Like many churches today, Millwood Presbyterian is sorting out the rhythms of faithfulness in a rapidly changing culture. The words of Jeremiah 29, and the experiences of God's people that it describes, have been a helpful conversation partner for the church as we have been sorting out God's calling for us in this community.
The following is a sermon on Jeremiah 29, from November, 2004. It describes, as least in part, what we mean when we say "seeking the welfare of the city..."
Pastor Craig, November 2008
In 587BC the Babylonians over-ran Jerusalem and sent all the leaders and people of influence on a 700 mile journey to Babylon. They did not send everyone, instead as our passage highlights, they sent away the elders, prophets, and priests. The king and queen, the court officials and leaders, even the artisans and the metal workers were taken away.
Babylon is 80 miles south of modern day Baghdad and is today patrolled by US troops. I came across a headline that read, “Hammurabi the law-giver was here. So were Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Saddam Hussein and now, apparently, Sergeant Woods.” The article was on American graffiti amid the ancient ruins of Babylon.
"Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world," wrote Herodotus, the Greek historian, in the 400s BCE.
It’s likely that the leaders of Jerusalem were not exiled to the prominent capital of the empire. Although our translation has Jeremiah saying, "seek the welfare of the city," which might suggest the city of Babylon, alternate readings which are probably closer to the meaning say seek the welfare of the “nation”. This would certainly include the cities they find themselves in, but these cities are scattered around in desert places, not concentrated in the big city. They have gone from prominence to the middle of nowhere.
If you recall images of the Iraq war with soldiers in the middle of flat, wind swept desert, this is likely the kind of setting the exiles found themselves in.
It is these forsaken places that the exiles receive a letter from Jeremiah, who was allowed to stay behind in Jerusalem. This tells us a little bit about Jeremiah’s status in Jerusalem. He had persistently been prophesying that the Babylonians would invade Jerusalem, but no one listened to him. He was a dissenting voice without any power. He was so marginalized that the Babylonians did not bother taking him along with the other leaders.
Do not be deceived by false dreams
8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.
There were prophets among the people in Babylon who insisted that their hardship was short-term. They stirred discontent in the people false dreams, escape dreams, wait and see dreams. Shemaiah, Ahab, and others promised a quick return home. They said justice is right around the corner. They exacerbated the self-pity of the people.
As Eugene Peterson says, “False dreams interfere with honest living.” And that is exactly what was happening among the people. They resisted settling in. They protested, "Why us? The food is terrible, the people are boorish, the weather is hot." The last thing they wanted to do was accept their surroundings. They refused the accept the reality of their new surroundings, turning to the prophets who promised that it wouldn’t be long, God would deliver them. The harsh truth of their existence in Babylon is that is exactly where God wanted them.
I have sent…
4Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
God wanted them in Babylon to shake them from their half-hearted life in Jerusalem where they said all the right things but their hearts were divided and their devotion to God was convenient. They forgot how to blush? They heard Jeremiah’s rebukes while they were still in power in Jerusalem and they just didn’t get it. They were so entrenched in their captivity to Babylonians in the north and Egyptians in the south that they were blind to their wayward faith. God wanted them in Babylon to shake them from their self-sufficiencies so that they might rely on God afresh and anew.
Ironically, the time in exile was among the most fruitful seasons in the life of Israel. It was the time when they assembled the books of the Old Testament and standardized them. Without land they were required to rely on the story. This resulted in the most creative period in the entire sweep of Hebrew history. They did not lose their identity, they found it. The exile was the “crucible” of Israel’s faith.
Build, Plant, Marry, Seek the Welfare, Pray
Jeremiah, God’s true prophet was telling the people they should settle into this strange land and seek its welfare. Jeremiah’s word to them is that God has sent them into exile because of disobedience, and God will lead them into a new life out of this disaster. The time to start living into this new covenant is now, where you are planted.
I can just see the other prophets responding to Jeremiah’s letter. They would say, "Don’t listen to him. If we settle in here and accept this place, we will never get back to Jerusalem. We will be stuck here for the rest of our lives." It was the put your head in the sand approach. Or the put your fingers over your ears approach, while yelling, “I’m not listening.” They reacted by pulling away from their disastrous reality, seeing it as God forsaken and irredeemable.
Jeremiah on the other hand says to them, lean into these circumstances, seek God where you are at, it is in this place among these people that your will find your welfare.
Seeking God’s Shalom
Jeremiah calls them to enter faithfully into this new life in Bablyon, but it is not an accommodation, it is not on the Babylonians terms. They are to seek God’s agenda and rediscover God’s agenda. They couldn’t learn to pray in Jerusalem, so God says now in exile I want you to learn to pray, to seek the Shalom.
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.
