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“When a prophet gets it wrong””

Date: November 29, 2021/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
First Advent candle lit.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14.

By the rivers of Babylon—

     there we sat down and there we wept

     when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

     we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

     asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

     “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?[1]

How, indeed…

We wept many bitter tears those first few months in exile.  Some of us gathered in little groups around the city—the Babylonian capital, where we lived in a ghetto just over the wall from the city dump—to weep and mourn together over the calamity we’d been through.  Some of us talked of revenge and of overthrowing our captors, but it was empty talk; how could a small band of exiles hope to take on the Babylonian imperial army?  We talked simply of escaping, going over the wall and through the dump and on back to Jerusalem, but we knew there was no way we could get back across the desert.

Ultimately, the only option seemed to be to sit down and wait, resisting the Babylonians as we could, and praying with all our might that God would deliver us from our captivity.  So that’s what we did.  We sat down, and we waited.  We waited, and we wept.

And then we got the letter from Jeremiah, who was still in Jerusalem.

He wasn’t the first prophet who tried to address our situation, but his message was different from what those other prophets said to us.  They told us our exile would be short, that we’d be back home in no time—after all, we were the chosen people, placed by God in the Promised Land forever, and God dwelt in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  They said all we had to do was resist the Babylonians and call on God, and we’d be delivered just like our ancestors were delivered out of slavery in Egypt.  (They conveniently left out the reality that our ancestors were enslaved for centuries before God delivered them.)  They assured us that exile was a temporary aberration, something that would be soon rectified, that things would quickly be set right so our lives could get back to normal.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, told us that we would be in Babylon for a long time.  Therefore, he said, get on with your lives.  You aren’t going home any time soon.  Things aren’t going to get back to normal.  You need to live where you are, where God has put you, because this is the new normal.  Build yourselves houses.  Plant gardens.  Work.  Marry and have children.

And he said—and I think this was the part that was the most upsetting—pray for the peace and welfare of Babylon.

Well, our priests and prophets hit the roof.  Everyone knows, they said, that we are meant to live in the Promised Land and worship at the Temple of the Lord on Mount Zion.  Everyone knows that God established us there forever.  Everyone knows we are God’s chosen people, and we are called to pray for the peace and welfare of Jerusalem, as we have always done—“May they prosper who love you; peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”[2]

That prayer wasn’t to be said for Babylon!  Why would we want peace and welfare for them?  We wanted them to get what was coming to them.

The exile psalm, the one I started out with, number 137, ends with the kind of prayer we should be praying for these Babylonian dogs:  “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”[3]

The Babylonians, by taking God’s chosen people captive, have proven themselves enemies of God.  It is not God’s will that we be here, and it is not God’s will that Babylon be rewarded with peace and prosperity.  This will not stand.  God will see to that.

God will not bless them, and it is heresy to tell us we should pray for God to bless them. God will destroy his enemies, and our job is to pray for that to happen, and watch and wait—if we can do nothing to help bring it about—until it does. 

We do not need to settle in here in Babylon—we simply need to watch and pray and wait.  We must not live here in Babylon as though things were normal, because they aren’t.  This is not the time for people to be getting married or having children—they would never make the trip back that we’ll be taking very soon when God delivers us.

Jeremiah did say we’d be restored to our land—but he said it would be 70 years!  We’ll all be dead by then!  He said God will be with us in exile—but everyone knows God lives in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah is wrong.  We must not listen to him.

So we didn’t.  Our prophets in Babylon sent a reply back to Jeremiah, letting him know that he had been judged a heretic.[4]  And we sat down and continued to wait, continued to pray that God would overthrow Babylon and deliver us back to the Promised Land.

But about ten years later more of our people arrived in Babylon, more of them taken captive.  They said the Temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem in ruins.  They told of the horrors of siege—starvation, disease, cannibalism.

What they said made it clear that we weren’t going to be going home anytime soon.  In fact, there wasn’t any home for us to go back to.  And God’s house was gone—the Temple where he said he would dwell forever!

