Last Sunday was week two of our sermon series “By the rivers of Babylon: how to live as a people in exile.” We looked at Jeremiah 29:4-11, the contents of a letter Jeremiah sent to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. Oftentimes, the contents of this letter are read out of context to have a hopeful spirit to them. What we don’t think about is that God is telling the readers of the letter to settle down in Babylon because they will die in exile. With this sermon, I had to write out the entire transcript because I’m turning it in as my ordination sermon. So the podcast is here and the transcript is below.
So how many of you have moved around a lot? I have lived eight different places since I was a kid. How many of you have lived in more than that? This section of Jeremiah 29 is written to people who were in a place where they didn’t have roots. And Jeremiah is telling them to put their roots down.
One of the things that I hate about moving is that I’m a gardener, and so when I saw in the passage this instruction to plant gardens and eat food from them, it really caught my eye. We used to live in Durham where we had a much larger area to work with for our garden than people have in Fairfax County where things are really packed together.
How many of you garden? Gardening is more than just putting plants in the ground. You do a lot with the soil. You till it. You add compost to it. You really give shape to a piece of earth that you want to be able to use for a long period of time. So it was bittersweet when I realized I was going to have to move away from Durham. That spring, I planted all my plants in pots so that I can transplant them in Northern Virginia. We had to get a U-Haul because the moving company would not guarantee that my plants would survive the trip.
When I read this and it’s talking about planting gardens, what that makes me think of is being in a place where you can really lay your roots down, a place where you can really stay a long time, and get to know the soil and the earth of where you’re living. How many of you are happy where you live right now and would never want to move again? How many of you would like to be in a place to settle down but not where you are right now?
It’s interesting reading this because it seems like really positive language. It’s talking about having families, getting married, having kids, eating the fruit from your garden, seeking the prosperity of the city where you live. It’s easy to forget that the people whom this letter is addressing are very far from home. For them to be in Babylon having been conquered by the Babylonians would essentially be the equivalent of Iran conquering the United States and us being forced to live in Tehran for the rest of our lives.
Just imagine that. Having to live in a place where you don’t know the language and you’re living with people who have just conquered you. The people who are reading this letter have had loved ones and friends who were killed in battle by the Babylonians. And God is telling them, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you. Pray for these people who have conquered you, who have killed your friends and loved ones. Now I want you to build a society with them. Maybe you can run for city council in Babylon and you should support the schoolboard. You should join the PTA of this people whose language you don’t know, a people who have conquered you and killed people that you care about.”
Remember last week we were reading Psalm 137 where it said, “If only someone would dash the heads of their little ones against the rocks,” talking about the Babylonians. This was the kind of rage the Israelites were feeling because of what had been done to them. And now God is saying seek their prosperity, seek their welfare, pray for them.
And this verse Jeremiah 29:11 — how many of you are familiar with that verse? “I know the plans I have for you…” — it’s a verse that we use a lot of times as a source of comfort. Within the context in which it’s written, it’s not all that comforting, because what God says right before it is: “All of these prophets who claim that you’re going home soon and that you don’t have to put your roots down — they’re lying. You are going to stay in Babylon for 70 years.”
So in other words, anyone who was reading that letter, what would they be by the time that their people left Babylon? Dead. The plans that God has are for Israel as a whole people, not just for the people reading the letter. He has plans for the people reading the letter. They have to do what they need to do to survive as a people so that their grandchildren can still be a people when God sends them back to Israel. So they’re having to give up a dream and settle for something less than what they had hoped for the sake of God’s plan, because God’s plan was bigger than them as individual people.
That plan was bigger than even what their grandchildren would experience coming back to Jerusalem 70 years later. The exile was part of how the Jewish people were spread out into a diaspora throughout the ancient world. And it was because of this diaspora, because Jewish people were in Babylon, Egypt — Alexandria in particular, in what is now modern-day Turkey, in Greece, in areas throughout the Mediterranean. It was because they were spread out, because they lost that one geographic space in which they had always been that Christianity was able to spread through Paul’s missionary activity.
