If anyone had good reason to be hopeless, it was the Jewish people who made up the first and second waves of exiles in Babylon. In the year 605 BCE, Babylon defeated Egypt and became the region’s ruling power. They installed Jehoiakim as a puppet king in Jerusalem and took away captives, including the prophet Daniel.
Jehoiakim served as a vassal to Babylon for three years before he rebelled. He died in the year 597 BCE, and his son Jehoiachin took the throne. Three months later, Babylon responded to the rebellion his father had started. 2 Kings (24:14-16) describes what happened next: King Nebuchadnezzar “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house. He cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which King Solomon had made, as the Lord had foretold. He carried away…all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths. No one remained, except the poorest people of the land. King Jehoiachin gave himself up. He and his mother, his wives, his officials, and the elite of the land were all taken into captivity in Babylon.” The prophet Ezekiel was among them. The comfortable life, made possible by injustice and idolatry, was over, and now the people of Jerusalem were exiles in a land not their own.
Zedekiah was made king and ruled for nine years. Then, like his predecessors, he ignored God’s instructions to submit to Babylon and rebelled. Babylon responded. They built siegeworks and imprisoned Jerusalem inside for two years. Food supplies completely ran out; famine reigned. Zedekiah and his soldiers knocked a hole in the city walls and ran for their lives under the cover of darkness, with the Babylonians in hot pursuit. Zedekiah was captured as his deserting soldiers fled. Nebuchadnezzar passed sentence on Zedekiah: the slaughter of his sons was the last thing Zedekiah saw before his eyes were put out.
Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen entered the city of Jerusalem. They went into the temple and dismantled everything made of bronze, silver, and gold. Then, they burned the temple to the ground. They burned down the king’s palace and the great houses of the wealthy. They executed the chief priest and all the remaining temple officials, along with members of the royal court and the military who had remained behind to rally the people. They carried into exile nearly all the remaining people, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor to be vinedressers and farmers. If you’re having a hard time imagining this kind of destruction, just look at some photos of Syria today. If anyone had good reason to be hopeless, it was the poor who were left behind in their ruined and abandoned city.
Into this hopelessness, in Babylon and later in Jerusalem, stepped Jeremiah. Or, rather, God stepped into this hopelessness, speaking through Jeremiah. Jeremiah: who had heard the whispered words “terror is all around” as he walked the streets of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, who’s known as the “prophet of doom” and the “weeping prophet,” and whose name gave rise to a word meaning “an angry rant.” Through this Jeremiah, God speaks words of hope to hopeless people, in ancient times and today.
The words to the exiles in Babylon came in the form of a letter Jeremiah sent to Babylon on behalf of God. In it, God returns to the themes set out at the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry: it was the time to begin the planting which was to follow the plucking up. It was the time to begin the building which was to follow the pulling down. It was also the time to ignore the words of false prophets who said that the exile would quickly come to an end. No, this exile would last seventy years. So, God says, right there where you are, in the midst of a foreign country, far away from all you knew, “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.”
And that’s not all. While they’re making new lives for themselves, God tells them to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent them, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, because, God says, “in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Their building and planting should not include walls and hedges to keep out the new world they’re in. Instead, they are to make the well-being of their new world a part of their daily lives. This isn’t just a casual interest. “Seeking” implies diligence. They are to actually work toward what will benefit the people and the city they find themselves part of.
Sounds like a tall order for those ancient exiles, doesn’t it? It sounds like a tall order for us, too. We may not be physically exiled from the world we once knew, but the changes our world has gone through and is going through may make us feel like we’re in a foreign country. The norms and rules we grew up with, our expectations of how things ought to be, are all shifting. We’ve been confronted with how those norms and rules, spoken and unspoken, might have made life better for us but made life harder for others. We find ourselves in an alien land, and we long to return to the time when we could tune out the things that make us uncomfortable, like others’ demands for justice and their refusal to go on accepting what dehumanizes and excludes.
But, God calls us to make a home in the place where we find ourselves. Like the ancient exiles, we are to diligently work for its well-being and the well-being of the people around us—people we may have paid little attention to in the past. This is part of the building and planting process that God spoke of to Jeremiah. As old norms that run counter to God’s will for the world are plucked up and torn down, we are called to seek the welfare of our present world. We are called to build and to plant in a way that makes God’s kingdom visible, right here and right now, in our time and place, rather than looking longingly over our shoulders at what used to be.
When we’re in the midst of a difficult time, it’s easy to decide that we’ll just wait it out. We live a kind of suspended animation. It’s a form of denial, really. We tell ourselves that nothing has really changed. This time we’re in is temporary—just a blip in the arc of history. We don’t need to adjust our lives to a changed and changing world. Surely if we’re patient, the old normal will return, and we can avoid having to adapt to a new normal.
That’s the line the false prophets were trying to sell to the exiles in Babylon. It’s also a line that some false prophets try to sell us on today. In the face of a changing social landscape, they cry “We’re going back to the way things were! Ignore the voices who tell you that change is here to stay. This is all just a very temporary delay before we get back to the way things used to be.”
But that’s not what God had in mind for the exiles, and it’s not what God has in mind for us. God told the exiles that they were in it for the long haul, so it was time to adjust their thinking. It was time to live fully in the present and not simply exist in a holding pattern. They were to make new homes, form new relationships, expand their families, and be productive members of the community where they were.
