I can never just take a text and do an expository sermon, because texts don’t exist in isolation. All of the texts of scripture are part of a fabric, woven and interwoven as a story within the book, and linked to other books and eras, and the fabric of these stories expands and extends, and reaches through time and space to intersect with our stories. We don’t understand the texts of scripture best when we understand them on their own, but when we understand how they link into our stories, how they challenge us, how they call us, how they call us to repentance, because they call us to God and, though we are always looking for God, we so often look in the wrong places. It’s as though we are in a strange land, looking for who knows what, and we need something to show us the way home. Jeremiah was speaking to exiles, many of whom were still lost at home, but they would soon find themselves in exile, and in exile they would find themselves.
Michael Frost in Exiles reminds us that the church is God’s community in exile, we are not at home, so how shall we then live)? What do promises that are unrealized mean for those in exile? What kind of hope is hope deferred?
These are questions we ask from time to time; when we need to find meaning for our existence. These are questions soldiers ask on the trenches when bullets fly overhead and they don’t know if they will ever see home again.
These are questions we ask when we lose loved ones and yet we must journey on.
These are questions we ask when work is boring, when relationships are more taxing than rewarding, when we are hungry and dinner is too long to wait.
Perhaps some of Jeremiah’s most famous words, and also his most misappropriated words, are spoken to precisely this situation, but we need to backtrack a little further to get the context for these promises for those in exile.
Jeremiah began warning his people of the folly of their ways long after the northern tribes of Israel were taken into exile (722BC), but just before, and during the time, when Judah followed her northern sister to similar fate. Things come to head when Jeremiah tells the Jews remaining in the Promised Land that unless they make a dramatic turn in their way of life, they too will be removed from their comfortable enjoyment of the promises of land and rest and prosperity. “For twenty three years I have warned you again and again, but you have not listened” 25.3 It is about this time that the first captives are taken from Jerusalem and Judea and taken into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar whom, adding insult to injury, Yahweh calls “my servant” 25.9 Jeremiah is threatened with death for his audacity 26.8 How dare he?!?! This is the place that Yahweh had made his home, and their God ruled, so how dare Jeremiah proclaim the destruction of this place, this city, and the exile of God’s people into oppression under the ruleless rule of heathen infidels? This was blasphemy and Jeremiah must die! Fortunately there was enough dissent among those in authority that he escaped the death penalty for his proclamations.
In fairness to the people who seem needlessly confused with the benefit of our hindsight we must remember that Jeremiah was not the only prophet who claimed to speak God’s words to the people. Throughout Israel’s history as recorded in the OT there are conflicting voices about what Yahweh’s word to his people actually was. Moses had warned the people about false prophets, but the criteria was not only about predictions that came true Dt 13. Even false prophets can get the future right sometimes, so the distinction between false prophets and true is more complicated. If the predictions of a prophet came true, but his message was one that turned the people from the ways of Yahweh, tht prophet was a false prophet and should die for his transgression. There is no easy way to tell true prophets from false, and the only way to discern required careful listening, and comparing the words of prophets to the word of Yahweh known from Israel’s past.
Hananiah is one such false prophet who claimed to speak Yahweh’s word as a direct challenge to the word of Jeremiah. He took the yoke that Yahweh told Jeremiah to wear as a symbol of the bondage that Nebuchadnezzar would foist on Israel (27.2ff), and Hananiah broke that same yoke as a symbol of how he said Yahweh would break that bondage within two years (28.11). Jeremiah’s prophecy, on the other hand, was that things would get worse before they got better. The first captives from Jerusalem had been taken captive some 10 years earlier, and more would follow in another 10 years and, far from captivity being over in two years, it would be 70 years before later generations would return to Jerusalem.
So how then should the children of Israel live while in exile? Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles 29:4-14
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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.
