First Mennonite Church
July 17, 2022
Still Praying While in Exile
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14
We should remember that in the ancient world, every people group or nation had its own god, and in many cases, a pantheon. Therefore, when these nations went to war, they considered it a war between their gods. The victors claimed their god(s) were greater than that of their defeated enemies.
The Israelites were a monotheistic people. That is, they had only one God, as stated in Deuteronomy six, verse four: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord God of the Armies or of host, was the God of the Israelites. And although Israel had suffered losses in battle, the Babylonian exile became a major theological crisis for the Judean people in the time of Jeremiah. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Davidic monarchy came to an end, and the people were taken away from their homeland. Why did Yahweh allow that to happen? Was he indeed defeated by Marduk? What about his promises regarding the land, the Davidic monarchy and of his eternal presence in Zion, the city of God? The Babylonian exile threw the Jewish faith into a profound theological dilemma.
When the Judean people were brought to Babylon, they were greatly confused, humiliated, and horrified. Having been conquered by the Babylonians could have been interpreted as if Marduk, the Babylonian god had conquered Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. Marduk stood majestically in Etemenanki, “the great mountain of the god” the 25-story high ziggurat in Babylon. There, the Judean exiles were sucked in the huge metropolis of Babylon. There, they seethed with bitterness, were desirous for revenge, and for an imminent return to their homeland. The exiles hated everything around them. The Babylonian practices were abhorrent to the Jews, just as they did to their God who had brought them to that place. They walked around holding their nose shut, hating the smell, sound, and looks of everything. For how long would they have to suffer the ignominy of their defeat? For how long do they have to hide their faces? For how long would they have to bear witness to the repulsive practices of the heathens?
There were voices telling them it was a matter of short days, but those voices were of false messengers and not from Yahweh.
Then came the letter from Jeremiah.
The general sense of the letter dispelled any hopes of an imminent return to their homeland. The letter insisted the refugee community must surrender its old identity and must accept its marginal status in the land it found itself. You see, the letter was addressed to the priests, tradesmen, prophets, the king and queen. Could it be that they all were clinging to their former titles, prestige, and social statuses? Could it be that their former social status became a major obstacle to fit within their new surrounding?
We, Lilian and I, have friends here in the US who in their homelands were nurses and government employees. Here in the US they are now housecleaners and construction workers. Also, about a year or so ago, I was reading a MEDA magazine, Marketplace. MEDA stands for Mennonite Economic Development Associates. There was an article about some refugees in Canada. In it the story is told of a taxi driver. He used to be a doctor in his homeland and he is not the only former doctor driving taxis. Passengers are now saying they rather have a heart attack while riding a cab than at home because it’s likely the cab driver is a doctor and can give them aid right away. These refugees laid aside their former statuses and did whatever was needed in order to survive in their new world.
Jeremiah’s letter to the exile community called it to go beyond just seeking their own survival. They were to build homes, marry and give their children into marriage. They were called to plant vineyards and to enjoy the crop, all of which signaled they were there for the long haul. And then, they were asked to do something that would go beyond their wildest imagination. “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The apostle Peter interprets the believer’s sojourn in the world as that of exiles and aliens. We are not from here. We are just passing by. Home is someplace else. But that does not change who we are. We have a higher calling. We are here not because of our will. We are here because God has brought us to this place and at this time. So, what are we to do? How are we to live in this foreign place, regardless our time in it is only temporary?
It could be that just as the Judean people felt completely out of place in Babylon, the church of the Lord is also waking up to that reality. The church of today lives in world that is foreign and unimaginable some 50 years ago. Much of the world’s practices are detestable to our God. Racism, violence, bickering, injustice, indifference to the suffering of others, selfishness and greed rule the day. The powerful live in total disconnect of the realities of the lowly and downtrodden. Moral decay and corruption are rampant. Everything stinks and it could be that we too might be walking, holding our noses at the stench of the world. It could be that we, too, are overwhelmed by what we see. We are overpowered by the forces of the secular and pluralistic world around us. It could be that everything see and hear around us make us feel helpless and hopeless. The power of Babylon, its crowdedness and way of being make us feel completely out of place and in exile. We cannot change Babylon and its god(s) stand high. But it could also be that many Christians still want to hold on to the legacy the church had in ages past, when Christians were majority. Therefore, there are still many who want to hold to the power. Some still want to hold on to status, of being decent people who would rather be found dead than mingled with those who are not.
But Jeremiah’s letter might be telling us today to embrace our minority status instead of resisting it. The letter from Jeremiah might be reminding us that the God of salvation is not only for those who sit in the pews on Sunday, but also for those whom seldom, if ever, think about God. The letter of Jeremiah might be shocking call to the realization that our existence, the power to witness, and our thriving as God’s people do not depend on our numbers and much less our power, but on the One who has chosen us to be his people. The letter from Jeremiah might be a reminder to us that faithfulness to God does not depend on the place we are, nor the conditions of our surrounding, but on the intimate relationship between us and our God. And that is by praying to God not only for ourselves, but for those whose way of life we might find difficult to accept. God is asking us to pray for those we believe live the Babylonian lifestyle. We should pray for those who worship and bow down to Marduck. We should pray for those who are violent in their ways. Our survival and eventual flourishment as God’s faithful people is tied to the survival and flourishment of the world around us, even if their ways are hard to bear.
Let me tell you something, the sense hopelessness many Christians feel about the direction of the world comes from their sense of losing influence, based on their numbers. As Christianity dwindles, many think that it is also losing its political influence in society.
However, in God’s scheme of things and according to our passage today, real hope, both for us and the world, is found by our embracing our marginal status, yet at the same, by falling on our knees pleading with God for our society. It was after God had told the Judeans to pray for the peace of the city where they found themselves in that he declared this:
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 (v. 11).
Our hope and the hope of the world, according to God’s word in the letter, lay not in some immediate relief from the problems that afflict us now. The hope of the world depends on our faithfulness as God’s people to intercede for the world around us. Only then will there be a future with hope, both ours and the world’s.
And then, we, God’s people will inherit the promise: Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord of Hosts.
According to this letter, it is not only possible to pray in exile; it is an imperative, if we truly want to be God’s people of hope to our world. Amen!