Jeremiah 29:4-7, 10-14; Luke 10:1-12
3rd in the series “A Future with Hope”
The people experienced hard times. The world superpower of the time, Babylon, had moved against Judah, a third-rate nation at best by the world’s standards, also the home of God’s people and God’s Temple in Jerusalem. After a siege of a year-and-a-half, the Babylonian army seized and sacked the city. They destroyed the Temple, leveling it to the ground. The Babylonians marched many of its leaders across 500 miles of desert into exile in Babylon.
The people were separated from their land. No one around them spoke their language or ate their food. They were refugees.
The Babylonians likely settled them in a region of the country near the Chebar River, an area devastated by the war between the Babylonians and Assyrians. The refugees were assigned to redevelop the wasted land. Their primary symbol, the Temple, was in ruins. All around them were Babylonian idols. They were strangers in a strange land.
Some false prophets arose among them, notably Ahab, Zedekiah, and Shemaiah, and spoke an easy, optimistic word for the exiled community. “Don’t unpack your luggage. Don’t settle down. Be ready. God will arise, and you should, too. This exile will end soon.”
But the prophet Jeremiah knew better. Back in Jerusalem, he received word of the message of the false prophets. He wrote a letter to the exiles, which is found in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, chapter 29. We have been reading a portion of this letter, verses 10-14, each week of this series.
Jeremiah wrote to the exiles a message very different than the words of the false prophets. He wrote these words from the Lord: “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 (meaning, Babylon) to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:4-7). Then he continued: “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:10-11).
Build. Plant. Marry. Multiply. Seek the welfare of the city. Pray for Babylon. These are the activities of establishing a community for the long term. Did that last one catch you off guard like it did me? Pray for the welfare of your captors. In his Sermon on the Mount some 500+ years later, Jesus would teach, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Jeremiah directed the community not to resist or revolt against Babylon.
The command to build, plant, and marry echo passages in Deuteronomy and Isaiah, in which building, planting, and marrying around reasons for exemptions from participating in Holy War. The people are not to mount an armed insurrection against Babylon. We may wish that Jeremiah had told them to fight back, but there is a practicality in Jeremiah’s strategy: “in the welfare of the city, you will find your welfare.”
The exile is to be their home. It is the place where these people will fulfill God’s promise to their ancestors Abraham and Sarah: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2, 3b). The exile is where they fulfill the word of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:6-7).
There are times when many of us feel like we are in exile from ourselves, or at least in exile from the person we expected to be or would like to be. As a parent, I have a picture in my mind of what a parent is supposed to be. Wise. Patient. Understanding. Respected. Then I get into an encounter with one of my kids, and I feel anything but wise, patient, understanding, respected. In those moments, I feel like I’m in exile from the person I want to be. Have you ever been there?
At other times, things happen over which we have no control. We wake up one morning and feel like we’re exiled from the way we thought our life would be. Without warning and with no chance for discussion, a trusted supervisor hands you a pink slip and walks away. A marriage relationship goes down in flames. The doctor comes out of the operating room and says, “We did all we could.” In those moments, sometimes we feel we need to drop out of life for a while, at least out of the life we knew.
But then Jeremiah texts you or sends you a note that says, “Build. Plant. Multiply. Pray.” These aren’t just random commands. They turn out to be gifts from God, because through them, God helps us discover a sense of purpose and community within exile. These words contain an implicit promise: God is with you, even in exile. God has already provided the resources we need to make a home in the exile. We may have to do the work of gathering the stone and wood. We may have to find a field to plow. Jeremiah’s words assure us that within exile, God is with us to help us make a home.
As I pondered this passage, I was also struck by the world “multiply.” In it, I hear an echo of the creation story of Genesis 1. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God told humankind as God blessed them in Genesis 1:28. The specific reference there is to having children, but in the broader context of the creation story, the command to multiply points to the larger purpose of God for humankind. By including this word in his letter, Jeremiah told his people that, even in exile, they could be who God has created and called them to be. Even in our times of challenge and exile in life, we can be who God has created and called us to be.
What does all this have to say to the church? In the New Testament, Christians are sometimes referred to as “aliens” or “exiles” in the world. It doesn’t take much examination and reflection to realize the truth in that analogy. We live in a world full of idols that threaten to draw our attention away from God. We encounter values and behaviors that are alien to biblical living. We don’t hear much language about love, grace, and self-sacrifice for the good of our neighbor. Instead we hear working hard to deserve approval, self-fulfillment through consumption of more, promoting your own self-interests. We see the tacit acceptance of injustice or the denial that injustice even exists. We hear individualism, narcissism, and feel-good religion, among many other values.
Statistics also point to this reality. Studies by Pew Research show four in ten millennials – those born 1981-1996 – are religiously unaffiliated. A majority of Millennials find religious people to be less tolerant of others. Less than half believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, and they are less likely to say that it’s important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values. Research in 2020 by Gallup showed church participation shrank across all generations and religious non-affiliation grew for all generations. The Barna Group found that 35% of people who have opted out of church say it is irrelevant to their lives, while two in ten said they feel God is missing in church, and one in ten says that doubt is unwelcome.