And there you have what are likely Jeremiah’s most famous, and yet most misunderstood words 29.11. God’s plans are indeed to prosper his loved ones, to give them hope and a future, but first their deeds will cost them 70 years of exile. While they were in exile they were to build their lives as they would if they were at home, though they could not be expected to, nor should they ever, forget that they were not at home. There is a curious parallel between the 70 years Israel was to spend in exile, and the 70 years that David noted was the allotted time of human lifespan. Is this reminiscent of our lifespan on this terrestrial sphere as an existence in exile? In some ways it is true that we are not at home here, and yet we make it our home, and we believe we do so in some way in obedience to the Creator’s will. We build houses and till the soil, we marry and raise families, all to the glory of God, making homes, yet often feeling not at home. We yearn for God’s blessing, and we experience God’s blessing in spades, yet almost always long for more. We hope, and often realize the fruition of our hopes, and often not, but is that hope deferred? Or is that just the reality of mundane existence here? What does God mean when he says “You are going to Babylon for 70 years. Make homes there for yourselves, make houses, and gardens, and families, and seek the prosperity of the cities in which you settle. But I will bring you back.” Bring us back?? In 70 years?? Get real, Yahweh! I can almost hear the exiles complain “Our bones will be staying in Babylon!” But God says 29.11-14
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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 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, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
What follows in Jeremiah is repeated encouragement to make homes in Babylon, to walk in the ways of God, and to keep the faith in spite of exile, in spite of friends and neighbours, in spite of even family who choose the ways of evil. Keep the faith for it is Yahweh`s will; it is Yahweh`s plan to restore Israel. God will restore his people, not because of their faithfulness, but because of his own faithfulness. In fact, the old covenant was always lopsided in favour of God`s responsibility to uphold the covenant (remember the ratification ceremony in Genesis 15, where Abraham sleeps while Gods indicates his commitment to the covenant), but the new covenant would be even more so 31.31-40.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to[d] them,[e]”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
35 This is what the Lord says,
he who appoints the sun
to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars
to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea
so that its waves roar—
the Lord Almighty is his name:
36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”
declares the Lord,
“will Israel ever cease
being a nation before me.”
37 This is what the Lord says:
“Only if the heavens above can be measured
and the foundations of the earth below be searched out
will I reject all the descendants of Israel
because of all they have done,”
declares the Lord.
38 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
Yahweh had always lived up to his commitments under the old covenant, even when Israel did not. That was the problem with the old covenant- it allowed Israel to wander. It left room for Israel to break the covenant, to break the relationship with her God - her lover, even when her lover was faithful (hear echoes of Hosea here). So Yahweh planned a new covenant, one that would predispose his children to know Yahweh, because to know Yahweh is to love Yahweh. He would put his law (and this should not be understood simply as rules to be obeyed. Think of this more as the law of the universe, the code by which the world works, the law by which the righteous live; the law which alone is the way of life) He would put his law into their minds, and write it (not ‘laws’ or ‘them’ - plural, but ‘law’ and ‘it’ - singular) on their hearts, and they would all know him, from the least to the greatest. God would never, no, NEVER reject his children for their actions. What they deserved was not the criteria. Henceforth what God desired would be the standard.
But Jeremiah`s words take a very fascinating turn - 31.38-40
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
This city (Jerusalem) would be rebuilt as Yahweh`s city. All of it from the Tower of Hananel, to the Corner Gate, to the hill of Gareb and then toward Goah. The whole valley where the dead are buried and where ashes are discarded, all the terraces of the Kidron Valley as far as the Horse gate, will be - holy to the LORD! Some of these geographical terms are obscure and the precise boundaries of the territory are unknown, but the geographical terms are not the most significant descriptors of this new Jerusalem, because what is clear is that some of the very spaces that are foundational images and metaphors of hell will be - holy to the LORD. Does this mean that hell doesn`t have a future? The place of the dead? The place where ashes are scattered, the place where all that is left when the fire that consumes finally goes out, is discarded? Even this place will be holy to Yahweh?
Maybe even now not everything is clear, but everything is hopeful. No, not everything is hopeful, but in everything, there is hope. Not because of circumstances, or because of a better tomorrow for us, but because Yahweh has plans. What kind of hope is that? What kind of hope is that?