If there hadn’t been a diaspora, if they hadn’t spread out, if there hadn’t been an exile, then none of the things which God put in place later would have happened. We’re talking in our Bible study that meets right before this worship service about 1 Corinthians. When the apostle Paul went to Corinth, the reason that he had a foot in the door in that community was because there was a local synagogue there, there was a Jewish community there. And wherever Paul went, when he was doing his missionary activity, sharing the gospel with people, he always went to the synagogue first. Paul didn’t just go out in the street and start proclaiming Jesus to people who had no context; he talked about Jesus to people who were first of all familiar with the God of Israel.
And so this exile is part of a plan that God has for His people as a whole over a very long period of time. And what it required was that the Israelites who went into exile had to be willing to do the things that they needed to do, that were right in front of them, in order to contribute to a plan that they couldn’t see. They couldn’t see the final results; they didn’t know exactly what was going to happen and the way that everything fit together. They just knew that they weren’t going back to Jerusalem and that they were going to have to live in a country where they didn’t know the language, and they were going to have to make the best of it.
When I think about how this connects to our lives today, I think about the way that when I was in my twenties, I thought that I was going to save the world and do something significant and important and special. And I think one of the problems with our culture right now is that we have a lot of forces that are causing people who grow up nowadays to think that everyone is supposed to be important and special. We have this celebrity culture where what happens inside the screen, or the various different screens that we look at, is the reality that counts. And so we have to find a way to get inside the screen and to be the important person who’s shaping our culture, shaping what’s relevant and what matters within our world.
And so a lot of times when we think about something like how to seek the welfare of the city or country where we live, we think that’s something that the people who get on TV can do because they have power, because they’re able to make decisions that impact everybody. And when we look at things in that way, then our only way of participating is essentially to be a cheerleader for one ideology or another, for one politician or another, and to basically get into arguments with other people about which idea is better. And I would say that that’s our form of exile.
We have been exiled from authentic reality, from flesh and blood living in the physical presence of other people. And I don’t know if this applies to everyone in this room. I’m kind of talking about myself being in this generation of facebook and the social media world where you’ve got a bunch of people sitting on a train and we’re all looking at our phones and communicating with people who aren’t in our physical space. So we have “friends” all over the country on facebook, but we’re not participating in the lives of the people around us.
How many of you know the names of your neighbors? I don’t. I know a few, maybe three or four. But when I was growing up, we knew everybody and we were always playing football in the street and really connecting with the people around us. And it wasn’t anything that we thought of or anything that we had to do intentionally. I’m ashamed to admit that when we moved here in 2010, we decided that were going to have an open house and we were going to invite our neighbors over to get to know them. Well, now it’s 2013 and we’re still hoping to do that one day.
So it just really occurred to me, in thinking about how we seek the welfare of the city to which we’ve been sent, how essential and important it is to be personal. And what I mean by that is to interact with other people in such a way that they’re not just interchangeable, anonymous stick figures in the background of our lives. To treat them personally. Because what I really think is that in our society one of the greatest poverties is the loneliness that many people experience in this world where we share personal information publicly on facebook pages but we don’t pick up our telephones when they ring. And again, I might be talking to my generation and not everybody in this room.
So I was thinking about this, because I was trying to think of an example of how to seek the welfare of the city to which you’ve been sent. And I do think it’s very important by the way for us to be aware and to be participating in dealing with the fact that we have a lot of people in Fairfax County who are suffering from very real physical needs, very real material poverty. And there are a number of ministries that we’re engaged in as a church. And I do think that we should also be involved in examining what decisions need to be made on local, state, and national levels to address the material problems.
But we cannot neglect the need to be personal, the need to welcome strangers. And the place where I saw this illustrated, and I was really convicted by it, was at my kids’ soccer game. I’m sitting there and I’ve got my phone, having a text conversation with a friend, and Cheryl, my wife, is talking to another mom. Now some of the four year olds on our team must have parents who get their kids personal trainers when they’re two, because they just run down the field and kick goals and it just happens like clockwork. Well, we have a son who likes to do his own thing and we tend to connect with the other parents of kids who don’t do that, who like to sit in the grass and look for flowers while the game is going on.