I don’t usually get a chance to work through a sermon with members of the congregation before I preach, but this week I had a wonderful meeting asking what might Jeremiah’s letter mean to us today at Millwood Presbyterian. I met with a woman who has been in this church and in this Millwood community since the 1920’s. It was clear that things have changed a lot those 80+ years.
• Relationships Changed
She described the neighborhood and how it used to be that she knew every person and every family that lived up and down the streets near her home in Millwood. But she lamented that now things have changed. People come and go and now she can only name a few folks.
• People in Need:
She described that whereas before people’s lives seemed fairly stable, now people had a lot of needs in her midst. She described helping provide chairs for a funeral in a neighbors back yard and how people had trouble meeting their rent and disappeared in the middle of the night. She described children being left at home during the day because the parents were both working.
• People Disconnected from Faith, Church Dislocated from the Center:
She said that everyone used to go to church and the church used to be the center of the community. She lamented that Millwood Presbyterian Church is much smaller now than it was when we had 1700 members back in 1950’s.
As we talked and as themes started to emerge I realized that she in many ways was describing the experience of exile and dislocation. She had not gone anywhere. In fact it is only through her stability in staying in the same place that I became aware of how drastically the world has changed around her and our church. As we talked we reflected together on the experience of exiles in Jeremiah 29 who were dealing with the realities of being in a different world. We asked, how might Jeremiah’s words to the exiles help us to understand God’s call in our lives today.
This church has been around for over 80 years. In that time we have been on this same corner of the block and yet we find ourselves in a different neighborhood and world than the one we lived in 80 years ago.
• In 1950 the church was accepted as the center of the culture, today the church has been pushed to the margins of the culture we live in.
• In 1950 relationships were stable and consistent. Today they are unstable, coming and going. We’ve gone from a community ethic to an individualistic ethic.
• In 1950 we were a community of all young families, but today we are a community of diverse ages and backgrounds.
In our discussion we asked what we might have to learn from Jeremiah’s words to the exiles, if indeed we find ourselves in a kind of exile experience.
Walter Brueggeman suggests this very thing in his book, "Cadences of Home":
“The Old Testament experience of and reflection upon exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation in the US church…The usefulness of a metaphor for rereading our own context is that it is not claimed to be a one-on-one match to ‘reality’, as thought the metaphor of “exile” actually describes our situation. Rather a metaphor proceeds by having an odd, playful, and ill-fitting match to its reality, the purpose of which is to illuminate and evoke dimensions of reality which will otherwise go unnoticed and therefore unexperienced...Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural.”
There was a key moment in our conversation about our experiences. It was like we both reached the conclusion at the same time. We both said, “There is no going back.” We both realized that our future in faith and as a church was not to be found in returning to a day and a land gone by, but somehow embracing today and the land we find ourselves in.
Instead of leaning away from the needs of the people in the community we decided that we need to lean into the needs of the community, and seek the welfare of the city, knowing that in it we will discover our own welfare. Instead of being frozen in self-pity over what is lost, we have to be moving out in confidence that these are the circumstances in which God has called us. Instead of denying the changes, we have to embrace them, just as the exiles were called by Jeremiah to do – and to do it on God’s terms, knowing his plans for us are good and trustworthy.
Lesslie Newbigen says, “The real triumphs of the gospel have not been won when the church is strong in a worldly sense; they have been won when the church is faithful in the midst of weakness, contempt, and rejection”
Maybe Paul had something similar in mind when he says in Romans 5;
3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Two Kinds of Dreams
There is a scene in the last Lord of the Rings movie in which two home-sick Hobbits are in dire straights. They are facing enemies greater than they can imagine. They are stuck up against incalculable odds. In the midst of the stress and strain of being engaged in a great adventure against evil, one of them is overcome by the dream of home. It is an escape dream. He questions the others, “Why can’t we just go back to our quiet little Shire and be free of all of this madness.”
As he tries to seduce himself and the others with this comforting dream, he is interrupted by the reality as explained by one of his companions that if they do not engage in the great battle that is set before them, there will be no Shire to go back to. He is drawn back to the reality of the present. He is called into this great adventure, home-sick and homeless, uncomfortable and anxious, strangers in a strange land.
The other kind of Dream is the dream that plants us in our day and calls us to faithfulness and hope right now, right here. This is like the Dream Martin Luther King declared in his speech. The dream is a call to action. It is a call to personal responsibility and invitation to lay down roots and lean into our experiences of exile.
Have you been entertaining dreams of a different city, a different marriage, a different set of parents, a different career, a different church, a different community, some other place where the grass is greener.
Here we have an invitation to surrender those dreams and seek God in the midst of our lives.
As a church have we been tempted to hearken back to a day gone by, to a time that has passed, to a world that no longer exists?
We have choice. Which dream will we choose today?