by David Baer, November 26, 2017
Text: Jeremiah 29:1,4-14
If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans. I’ve made plenty of plans in my day, and I’m sure I’ve made God laugh more than a few times. I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone. In the movie, McFarland, USA, Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, a high school football coach who loses his job at the beginning of the film. The only school that will take him is in McFarland, California, a town peopled with farm workers of Mexican descent. His family has just begun to weather the culture shock when Jim has a disagreement with the other football coach, and the principal keeps him on as a teacher but makes him step down from the football program. All Jim can think about is getting out of this town where he doesn’t fit in, where he can’t coach, where he never wanted to be.
And then something happens. Jim notices how fast one of the students runs from school to his part-time job in the fields, and he persuades the principal to let him start a cross-country running team that finds unimaginable success in its first season. As he wins the trust of his neighbors, he becomes part of a community that lifts up and stands beside him and his family. And so by the time another school comes looking to recruit him, he doesn’t want to move. Jim White came to McFarland as an exile, but he found there not a life he would have chosen, but a good life worth holding onto.1
“But 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.”
Has something like this happened to you? Have you been moving along, following some plan you had for your life, and found yourself … someplace else? Was it frustrating? Liberating? Crazy-making? Maybe you followed the detour and got back on track. Maybe you decided you didn’t need to get where you were going in the first place. Maybe you’re on a detour right now. The point is that life rarely turns out the way we plan it. It’s true that we need plans, but when we take those plans too seriously, God starts to chuckle.
This fall we’ve been reading the story of God and God’s people in the order the Bible tells it. Last week we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah offering hope to God’s people as they faced an invasion from the Assyrian empire in the north. A child is born for us, said Isaiah, a king to protect the people from their enemies. And the invasion failed. The Assyrian armies retreated. The people were saved.
Maybe some of them started to believe the city of Jerusalem was invincible, because God had promised to protect them forever. Their city housed the symbols of God’s promise—the Temple, God’s home on earth; and the king, the descendant of King David, God’s favored one. Now they could do whatever they wanted to do, because they had God’s protection. They could forget about honesty in their economic dealings, they could cheat the poor and steal their land, because nothing really bad could ever happen. They could worship other gods in order to make political and economic alliances with other nations, because they couldn’t imagine any negative consequences. This was their plan. It was a terrible plan, but it seemed logical at the time.
Well, to make a long story short, God upset their plan. A new empire arose in the north, the Babylonians. They invaded with their army. The unthinkable happened: Jerusalem fell, the king was taken captive, and the leading citizens of Jerusalem, the ones with the plan, were taken across the desert to Babylon, where they lived out their days in exile, and their children after them, and their children’s children. And this was a spiritual crisis as well as a political one. It was believed in ancient times that a god ruled over a particular corner of the world, and that if you strayed beyond those boundaries, you couldn’t pray to that god and you couldn’t expect any help either. These people had lost not only their home. They believed they had lost their God as well.
What do you do when your plan fails? What happens when your presuppositions, your superstitions, your intuitions about God are shattered? Do you give up on God? Do you get yourself into a funk? When the plan fails, is it the end of the story?
No. Jeremiah writes a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon to tell them that the story is not over—it’s just a different story than what they thought. The people’s illusions about God have been shattered—and the true God shows through the ruins. Jeremiah sends the exiles a message from God: embrace the new plan, my plan for you, for your well-being, for your growth—you are right where I want you to be.
The story that God’s people are living in isn’t the story they would have chosen for themselves, but God wants there to be absolutely no mistake about who is writing this story: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…” (emphasis added). The Babylonian army, carrying out the commands of King Nebuchadnezzar, carried the exiles away. That’s the historical reality. But beyond the historical, the deeper forces of God’s purpose, God’s design are at work. The exiles are filled with sadness, rage, frustration that they are not where they planned to be, that they have been taken from their home. But don’t rage at the Babylonians, God is saying. I did this to you. I’m the one writing this story. That’s the first point God needs to make, because everything else depends on it. The exile, the detour, the upsetting of the plan is not the result of random chance or historical accident—it is the work of God.
