Presence in the Exiled Places

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This post is from a recent sermon at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, based on Jeremiah 29:1-14. A written manuscript is below, and a recording is above.

This morning, our scripture comes from the Book of Jeremiah, and I’d like to put it in some context before we hear it.  Jeremiah is a large book in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it contains the words and teachings of its namesake, Jeremiah, who was one of the major prophets in the 6th century BC.  Early on in the book, Jeremiah experiences a deep sense of call, and he’s sent to speak words of God to people who are experiencing an absolute crisis.

It was a physical crisis. At this point in Jeremiah’s story, the King, the queen mother, the court officials, the artisans and skilled workers — basically, all of the people with clout or leadership or responsibility in Israel’s Kingdom of Judah — were captured in war by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  Babylon was the world power of the time, and the people of Judah were uprooted and taken to live in Babylon in exile. All of this happened in 597 BC.  But the worst was actually yet to come.  In 586 BC, Babylon came back for rest of the people who were left behind.  They destroyed Jerusalem, the temple of God was burned to the ground, and others were taken into captivity.

All of this was a spiritual crisis too.  The exiled leaders and the people left behind in Judah found themselves grappling with this terrible reality, wondering if God had completely abandoned them.  How could this possibly happen?  The audience of this book knew a level of fear, disappointment, and displacement that we can only begin to imagine.

So I want to frame our reading today with that history.  And now I invite us to listen, so we can hear God speaking to us today us through these words:

Jeremiah 29:1-14

Jeremiah wrote the exiled leaders an unexpected letter, and it wasn’t the one they wanted to hear. The letter was filled with unexpected challenges and instructions for the people.

It’s hard for me to imagine what their daily lives must have been like because we’re so distanced in time from that period of world history.  They were in a new, strange land – a place where people didn’t speak their language, where different gods were worshiped, where different customs were followed as if they were the only customs that existed, and where different foods were eaten. This would be hard for any of us, but they weren’t just world travelers on a vacation experiencing culture shock.  They weren’t even immigrants, though I imagine that today’s immigrants and refugees experience similar hardships like these.  They were prisoners of war who had been uprooted from their families and neighbors.  They lost their home — not just the physical home, though that’s true. They lost their entire way of life.  They weren’t just separated from their home. Their home now ceased to be. It was deeply unexpected and deeply unsettling.

And then they receive this unexpected letter, and it tells them to settle. Settle down? Here? In this place?  In this experience? How can you possibly tell us to do that?

That’s what Jeremiah tells them: “Thus says the Lord. . . 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.” Settle down in Babylon.  Be my people even there, God says.

I imagine it was heartbreaking to hear that news because the exiled leaders wanted to go home. And if they couldn’t return to what they lost, they at least wanted to rebuild. Instead, God tells them to rebuild home right where they are.

And then there’s this interesting phrase too: “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.”

Somehow, in a way they can’t understand, God is telling them that their welfare is still ahead of them, but it’s in a place they didn’t expect. It’s in a place they didn’t want. Jeremiah’s letter wasn’t the one they wanted to receive or hear or even believe, but amid the bad news, there is good news too: God is with them, caring for them, dreaming for them, and hoping for them. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” God will bring home to them – in worship, in community, in family, and generations, and someday – yes, someday – God will bring the exiles back to their own land.  They will rebuild home, and it will be different, and perhaps it will even flourish in unexpected ways because the exiles settled in a strange land and strange reality, because God found them there.  Yes, even there.

None of us have experienced what these exiles experienced 26 centuries ago, but we’re no strangers other forms of exile. Many of us have experienced situations of being uprooted and suddenly placed in a different reality, one we didn’t expect, and one we didn’t want. It came upon us, and we felt separated and distanced from what we once knew. When the tough diagnosis comes or when we age, we can easily feel exiled from our own bodies. . . When we immigrate to a different country, and our routines and ways of life change so dramatically, we can easily feel exiled from our own heritage. . . When the rejection letter comes. . . when the company downsizes. . . when the relationship ends. . . when the pregnancy take a difficult turn . . when unexpected violence turns our world upside down. . . we experience a sense of exile.

And the news we want is the news that things are going to return to what they once were.  But sometimes, that’s not the news we receive. Sometimes, we’re met with unexpected challenges, and it’s just not going to be possible. It makes sense to grieve and to grieve strongly –- to feel sadness, or anger, or confusion. We can give ourselves grace in that entire process, and we can be present to one another in that experience.

But there is good news in the unexpected news too: God is with us when we are exile. There is absolutely nothing we can do or feel that would take away God’s presence in our heartache. Because whether we know it or not, and whether we feel it or not, God is determined to be present with us.

This is what we believe about Jesus. We believe that God was so determined to be with us in our pain, that God became one of us in Jesus and lived among us. Jesus didn’t live in some ivory tower, separated from human suffering. Instead, he befriended the downtrodden, lived as a healer, and loved so deeply that it changed everything. And in Jesus, God even experienced death with us, even death on a cross.  God was present with us in death, our ultimate exile, and God’s presence in Jesus transformed it. Even death cannot separate us from God or from one another.

A question lingers for us today: Where is your place of exile, and how is God with you in that?  You might notice that Jeremiah never told the people that their exile was somehow good.  “Come on, get over it already, and move on! It wasn’t that bad. . .”  No, Jeremiah’s letter was much more profound than that, and the exile really was exile. It was unexpected and difficult. But God says, settle down into this experience – nurture it, nurture yourself and nurture one another in the midst of it – not because it is good, but because you will find me even there, because wherever you are in pain, I am with you there.  I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. God is with us and with you in exile. So build houses and plant gardens. Even there, God’s love changes everything.

Renee Roederer

[1] I found this image here. 

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