A letter from home

August 24th, 2019

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

The elders and priests were a little frantic yesterday as they anticipated the reading of the most recent letter from Jeremiah, who is still residing in Jerusalem. One of the younger elders mentioned how glad he is that Jeremiah won’t be acting out his “word from the Lord” as usual. You remember those crazy extremes he went to in order to warn us of the Babylonians? There was the time he wandered around town with a wooden yolk around his neck, forecasting imminent judgment—yeah, I know Hananiah broke it, but don’t forget that Jeremiah came back a little later with that massive, unbreakable iron yoke. Or how about that time when he was in prison—yeah, right in the midst of the Babylonian invasion—he actually purchased a field in Jerusalem. I know that was a symbolic and hopeful gesture, but that doesn’t mean he’s not crazy! Anyway, the elders and priests and other prophets are just relieved he’s not coming in person to act out some crazy prophecy, but one of the older elders, Eliaz, the one who lives at 234 Babylon Avenue, is actually going to read Jeremiah’s letter aloud this afternoon, in public. Personally, I can’t believe he’s going to read it in public, but I do really want to hear what the letter says. Maybe that whole field episode is finally coming true and we are going home. You’ve heard these prophets recently, assuring us of a speedy return to Jerusalem where we can restore true worship. I mean, seriously, can you believe the Lord has let us languish here this long? I’m tired of acting like I care what happens to these people or this place. What a disgrace!

Eliaz: Now, people, settle down. Settle down. I know how much you like to exercise your spiritual gift of murmuring, but we don’t want give the police or palace guards any reason to come down here and break up this little letter reading. Jeremiah is enough of an incendiary on his own, so we don’t need to do anything that could be taken as subversive. As many of you know, we received a letter from Jerusalem yesterday, and it was written by Jeremiah. Quiet. Quiet. Let me read the first few lines . . . then I’ll stop to see if you have any questions . . . then I’ll keep reading. Hear now . . .

the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to [us,] 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. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7)

There’s quite a bit more, but I’ll stop here first and field any questions you may have.

Voice 1: (Shouting from the back) Are you kidding me? You’re telling me that Jeremiah’s long-awaited advice is actually to think about making a family in this godforsaken place? How am I supposed to celebrate a marriage or enjoy the birth of a child . . . a grandchild . . . in captivity?

Voice 2: Yeah, I agree with him! Seriously, Eliaz, how can you stand up there and read this with a straight face? If this is Jeremiah’s advice, then I don’t want to hear anything else from him! Jeremiah doesn’t even live here! There is no way that Babylonian interests should have any place in my life or faith. I’d be the first to cheer if Babylon received a dose of its own domination medicine.

Reporter: Joel, Bethlehem-Star Telegram. My question is why would we want to build houses and help the economy of our enemies? Planting gardens makes it sound like we’re going to be here for a while. If I take a wife and have children, and my children have children, that would mean we’d be here for at least sixty or seventy years! Are you even sure this letter was written by Jeremiah? “Seek the welfare” of Babylon, “pray to the Lord on its behalf ”? What is this? Why aren’t any of the other prophets speaking like this?

Eliaz: Easy. Easy. Let’s slow down just a little here and try to listen to Jeremiah for a moment. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am just as surprised and confused as you, but we all know that this whole exilic life is new and unexpected. We’re still trying to figure out why we’re here and how we’re supposed to live while in exile. Now, I know that some of us are saying we’ll be back in the Promised Land very soon, but what if we’re not? What then? Jeremiah, it seems to me, is offering revolutionary answers to questions we’ve all been asking. How does life go on? Is the Lord still powerful and faithful? Is there any hope in this place? Where is God in all this? What I think Jeremiah means is that we need to accept exile and Babylon as part of God’s plan: this place, this city, this economy, these leaders. Looking too far ahead or wishing for some speedy departure will do us no good. And don’t forget that Jeremiah claims this is a word from the Lord, meaning that God’s word and provision reach all the way to Babylon, or wherever we find ourselves. Perhaps in the past we’ve grown too accustomed to an immobile God who is only active in a certain location in a certain way. Jeremiah appears to be challenging us to understand that God is mobile and mysterious and acts in ways we can’t always anticipate. I know life is frantic and foreign, but for the time being the best thing we’ve got is Jeremiah’s letter from home. Let’s read a little more. . . . Amen.

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