Let’s be clear: not every terrible event is a reflection of what God ultimately wants for us. There are times when I believe God weeps for and with us at the brokenness that causes us pain. And there are other times when God is trying to get our attention by poking us with a sharp stick. Jeremiah and the other prophets understood the Babylonian exile to be one of God’s sharp sticks, and they wanted to be sure the people knew it. That’s why God takes responsibility for sending the people into exile. But whenever you find yourself in a detour, whatever the cause, it’s worth asking the question: where is God at work in this disruption of my plans?
What does a people in exile do? If it’s not the end of the story, what do we do now? If the last plan didn’t work out, what’s the new plan? God’s voice speaks through Jeremiah: “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.” In other words, lead your lives. Go on living in the place of exile where you find yourself. Put down roots—build houses, plant gardens. Don’t dream of getting back onto the road you were traveling before. Follow the road you’re on now as best you can. Enjoy your relationships. Raise your children. Live your lives. When you find yourself in a detour, when your plans have been turned upside-down, cling tenaciously to the present moment, and not to the fantasy of what might have been.
But there’s more. It is not enough for the Jewish exiles to thrive as an insular community, cut off from their neighbors. God has a grander purpose for them in their place of exile: “Seek the welfare”—the Hebrew text says “seek the shalōm,” well-being, peace, fullness of life. “Seek the (shalōm) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its (shalōm) you will find your (shalōm).” The exiles are being asked to do their best to bless their place of captivity. They are being asked to look for every opportunity to bring shalōm to their new city. And they are given the promise that every bit of shalōm that comes to Babylon will come to them as well, that as they bless their place of exile, they will be blessed in return.
This is a remarkable thing for God to ask of them. Even in the scriptures we find expressions of sadness and anger from the exiles. One of the psalms even ends with a fantasy of revenge, as the exiles imagine how happy it would make them to slaughter Babylonian babies. But God is telling them to pray for their enemies, to pray for their place of exile and imprisonment. And what’s more, in this command from God there is a promise that God will answer those prayers, that God will bring blessing to the exiles and their captors: God says, “when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.”
Before coming to you all in Allendale, I spent some time as a chaplain at an assisted living home in Massachusetts. I started a weekly prayer service for the residents there, and without thinking too much about it, I read them a daily lectionary lesson from the book of Jeremiah. These words, speaking to a people in exile, a people who aren’t where they want to be, a people who have lost their home and the plan they had for their life—these words spoke to those older men and women, and opened the way to a lot of fruitful conversations about blessing neighbors and finding blessing in a place that would never quite be home.
Do you find yourself in a season of exile? Sometimes exile doesn’t require us to go somewhere else…. Our families can grow and change right out from under us. Or we might find that the values that undergirded politics and culture weren’t as strong and as durable as we thought they were. Can you identify with this feeling that you aren’t at home anymore? What do you do when you find yourself living as an exile?
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday in the church year, and it’s the day we celebrate Jesus Christ as the one to whom God has given all power and authority. And what I hear in the words of this letter from Jeremiah is a powerful confidence that there is no exile that can separate us from God. God was not defeated when Jerusalem fell. God doesn’t fade out of our lives when our plans fall apart. God goes with us into our places of exile, the places we find ourselves when we’re not where we thought we’d be, not where we want to be. God goes with us into exile to meet us there, to bless us there, to make us a blessing.
“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.” Whenever you find yourself in exile—and you will, if not now then at some point in the future—whatever detour God’s providence leads you down—whether it’s being out of work or caring for a sick relative or something else—whenever your plans get disrupted and upended, may you look for God moving through you in these moments, and may you find blessing by becoming a blessing to your place of exile.
Will you pray with me?
O God, Where can we go from your spirit? Or where can we flee from your presence? If we ascend to heaven, you are there; if we make our bed in Sheol, you are there. If we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead us, and your right hand shall hold us fast. If we say, “Surely the darkness shall cover us, and the light around us become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
When we cross out of the borders of the place we thought we needed to be, the place where we thought you confined and locked away, meet us in our place of exile. Bless us to be a blessing, and trust that one day, in the fullness of time, you will bring us home. Amen.
McFarland, USA. Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Dr. Niki Caro. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2015.