October 13, 2019
A brief Old Testament history review… We know the period of the kings begins with Saul and then David. Not too many years down the line, when the throne has passed from Solomon’s hands, there is great strife in the Promised Land and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin break off from the rest of the tribes and they form the southern kingdom. This territory includes Jerusalem. From that point on the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel are on separate but very similar trajectories. Similar in that both have a whole series of kings. Some of them are bright spots, but overall the kings lead their people into an increasingly sinful way of life. The prophets start swinging into gear – Isaiah and Micah in the southern kingdom of Judah and Elijah, Elisha and Amos in the northern kingdom of Israel. Israel meets its end sooner. Around 740bc, the Assyrians invade and take many into captivity for the next period of time. Judah hangs on until 605bc when the King of Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem and only withdraws when Judah agrees to pay a tax and hand over some of their most promising young men, including, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. This continues for a few years until Judah’s king, Jehoiachin, refuses to keep paying the tax. At that point Babylon invades and in 597 deports the best and the brightest, the movers and the shakers of Judah. Ezekiel is one of those deported at this time. It’s thought he was around 25 and had not yet received his prophetic call from God.
All this is the context we need as we begin to look at our lectionary passage from Jeremiah. Now the book of Jeremiah covers a span of many years. But chapter 29 is set right around 594-593bc. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem. He hasn’t been deported, and he’s writing this letter and sending it to Babylon, some 700 miles away. I’m using “The Message” Bible today because I want us to hear some of these scripture passages with fresh ears. Okay, reading now Jeremiah 29:1-3.
“This is the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to what was left of the elders among the exiles, to the priests and prophets and all the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem, including King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the government leaders, and all the skilled laborers and craftsmen. The letter was carried by Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah, king of Judah, had sent to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.”
Because of the care taken here in describing who the letter was written to and how the letter was delivered, I’m going to assume this letter went on to become a very important message for the exiled Judahites. That in conversation years later someone might say, “Remember what Jeremiah’s letter said.” And everyone would know exactly what was being referred to. I think this letter came to occupy a pretty prominent place in their thought.
Before I start reading the actual letter though I want you to think about how you might have felt in the exiles’ place. Think of whichever community you feel most connected to – Inman, Buhler, Moundridge or Hesston – and imagine you and your family along with 200 of the wealthiest, most intelligent, most gifted people from town are taken captive against your will and relocated some 700 miles away in enemy territory. What would your group do? What do you think? Anyone? What would your smartest, most gifted people do if they, if you found yourselves together in a foreign place against your will? (Plot a rebellion)
And that’s exactly what the exiles are doing. They are talking about an uprising. They want to take their power back. They want to return home. And their plans are being encouraged, enflamed even by two prophets – Ahab and Zedekiah.
In response, Jeremiah sends a letter and he makes sure his intended listeners know this letter is not from him. This letter is from God. (Read Verses 4-7). Build homes. Plant gardens. Get married and make sure your children get married too. Make yourselves comfortable and put down roots. Pray for this country you find yourself planted in.
The Bible’s full of surprises, isn’t it? I’ll come back to these verses in a bit. Let’s go ahead and hear more from this letter first. (Read Verses 8-14). So along with the Judahites, we, the readers, discover they have 70 years to live in Babylon. Seventy years. But God promises He will be listening to their prayers. He will be there for them if they look for him. And in 70 years, he’ll make sure they are returned home. Jeremiah 29:11 might sound more familiar to us from the NIV – “For 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.”
This letter actually goes on for 9 more verses. Jeremiah predicts a pretty terrible and grisly end for the false prophets, for Ahab and Zedekiah, who were filling the exiles’ heads with thoughts of rebellion. And he also communicates that worse times yet are coming for the people left behind in Judah. This isn’t a place anyone should want to return to anytime soon, because God is not done punishing yet.
Interestingly, less than 10 years after Jeremiah’s letter is written and delivered, the Babylonians invade Judah one more time. Around 587-586, they lay waste to the city of Jerusalem and they raze the holy temple. The destruction is terrible and complete. The book of Lamentations, thought to be written by Jeremiah, contains his grief-stricken cries over the fall of a city, a temple, a people he loves so much. And then, around 536 bc, so roughly 70 years after the first deportation in 605, Babylon is captured by the Persians and the King of Persia, Cyrus, allows Jews, as they have come to be called in this 70 year period, to begin returning home to rebuild that which has been destroyed. Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi are all active in this returning and rebuilding season.
