Living in Exile, Sunday message 12th Feb
LIVING IN EXILE
In 587BC a dreadful thing happened to the people of Judah.
Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and his army.
The temple and the walls were destroyed. Even more catastrophic was the fact that the conquering Babylonians carted all the leaders and craftspeople and others of significance off to Babylon, leaving only those who were weak or old or not considered a threat to Babylonian rule.
Interestingly, this included a somewhat forgotten and ignored prophet named Jeremiah.
In the years preceding the disaster, Jeremiah had warned the king and leaders of Judah that a catastrophe was coming if they did not change their ways.
So what led to this catastrophy? Well at one level it was really the end game of two superpowers with imperialist ambitions putting the squeeze on Judah. To the south was Egypt and to the northeast, Babylon. And it was Babylon who won out. However, Jeremiah warned the nation and subsequently interpreted the events as God’s judgement on them. He claimed that Judah’s failure to fulfil their covenant with God is really to blame. Their leaders had been unprincipled and self-serving. They and the people had turned away from worship of Yahweh and began worshipping other gods. Jeremiah challenged and warned them, time and time again. But they would not listen.
To say that this was a major crisis for the people of Judah would be to understate matters. For it was much more than a physical calamity. It reflected a moral void and led to a crisis of identity and faith for Judah.
In the early years in captivity, the exiled Jews struggled. They were completely disoriented. They were strangers in a strange land. They were thrown into disarray because they no longer knew how to be God’s people in such a place.
They couldn't understand why God had allowed this to happen, nor how they should live in this new and pagan (or ungodly) environment. Israel was God’s own country. They understood what it meant to live as the people of God there. But Babylon was enemy territory.
Hopelessly outnumbered in Babylon, they were forced to play according to someone else's rules. It was so hard to see where God was in these new circumstances with all the familiar landmarks gone.
All the things that helped them gain a sense of identity – that reminded them of who they were – were gone. The temple, the festivals, their whole way of living was gone. Unsurprisingly they experienced enormous grief.
The longer they spent in Babylon the more they grieved for what they had lost. No wonder they cried out, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.” (Ps 137:1) Their broken hearts were not just pining for their homes and land, but also for the way of life they had back in Judah.
However, grief can easily slip into self-pity. The exiles began to feel sorry for themselves. Why us? They complained about the place they found themselves in. The food was bad, the climate was awful. The landscape different and the language unintelligible. They hoped they wouldn’t be here for long and they began pretending that it wasn’t important to look for God in this place. They were encouraged in this short term thinking by some false prophets. They began to see themselves as victims. And so they said:
“How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land?”
They prayed for God's deliverance and wondered why God was taking so long.
Into this situation, from hundreds of miles away in Jerusalem, came a prophetic message. It was written by that troublesome prophet Jeremiah, who wisely considered it would be best to have others deliver the message.
God’s challenge to his people, through Jeremiah, was "
Don't be so alarmed. Don’t just sit around feeling sorry for yourselves, or dreaming of what life was back in Judah, or pretending that you’re only going to be in this place for a short time so you don’t need to engage the place you find yourself in. I am in this place. I am at work in Babylon too.
Make your homes here and get on with the job. Seek the welfare of the city for if it prospers, so you will prosper. You can flourish anywhere. You can experience all of what I have for you right where you are. My shalom, my life is not limited by your location or your circumstances.”
So, build houses and live in them.
In other words, make yourself a home here. This may not be your preferred place, but it is still a place where you can serve me.
Plant gardens and eat their produce.
Get active in being productive in this strange land. Don’t just expect others to do it for you, or keep pining for the food back in your homeland.
Take wives and have sons and daughters.
The people you’re among are not inferior to you. I am at work among them too, and I have hopes and dreams for them just as I do for you.
Above all, seek the welfare – or shalom – of the city where I have sent you
You are my representatives in this place, and your wholeness, your peace, your welfare is tied to the wholeness and welfare of this city. So take seriously your commission to work with me for the good of the people you are living amongst.
What Jeremiah is counseling here is not assimilation – just becoming like their surrounding culture – becoming Babylonians.