My husband and I like to travel, and most of our trips involve air travel. So, we’ve spent a fair amount of time in airports. We’ve also had a fair number of flight delays. When we’re stuck in an airport, we could sit at the gate, impatiently watching the clock until we can get out of there. But we’ve found that a better way to spend that time is to think of the airport as a destination to be explored. We stretch our legs by walking through all the concourses. We read the destination signs at the gates and speculate about future trips we might take. We poke around in all the shops we would normally ignore. We relax with a drink or a meal. We people-watch and try to identify the many languages being spoken around us. We make the most of our unexpected airport exiles, rather than simply sitting anxiously by the gate, ticking off the minutes till departure.
This is what God tells the exiles—and us—to do. Don’t just sit at the gate, waiting until you can board that outbound plane. Make the most of your time in the place where you find yourself.
This must have sounded unthinkable to the exiles, especially since they had plenty of people telling them to do just the opposite. It may seem unthinkable to us, when we’re not sure that the world we find ourselves in is one we can—or even want to—adapt to. But, God never tells us to do the impossible. When God says to make a good life in a different world, God also holds out the hope that this is possible. God assures us that, although this present is not what we expected or wanted, it will form the foundation of a good future—not just for us who are living now but for those who will come after us.
Through Jeremiah, God told the exiles that their sojourn in Babylon would last for generations. Seventy years is a long time. God told them to have children, who would grow up and get married and have their own children. The exiles would have realized that many of them would never see their homeland again. They would have realized that they would never return to their old way of life. Yet, God holds out hope—hope of a good life now and hope for the future.
But, that future won’t look like past. One day, the exiled community will return to Jerusalem, but it will be to a new reality—a better reality. It will be to a greater relationship with God. “The days are surely coming,” God promises, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and the temple will be restored, but more importantly, the hearts of the people will turn away from injustice and idolatry and be made new. The new lives they build in the present will embody their trust in the future that’s in store, and in te God who promises it.
That’s all good news for the exiles. But what of those who were left behind? What hope was there for the poor who were left with a ruined city, a devastated landscape, a city empty of most of its inhabitants. What hope did God offer them?
God’s hope for the remnant in Jerusalem was embodied in a bold act by Jeremiah, in the midst of the final siege. While Jeremiah was still in prison, God revealed an astonishing piece of news. Jeremiah would be asked by a relative to buy a field. We don’t know why the relative was selling. Maybe, in his own hopelessness, he couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever again till and sow and reap from that land. Maybe he expected to die in the famine and wanted to keep the land in the hands of a relative who might have a better chance of surviving.
Whatever the reason, Jeremiah realized that this purchase was God’s doing. Jeremiah obediently bought the land, following all the ordinary and customary procedures. He signed the deed, with all the appropriate terms and conditions. He sealed it and counted out the money. Then, in the presence of his cousin and the people who served as witnesses to the transaction, and in front of all the bystanders in the court of the guard, he handed over the documents to his faithful scribe Baruch. He told Baruch, in front of all those witnesses, to secure the documents in an earthenware jar, so that they would last for a long time. Then he explained why he, a prisoner of the king, in the midst of a besieged and famine-wracked city, would do such a crazy thing as buy a field. It was because the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel had said, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah’s act of purchasing the field was a visible sign of his trust in God’s promise. Where the exiles had been told to build and plant in the present while anticipating the future, those who remained in Jerusalem were given a promise for the future that would strengthen them in the present.
Talk is cheap but, at God’s instruction, Jeremiah made a tangible, visible investment in the future God promised. God said from the outset that building and planting would follow the plucking up and the pulling down. The remnant in Jerusalem could trust that, where the old had been torn down, a new world would be built. We can trust that promise, too. Where old traditions and assumptions and ways of life that don’t reflect God’s kingdom are torn down and overthrown, a new world that does reflect God’s intentions will emerge.
It’s a promise that seems hard to believe, even for Jeremiah. After carrying out his bold act of faith, he goes to God in prayer for understanding and assurance. “How on earth can this be?” he asks. “The siege-ramps have been cast up against the city to take it, and the city, faced with sword, famine, and pestilence, has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans who are fighting against it. What you spoke has happened, as you yourself can see. Yet you, O Lord God, have said to me, ‘Buy the field for money and get witnesses’—though the city has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans.” Even Jeremiah struggles with the challenge of trusting in this future of hope that God has held up before him. But God reassures him. “See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?”
Hope for the present. Hope for the future. That’s what God offered the exiles in Babylon and the remnant in Jerusalem. That is what God offers us. We hear of it first through prophets like Jeremiah, but we see it most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. The gift of God’s Son is the tangible evidence of this hope. In all of his teachings, Jesus showed us how to recognize what needs to be torn down in our world and how to build a kingdom where all people are valued as beloved children of God. He showed us how to identify what needs to be plucked up and taught us what to plant in its place—seeds of God’s justice and compassion.
Just as Jeremiah invested in a field when a future of building and planting seemed crazy, God made an investment in us and in our future. Jeremiah’s field was paid for with cold, hard cash, but our hope-filled future was bought and paid for with the body and blood of Jesus. He is the payment that secures our hope. He is the seal on the deed that says God owns our future, and it is a future of hope.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve gotten to know Jeremiah pretty well. We’ve journeyed with him as he doggedly persisted in speaking God’s words of anger at the people’s idolatry and injustice, God’s words of warning about the disaster their behavior would bring about, God’s words of love and longing for the faithless people who had turned away. We watched as Jeremiah acted out his prophecies under God’s direction. We listened in on his conversations with God as he prayed for direction, for assurance, and even in anger. Today, we heard and watched as he shared God’s message of hope.
Jeremiah’s God is our God—a God who loves us with the passion of a husband or wife. A God who is like a loving parent, allowing us to learn through the consequences of our actions. A God who offers us hope—hope for the present and hope for the future. Our Gd has made a promise to us—a promise paid for and sealed in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “Surely I know the plans I have for you,” God says, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young