Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Not too long after I started attending the church where, later, Mike and I got married and I did my seminary internship, the congregation decided to join forces with First Christian in Portland to co-sponsor a refugee couple from Haiti. Their names were Jean and Atemise; he was in his mid-20s and she was 19, and they were expecting their first child.
Because of his work and social connections, their lives were in danger in Haiti during the political upheaval that gripped that country in the mid-1990s. So they—like many others—sought to leave, to seek safety in the United States.
Jean and Atemise were on the last plane that was able to leave Port-au-Prince in the spring of 1994. We went out to the Portland airport to meet them. They were absolutely exhausted when they arrived, with one suitcase that contained everything they had brought from home, to begin their new life in America. Jean spoke a little English; Atemise spoke none at all.
They were to stay with the Van Dykes, a family from our church, until the local refugee agency and our two churches could find and furnish an apartment for them.
A few days after they arrived, those of us who had been there when they arrived got a call for help: The clothing Jean and Atemise had brought with them was suited to the climate in Haiti, not the much cooler and damper climate of late spring in western Oregon, and they were cold. So we went through our closets and found warm things for them—in my case, a cardigan that had been my dad’s for Jean, and a red sweater my mom had knitted for Atemise.
The political situation in Haiti calmed down awhile after that, but Jean and Atemise didn’t go back. I have no idea if they ever even wanted to return—and if they ever thought of it, my guess is that the major earthquake several years ago put an end to that. All their children were born in the United States, and they connected with and became leaders in the community of Haitian immigrants living in Portland. They bought and renovated a house, which they shared with some other Haitian families, and in their turn welcomed other immigrants from their native country. Once they were eligible, they became American citizens.
Imagine leaving the only home you’ve ever known—leaving in a hurry, with only what possessions you could carry. Imagine doing that without any idea when, or if, you would ever be able to go home.
People all over the world, and throughout history, have had that experience. Some have been refugees like Jean and Atemise, or like Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus when they had to flee to Egypt in the middle of the night as Herod’s soldiers prepared to slaughter all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-23). Others, like the ones to whom Jeremiah’s letter was addressed or their descendants 2,500 years later in central and eastern Europe, were forcibly taken from their homes.
Jeremiah’s letter, which is our reading for today, was written to the first group of exiles taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, during the decade between their deportation and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. It seems that they had been given the mistaken impression by some of their prophets that the exile would last only a few years—twenty at the most—and then they’d go back home, and everything would be as it had been before. They were sitting in their Babylonian ghetto, just waiting and stewing and fretting, refusing to do anything else, because why bother working or raising families or putting down any roots when they would be going home right away?
Jeremiah wrote his letter because he believed the exile was going to be a whole lot longer than these first deportees thought. “I have bad news for you,” Jeremiah said; “but there is good news, too.”
Jeremiah told the exiles they might as well not put their lives on hold, because they weren’t going to be going right home, right back to their normal lives, right away. “Life isn’t going to go back to normal,” he said. “You need to find a new normal.”
Naturally they didn’t want to hear it. They were not willing to give up their dream of returning to the life they’d always known. Jeremiah’s message seemed traitorous, and they told him so.
But a decade later the second wave of exiles arrived, with terrible stories of the siege of Jerusalem and all the horrors that come along with siege: starvation, disease, cannibalism. They told of how the walls were finally breached, and the city and God’s Temple burned to the ground.
Jeremiah was right. The bad news he had written to them had come true, and not only were they not going to be heading home soon, but there wasn’t any “home” to head back to anymore.
But Jeremiah had had good news, too, although that first group of exiles couldn’t—or wouldn’t—hear it. He said, “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what you grow. Get married and have families, see your children marry and have children of their own; be fruitful and multiply. Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city where you’ve been taken, because as that city prospers, so also will you. One day, God has promised, you and your children and your children’s children will go home.”
And then comes the part that echoes throughout history, down even to the present day, the really good news: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.”
No, you won’t be going right home, and everything won’t be just like it was before. But God is still with you.
Jeremiah was right. The exiles’ descendants in Babylon discovered they could still call on God, and God heard them. They could still keep at least some of God’s commandments, even that far away from the Holy City. They began to gather to study what they had of what eventually became the Torah, the Law, what we have as the first five books of the Bible: some written materials, some stories handed down knee-to-knee from parent to child, and the book that had been started at home years before Babylon came—the book we now know as the book of Deuteronomy.