The Church is in exile, and God calls the Church and the Christians who are make up the Body of Christ to be countercultural. Or, in the words of Jeremiah, to build, plant, multiply, and pray. We develop a genuine Christian community whose home is the exile. We live here. But we are also to help the other peoples of this culture recognize how they can be blessed. We are to live as a light to the Gentiles, that is, to the people who don’t yet know Jesus Christ.
If we look again at the text of Jeremiah’s letter, we read: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:7) The word translated “welfare” is the Hebrew word shalom. We usually think of this meaning “peace,” as in the absence of conflict. But the word has a much broader meaning that makes this command to pray countercultural. In its fullest sense, shalom refers to relationships in community conforming to God’s purposes and desires. To pray for the shalom of Babylon is to pray for Babylon to become a community in which God’s aims of love and justice are expressed in all relationships. To pray for the welfare of the city is to pray for its transformation. To pray for the welfare of our nation is to pray for its transformation.
The Church is called to be a community through whom other families of the earth can be blessed, a light to the peoples, a laboratory of what God offers and what God asks, a living model of the ways in which God makes it possible for all peoples to live together.
When Jesus sent the 70 out to go ahead of him in pairs everywhere he planned to go, those 70 disciples were going into an exile of sorts. He sent them out as “lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). They were going to places and to people who did not yet know that the kingdom of God had come near, among people who did not yet know the joy and freedom of the new life God had to offer them. Some would welcome them with openness and peace, while others would greet them with hostility and rejection. Still, Jesus sent them into the world with no weapons, nothing to protect themselves, nothing to provide for themselves, but only with his blessing, his power, and his word to be his agents of hope. They were to bless those who received them and not retaliate against those who didn’t. As they journeyed through their exile, they were trusting God to lead them, to make a way, to provide for them, and to protect them. They went as messengers of a new way of life known as the kingdom of God and agents of Jesus embodying a future with hope for all who would accept the good news.
Jesus still sends his Body, the Church, as exiles and as aliens to bring his message of hope and transformation to families, neighborhoods, downtowns, communities, peoples, and nations to the ends of the earth. What might this look like for us?
As individuals, it means that we must be ready and willing to engage others in conversation, to build relationships, and to listen for those moments when we might offer a message of the hope available through Jesus Christ to others. Could it really be as simple as getting to know someone you might otherwise just pass on the street? Yes, and as an example, next Sunday, in the 11:15 service, we will celebrate the baptism of a woman and her three children because someone in our church noticed her on the street one day and began building relationship over months. If we never take the risk to ask or to get to know someone, we can’t fulfill our commission to love others and to offer them Christ.
It also means that we each answer the call to serve Christ in whatever way he calls us to within the church or outside in the community. How can we be agents of hope in the neighborhoods where we live, to our church members and friends, to strangers, and to the community at large? Many of you do this already by giving of your time and talent through a ministry of this congregation or by serving others through community organizations as hands-on volunteers. Do you realize that, in those roles, you are messengers of good news and agents of hope? Some of you serve on community level boards or agencies, and you are also agents of hope and good news. From that perspective, God might reveal to you ways a church like St. Andrew’s can actively partner in transforming our community. Thank you for your service. If you would like more information about ways to serve in the church, please contact myself or Pastor Cathy – we’d be happy to listen to what God has put on your heart.
As a congregation, we must focus beyond ourselves, look beyond maintaining our buildings, resources, and programs, which while important, are to be tools for ministry, not the center of our energies. What does our neighborhood need? What does downtown need? Who are the partners we might engage? Prayer and genuine conversation with our neighbors, listening to their needs and empowering them to address those rather than deciding what they need and telling them what to do, are key as we seek to bring hope.
The good news is that God is already going ahead of us. In the Exodus from Egypt, God went before the community in a pillar of fire and a column of smoke. At the empty tomb, the angel told the women, “He is not here … He is going ahead of you to Galilee.” In the Babylonian Exile God was at work in Babylon before the exiles arrived and went ahead when they returned to Jerusalem generations later. A part of our calling as the church is to catch up with God and to help tell the world what God is doing.
If you haven’t already completed the Readiness 360 survey online, I invite you to do that online before midnight tomorrow. This instrument will help us understand in what ways we are ready to go with God into the future.
Please pray for our congregation and its leaders as we enter a season of examination and discernment of God’s future directions for our church. We’ll be engaging in four workshops in November and early December with a facilitator from the Conference to help us have conversations about God’s future with hope for St. Andrew’s.
I leave you today with a question for prayer and reflection: How can you work with God to build, plant, multiply, and pray in Findlay and throughout the world? May God grant you insightful reflection as you listen. Amen.
 Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion and Not Coming Back,” FiveThirtyEight, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/millennials-are-leaving-religion-and-not-coming-back/, 12/12/2019. Accessed 10/23/2021.
 Jeffrey Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx, 03/29/2021. Accessed 10/23/2021.
 “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church,” Barna Group, https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/, 03/24/2014. Accessed 10/23/2021.