As many of my friends can tell you, I tend not to be a heavy user of the telephone. While I give my telephone number to acquaintances and friends as a means of getting in touch with me, for the most part, I tend to communicate best either in person or via e-mail.
That being the case, when my phone rings and a friend’s name unexpectedly pops up on the screen, I have come to instinctively anticipate two potential outcomes that may occur by the time I hang up the phone.
There is, on the one hand, news of great joy: a new baby born, friends getting married, a new job or impending retirement.
The other outcome is, however, quite stark: a family member has died, a surgery has had complications, a relationship has ended, a job has been lost.
One phone call bearing unexpected news always seems to fall at one end or another of my emotional spectrum – either leaving me exhilarated with joy or saddened by loss – with little room in between for other emotions. I suspect this has been the experience for many of us at some point in our lives.
As we continue our journey through the book of the Prophet Jeremiah today, we find a message sent by the prophet to all of Israel in exile in Babylon that touches both ends of the spectrum of emotion that we so often experience when picking up an unexpected phone call.
The Old Testament readings over the past several weeks have left us well aware of the situation the exiled Israel faced as it arrived in Babylon.
We have heard how Israel had come to believe that the relationship God established with David and the kings that followed him would deliver it from all threats, leading Israel to ignore the cries of the prophets.
We have heard of the deep pain felt by Israel when the walls of Jerusalem fell as they moved to exile and Babylon and sought to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, and seen the deep anger felt by the Psalmist as Israel wept by the waters of exile. Indeed, Israel was left wondering if God could even hear their cries of pain and suffering when they were so far from the temple of Jerusalem.
All these experiences are in Israel’s collective conscience when it receives the unexpected phone call from Jeremiah that is today’s lesson.
Just as soon as Israel arrived in its exile, even more false prophets had arisen, predicting the swift demise of Babylon and the return of Israel to Zion.
The same covenant theology that led many to believe that Jerusalem could never fall was now leading to the hope among many that exile would be as short and sweet as exile could be – both without consequence and without pain.
Today’s message from God, sent through the mouth of Jeremiah, would then would likely have fallen upon the ears of the exiled Israel as the unexpected phone call telling us of sad news:
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”
This message brings disappointing news to Israel: not only is Babylon to no see a swift downfall as predicted by Hananiah and other false prophets, but the children and grandchildren of those exiled from Jerusalem can likewise expect for their homes to be in Babylon.
Israel’s exile will not be akin to a two week Mesopotamian luxury boat tour of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but a long, true and lasting exile – one that will span at least two generations.
The message from the prophet must have sounded to Israel like the unexpected phone call does to us – depressing and discouraging. It sounds like what many of us (myself included) have come to hear over the last several weeks as “run of the mill Jeremiah” – a message that brings painful and yet needed truth – that Israel has fallen astray, and that for Israel’s disobedience and rebellion against God – for Israel’s sin – there are a real and lasting consequences.
However, today’s message from Jeremiah, despite its message of a long exile in Babylon, isn’t as bad as it seems. In fact proves to be more like that joyful unexpected phone call we so long to receive.
Today’s message requires Israel to change the way it thinks about God’s life and activity among them.
For centuries, Israel believed that the “glory of the Lord” was localized to the land of Zion, and seated in the temple. While we might use the term “glorious” today to describe the splendor and elegance of a worship space, or a beloved and beautiful landscape, for Israel, the “glory of the Lord” extended well beyond opulent magnificence. It was the very presence of God – the assurance that God sat with them, seated in the temple at Jerusalem. When the “glory of the Lord” was said to have departed the temple, it was to Israel as if God had deserted them completely and forever.
But today Jeremiah tells Israel that despite their expectations to the contrary, God is not localized to Jerusalem. God is active and present among them, Jeremiah cries, even in Babylon, miles away from home, and in a situation of deep pain.
Through Jeremiah, the Lord charges the captive Israel:
“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.”
The command to pray, even for the powers that have forced Israel away from their beloved home, also carries the comfort and affirmation that these will be heard, even in exile. Jeremiah proclaims to Israel that God’s love and mercy for them is not limited by the physical structures or spiritual boundaries with which they have long associated them. There is no place so far away that God cannot hear and reach the beloved people of Israel. God’s all-encompassing compassion for Israel is such that, at the very furthest reaches of their imagination, even there God’s hand leads them, and God’s right hand shall hold them fast.
Listen to the God’s message given through Jeremiah once again: “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.”
A word repeated again and again by the prophet is welfare – a word which to us has connotations of wealth and prosperity.
While I didn’t take any Hebrew classes in seminary, the world translated as welfare happens to be one of the very few Hebrew words I do recognize – shalom.
Shalom indeed implies health and wealth – but above that, shalom means peace. Indeed, those famous words from the prophet Isaiah we hear every Christmas speak of the Prince of Shalom – the Prince of Peace. The word given to the exiled Israel today is that in the peace of the place they find themselves in exile, they themselves will find their own peace.
As Israel settles into what will be a long exile in Babylon, it will find its own peace – one that was lacking before not only in Babylon, but even while Israel remained in Zion. Indeed, just a few verses after today’s reading ends, the Lord promises the return to Jerusalem, and restoration to Israel, saying: “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.” But it will be a new return, a return of a people transformed, knowing that God ALWAYS hears, ALWAYS knows, ALWAYS loves and cares for them.
Here we return to the mystery with which we started today – the phone call that surprises us with unexpected news.
Today we hear, as Israel did, the simultaneous challenge and hope of the prophet Jeremiah: bad things will and do happen to us, and leave us in the deepest and darkest anguish and depression. But our God is not confined to our good times, to our successes and finest moments – indeed, in our deepest distress, we are given the opportunity to seek our own shalom among the exile of our own lives. Often, it becomes convenient to imagine that God is limited to a church building, or an institution, or the current realities that we hold most dear. But the message to us from Jeremiah is clear: God’s mercy knows no bounds.
In a story I was told, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was once asked what his favorite quotation was. He answered not with something from Shakespeare, or from Talmud, or from some other great source of wisdom. He gave only two words: “…and yet…”
We find ourselves plunged into deep depression and despair, separated from those we love and hold dear… and yet even there, God works out plans for our peace.
We wish to confine our world to the thoughts and ideals that have seemingly left things working out “well enough” for us for so long, building barriers between to keep us away from God… and yet God ever finds new ways to reveal the love and grace given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We live in a confusing and fallen world… and yet God is always in the business of making things new, and enfolding us all in the arms of love which once hung upon the cross.