I’m sure lots of practical wisdom can be pulled from this story in Jeremiah. But two things stuck with me this week. First, just because we want to believe the voices around us who tell us we are justified in our feelings, in our understandings – just because we want to believe something is true does not necessarily make it true. False prophets are just as active today as they ever have been. And when the false prophets are saying what we want to believe, it becomes really tricky to see them for who they are. Somehow, we’ve got to be able to hold our own opinions and natural inclinations a little more at arm’s length and allow them to be tested by scripture, by the church, by prayer and by serious open-minded and open-hearted spiritual discernment.
But it’s the second point that really ran off with my imagination this week. You’ve heard the expression, “Bloom where you’re planted.” That seems to be the essence of this passage. I’ve read a couple of books over the last month that capture this idea too. The first is by Mil Penner, called Section 27: A Century on a Family Farm. This is the story of one family that was planted and bloomed on this section of land beginning in 1874 when Mil’s great grandfather, David Penner came from Russia and bought the land from the Santa Fe railroad company. The Mennonite story is about a group of people forced from their homes due to government dictates that violated their religious beliefs. Rather than integrate with the dominant culture and allow their own strong faith principles to be compromised, they chose to move – 200 years in Prussia, 100 years in Russia, almost 150 years in North America. Will conscience, or our faithful though far from mainstream interpretation of scripture lead us to one day move again? I so thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s just a rich retelling of the ways in which one family built houses, planted gardens, married and lived on the land, embracing this place as their own, loving their neighbors and praying for and with them too. It’s the story of one family’s view of hope.
The other book is called Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris. This is the story of Norris, who as a young woman in her 20’s inherits from her grandparents a house in Lemmon, South Dakota. She and her husband, both poets and writers living in New York City, move to South Dakota and live there for almost 30 years. This book is her poetic, honest, unvarnished look at the struggles and incredible beauty of her life on the Dakota desert plains. She too plants gardens and prays for her neighbors and friends. She writes, “For one who has chosen the desert and truly embraced the forsaken ground, it is not despair or fear or limitation that dictates how one lives. One finds instead an openness and hope that verges on the wild.”
But the scripture passage from Jeremiah, as well as these two books, only speak to place. And I think blooming where we’re planted goes beyond place and also encompasses time…seasons of life. There’s also an important distinction to make between this Jeremiah text and the two books I offered as examples. In Jeremiah, the people are forcibly removed from their home. They’re given no choice in the matter. They are kidnapped. Our Mennonite forebears certainly faced great moral pressure to move, but it was still their choice. Kathleen Norris and her husband chose to leave their home in New York City.
What happens when the choice is not our own? Most of us have not ever been forcibly removed from our physical location. However, we have all found ourselves, I think, in seasons of life that we would not have chosen had we been given a say in the matter. A job that is life and soul draining. An illness. A long and protracted relational struggle with a child or a parent. Addiction. Marital infidelity. How do we respond when the season in which we find ourselves in life is not something we asked for or wanted? When we feel held in that time against our will? When our every impulse tells us to rally the forces and fight instead of dwelling in that painful moment and growing?
Please remember, Jeremiah was speaking to a people who were desperate. They had been torn from their homes, from their place of safety, from all semblance of normal, from everything they knew and cherished. They were angry. How dare the Babylonians destroy and plunder and take what was not theirs to take! They were confused. How could God have let this happen? They were scared. Would they ever see home again? Would they survive? Jeremiah chose his words with great care, listening to hear exactly what God wanted him to say to his people. This is what Jeremiah, this is what God said and says, “I will come to you. I will bring you home. I know the plans I have for you, plans not to hurt you but to grow you and give you a forever future with me. All you need to do is call on me…pray. I’m always listening. Look around you. See with your heart’s eyes. I’m right here. I will gather you up. I will save you. I will bring you home.”
We’re going to close this message time now listening to God’s Word. I’ve asked several people to take turns standing up and reading some different passages from The Message Bible. Let’s listen to God’s voice.
1. Psalm 46:8-11
Attention, all! See the marvels of God! He plants flowers and trees all over the earth, bans war from pole to pole, breaks all the weapons across his knee. ‘Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.” Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God of angel armies protects us.
2. Psalm 66:16-20
All believers, come here and listen, let me tell you what God did for me. I called out to him with my mouth, my tongue shaped the sounds of music. If I had been cozy with evil, the Lord would never have listened. But he most surely did listen, he came on the double when he heard my prayer. Blessed be God: he didn’t turn a deaf ear, he stayed with me, loyal in his love.
3. Isaiah 43:18-19
Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.
4. Matthew 6:33-34
Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
5. Colossians 3:23-24
And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ.
6. John 10:10
Jesus says: I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.
7. Psalm 139:15-16
God, You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, the days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
8. Jeremiah 29:12-13
God speaks: When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.