The Art of Living in Exile

A sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14. Preached at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Good Thunder, MN

A lot has changed since I was here with you all last, some for the better and a whole lot for the worse. I would guess, given that we’ve been living in the midst of a pandemic for 18 months now, that many of you could say the same. Life has been hard and full of grief these last few years for our nation, but even this difficulty pales in comparison to the experience of the Israelites to whom Jeremiah wrote the words of our scripture today.

Their sacred space had been destroyed, and they themselves hauled off as spoils of war to Babylon. They lived against their will in the midst of those who had been their enemies, those who had killed their loved ones, and plundered the house of their God. And God’s prophet Jeremiah, relaying the word of the Lord himself, told the people that they would be staying in this terrible exile for 70 years. The babies they’d carried out of Israel would be grandparents, or not even live to see the return that the Lord promised through Jeremiah.

Two years ago, I would’ve said that there’s no way most of us can understand the devastation that God’s people were experiencing in the moment that Jeremiah’s letter comes to them. But now? I think maybe we have an inkling, we’ve known a lot of suffering, lived in exile from many of the things and people we love, those who were dear to us have died, and many of the things we’ve held dear, including our churches, will never be the same.

And that inkling of understanding, that bit of empathy for the Isrealites in their exile makes Jeremiah’s words all the more shocking. We so often just lift verse 11 out of this chapter and hold to its promise, putting in on wall art and graduation cards. And we miss the rest of the shocking words of God to his suffering people.

Build houses among those who have ruined your life, God says. Put down roots among your enemies, literally, plant gardens. Go on with the business of life, says the Lord, including fulfilling my original commandment to my people, to be fruitful and multiply. And maybe the hardest advice of all, seek the welfare of those who’ve harmed you, because if they do well, you will too.

Welfare. That’s the same thing God promises to the Israelites in that famous verse 11, at the end of their exile. In the original language, Hebrew, that word is Shalom. We often translate shalom as peace, but it is really about whole body, whole community, whole earth well-being. Shalom is the state the world was created in, where God’s creatures live together in harmony, each fulfilling the role they were given by God, all in mutually life-giving relationships.

So the shocking thing that God is saying through Jeremiah is this: Even in this place of exile, where you have gone because of disobedience, where you live under the rule of your conquerors, I am with you and will use what you build and plant to bring you and your captors shalom. 

I don’t know about you, but before I built any house or planted any garden, I would’ve been really mad at God. How dare God suggest that we should work together with our enemies for the good of the whole society? How dare God tell us to move forward while we’re still grieving a devastating loss? 

There is good news in God’s message, of course, but when we are deep in grief and suffering, it is okay to be angry that anything good can come of tragedy. It is okay to be furious at any suggestion of redemption. Jeremiah himself, in other places in his book, rails at God with all manner of accusations. 

But if I have learned anything about the art of living a life you didn’t want, it is that the way forward is acceptance. Even while you’re angry and hurt about what has been, you cannot live anywhere other than the life you have. And trying to do otherwise only leads to more pain.

I think this is what God is trying to counsel his people in their devastation, even though it seems like the last thing they want to do. Of course they are eager to believe those who tell them there’s an easier way out. But God is offering instead a way through, no avoidance, no denial, just a commitment to living the life they have, like it or not.

And in that living, God promises, there will be shalom. You will find peace. You and the land together will be fruitful, and you will even dance at your children’s weddings and rejoice at your grandchildren’s births. And every moment, painful and joyful, God promises, will be useful in God’s economy, which works all things into the weaving of shalom, a future with hope. 

Live the life you have now, people of God, even though there are surely things you don’t like about it. Invest in the places you live and the people around you, even if you want to be elsewhere or wish that more people were here with you. Seek the welfare of those who you consider your enemies, because in God’s economy, Shalom is for all. And in those moments when your life feels heavy and you wish you could just escape it, lean into the promises of God that this too will come to an end. Your future is full of hope, even if it is not the future you dreamed, because God is in it with you. The plans God has for you, and all creation, are good.

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