This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on October 9th, 2016.
This sermon series began last week in Lamentations 1:1-6 and ends in a few weeks in Joel 2:23-32. This allows the pastor the opportunity to trace the arc of redemption as told through Israel’s story with God. This is the foundation of Christ’s coming, through which this story finds its fruition and fulfillment. Such a sermon series allows a congregation to re-engage the movement of their own life with God, starting in Lamentations with disorientation over their own sin and its consequences. This confrontation with sin is necessary if a congregation is to engage in the faithful application of hope toward Joel’s vision of life and land indwelled with the presence of the Spirit.
Therefore, this sermon moves with Israel deeper into the anguish of exile that Jeremiah describes, and initiates anew for God’s people the foundational posture of life with God – hope and faith. Hope and faith are the posture of God’s people that propel them into a world that lacks, a world whose reality remains a pale vision of God’s covenant promises. Jeremiah began his prophetic career at the end of the seventh century, at the close of Assyria’s reign, and he prophesied through the Babylonian conflict and the subsequent exile of God’s people. Although Jeremiah consistently warns of doom for Israel at the hands of Babylon, his book is primarily about hope, the hope of Israel’s restoration. This theme is explained as Jeremiah communicates that Israel’s God is in charge of creation and is eternally faithful to God’s own promises.
Jeremiah is not arranged chronologically; instead, it is edited according to overarching themes. The book begins with Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet to the nations and ends with prophecies against the nations, including a final chapter on the fall of Jerusalem. Within this meandering story of warning and doom is a word of hope and restoration. This is the word Jeremiah prophecies to the people in 29:1, 4-7.
Jeremiah 29:1 orients the content of verses four through seven. This verse shows that what follows is from a letter that Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the people whom Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon. Scholars argue that the exiles had only been in Babylon for a short time. If this is the case, then the year is quite close to 597 BCE. The prophet most likely used diplomatic channels, sending this letter with Israelite officials who had been made part of the Babylonian government in Israel. Such officials would travel between the vassal state and Babylon carrying tributes and ensuring continued servitude to Nebuchadnezzar.
Jeremiah’s letter addresses the mistaken notion that the Israelites would return soon to the Promised Land. Other prophets were spreading a false message of naiveté, but these were false assurances not based on the promises of God (Jeremiah 29:8-23). The focal verses for this sermon, however, center not on the false message of the mistaken prophets. Instead, this sermon centers on Jeremiah 29:4-7. Here, YHWH speaks through Jeremiah, first commanding the Israelites to build and settle; plant and eat; marry and give birth. This is a command that reminds the people that a posture of hope does not gloss over suffering. God’s rescue of people and the world never ignores the calamity of our sinful choices. Nor does God’s rescue move around it, jumping automatically toward shalom. Instead, God’s rescue of people goes with them through the midst of their suffering. What does this look like in the real world?
As Jeremiah communicates, it first means choosing life. It means living fully with God and God’s people wherever they find themselves. Jeremiah communicates that Israel’s identity as God’s people is not found primarily in land, temple, or king. Instead, their identity as God’s people is found in their relationship with YHWH, despite their circumstances. Therefore, the people of God are to live, imaging God on the earth as God’s people, regardless of the particular piece of earth upon which they find themselves.
If this was not revelation enough for the elders in Babylon, Jeremiah speaks a shocking command from God. The prophet says, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into. Pray to the Lord for it…” (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV). Here Jeremiah urges the people of God to view their identity in YHWH as an opportunity to engage their neighbors, rather than withdrawing into isolation. God calls the Israelites to move into their communal vocation, tying their identity to the promise to Abraham, rather than the promise of a particular piece of land. God promised to make Abraham a blessing to all the nations of the world. This blessing occurs not through the hard boundaries of nation-state borders but through the permeation of God’s people into a broken earth. As such, this blessing occurs not through the prosperity of Israel over against other nations, but through the suffering of God’s people for the sake of others, including their enemy.
What direction might this sermon take in the arc of God’s redemption narrative? One might invite a congregation into the tension of hope and faith lived daily amongst the uncertainty of exile. The Israelites, and Christians today, live within the tension of an eschatological certainty and a present uncertainty. What are the simple, daily life practices that produce a posture of hope and faith for Christians today? One might translate Jeremiah’s call to build and settle, plant and eat, marry and give birth. What does it look like to remain hopeful and faithful to God within these everyday occurrences? What do hope and faith look like in the midst of such daily events when our lives are broken, when we experience suffering or lack?
A second direction this sermon could take concerns living faithfully as aliens in a land that denies the validity of God’s redemption story. Jeremiah urges the people to avoid the harmful extremes of living as aliens in a land of unbelievers. He does not advocate isolationism, withdrawing into an enclave of faithful communities that avoid the wider culture. Neither does he advocate hostile demands of an unbelieving culture, coercing the Babylonians into YHWH worship through force or manipulation. Instead, Jeremiah provokes the Israelites to engage the community around them, seeking the peace and prosperity of the Babylonians and even praying for their enemies. Such engagement does not require syncretism; instead, it fully remains in a posture of hope and faith while inviting the unbelievers in one’s vicinity the soul freedom to respond. Such a sermon may preach well in an increasingly post-Christian culture.
Matt Walton, D.Min.
Associate Pastor of Missions & Spiritual Formation
Southland Baptist Church, San Angelo, TX
Tags: babylon, covenant, suffering, hope, faith, exile, redemption, israel, enemy, culture