So this particular mom had a son who’s like this, who just does his own thing. And it can be kind of stressful for you as a parent. You don’t want to admit that you’re competing with the other parents and you’re worried about whether they’re judging you because your kid isn’t kicking goals like clockwork, but it does get into our heads. So I was just watching Cheryl talking to this other mom who was kind of getting stressed out because her son was going up to her and needing a lot of support and affection in the middle of a game when he was supposed to be on the field. And Cheryl was present; she was personal with this other woman who was sitting next to her.
Just think of all the places where we sit next to people who we are not personal with, all the times when we’re on a train or on an elevator. An elevator is the classic example. You get in and say okay tell you what I’m going to look at the ceiling, you look at the floor, it’s okay with me if it’s okay with you. But we really could be personal in that space. We could live as people who are part of a plan that’s bigger than us. Because that plan that God had that He told the Israelites about, it applies to us too.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at that verse and seeing it as a source of comfort when you’re in a place where you don’t know what your future’s going to be, to hear God say to you, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future with hope.” But the plan is bigger than us. And here’s what the plan is. God chose Israel not because He only wanted to have a relationship with one tribe of people. God’s greater plan was to make the world His family, to bring everyone, all of the Gentiles, all of the nations, into His family.
It’s not self-evident that the creator of the universe should be family to us, that we should be welcomed into that kind of intimate space with God. But that’s what He desires. He wants to treat us on a personal level, not to treat us as though we are just statistics, random cars on a beltway. But He has the capacity to see each of us in our unique beauty that He created us with. And the way that we can participate in that plan is not to do anything that’s terribly special or important, but to treat other people personally, to engage in love in situations where we don’t have to.
And this is actually something that happened to me on Tuesday. I got in a car accident last week. I was the middle car out of three so I was kind of responsible and yet not responsible. And actually the person who was responsible was a BMW who cut the first guy off and didn’t get a scratch and got away and doesn’t have to pay anything. But anyway, I took my car in and my insurance company didn’t tell me that they hadn’t worked things out with the other insurance company of the guy who hit me from behind, so I took my car in to take care of what I thought would be the whole overall damage. It turned out that it was only going to be the damage I was liable for in the front, and I would have to make a separate appointment to deal with the other damage in the book.
So it was a really frustrating situation. I had to drive over to Backlick Road. Some of you guys actually commute; I don’t. I live five minutes from the church, so Backlick Road is forever away from here to me. It was kind of a long way, and I was mad because I was going to have do it twice in one week. I have Geico and the other guy had USAA. So I called the other guys’ insurance company to do the thing where they tape-record your statement and so forth. And I got a woman named Tumeka.
And Tumeka, even though I was the other guy — I wasn’t her client, there was no reward or incentive for her to take care of me — she was able to call the repair place and she basically ended their investigation into liability as of our phone conversation which never happens. She calls the repair place; she tells them to transfer that bill over to our account, we’re going to pay for the rest of the repairs. I have a rental car. I thought I was going to have to bring it back and sign a piece of paper, and then drive it back. She took care of it over the phone. I wasn’t her guy; I was the other guy; but she chose to treat me like a person.
See, that’s the thing. You can be doing something as banal as customer service where you’re talking to someone over the phone. And because of the way she treated me, it completely changed my attitude for the rest of the week. I wanted to find someone to help, someone to be nice to because of how she treated me. It’s not a huge earth-shattering thing to help somebody out with their insurance problem, but when you engage in just the regular practices of life, the regular things that you’re doing at your job, in a way that shares God’s love and treats other people like people and not just as objects, then you’re part of this plan by which God makes the world into His family.
It’s nothing that earth-shattering or heroic that we’re called to do. We’re just called to treat other people with dignity, to remember that God loved us and to let that love flow through us to the people that we interact with. And it does mean that when you’re sitting at your soccer game, you need to put the phone down and talk to somebody. I’m kind of an introvert so that’s a little bit of a challenge. But there are just so many lonely people out there. And I think that’s an essential way that often gets overlooked that we can seek the welfare of the city to which we’ve been sent.