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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/13/2013

In some ways this week’s part of Jeremiah is a response to last week’s Psalm 137, a psalm which, based on the comments of some of you, did get your attention.  The last line about happy are those who dash the heads of little ones on the rocks is hard to overlook; it can’t help but make you wonder what’s going on.  But before that, there is a question posed by these humiliated and displaced people of Israel as they face the taunts of the Babylonians and their call for the captives to sing them a song of Zion.  The question is, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?”  Today, Jeremiah provides something of a response.

First though, a little background:  Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet making the rounds during this time.  There were also false prophets circulating, false prophets who were much more inclined to tell the people what they wanted to hear.  Hananiah was one such prophet.  Like Jeremiah, he claimed to have the word of the Lord, a word which said that within two years they would be back in Jerusalem, the time of exile would be over and everything would be back to normal.   Jeremiah said, “Amen!  May the Lord do what you’ve said.  That’s sounds good” 

But he also said to Hananiah, “However, I have reason to believe you’re wrong.  I have a different word from the Lord concerning you and what you have said.  The Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.  Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘I am going to send you off the face of the earth.  Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.’”  According to the text, in that same year, in the seventh month, Hananiah died.  So much for the false prophet.

At which point Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles, part of which was today’s reading.  Jeremiah’s word from the Lord wasn’t nearly as optimistic as that of Hananiah.  Basically he told the people you might as well settle in because this may take awhile.  Stop your lament, stop feeling sorry for yourselves and get on with life.  “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 so they may have sons and daughters.”

Remember, for the most part these people weren’t what we would think of as slaves; Babylon wasn’t like Pharaoh’s Egypt.  In Babylon they were captives, there were hardships, but if they went along with the Babylonian program and didn’t cause trouble, things were tolerable, they could go about their business.  They weren’t free; they weren’t allowed to go home, that’s true, but that was mostly so they couldn’t rebuild and get strong again as a nation.  At that time, exile was a way of scattering your enemies and keeping them weak.

That first part of Jeremiah’s message, the this may take awhile part, was no doubt disappointing to the people; certainly they would have preferred what Hananiah had prophesied, but there was to be no quick fix.  It was going to take awhile and it did; about 70 years.  So while that part of the message was disappointing, the rest of what Jeremiah said must have been even more difficult for the people because while they had revenge on their minds (witness Psalm 137) Jeremiah said to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  Pray for your enemies in other words; pray for their welfare not their destruction.  It wasn’t what they expected or what they wanted.  Now we know that Jesus said the same thing several hundred years later and we also know that 2000 years after that it’s still hard for us to do, to pray for our enemies.  We’re often more inclined to thoughts of revenge just as the people in exile were.

The call to pray for our enemies is difficult but the first part of Jeremiah’s message presents its own difficulties.  First of all though, one has to be careful not to interpret what he says about this may take awhile as just a call to resignation, a call to give up; a “you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em” kind of thing.  It also shouldn’t be interpreted as Jeremiah telling the people to just get over it and get on with life.  That kind of advice can be tempting sometimes when you see someone who seems unable to get past a particular loss or grief and their life just seems to stop.  It can reach the point where that kind of harsh word needs to be spoken, but not right away and it really wasn’t what Jeremiah was saying in this case.

Jeremiah’s intension here is actually one of reassurance.  He wants the people to understand that God is not absent from life in exile.  Even life among those the exiles would call their enemies was conducive to life and growth because their God was still present and involved.  But again, it would not be a quick fix.  In fact, there might be no noticeable difference at all.  The people would not necessarily see clear evidence of any divine activity.  Jeremiah though, was assuring them that such activity was taking place.  God’s intentions for them were still being realized.  That’s what makes this such a good text for us to think about.

When you read the Bible there’s a lot that does seem to involve instant and dramatic results.  Someone asks Jesus for healing, Jesus snaps his fingers and there it is!  The crippled walk, the blind see, the deaf can hear, lepers are cleansed and so forth; and we wonder why it doesn’t happen that way for us.  What makes it even more difficult is that I think, more than ever, we live in an instant gratification world.  We want it and we want it now!  We don’t want to wait because we know we’re bad at waiting.

And then there’s this text from Jeremiah that says this may take awhile.  “The Lord will be at work,” he says, “you can be sure of that, but you may not notice any clear evidence of it and maybe not for a long time.”  That’s not what they wanted to hear; that’s not what we want to hear either, but doesn’t it describe much of life?  Yeah, you can get some things quickly but a lot of the more important things in life still take longer.  God is at work but it’s not usually a snap of the fingers God; it’s God working slowly through the processes and activities of life.  So Jeremiah told the people to build houses and plant gardens.  He told them to keep on keeping on.

I hadn’t realized it I guess, but Jeremiah’s advice to the people in exile in a lot of ways, for better or for worse, describes my philosophy of ministry these days.  Pastors and other church leaders do hear and read a lot about the church in decline and it gets depressing.  Then you read other articles that I think are supposed to be encouraging about something some church somewhere has done and turned everything around and instead of feeling encouraged you feel even more depressed because you know you can’t do that, or it wouldn’t work in your context anyway.  It’s tempting though, to go for some program that promises a quick fix.  Maybe you put pressure on yourself, maybe there’s pressure from others, the congregation, the bishop, whoever.

More and more though, I think Jeremiah’s advice to the people in exile is good advice for the church today: keep doing what you know how to do.  Keep doing what Jesus has called you to do.  Don’t sing the blues about how bad things are or wax nostalgic about how great things used to be.  Keep proclaiming the gospel and keep welcoming and caring for people as Jesus did.  Keep doing the things that the church is called to do and trust that God is not absent and importantly, don’t give up because things aren’t changing quickly.  We keep singing the Lord’s song, even when it seems like we’re on alien soil.

The work we are called to is not of the snap your fingers, quick fix variety.  It’s slow and deliberate, but as Jeremiah tells us, so is much of the work of God.  It flows through the ordinary activities of our lives usually in non-dramatic ways.  But God’s intentions for us, for the church and for the world will be realized.  The promises will be fulfilled.  In Jesus we have seen how things end, but we still live in the not yet of that promise.  In the meantime, we pay attention and give thanks for those times, those moments when our eyes are opened and we can see.  We give thanks for the brief visibility of the invisible, for the times when the unknowable work of God is made known.   

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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