He is talking about understanding their true identity as the people of God and bringing this to bear in the way they immerse themselves in life in Babylon, and seek to discover and bring God’s shalom – to all spheres of life. Understanding themselves as a sent people.
God is essentially saying that it is in these circumstances you find yourself – the very place you think is no good for living the life of faith – that is actually the ideal soil for learning to be faithful to me.
Interestingly, the period of exile became an incredibly creative and regenerative time for the Jews. They learnt what it was to be faithful to God in an alien culture. In the very land and culture they didn’t want to be in, they re-discovered their true identity as the people of God. They learnt how to pray in deeper and more life-changing ways. They discovered that God was not dependent on a particular place or particular surroundings. They engaged in their host culture in creative ways – blessing it with their energies, but living in distinctive ways to demonstrate what God’s life and shalom were all about.
Daniel’s story is an example of this – along with his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abendigo. It tells of remarkable faithfulness to God while in the service of the Babylonians. And it is this same renewal of faith that inspires Ezra and Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.
So, is there a word to us in Jeremiah’s counsel?
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters.
Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, for in its welfare is yours.
Over the summer I’ve been reflecting on these words and the story of the exiles for myself – and for us.
It strikes me that all of us have times where we feel we are in exile.
The circumstances of life throw us a curveball and we end up in places we don’t want to be, where we are not at home. Perhaps
- Struggling with a job we don’t want to do
- Living in a neighbourhood we’d not expected to be in
- Raising children when we’d rather be doing other things
- Losing a partner or loved one and feeling completely lost
- Relating to people who are not like us and who we struggle to get along with
In one sense all of these experiences can be like being exiled. Being in places or situations we don’t want to be.
It’s three years since I shattered my heel bone – which became the trigger for a rapid escalation of my auto-immune disease and the discovery of the cancer that was causing it.
In a sense I have felt in exile. I have been in a place I did not want to be. An unfamiliar place with very definite limitations. At times it has been traumatic and terrifying.
I’ve experienced some of the emotions the exiled Jews must have felt – grief (at what has been lost), self-pity (why me?), and the occasional despair (woe is me)
I’ve called out to God countless times for him to heal me. And I’ve had many people pray for me.
I’ve uttered the question, “How can I sing God’s songs in this strange land?”
Often I’ve been tempted to just survive and grind it out. Or to fill my life with a bit of escapism – ways of, at least for a time, avoiding facing my new reality. Wile-ing away hours daydreaming about what it was like to be more mobile, or losing myself in a Netflix series, hiding myself away, or turning to comfort food. All of us have our escape hatches, but these have been some of mine.
But sooner or later we are jolted back to the reality of our situation. And for me the question that has consistently challenged me is this: Is it possible to flourish, is it possible to experience God’s shalom, in the midst of my situation?
You see, if I can’t faithfully follow Jesus in my current circumstances, then I can’t follow him anywhere.
I’m not talking about just being resigned to our circumstances – a kind of fatalism that just reluctantly accepts where we find ourselves. And I’m not suggesting that there aren’t times where the faithful response is to seek healing or seek God for a change in our situation.
But what I am saying is that while we are in our current circumstances – we come to terms with them and say, “Here I am Lord. I don’t want to waste energy in self-pity or escapism, but instead I will look for ways to faithfully follow you in this place.”
As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself, or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself?”
You see, just like the exiles in Babylon, we need to remind ourselves that, “Far more important than the climate or geography of this place, the socio-economic state of this place, the neighbours in this place, is the God of this place. God is here with me. God is here with us. And it is just as possible to live out the will of God here as any other place.”
In fact, the only opportunity you and I have to live by faith, is right in the midst of the circumstances we find ourselves in today, this week, this year.
One of my old theology professors died this past week. He was 88 and he’d been in hospital for sometime. Not a place he would have wanted to be. But I heard that Michael couldn’t help himself getting up out of his hospital bed and walking around the ward talking with and praying for other patients and staff. To the very end, he was seeking to be faithful to God and to seek the shalom of those he was with in hospital.
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters. Seek the shalom of the place God has sent you to, for in this place is also your shalom.
Later in Jeremiah’s prophetic message are these words:
“I know the plans I have for you – for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.”
May this be so for us – this week, and this year.