Part of the Series “What Christians Do”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7 CEB • The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem. The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
There’s a reason landlords charge a security deposit when you sign a lease. It’s the same reason that your RA’s make you RIF out at the end of a semester. Property owners know that when people lease or stay in a property temporarily they do not treat it quite the same way as property they might own. There is, let’s say, not the same degree of care. And so whether one of your roommates decides to try to hang a hammock in your suiteroom in walls that cannot quite take that load, or your housemate inadvertently punches a hole in the wall at a house party, there’s likely to be damages inflicted on property that would never happen in a place you actually had to maintain yourself.
How we treat a place depends an awful lot on whether we perceive it as our home or as somewhere we’re just passing through.
This is what lies behind the Jeremiah’s letter that we read earlier.
In the early Sixth Century BC, the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, eventually securing its capture. After the Babylonians took the city, they deported the leadership classes of the city into Exile in Babylon. It was to this group of deportees that Jeremiah writes:
The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
Jeremiah makes it clear to the exiles: you may be in Babylon, but make no mistake—for the foreseeable future, you’re home. Treat it like home. Build houses. Settle down. Cultivate gardens and eat their produce. Get married, have kids. In these last instructions there is even an echo of the very first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Jewish exiles in Babylon are to continue along as God has commanded from the very beginning. The people are to continue to live their lives in Babylon in hope, as they would have back in the land.
But then the final instruction really cements the whole message: “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”
Promote the welfare of the city and pray to the Lord for it. Your future depends on its welfare. This is more than just a continuation of prior expectations; this is a declaration that they are not just located in a new place, they are connected to that new place. The welfare of the city they have been sent to is their welfare. Their future is connected with the place they have been sent into exile. They are a part of that place. It is home for them.
A few years later, when Judah rebels against the Babylonian Empire and the Babylonians destroy the temple, raze the city, and deport almost the entire population into exile, these words from Jeremiah would ring no less true. This is your home. Live in it fully and seek its welfare.
III. OUR HOME
Jeremiah’s letter is an important lesson for us today. It speaks to the way a lot of Christians treat the world: we’re just passing through, let’s trash the place. There is a sense among a number of Christians that as nice as the earth is, it isn’t our home.
Consider the popularity of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” that speaks of flying away to a “home” in heaven, of this life as “shadows,” and this world described in the metaphor of a prison. We speak of dying as “going home” and even call funeral services as “Homecoming” services or some similar term.
Some Christians behave in ways that suggest that we are just renters, and not dwelling in our home. In fact, we once had a Secretary of the Interior in this country who argued that there was little point to environmentalism because Jesus was coming soon and the world would end anyway. So, party on.
In recent years, we’ve seen more Christians talking about the Rapture, despite its lack of support in the Scriptures and the teaching of the church. The very idea of the Rapture encourages a belief in escapism from this world and looks toward rescue on some other plane of existence.
We see so many in the church focusing on Christian faith as a guarantee of getting into heaven after death, of avoiding hellfire and damnation, as a kind of “fire insurance.” It seems that for a great many Christians, our Christian faith is focused on the next life, on life after death, on the spiritual realm, rather than on this life, on life before death, and the material world.
So much of this thinking takes away its focus from the world of the here and now. It encourages complacency and an indifference to the world we live in, for it is not our home, not where we are meant to be. It promotes a decline in social justice, serving the poor, and in stewardship of the creation: precisely those things we are called to do throughout scripture.
Now, Christians will point to verses in scripture that remind us that we are not “of the world” or that talk about us being “pilgrims” in the world or to put our minds not on “things of the world.” But these verses have more to do with our loyalties—to God first; to king, country, money, power, etc., second—than with our essential nature or with where the focus of our energy and work should be. In fact, whenever early Christian communities got it in their head that Christian faith was all about the next life, someone—usually Paul—would rebuke them by reminding them that they were getting ahead of themselves and had lost proper focus on the important work of the gospel.
Christians are supposed to serve the world—the world that God so loves—not to withdraw from it. And yet, for so many of us, the world is not our “home,” in fact, it is not even a place that God wants us to focus our time and energy on. One Christian “leader” even argued that to work for social justice was to “prop up the Kingdom of Satan” since the world was not the Kingdom of God and was not worth saving. We’re not from here, anyway; we’re just passing through.
Jeremiah’s letter teaches us otherwise.
IV. WHERE WE’RE FROM
The Babylonian Exile was a major catastrophe for the Jewish people, to be sure. Their holy city, their temple, their line of kings descended from King David, their connection to the land promised to Abraham—all were destroyed. Psalm 137 records the taunts of the Babylonians to the Jews asking them to sing “one of the ‘Songs of Zion’”—mocking them to sing some songs about Jerusalem as they languish “by the rivers of Babylon.” The Psalmist laments: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
But sing that song they would. Scholars will frequently claim that Judaism as we know it really developed in the Babylonian Exile. That the religion of Israel prior to the Exile was transformed. That it took what had been a national God and came to understand that God as the God of the whole world. A God who was not left behind in Jerusalem in the ruins of the temple, but who was with them even now in exile in Babylon. God’s divine presence, God’s sh’khinah, was everywhere.
What this means is that even if somehow we were in exile, even if against all sense and reason we were not from this world, even if some other plane of existence were our home, it still wouldn’t matter. God is here.
Throughout the salvation history in the scriptures, from the Creation of the world—a world declared by God to be “good”—to God’s walking in the Garden of Eden, to God appearing to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, to God coming before the Children of Israel in fire and cloud through the Exodus, to God appearing to Isaiah in the Temple, to God going with the people into Exile, to God coming to us as one of us, to declaring that in the end God will remake and resurrect the world and dwell with us in it, the tradition has been abundantly clear: God is present in and cares for this world. And so should we.
And we do that the same way that the Jewish exiles were called to do: to live our lives fully in it. To celebrate love and build human community. To plant gardens. And to seek the welfare of the place we find ourselves.
The task of a Christian is unmistakable: we are to share with the world the love of God for the world. We cannot be detached from it. We cannot extract ourselves from the cares of the world or from the needs of the world. In fact, meeting those needs and responding to those cares is at the heart of our mission as people of faith.
V. END—OUR FUTURE DEPENDS ON IT
Now, there’s one last thing about Jeremiah’s letter that needs to be looked at. At the end of the excerpt we read, “Pray to the Lord for [the city], because your future depends on its welfare.” In the New Revised Standard Version used in a lot of churches, that line reads, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Those are solid translations and certaintly capture the spirit of everything we’ve been talking about tonight. But the reality is that the original text says something more that either of those. In the original Hebrew the text says, “for in its shalom, there will be shalom for you.”
The Hebrew word שׁלוֹם shalom means “peace” but it means a lot more than that. The word comes from a root שׁ–ל–ם sh-l-m that means “wholeness” or “completeness.” The lesson is clear: the wholeness of the place where we live is essential to our own wholeness. We are not complete, we are not healthy, we are not whole unless the places where we live are.
That means we cannot withdraw from the world or ignores its needs and cares, for we are inextricably bound to the world and its cares. The world is us.
Now, I understand why some would be so jaded or disengaged with the world. Our politics alone is enough to disenchant some of us forever. But, it is simply not a Christian option to disengage with the world. As much as we’d like to just opt out and stand in cynical judgment of the entire corrupt system, we can’t.
There are times when we will feel like renters, strangers in a strange land, exiles in our own country. But it is where God is. And it is our home after all. And so we live fully. Love fully. We prepare for a future with hope. And we seek the wholeness of the place where we are; for in its wholeness we find our own.