Those gathering places, where they studied and prayed, were the ancestors of that enduring Jewish institution we know today as the synagogue.
And do you know what? When the brutal Babylonian empire became corrupt and weak, and the Persians took it over with very little bloodshed and put an end to Babylon’s practice of ethnic cleansing through deportation and exile, not all of the Babylonian Jews went home. Many of them remained there, studying God’s word, teaching their children, keeping the Sabbath and possibly celebrating Passover.
It was in Babylon that the Torah took shape; Ezra the priest brought it back from there to Jerusalem, where it was read and taught to the restored community there, decades after the exile officially ended. It was in Babylon, centuries later, that the record of Torah interpretation Jews study to this day, the Talmud, began to be assembled. It was in Babylon that God’s people learned that God’s promise always to be with the people was a promise that would not fail.
Even though, as Jeremiah and many others believed, the exile was God’s punishment for their sin, God had not and would not abandon them forever.
It was an important lesson for the people, who had sort of pinned God down in the Jerusalem Temple, to learn. They had come to understand God as located only in the Temple. God could only be called upon there, through the priests and the sacrificial system that operated there. That had compounded the crisis of exile: If we can only know God, only talk to God, only understand God, in one place and one way, then any change to The Way We’ve Always Done Things is a threat to our relationship with God.
Jeremiah’s letter and the experience of exile show us otherwise. We might find ourselves far from home—literally or figuratively—but we will never find ourselves far from God. A new normal may be a long time in the making, and if anyone says it’s an easy process they’re lying. But God remains with us.
God is here as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. God is here as we try to figure out how to celebrate our cherished holidays amid a deadly pandemic. God is here in the midst of economic trouble, anxiety, whatever we face. God is here in the aftermath of tragedy or disaster. God is here. No matter what.
Centuries after the exile, a Jewish man who’d grown up far from Jerusalem, and who had come to be a follower of a rabbi named Jesus, wrote a letter to a community he loved. He encouraged them to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Notice he didn’t say to give thanks for all circumstances. We can’t do that.
Anybody who dares to tell a family who has just had to say goodbye to a loved one via Zoom or FaceTime as they died alone in a covid ward that they should give thanks for that horror would rightly be shown the door. But are there things for which they can be thankful, even in the midst of such a tragedy?
I used to belong to a Facebook group called “Things They Didn’t Teach Us in Seminary.” As you’d imagine, it was made up mostly of pastors, seeking advice and support as we go about our ministries and encounter situations for which no class could prepare us.
Just before Thanksgiving a few years back, a young pastor, who I’ll call Richard (because it’s not his real name), asked for help as he got ready to lead his congregation’s Thanksgiving service. The problem was, Richard wasn’t quite sure what Thanksgiving meant at that moment.
He and his wife had been ecstatic to discover they were expecting their second child. But she miscarried, and then suffered complications that resulted in an emergency hysterectomy to save her life.
Richard came to that Thanksgiving with very mixed emotions. On the one hand, he was very grateful that his wife was alive. But on the other hand, now they had to deal with the loss not just of the baby they were expecting, but of the possibility of ever having any more biological children. (Yes, I know there are other wonderful ways to welcome children into a family, but Richard and his wife were, understandably, not at all prepared to think about that right then.)
So what did it mean for Richard and his family to give thanks to God at that time?
It turns out that very few of us manage to get through life unscathed by difficulty or even tragedy. And there are things for which we simply cannot be thankful.
But right after Thanksgiving comes Advent, and the theme of the first Sunday of Advent is Hope. What we learn as we go through difficulty and loss and grief and tragedy is this: Like the exiles discovered as they sought their new normal, God is with us through it all, never failing, never forsaking us. We may walk through dark valleys, but God remains right beside us. We have been taken care of before, and God will take care of us now and no matter what comes to us in the future.
So, yes, we are able to say, as the exiles and their descendants have said through the centuries, amid dispersion, amid destruction, amid poverty and deportation and even attempts to wipe them off the face of the earth: “Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for you have blessed us…”
 My Bible as Literature professor at Wichita State, Dr. Meyers, said, “They went into exile as Israelites, but they returned as Jews.” The difference is that their identity became shaped not by a shared nationality but by a shared faith and Scripture.