“Home Sweet Home.” “Home is where the heart is.” “There’s no place like home.” But what if you must leave your home? What if you find yourself far from home? I want to explore the theme of “home and exile.”
We will look at an important letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. It is a letter of hope and comfort to people who have lost their homes, whose lives have been turned upside down. They are dislocated, displaced persons. I think the letter has things to say to us in our time.
To understand the significance of this letter we need some background.
First of all, Jeremiah was a prophet, so what is a prophet? We tend to think of prophets as predictors of the future, which is not entirely wrong, but they are more like “canaries in the coal mine” who warn of impending danger. The prophets of ancient Israel were chosen by God and sent to warn the people that they were not walking in the ways of God.
So Jeremiah was a prophet of God, who prophesied during the reign of the last kings of Judah, in the first half of the sixth century BC. Israel had split into two kingdoms, Ephraim in the North and Judah in the South.
Jeremiah was from Ephraim, but God sent him to Judah to prophesy there in Jerusalem, which was the capitol, the seat of the monarchy, and the location of the temple.
Jerusalem carried great symbolic meaning as the center of Israel’s cultic life, so an assignment from God to prophesy there was a big deal.
Another important feature about Jeremiah is that he was an outsider. He was from Ephraim. He was also, at the outset of his call from God, a very young man, and told God he was too young to do the job. God said, “Don’t worry. I’m God, I’ll have your back.”
We know that God’s ways are not our ways, but it seems odd that he would send this up-country boy to the capitol to be his spokesman. It would be like sending a teenager from Millinocket, Maine or Barre, Vermont to Boston to speak truth to power at the state house.
Our reading is the letter Jeremiah sent to Hebrew exiles up in Babylon. By the time of this letter Jeremiah was no longer a young man, but had been doing his prophet’s job for some time, speaking God’s warnings and judgments against the kings and the people.
On God’s behalf he accused them of not following God’s law: they were neglecting the widows and orphans, and they were exploiting the poor. These were all symptoms of the spiritual un-health of the kingdom, and if it continued bad things would happen.
By the time he wrote this letter bad things had already happened, which is why the exiles are up in Babylon.
In doing research for this sermon I got the eerie feeling that “the more things change the more they stay the same” because much of the background for today’s lesson is about generations of war in the Middle East.
Ancient Israel was a tiny kingdom, about the size of New Hampshire or Vermont, and it was wedged precariously between large kingdoms. To the South was Egypt, and to the North was Assyria, later Babylonia, and Persia. During the years of monarchy in Israel the small kingdom had survived by a series of submissive treaties with its bigger neighbors.
In Jeremiah’s lifetime the big threat first came from the Assyrians, whose capital was Nineveh, which was located in what today is, wait for it, the city of Mosul, in Northern Iraq. For many years the Kingdom of Judah was a puppet state of Assyria that sent annual tribute to Nineveh. Tribute is a polite term for ‘protection money.” Assyria was like the feared mob boss who commanded submission. Imagine Tony Soprano saying, “You got a nice little kingdom here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it!”
But the Assyrian Empire was eventually eclipsed and overturned by an even bigger and badder Empire, the Babylonians. Judah now became a submissive vassal state of Babylon. Now the protection money flowed to Babylon. It was in this world of foreign domination over Israel, first to Assyria and then to Babylon, in which Jeremiah grew up.
As we have seen his prophecies were often judgments against Judah for their unfaithfulness to God, and he saw the Babylonian control over Judah as God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness.
He clashed with the kings of Judah over what we might call foreign policy. They saw their future with a better alliance, pitting strong Egypt against Babylon, and they foolishly stopped paying tribute to Babylon.
Bad idea! The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was having none of it. He took an army to Jerusalem, conquered the city, and took away about ten thousand of the city’s leading citizens to Babylon. Before they left, the Judean King died, and his 18 year-old son took over. The Babylonians took him, too, and his mother up to Babylon.
This is the context of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, displaced persons now living in a foreign land, trying to adjust to new ways of living and being.
And what an adjustment it must have been. Babylon was not just any foreign city. It was a really big city, probably the biggest city on earth at the time, and the first ancient city to have over 200,000 occupants.
It is never easy being an exile, but it was especially hard for a people who believed their God was very much attached to a particular place. For Jews at that time their faith was very focused on the land and especially on its capitol, Jerusalem, with its temple. The question for these exiles was the one posed in Psalm 137, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Some of you might recognize that text from the song “On the Willows” from the musical Godspell.
The common wisdom among these exiles was that the solution to their plight was to return to Jerusalem, to the land, the temple, and the monarchy that were the center of religious life for them.
This exile seemed temporary and they could wait it out. And that seems to be what their prophets and diviners were telling them. If God was indeed punishing them by their captivity and exile, it would only be for a generation, about 20 years. They could do that.
