Sermon: The welfare of the city

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
13th of October 2019

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Today’s sermon is a sequel to that of last week. To understand the radicalness of Jeremiah’s prescription for the exiled people of Jerusalem, we need to remember the anger and pain and outrage we heard last week in psalm 137: ‘Happy shall they be who take [Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Both the psalmist and the prophet Jeremiah are responding to the same event, the defeat of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonian Empire, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people. Today we are hearing ‘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’. So, some further context:

The prophecies that are collected in the Book of Jeremiah start with the prophet telling the people of Judah that if they change their ways Jerusalem will not be destroyed; through Jeremiah God says to them:

if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

But the people keep on their wicked ways, despite continual warnings. At one point the exasperated prophet reminds them: ‘For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened’. (Jeremiah 25:3) Finally, in 597 BC, the Babylonians defeated then-King Jehoiachin; deported him, his household, and some of the population of Judah to Babylon; and installed a puppet king in his place. Ten years’ later, in 587 BC, after that puppet king, Zedekiah, had rebelled, the Babylonians completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and deported more people to Babylon, eventually leaving only the poorest and the weakest in the desolate ruins.

jeremiah-sistine-chapel-lg-min

The prophecy we hear today was written between the first deportation in 597 and the second one in 587. It was written at a time when the people of Judah were split into two competing groups, one which followed the exiled King Jehoiachin in Babylon and one which followed the puppet King Zedekiah in Jerusalem. What both groups had in common was a belief that their exile would be brief, and that God’s people would quickly return to their land. There were several false prophets saying so, and pointing out that Jerusalem had not been destroyed nor the Temple razed. To these exiles, Jeremiah’s letter would have come as an extremely rude shock. But while Jeremiah tells them that the exile is not going to be over any time soon, and later in the letter speaks of it lasting seventy years, Jeremiah also reminds them that this exile of the people of God from the land God gave them does not mean that they are exiled from God. As all those who prophesised during the Babylonian exile, Isaiah and Ezekiel as well as Jeremiah, tell their people, God is not limited to a single land.

Last week we heard the anger and hatred the exiles felt towards the city to which they’d be deported. By the rivers of Babylon they sat, and wept, and longed for vengeance. Their hatred of their captors was so extreme that they dreamed wistfully of dashing their captors’ children against the rocks. In contrast, Jeremiah tells them that God wants them to seek the welfare, the shalom, of Babylon. The exile will last for generations, and they are not to spend those generations isolating themselves in an enclave, nursing their hatred against the Babylonians. Instead they are to intermarry with their captors: ‘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’. God told the first humans to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; now the exiles are to ‘multiply there, and do not decrease’ in Babylon. When God first gave the people of Israel their land, they found ‘a land with fine, large cities that [they] did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that [they] did not fill, hewn cisterns that [they] did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that [they] did not plant’. (Deuteronomy 6:1-11) Now they are to ‘build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce’ in a foreign land. What God, through Jeremiah, is telling the exiles to do not only challenges their ‘natural’ feelings of anger and hate, it rewrites their entire history as the people of God.

Maybe Jeremiah knew what modern social scientists have discovered; the best way to ensure the health and recovery of displaced people is by enabling them to live in mixed urban environments where they can interact with their hosts. Displaced people who live in isolated camps and who only mix with each other are less likely to trust other people or to build relationships with them. Work has been done with the Hutu displaced from Burundi in the 1990s. Two groups settled in Tanzania; one in a government-run camp in a remote area, isolated from Tanzanians; the other in an urban centre mixing with other groups. The Hutus in the isolated camp constructed a new nationalism that demonised the Tutsi and looked forward to a time when Burundi would be cleansed of them. Those who lived in the urban area, on the other hand, no longer identified only as refugees and were open to engagement with the wider Tanzanian population.[1] The division of refugees into different types of settlements to see how they adapt is the sort of experiment that would be completely unethical to set up, but since it happened unintentionally there is a lot that we can learn from it. The psalmist who cried out ‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!’ was probably living isolated from the people of Babylon in an ethnic enclave. An exile who had followed Jeremiah’s advice to intermarry, build a house, and plant a garden in Babylon was unlikely to have been looking forward to Babylon’s destruction.

Cities are not often considered a good thing in the Bible. The first city we know of was built by the murderer, Cain, (Genesis 4:18); then we hear of the building of the city and tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9); and the destruction of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). Bethlehem and Zion might have been called cities of David, but even over Jerusalem Jesus lamented: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Luke 13:3-4). Later, Jesus was killed ‘near the city’. (John 19:20) In the Book of Revelation we hear of ‘the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev 21:2) and it is because we are all looking forward to becoming citizens of that holy city that we are, to some extent, exiles in all earthly cities: ‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).

At one point in its history this congregation would have looked on the city of Melbourne with an equally unenthusiastic eye; surrounded as it was by opium dens, gambling houses, and with the city’s red-light district behind it in Little Lonsdale St.[2] It’s interesting that among the first suggested responses to the 1890s Depression during which the Wesley Central Mission was founded was the ‘Village Settlements Association,’ a ‘back to the land’ movement that wanted to move the urban unemployed away from the city into jobs in rural agriculture.[3]

With such a negative attitude towards the city in the Bible and in history it is no wonder that mission to the city has often been thought of as ‘taking God to the city’ – as though God was absent until we arrived. The exiles to whom Jeremiah is writing had a much better excuse than we do to have thought that. They genuinely did have to wonder whether they could still worship God while in exile from the land God had given them, no longer ruled by the kings God had appointed, and unable to make sacrifices in God’s Temple. Jeremiah reassures them that they can; and that not only can they still worship God in Babylon, they are to pray to the Lord on Babylon’s behalf when they do so. The city is not a god-forsaken place from which they should flee, or a god-forsaken mission field to which they need to take God. It is a city in which God is present, and in its shalom they will find their own.

Wesley

In a couple of months, hopefully, this congregation will move back into the church building. You are probably glad that your ancestors did not take the advice of London West End Mission minister Mark Guy Pearse when he visited in the 1880s, which was to burn the church down and build a hall in its place because the working classes would never attend worship in a church building.[4] Given that no congregation here has ever burned the church down, you have the same mission as all those who have gone before you; to use that magnificent bluestone building to worship God and serve the people of Melbourne. I am going to look forward to seeing what you do. The one piece of advice I would like to give you on this, my final Sunday, is to remember the words of Jeremiah: ‘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’. God has brought you here; God is already at work here; and in the shalom of this amazing, beautiful, challenging city of Melbourne, you will find your shalom. Amen.

[1] C. A. Strine, ‘Embracing Asylum Seekers and Refugees: Jeremiah 29 as Foundation for a Christian Theology of Migration and Integration,’ Political Theology (2018) vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 482-3.

[2] Renate Howe and Shurlee Swain, The Challenge of the City: The Centenary History of Wesley Central Mission 1893-1993 (South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1993), p. 1.

[3] The Challenge of the City, p. 12.

[4] The Challenge of the City, p. 7.

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