Some of us just gave up.  Figured that God was gone forever, that we were no longer the chosen people—assuming we ever had been.  They moved across town, married Babylonians, and forgot about Jerusalem and about God.

Some of us tried to make sense of what had happened to us.  We looked back over our history and the Law—what of it we had written down at that point—and realized we hadn’t been faithful to God.  We realized that the exile may well have been God’s will, that God intended for us to be sent away from the land because of our disobedience.

Maybe God would punish us forever.  Maybe God had abandoned us as a consequence of our misbehavior.  That shattering realization just made matters worse; this horror we were living through was our fault.

But then we remembered the words Jeremiah had written in that letter so long ago.  We got it back out and read it again.  And we realized Jeremiah had been right all along.

We realized we were going to have to make the best of the situation we were in, to try and learn what it was God wanted us to learn there.  We had to live the lives we had now. Resistance to Babylon would be futile; there simply weren’t enough of us to make any difference against a great empire. Our well-being was intertwined with Babylon’s now:  if Babylon suffered, we would suffer, so it did make sense to pray and work for Babylon’s peace and welfare.  And if we didn’t marry and have children in Babylon, there wouldn’t be any of us before too long.

There was a promise in Jeremiah’s words:  God had not abandoned us to our fate, and we would one day be restored to our land.  It would be a long time, but God was with us in the midst of exile.  God would hear us when we called to him.  We would find God when we searched for him.

And so we built houses and lived in them.  We planted gardens and ate what they produced.  We married and had children.  We prayed for Babylon, for the people of Babylon, for the welfare of Babylon.

And as we prayed, a lot of the grief and rage we had had against Babylon began to ease up, leaving room in our hearts for hope.

We even began to study the Law, to keep the Sabbath, to eat the Passover feast together.  And as we called on God and remembered what God had done for us in the past, we came to know without a doubt that our God was still with us, and could be trusted to care for us even now, even in exile.

It is quite possible that Jeremiah’s words saved us. 

Because we took his advice and got on with our lives, we survived and even thrived until we were able to go home.  Because we trusted that God was with us even in the midst of exile, we were given the grace to be faithful to God as we never had been in our own land.  We began to collect our stories and write them down, along with eh Law, the words of the prophets, and our songs and prayers.  Eventually we added some other writings to those, and they became the Bible—the Hebrew Bible, what you have today as the Old Testament.  But it started in Babylon, in exile.

We learned it wasn’t the land or even the Temple that made us the people of God; it was God’s presence and God’s grace that sustained us, and would always sustain us no matter where we found ourselves, no matter what life threw at us.

And so I have some advice for you who come after me, you who are Christians in America in the 21st century.  You are at the beginning of a time of expectation, on a Sunday focused on hope.  You know how it used to be.  You see glimpses of life when the Sunday school classes were overflowing with children and adults.  You see times when all a church had to do was open its doors and it’d be full.  You see times when the culture around the church listened to what the church had to say, when church was the center of life, not just one more entry on the to-do list—if people even think that much of it, these days.

Then you look around at where you are now.  It’s not the same.

Nothing you have tried has taken you back to those good old days.  Your conversations are filled with “used-to-bes,” which lead only to despair.

Here’s my advice, following on what Jeremiah said to us so long ago:  You can’t go back there.  Those days are over.  You’re in a new world now.

Sometimes it feels like exile, maybe even like punishment.  It’s scary, and it’s hard.  You want things to be the way they were.

But you need to live the life you have now, not spend your energy wishing things were the way they used to be.  Seek the peace and well-being of the world you live in—because it’s in figuring out how to bring peace and well-being to your world that you will find renewal and hope.

And remember this:  God is with you, even here, even now, and has plans for you.


[1] Psalm 137:1-4

[2] Psalm 122:6-7

[3] Psalm 137:9

[4] The rest of the 29th chapter of Jeremiah describes the exiles’ reaction to Jeremiah’s letter and the letter they sent to him in response.

Sunday morning worship, November 28, 2021. CCLI streaming license#20546947.