“It’s Not Exile, But…”

Pentecost 21

October 9, 2016


Text:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7


    In some ways, it may be hard for us to identify with the Babylonian exiles.  We haven’t been invaded and conquered by a foreign empire.  We haven’t had a foreign army destroy our leading city, kill thousands of people, and take our leaders as prisoners to that foreign land.  

    But, I believe many of us who have been around for a while find the world of today to be very different than it was when we were younger.  There is a sense in which morals, values, and priorities seem to be different than they used to be.  Some things that used to be done or talked about only in privacy or secrecy are now very much out in the open.  Attitudes toward organized religion have become on average less favorable.  Society in general seems coarser, harsher, less neighborly, more divided, and considerably less safe.  And yet in many ways electronic devices connect us to the wider world in ways that were unthinkable even 10 years ago.  Many of us likely identify with this comment made by an author late in life when he received an award:  “I am an old man.  This is a strange world.  I don’t understand a darn thing.”  Like the Hebrew people exiled in Babylon, we live in a world that feels unfamiliar and sometimes even hostile to us.  

    So, in that kind of a situation, how are we to respond?  The exiles in Babylon had choices to make.  Let’s look at some of their choices.

  • Some undoubtedly chose to remain defiant and antagonistic toward Babylonian life and culture.  I believe the author of Psalm 137, which we read last Sunday, had this mindset.  After all, that writer wanted not only wanted to remember Jerusalem as his highest joy, he wanted revenge on the Babylonians for the death and destruction they exacted against Jerusalem, and also on the Edomites who rooted for the Babylonians as they did so.

  • Others chose to assimilate.  They gave up their Jewish identity and fully adopted Babylonian religion and culture.  

  • Others chose to remain Jewish, but did so very quietly, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Babylonians.  They basically chose to go underground and withdraw from Babylonian society as much as they could.

And then we read Jeremiah’s word from the Lord to the exiles:  “Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.  Get married and have children; help your children find spouses so they can have children.  Increase in number so 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.”  In other words, they were to remain true to God and to who they were, and were to do what they needed to do to preserve themselves as a people, but they were also to participate in the life of Babylon, seek its well-being, and pray for it.  They were not to be antagonistic toward it; they were not to withdraw from it; and they were not to assimilate into it.

    I believe we can find comparable attitudes today in how people respond to the challenge of how we are to live in the present time.

  • Some have chosen to be defiant and antagonistic toward what society has become.  Such persons want to take things back to how they used to be.  They actively resist the changes that have taken place.

  • Some choose to assimilate, basically taking the attitude “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Such persons wholeheartedly enter into what society has become.

  • Some choose to withdraw.  They limit their participation in the larger society and often set up alternative structures, working with like-minded people to help make this possible.

So how does Jeremiah’s oracle apply to our situation?  Certainly we are to remain true to God and to who we are, and we are to continue seeking to grow our community of faith by inviting people into relationship with Jesus Christ.  But we are also to participate in the life of the world in which we live.  We are to work for the wellbeing of all people, even the ones whose opinions, attitudes, or way of being in the world we don’t like or agree with.  We are to pray for the world in which we live.  We are to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer)--but we also need to be humble enough to realize that we don’t always know what God has in mind.  And consider again that last line of our lesson from Jeremiah today:  “because your future depends on its welfare.”  Our wellbeing is very much connected to the wellbeing of the world in which we live.  If the world around us goes down the drain, we likely will go down with it.  

We are not to be antagonistic toward the world; we are not to withdraw from it; and we are not to mindlessly assimilate into it.  We are called on to do something much harder:  live and participate in it, love it as God loves it, and work and pray for its wellbeing.  I know I don’t always do this very well.  I need God to help me.  And so do all who seek to follow Jesus.  I pray that the church here and everywhere will figure out how to live in the strange, troubled world in which we live.  Amen.

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