Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
9th of October 2022
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
As you will undoubtedly remember (because you have been chewing over it all week) I ended last week’s Reflection by saying:
The world is a place of inordinate beauty, filled with the grace of God. The world is also a place of terror, in which wars kill the innocent, children starve, refugees become fugitives and wanderers. The Scriptures do not speak only of the gentle, loving, sunny side of life; they are honest about violence and pain.
At the heart of both Judaism and Christianity are despair and hope, vulnerability and promise, exile and return, crucifixion and resurrection. Last week’s readings from the Book of Lamentations and the Psalter dwelt in the despair that came from God’s judgement on Jerusalem through the Babylonian Exile. We know that that exile was not the end of Israel’s story, any more than Jesus’ story ended on the cross. The exiles will return, the city and the temple will be rebuilt, just as Jesus was raised from the dead – but we are not there yet. With today’s reading from the prophecies of Jeremiah we find ourselves in the equivalent of Holy Saturday, a time of waiting, of dwelling in-between. The prophet Jeremiah has written a letter 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, to tell them how to live in the space between exile and return.
The prophecies that are collected in the Book of Jeremiah start with the prophet telling the people of Judah that because they have turned away from the Lord and ignored the needs of the widows, orphans, and aliens among them, they will be punished. God accuses the people of Jerusalem of having ‘become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy’. (Jeremiah 5:25-28) They have destroyed the ‘social safety net’ commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy, the ‘welfare system’ that was appropriate to a modest farming economy. Yet if they change their ways, Jeremiah promises, Jerusalem need not be destroyed:
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 … I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened’! (Jeremiah 25:3) Finally, in 597 BC the Babylonians defeat King Jehoiachin; deport him, his household, and some of the population of Judah to Babylon; and install a puppet king in his place. Ten years later, in 587 BC, after the puppet king Zedekiah rebels, the Babylonians destroy the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and deport more people to Babylon, eventually leaving only the poorest and the weakest in the desolate ruins.
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. Several false prophets were 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 a 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 prophesied 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 been 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.
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). 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)
With such a negative attitude towards the city in the Bible, it is no wonder that Christian missions to cities have been thought of as ‘taking God to the city’ – as though God was absent until we arrived. This contrasts with the religious attitude to rural and remote locations, the bush, the sea, the outback, to which people frequently journey to ‘get in touch with God’. 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.
While we live of course after the resurrection, after the joy and surprise and newness of God raising Jesus from the dead, and we celebrate that on every single Sunday, in many ways we are living in exile, through Holy Saturday. I have talked before about the fact that Christians in Australia are no longer living at the centre of society, that churches are no longer powerful institutions to which politicians and the media defer, that we must get used to a new life on the margins. This is exactly the situation of the exiles, and in today’s reading Jeremiah warns them that they must get used to marginalisation, because there will be no quick return to the way things used to be. And so in their exile and marginalisation, the Lord tells them, they are to: ‘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’. In our exile and marginalisation we need to do the same things. God has brought us here; God is already at work here; and in the shalom of our amazing, beautiful, challenging city of Melbourne, and our diverse, multicultural, multifaith, and ‘no religion’ Australia we will find our own shalom. So let us serve this city and the people among whom we live, in all the ways that we can. Amen.