Sermon for 10/9/2010
Text: Jeremiah 29:4-14
Exile. It’s a hard concept to get my head around. I’ve never been captured and taken somewhere I didn’t want to go. The only reason I’ve ever moved anywhere in my adult life is for a job. I imagine that most of you are the same way. So what can Jeremiah’s letter to exiles say to people who have never been exiled by anything other than the job market? And what does this have to do with the Children’s Sabbath we’re celebrating this weekend? How about this: raising our children right and loving the children of the world requires that we live in the world as exiles precisely in the way that Jeremiah tells the Israelite exiles to live.
When the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC, the Israelite captives had several possible ways to respond to their predicament. One option was to simply become Babylonians. Babylon was like the New York City of the ancient Middle East. Its hanging gardens were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. They had gods with cool names – Marduk the head god, Nabu, the god of poetry, Ishtar, the goddess of love, Shamash, the god of justice, and many others. They had priests you could pay to study the stars for you and tell your fortune.
So the Israelites could have played along and adopted Babylonian culture, leaving behind the God who had brought them out of slavery to send them to exile. The other option was to do the opposite. The Israelites could circle the wagons and refuse to put down any roots in Babylon. They could despair of their situation, sit around feeling sorry for themselves, and shut down as a people.
Jeremiah’s letter proposes a middle road. He tells the Israelites to build houses and plant gardens, to marry and have kids, and most importantly, to seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which God has taken them. Now it might seem like this advice is essentially telling Israelites just to become Babylonians, but all that Jeremiah tells the Israelites to do is framed by the purpose that God proclaims in verse 11. Some of you know this verse by heart. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The exile where God sent His people wasn’t just punishment; it was a calling for their lives and a key to His plan for saving the world.
Without exile, the history of Judaism and Christianity would not have been the same. Exile transformed the Israelites into a missionary people long before Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. The Bible gives the examples of Daniel, who shared his faith with Nebuchadnezzar, the very emperor who had conquered his people, and Queen Esther, who shared her faith with her husband Xerxes, the emperor of Persia. When Israel became a landless nation, Judaism became the first religion in the ancient world to be unhooked from any geographic area. This made it possible for people to see that their God was not simply the God of this mountain or this valley but the God of everybody. By the time that Jesus came, there were Jews worshiping God throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, and when the Christian missionary St. Paul went out, it was always the synagogues in each town where he started and won his first converts before reaching further among the Gentiles.
God sent the Israelites into exile to make them into missionaries. And this is the link that connects Jeremiah’s letter to the ancient Israelites to Christians today. We are called into exile for precisely the same purpose. But notice this: God did not send Israel out as conquerors to destroy other nations’ cities and convert them at the point of the sword; He sent them out as a conquered people and commanded them to work for the prosperity and peace of the city that had conquered them. So how does this apply in our world? More specifically, how does it apply to our responsibilities to the children in our world?
To live right as Christians, we have to recognize that our life here on Earth is itself an exile. Our eternal home is not here where we live temporarily; it is in heaven with God. God has put us into this world where we do not belong for the purpose of bringing other people out of the world into a saving relationship with God. How we raise our kids and respond to the needs of other peoples’ kids is shaped by whether or not we accept our calling to live like exiled missionaries in a foreign land.
Now, some Christians point to the fact that we’re only here for a short time as an excuse for not trying to do anything about the problems of our world. But Jeremiah 29 forbids us to have this attitude! We are called to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which we live. This is more than just standing on the corner with a megaphone preaching at people. This is more than advocating for our right to pray in public schools. This means to care intimately about what happens in the lives of the people who surround us, particularly children.
The Babylon in which we live in is a world defined primarily by competition. If there’s one thing that the world teaches our kids, it’s that life is a rat race. For me to win, somebody else has to lose. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to us that one of the biggest problems facing children in our culture today is bullying. I was bullied a lot in middle school and the thing that I always noticed was that the bullies were never the truly popular kids who felt comfortable about where they stood. The bullies were the kids who really wanted to be popular and felt like they needed to push somebody else down to climb up the social ladder. Bullying is a crude imitation by children of the tactics we use as adults to get ahead in the rat race.
Thank God they didn’t have facebook when I was a kid. Now the bullies get to follow their victims into their homes and torture them in the 24/7 online Babylon where we spend our time. And so in response, kids are killing themselves, kids like Ty Smalley, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Hope Witsell. It seems like every time I look at the news, there’s a new victim. News commentators have all kinds of opinions about what’s wrong and what needs to happen. They criticize the parents for not meeting with school counselors, the teachers for not teaching anti-bullying lessons, and the bureaucrats for not developing thick three-ring binders to hand out at staff development meetings.
It may be that there are institutional changes that could be made in our schools, but bullying is a spiritual problem in our culture to which we as the church must respond spiritually. The question is this: have we as the church allowed ourselves to be infiltrated by the mindset of Babylon? Is coming to church just another means of self-advancement in a society built on self-advancement?
This is a tough question to ask myself as a parent, since it’s my job to put my kids in activities that will help them grow and discover their gifts. But do I bring my children here to be shaped by God and receive God’s call for their lives as missionaries in exile? Or is coming to church just one more ingredient in my strategy to make them successful Babylonians? A young missionary in exile seeking the prosperity and peace of his or her classmates does not become a bully. But if we’re bringing our kids to church for the purpose of their self-advancement, to help with resumes and college applications, then why should it surprise us that they would use bullying as just another tool for their social self-advancement?
God has put us in Babylon not to adopt the values that Babylon teaches but to share the Good News that liberates the captives and helps them leave Babylon behind to join a better Kingdom. Is there anybody in this room who’s been a bully? God forgives you and loves you. He knows that you just want to fit in. That’s why He sent His son Jesus to start a new body of people where we can all fit in and be appreciated for the unique gifts that God has given to each of us.
For kids who are being bullied right now, I am so sorry. You know more than the rest of us how the Israelites felt getting taunted as they walked around Babylon. But you belong to a better place than Babylon and the people who matter think that you’re awesome! I’ve been in your shoes, but much more importantly Jesus has too. Jesus is God’s son; he could have used that to be the most popular kid in town. Instead he got the popular kids mad at him by hanging out with the kids who got bullied and breaking all kinds of social rules until one day they crucified Him.
But Jesus rose from the dead so that kids who bully because they’re insecure and kids who are insecure because they get bullied would know that God can make us all into brand-new people. Don’t be a Babylonian bully. Be a missionary in exile who shares the Good News that we can be set free from Babylon’s chains.