Build and Plant | Proper 23

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

1 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.

4 The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (CEB)

Build and Plant

There is something vexing about the Gospel. The word, itself, comes to our modern lexicon from Old English where it was Godspel. God meaning good, and spel meaning tale or tidings. In Middle English, they dropped the d, and it became Gospel—Good News.

The difficulty is that God’s Good News—God’s word—is not always welcome to our ears. It’s not always the kind of news we want to hear. There’s proof enough of that in how the messengers who carried that word have been treated throughout history. The people murdered almost every prophet God has ever sent. Tradition holds that the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in two. John the Baptizer was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. God’s word can be so difficult to hear, at times, that it’s unwanted and outright rejected. Sometimes its truth can leave us baffled, thinking: surely there’s been a mistake. That’s probably what the exiles in Babylon thought when they received Jeremiah’s letter.

These exiles were likely part of the first and second waves who were taken from Jerusalem. They were from the middle and upper classes of society. They were members of the royal family and court officials, artisans, craftsmen, and warriors. The prophet Ezekiel was also one of those carried off into exile. Here’s how Second Kings describes the capture of Jerusalem and first waves of exiles:

Judah’s King Jehoiachin, along with his mother, his servants, his officers, and his officials, came out to surrender to the Babylonian king. The Babylonian king took Jehoiachin prisoner in the eighth year of Jehoiachin’s rule. Nebuchadnezzar also took away all the treasures of the LORD’s temple and of the royal palace. He cut into pieces all the gold objects that Israel’s King Solomon had made for the LORD’s temple, which is exactly what the LORD said would happen. Then Nebuchadnezzar exiled all of Jerusalem: all the officials, all the military leaders– ten thousand exiles– as well as all the skilled workers and metalworkers. No one was left behind except the poorest of the land’s people. Nebuchadnezzar exiled Jehoiachin to Babylon; he also exiled the queen mother, the king’s wives, the officials, and the land’s elite leaders from Jerusalem to Babylon. The Babylonian king also exiled seven thousand warriors– each one a hero trained for battle– as well as a thousand skilled workers and metalworkers to Babylon.” (2 Ki. 24:12-16, CEB).

The Jewish historian, Josephus, also records the events in his book Antiquities of the Jews, though his perspective is from hundreds of years later. His figures are 3,000 exiles for the first wave, and 10,832 for the second wave. (Antiquities, 10.6.3 & 10.7.1). So, the number of exiles is fairly close to twice the population of Mount Vernon.

The message the displaced Jews receive from Jeremiah is essentially the same message he had given to those remaining in Jerusalem and Judea in chapters 27 and 28. If you want to live, submit to the king of Babylon and serve him. Don’t resist like some of the false prophets are telling you to do. Jeremiah encouraged the captives in Babylon to settle into life there, and pray in a new way.

His words were almost inconceivable. They were certainly not what they hoped to hear from a prophet of the Lord. These captives were in deep distress from their ordeal. Psalm 137 recounts their sentiments.

Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. LORD, remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day: ‘Rip it down, rip it down! All the way to its foundations!’ they yelled. Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:1-9, CEB).

You see, the people had endured defeat, the devastation of their city, and they were now prisoners whom the Babylonians forcefully removed and resettled. They thought their lives had been destroyed. They were angry and full of spite. They probably wanted to rebel and go back home. If they rose up, surely God would protect them and help them find a way out! Surely, God would crush the Babylonians for the crimes they had committed! That’s the word from God the people wanted to hear.

Yet, through Jeremiah, the Lord tells this captive people to build and plant and get married. The significance of these instructions is that they are the exact activities which exempted men from military service in Deuteronomy twenty.

“The officials will also say to the troops: ‘Is there anyone here who has just built a new house but hasn’t yet dedicated it? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the war and someone else would dedicate the house. Or is there anyone here who has planted a vineyard but hasn’t yet put it to good use? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would use the vineyard. Or is there anyone here who is engaged but not yet married? He may leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would marry his fiancée.’” (Deut. 20:5-8, CEB).

God’s word through Jeremiah told the people not to rebel. God told them to settle into this new life. And it was a hard word to hear. The people are also told to “Increase in number there so you don’t dwindle away.” (CEB). This word, increase, is a covenantal word which affirms God’s promise. It is used several times in Genesis. Adam and Eve are told, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.” (Gen. 1:28, CEB). God told Noah’s family, “Be fertile and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Gen. 9:1, CEB).

When the Israelites were about to enter into the promised land, they were told to offer a sacrifice and say the words, “My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.” (Deut. 25:5, CEB). The connection of that covenantal word, increase, to the days of their forebears in Egypt reminded the exiles that they could survive and grow in a foreign land. “Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away.” (CEB).

One of the interesting things about this letter is that the expected greeting “peace to you” is absent. Instead, the Hebrew word for completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace—Shalom—comes in verse seven where the exiles are told to “Promote the welfare [the Shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare [its Shalom].” (CEB).

Jeremiah’s words are a first in the Biblical narrative. This is long before Jesus said things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” (Matt. 5:43-48, CEB).

The exiles are told to pray to the Lord for sake of Babylon: the city of their enemies! Pray for the city whose king and whose army crushed and defeated their own city, Jerusalem, and razed the Temple of the Lord to the ground! They were to be the intercessors for this pagan city. God would be with them and hear their prayers. The exiles had holy work to do on behalf of Babylon. If they heeded this uncomfortable word of God, then they would thrive in a place that seemed inhospitable and threatening.

They weren’t only to pray for the city’s welfare. They were to be active participants in that endeavor. They were told to seek it, promote it, invest in it. As distasteful as these words from Jeremiah were to the exiles, it’s exactly what they did. They put down roots. They made it their new home. They carved out a positive existence for themselves and increased as a people. They made the city’s welfare their own. In fact, many of the descendants of the exiles stayed in Babylon after King Cyrus allowed them to return home. Their community in that land lasted until the 1950s when most of the descendants returned after the formation of the modern State of Israel. They invested themselves fully into the place they lived, and they prospered.

That is, in part, what stewardship means. It’s about so much more than money. We aren’t living in exile. Many of us live in Mount Vernon because we chose to move here or because we were born here and we chose to stay. If God’s people can invest themselves in a hostile place like Babylon and increase, how much more can we do in a place we’ve chosen for ourselves?

Today, we’re presenting our commitment cards which represent our financial investment in our congregation and the ministry we provide within Mount Vernon, across our nation, and throughout the world. Yet, I want to encourage us to do more. Pray for our city. Let us seek and promote the welfare—the Shalom—of this place and pray to the Lord on its behalf. For in its welfare we will find our welfare.

That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect. It doesn’t mean we’ll never encounter difficulties. It certainly doesn’t mean God will make it rain flakes of gold.

It does mean that we work side-by-side to build up our church community and seek good things for every person around us within these walls and outside of them. The welfare of our church community is inextricably linked to the welfare of our city and the people in it. So give. Pray. And be active. Build and plant. Marry and have children. Live and pray in ways that seek the prosperity of the world around us, even for those people with whom we disagree, don’t like, or identify as enemies. That’s the difficulty of God’s Good News. It’s a message that seeks goodness for all. We have a holy work to do. Let’s get to it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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