This past December, when I planned our midweek Lenten sermon series, “Living in Exile,” I never expected how close to home that would hit just a few months later. Yet, our absence from each-other’s presence is not the same as a real exile. And God has not withdrawn his presence from us. Through Lent, we talked about Abram, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and one of my favorite prophetic voices—Jeremiah.
After the Babylonian General-turned-king Nebuchadnezzar had taken Judah into exile, there were still some residing in Jerusalem. The Babylonian exile happened in three major waves: 1) 605 B.C. 2) 597 B.C. 3) 586 B.C. at which point the city of Jerusalem and her temple were completely destroyed.
During this time, there are letters sent back and forth between Babylon and Jerusalem. We find the content of several of these letters in the Book of Jeremiah. In a moment we’re going to read a particular letter, authored by Jeremiah himself, which was probably sent between the 2nd and 3rd waves of the deportation—exile. The situation is getting worse and the permanence of it all is beginning to set in. This isn’t just some temporary thing that will end in a few weeks. It’s going to last 70 years.
So Jeremiah, who is still in Jerusalem, writes this letter to those Judahites who have been taken from Jerusalem and will now live out the rest of their lives in exile in Babylon. This is Jeremiah 29:4–14. The letter says:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
First, I’d like to address the instructions that the Lord speaks through Jeremiah and then the promise. God tells his people, “you’re going to be there fore a while.” He tells them to settle there—to make lives for themselves there and to grow as a people. “Build houses. Plant gardens. Get married. Have kids.” Many of them would be there for the rest of their lives. He’s telling the Judahites to live out their lives as a part of a new and foreign society. Live among the people who have taken them out of their own homes. I can’t imagine that was an easy thing to do.
Then he says something further: “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.” Pray for your new city. You should want what’s best for those people who were once your enemies and are now your neighbors. And if they do well, that means that you’ll do well too. When you think about it, it’s rather obvious.
How important it is for us to pray for our city, our state, our nation, our world. We want those around us to be well. We don’t want them to live anxious lives or to suffer in any way. We want them to be well off—to have a home, to have food on the table, to be healthy. And we want this for ourselves and our families. Many of us find ourselves in a new situation. We’re not living in exile in a foreign country, but this has become an unexpected change—seemingly overnight—from one wave of changes to the next. We’re not in exile, but we are scattered. And what I gather from what God has to say to the Judahite exiles now living in Babylon, through the Prophet Jeremiah, is that we should do what we can with it. It won’t last 70 years, but it will last long enough to have dramatic effects. Are we just sitting low and waiting it out, or are we doing something with it? Are we living our lives anticipating a new reality when all of this is done?
The promise here that God makes to his people in exile is one that is pretty well known, I think. Jeremiah 29:11 is often quoted as a memory verse, and this is the context. God tells his people to settle, but when the time comes, he’s going to visit them. Not only that, he’s going to bring them back. Though they’re scattered now, God’s people will be united again.
Life won’t be exactly the same as it was before, but he will indeed bring them back to the land that he promised their ancestors—that he promised to Abraham 1,300 years prior. He tells them, “For I know the plans I have for you… plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” He knows their past, he knows their present, and he knows their future. God doesn’t reveal his plans to his people very often. But here he says that this is all a part of his plan for them. And one of the keywords here is “hope.”
He will give them a future and a hope. And hope is a very powerful thing. He tells his people that when they seek him, they will find him. And 600 years after all of this happens, God goes even further to come to his people himself and live among them. And now, when we, those of us who were never taken into exile in Babylon, when we look to Jesus, we see the object of our hope as God’s people today.
We aren’t always privy to knowing what God is up to—in fact, as I said before, it’s not something that he reveals often, BUT as long as our eyes are on Jesus, we know that we can trust him. We can trust Jesus in difficult times. We can trust him in times that we doubt ourselves—in times that we make our own share of mistakes. We can trust him even as we come to him as sinners, who don’t deserve his love. We can trust him in times of change—times of uncertainty. We can trust him as we live in exile—dispersed—even in our own land. And when we need someone to be there. When we are all alone and nobody will come near, Jesus is there. Jesus can’t be quarantined. The 6-foot rule doesn’t apply to him. Jesus is there. He’s not going anywhere.
He is our hope. He is our source of encouragement. Jesus is our faithful leader, our Savior, our friend, our Wonderful Counselor, our Prince of Peace in uncertain times. When’s the last time you spoke one on one with Jesus?
In closing, I encourage you to seek the welfare of the city—the place—where the Lord has put you. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. And look to Jesus in all things. He is our future; he is our hope. There is no better place for us than in his hands.