Jeremiah has a different message. As God’s spokesman he tells them not to believe their false prophets and diviners. “Don’t believe their lies, for I did not send them, says the Lord.”
No, God says, this exile will last a lifetime, 70 years, so you had better hunker down in Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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.”
The challenge for all exiles, all immigrants and aliens, is how to live in a foreign land, adapting enough to survive without losing your identity, in this case their identity as Israelites, who worshipped the God of Israel.
And there is some evidence that this was a struggle for them during the 70 years they were there. The Book of Esther comes from this period, and Esther was not a Jewish name, but is a variant of Ishtar, a Babylonian deity. Likewise Mordicai is a variant of Marduk, another Babylonia deity.
It is hard to hold on to your faith far from home. Because in the ancient Middle East gods were local gods, very much identified and attached to their specific locales. There is a very radical theological idea that Jeremiah is putting forth in his letter. He is telling them that their God doesn’t only dwell in Jerusalem, but also in Babylon.
In fact, elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet challenges the three pillars on which Jewish life rested: the monarchy, the land, and the temple. Our God, he tells them, is a big God, who inhabits all the corners of the earth. You can worship God even in Babylon.
One of the reasons Jeremiah is such an important figure and book is that in just a few years those three pillars of Jewish life and identity would be gone. In 587 BC Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army came back, conquered the land, abolished the monarchy, and destroyed the temple.
Jeremiah’s vision of a God not bound by place became an important word for his people, and I think it remains an important word for all displaced persons.
So one takeaway for the church today is that in life’s many changes, dislocations, and displacements, God is still with us.
Let me share one of my own displacements. My seminary, Andover Newton Theological School, is selling its beautiful, historic campus on the Hill in Newton to go to Yale. I was on the Hill in September for a last alumni gathering and it was bittersweet, for that place was important to me. And I had to remember that our faith is a faith of hope in the face of discontinuity, and that the church will go on. Yes, I knew God in that place, but have found God in other places in my life’s journey.
The Great Story the Bible tells is a story of seeming dead ends in which God finds a way to be faithful to his promises. God promises Abraham he will father a great nation that will bless the whole world. That promise seems absurd since Abraham is old and his wife Sarah is beyond the age of childbearing, but they do have a son, Isaac, who now carries that promise. Again and again the promise seems imperiled, the story seems to come to an end.
This is a story we know. On the lonely hill of Golgotha the broken-hearted disciples who had seen in Jesus the fulfillment of the Promise thought that finally there on the cross, the story had come to an end.
In the light of Easter we believe that the story didn’t end.
And that is the good news the church has to tell to all of us in our several dislocations. No matter what the changes you face, God is not done, and your life with God is not done, and the story goes on and you are part of it.
Today, many of our churches must close or change radically the way they have always done things, and it might seem like God has left them in their dislocation.
Each time a congregation disbands, or leaves a building behind, there is grief and loss. People mourn the places where significant events in their lives, baptisms, marriages, funerals, took place. God was once here for me, but now that place is gone. It is the challenge for all exiles.
And actual exiles are not just in the past. We are witnessing in our own time the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing from war and terror.
We are seeing heart-breaking pictures of whole families fleeing their homes, leaving everything but the clothes on their backs, taking perilous risks in a search for safety and a new home. These are displaced persons. The world is full of them, and the church is called to help them find a new home.
Sadly it is not a new story. The story of America is a story of waves of displaced persons who found a new home here. My grandfather’s people, French Huguenots, fled religious violence in the 17th century. My wife’s Greek grandparents escaped “ethnic cleansing” in Turkey. Her Jewish grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and his family came here after the war. These were displaced persons who found a home here.
But there is not only political dislocation, for many in our time there is economic dislocation. There are many people who have lost good jobs, and have had to move to seek new ones. They have left homes and faced the challenges of exile.
So to all who are displaced and dislocated what is the word we can hear from Jeremiah today?
This is what Jeremiah tells the exiles. God’s not done with you, so wherever you find yourself: “Bloom where you are planted!” He advises them: “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.”
His advice is to make your new location your home, to make its welfare your welfare, to see its fortunes as tied to your fortunes. And I think there is a word here for congregations to be actively and intimately involved and invested in the welfare of their particular communities, as I know you are here in Little Compton.
Jeremiah’s message is a word of hope and promise that God will never abandon us, that wherever we go God is with us.
That is a word of hope for every generation. Because in some sense all of us are displaced persons, no matter where we live, no matter our circumstances. We are all pilgrims on a journey, longing for our true home. In the book of Hebrews it says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” —Hebrews 13:14
Here’s the final word from Jeremiah, and from the gospel. Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, you are assured of God’s presence with you. At home, away from home, in life, in death, in life beyond death God is with you. Thanks be to God! Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the United Congregational Church in Little Compton, RI on November 6, 2016.)