shell-shocked, bereft, and abandoned by God. They struggled with the terrible temptations that all exiles face. Some were tempted to despair, so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the best course of action seemed to be none at all – just give up, decline and disappear. Some were tempted to dissidence. Their hurt and anger were ready to explode in acts of violence against their Babylonian neighbors, even if that brought harsh reprisals and death. Others were tempted to assimilate, to give up their Israelite identities and become just like their captors, until no one was left who remembered the Torah or a faraway land that flowed with milk and honey.
Who can blame them? Because when life as we know it ends, when all our best dreams go up in smoke, when the rug gets pulled right out from under our feet, it’s only natural to give up, or act out, or opt out. It’s only natural to feel hopeless and angry and beaten. When we languish in the land of exile, we need help, holy help. We need hope that there is a better future, not a perfect future, but a tomorrow that feels a little safer and more meaningful than our today.
As the Israelites endured exile, Jeremiah was probably the last person from whom they expected a letter. For forty years, the prophet had warned them about the consequences of failing to love God and honor their neighbor. Back in Israel, they hadn’t liked Jeremiah. They had slapped him silly and bound him in stocks. They had thrown him in prison. They’d almost lynched him after his Temple sermon. Jeremiah was held in such low esteem in Israel that the Babylonians hadn’t even deemed him worthy of deportation. When Jeremiah’s messengers, Elassah and Gemariah, showed up in Tel Abib with a letter from the prophet, the Israelites must have thrown up their hands and said, “Now what, Jeremiah? A big ‘I told you so’?”
No one would have anticipated what Jeremiah really wrote: a message of comfort and reassurance from God Almighty, calling them to go about life as usual, even in exile. “Plant gardens, marry, have children, multiply and thrive, even pray for the peace of the strange city that you now call home. They could make a future, even in Babylon, because despite everything, God was still God. God loved them and would be with them. One day, exile would end and God would bring them home.
On this sabbath morning, perhaps we, who have felt exiled from better times and our better selves, can hear in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah God’s promise to us. We can dare to imagine that our grief may someday be tempered by the memory of love. Our work places can change or new opportunities emerge. Strained marriages can find healing and new ways forward. As memories fade, we can trust that others will remember for us and offer hands to help. One day, our kids will have kids of their own and develop a fresh appreciation for the hard choices and healthy limits that every parent must set. We learn to live with the new normal that the doctor prescribes. We remember that those who came before us lived with grace through pandemic and world war and economic roller coasters— and so will we. Jeremiah reminds us that we are not forgotten or alone. God is with us. We can do it. We can put one foot in front of the other and move ahead. Better days await.
Maybe Jeremiah’s letter got the Israelites thinking about all the other times when their ancestors sojourned in foreign lands without a future. Perhaps they remembered Abraham and Sarah, aging, childless, and “as good as dead” in the distant land of Haran. God had promised to make of them a multitude, as many as the stars in the sky. Maybe they thought of their ancestors groaning beneath Pharaoh’s yoke in Egypt. God had heard their cries and equipped Moses to bring them out of slavery and into that promised land. God had been faithful, and according to Jeremiah, God was faithful still.
So, the Israelites, languishing in the land of Babylon, found courage and took heart. They planted gardens and started businesses. They married and bore children. They found a fresh start in exile, even though it was the last place in the world that they had ever wanted to be.
Let me be your Jeremiah, my friends. Life in exile is crummy. There is no getting around it. But we can endure. Our lives have meaning and purpose. Change comes. The world turns. Dawn follows the dark night, even if it is the far brighter light of that far better shore. I am confident of those essential truths because God so loves us that God would choose to endure exile for our sake. God would take flesh and live among us with healing, compassion, and self-sacrificing love in Jesus of Nazareth. And when the world had done its utmost to exile Jesus, to cut him off from all that was good and merciful and kind, a new day dawned, the stone rolled away, and Jesus rose. And in that rising we trust that we, too, shall rise, and our times of exile will come to an end. For thus says the Lord God of hosts.
Richard W. Nysse. “Commentary on Jer. 29:1, 4-7” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 9, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Jer. 29:1, 4-7” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Terence E. Fretheim. “Exegetical Perspective on Jer. 29:1, 2-7” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
29These 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. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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.