Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord
God never lets go of us. This truth is something which comes to us as a relief sometimes and a major cause for worry other times. For the Psalmist it meant that God was always ready to do good, always present no matter where they found themselves. For Job is was a source of worry – God, why can you not leave me alone for one second, just long enough for me to swallow my spit even. Two responses to the same truth, that God was present even in the most unlikely of circumstances.
This was not a common belief in the ancient world. The Gods always had some special home. The Gods of Mezo-America lived in the caves that crisscrossed that country, the Greek Pantheon lived on Olympus, Ba’al lived on Zaphar Aqar or on Mount Zaphon. Even the Israelites for a long time considered God to only be present on Sinai, and after it was created wherever the Ark of the Covenant was placed.
God always had God’s place. God always had a way of appearing to people. The fixed nature of God gave the universe something to spin around. When in doubt, when everything seemed mixed up or not quite right, you could always turn toward that place. There was always a temple or a mountain or a river. God was there. God was easy to find. God was a destination we always had a chance to get to. What happens if that place does not exist? What happens if that place of orientation is removed from the face of the world?
For the Jews in exile this question was not hypothetical. The reality was that God did not have a house any longer. They could no longer climb up Zion’s hills and meet in the Temple square. There was no place of centering or peace, there was no home for them. As far as they knew, without a Temple in Jerusalem there was no place where God could possibly live.
The people in exile did not take for granted the omnipresence of God. While the Psalmist imagined a cosmos that God was fully engaged with, they did so seated in Jerusalem. They could see smoke rising up into Heaven with the sacrifices. They could see the graves that dotted the Hill. They could imagine God throughout the created order because they sat down where they thought God entered into it. Behind the curtain, in the holy of holies, that is where Heaven met earth.
Removed from this context there is room for despair. Removed from this context there is room for distrust. Removed from this context there is room for vengefulness and contempt. There is also an opportunity. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Judah were faced with God in a way they never knew before. Removed from Judah, by the Rivers of Babylon, they were faced with the opportunity to meet God outside of the context of a Temple, of the Ark, to return to something far more distant. Reaching back to a time where God was not locked into a single place but seemed to be everywhere. A guest at the dinner table, a visitor in a dream, someone you could wrestle by the riverside.
In Babylon the question of where God could be was answered in the lives of the people of Judah. They continued to gather together, they lived as a people set apart among Babylonians. Keeping Kosher and refusing to accept imperial decree, they retained their heritage in the midst of these struggles. Through the lessons of the prophets and of brave individuals the people of Judah found that even though they were far from home, God still found a way into their lives. In every gathering around the table to pray, in study of their sacred scriptures, by the rivers where they mingled their tears with the Euphrates. It took some time, but soon it was clear to the people in exile that God was not dead, not homeless, but that God made a home in all the world.
The realization that God was on the move was a comfort more than anything to the people of Israel. Ezekiel talks about God moving toward God’s people in more explicit terms, how God was not willing to abandon them and what hope they had before them. However, today we encounter a new revelation of God – namely that God’s ability to move, the lack of an anchor to limit God’s activity, meant that the people of Judah were not the only ones who could experience the community of God. In a letter to the people of Judah we are given the first open invitation from God to God’s people to widen the circle of faith, to marry non-Israelites.
The Torah is clear in various places the Israelites were to avoid mingling with the other nations. Frequently God’s people are described as too easily swayed to interact with other nations. The Torah seems to suggest that the next step from talking to a Moabite is to start worshipping Moabite gods. As if a friendly conversation over coffee could not be removed from immediate sacrifice to an idol.
Yet, on the feast day on which the giving of the Torah is celebrated the book of Ruth is read. A book that describes a Moabite entering into relationship with Israelites. Not only entering into relationship with them but excelling as a member of their people. The Moabite who was forbidden from ever being a part of Israel is named as a hero, she has children, and not far down her family tree comes King David. Clearly, the matter is not so cut and dry as a cursory reading of the scripture might suggest. God did not close doors often, and sometimes the doors that we would like to keep closed open out into a brighter future.
In this text of Jeremiah the prophet instructs the people to do things that were unheard of. Marry in Babylon, marry Babylonians at that. Have as many children as you could ever want. Thrive, plant vineyards and olive orchards. Become a part of this nation, and see it grow.
The world today is more aware than ever that what was is no longer what is. The troubles of the past have in some cases passed away, while in other cases they are alive and well albeit in altered states. We have become a global culture. We have become more diverse. We have become more connected. As we have grown and changed we have met new challenges and new responsibilities. We have faced growth and hardship, progress and regression, and all about us there is a general uncertainty of what lies ahead. We are divided even as we are brought together, we are in the dark even as we learn.
The lesson which Jeremiah can give us in a world that faces uncertainty and questions, that is grappling everyday to redefine how people of all nations can come together and live in community, is multi-valent. God is not locked into any one place, so no matter where we go God is with us. Because God is not limited to one church, one people, one nation – no one is out of bounds for us to be in community with. Because no one is out of bounds, God seeks to create a world in which people from all over the world can come together and not only live together, but grow together, become a family in the truest sense of the word.
The moment that the people of Judah were thrust out of the world they knew, from the experience of God and country that they knew, they were able to see things more clearly. The concern that they could become idolatrous from interactions with other people groups had in itself become a form of idolatry. They had built up a concept of God that was limited only to them, only to their experiences, and ultimately only to they themselves.
The destruction of the temple was a tragedy which cannot be made light of. The exile caused untold trauma that in itself could not be called good. Yet, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and reflection the people of Judah were able to come to new understandings. If a doctrine is removed from its context, and the life it once gave is chased out of it, it becomes lifeless and before too long it becomes an idol. The only way to deal with these ideas is to air them out, to see whether we built them off of God’s revelation to us or if we’ve been propping them up with our own thoughts, our own insights, our own desires.
What will make the difference for us today is whether or not we are willing to explore the status quo that we have invented and truly discern what is and is not Godly. If we will look to a future that does not concern itself with the circumstances of a person birth, the culture that they bring into the assembly of God, or however they may appear then the future will naturally be brighter. The kingdom of God can grow, it can become something more than it ever was before. We can gather as one people, not uniform but united, not speaking with one voice but with many voices in harmony. Together we will seek the prosperity of one another, we will pray for good things to come to all peoples, because through their prospering we will prosper.
We must not let ourselves be deceived – by anyone who claims dreams or visions contrary to this message of God. These are not God’s dreams but are the dreams we have forced upon our prophets. Our twisted visions that makes God and the world into carbon copies of us, and does not allow us change in the face of revelation. Let us embrace a God who is among all peoples, and seek to reflect that diversity in our hearts, minds, and in those we commune with. – Amen.