What Disciples Do: Make the Best of Babylon
These were the worst of times. The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem, left the city in rubble and force marched the few survivors hundreds of miles away to Babylon. Jeremiah is bringing God’s Word to these worn-down, worn-out exiles. No home. No fields. Friends and family are dead or dying from the fighting and the fleeing. The Temple is destroyed; the home of God’s presence among mortals is gone. And God speaks, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
That verse is now printed on canvases in a multitude of scripts and designs; it is on journals and quilts and wall decals; it is even on a baby’s onesie. We treat it like a personal promise that everything is going to work out ok. But that wasn’t the message from God that Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites in exile. I feel quite sure that the first readers of Jeremiah’s letter didn’t frame it. “I know the plans I have for you. Plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Here’s the plan: 70 years from now, I will visit you, and fulfill my promise to you and bring you back. It’s important to dig a little deeper into this promise to really know what God is promising. 7, you know is the number of completion, of perfection, of fulfillment. In 70 years, whenever a 0 is added, it just means a long time. So, at the time of completion for Babylon in a long time, I will visit you. Plural you. I will visit y’all. I will return to my people, Israel. This is a promise made to a people, not to any one person.
In other words, this generation is going to live the rest of their lives in exile, and God is not promising to work out the details of their lives, or ours.
It’s like setting the view on your computer screen. God sets the view generations out, and we tend to set the view on the foreseeable future, or at longest on our lifetime. When we put on our bracelet that says “Jeremiah 29:11; I know the plans I have for you” we tend to think of God’s plan for our life, my personal life, or if we are thinking “all y’all” we tend to frame it as God’s plan for our nation, or our generation…
When God’s promise is much larger. Our future and our hope, even in the midst of the exiles of our lives, is that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. In the meantime, we are called to flourish where we are.
Jeremiah writes, “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their 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.” Put down roots, even though this isn’t your homeland.
And “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray on its behalf.” Surrounded by people who were not like them, who didn’t keep kosher, who sacrificed to idols, who didn’t have the same customs or norms or way of life; these people they would normally never associate with, God tells them to engage, to be a part of their society. And to pray for their city of exile.
God’s people are called to make the best of Babylon. Live there – really live – build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children and grandchildren. Serve there – make the place where you are a better place, love the people. And pray – not to go home, not to escape, but for God’s kingdom to come right where you are.
We all have times we are in exile. Whether we read the news and despair at yet another mass shooting, or we experience ways our justice system is not just, or we struggle with estrangement and separation from a part of our family, or we have to make a change in job or move to a new city, or we go to the doctor and learn of disease, or stand at the bedside of a loved one and say goodbye. These are times to change the setting to “God view” – “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And to remember that these plans are not promised in our lifetime, but that God’s purposes are being worked out. God’s Kingdom will come.
In the meantime, we are to make the best of Babylon, flourishing where we are – putting down roots and living our lives in a way that makes the world around us a better place. On Labor Day weekend, we celebrate American workers who found themselves at the close of the 19th Century in the midst of Babylon. The industrial revolution had drawn the masses to cities to work in factories, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, conditions were harsh and unsafe, for low pay. In 1882, workers organized a Labor Day parade, marching in an orderly and pleasant manner on strike for one day calling for “Less Work and More Pay.” They risked their jobs to improve the working Babylons of all factory workers.
In the midst of your Babylon, how will you make the best of it? How will you put down roots and truly live life? How will you seek the welfare of the place you find yourself in? It is through you and me, and God’s people in places of exile around the world that God’s purposes are being worked out in the world, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope.” How will you be a part of bringing God’s promise to fruition?