Sermon 20 Pentecost Yr C
October 12, 2007 4 Comments
20 Pentecost Yr C, 14/10/2007
Jer 29:1, 4-7
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles in Babylon”
In today’s first lesson, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to his people who are now living in Babylonian exile. Our lesson today is only a small portion of the letter, which actually consists of the whole 29 chapter. This is a powerful letter. In it, Jeremiah continues to battle his rival false prophets who had counselled the people of Judah that they would not be staying in Babylonian exile very long. Jeremiah said they were only telling the people lies; telling them what they wanted to hear, but what was not a word from the LORD. Rather, Jeremiah claims that he is a true prophet, and therefore is writing this letter, which is an authentic message from the LORD. True to Jeremiah’s character as a prophet, this particular letter may not have been a message that the people wanted to hear; since it contains a rather radical message. Let’s take a closer look at it.
First, Jeremiah opens his letter as an authentic message by employing the following phrase: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel.” The message comes from God so the people had better take heed, and the letter is addressed “to all the exiles whom I (i.e. God) have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” In other words, God was behind the exile; God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army to take the people of Judah into exile. The people had turned away from God; they thought, erroneously, that since they were God’s Chosen People they could do anything and God would still be on their side; look after them and protect them from all enemies. Jeremiah adamantly disagreed—he said “No way! God was allowing God’s Chosen People to go into Babylonian exile because of their sin and apostasy. They had turned away from God and God’s ways and now therefore had to suffer the consequences—namely, live in Babylonian exile for 70 years.
One wonders how long our increasingly secular society can be sustained with so many people turning away from God and God’s ways. Is our future going to parallel that of the smug citizens of Judah? Are we heading for a fall because of so many people turning away from God? What shall be the long term consequences of such apostasy? What does the LORD have to do to draw those who have turned from God back to God? This message of Jeremiah today begs such questions for us today who long to be faithful to the LORD.
The second thing to note in today’s first lesson is that Jeremiah counsels the Babylonian exiles to “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.” In other words, Jeremiah is saying: “Folks, hunker down where you are right now; make the best of it because you’re going to be there for awhile. Don’t believe the false prophets who tell you ‘you’re out of Babylon very soon.’ Rather, live as best you can and realise that God is with you there, even in exile in a foreign land.” The people had believed that God had given them the Promised Land. What were they to do now that they had lost it? Jeremiah says, “Keep on living, there’s much to live for right where you are.”
Sometimes we too may get down in the dumps, perhaps feel sorry for ourselves, and think that we’re living in exile and that God has abandoned us. At times we too may feel like those exiles—foreigners in a foreign land. We might falsely believe that we’ve got nothing much to do or live for in this exiled place. We may fight God by trying to erroneously convince ourselves that we want out of this foreign land, this place of exile. Yet, God may be giving us Jeremiah’s message—”stay right where you are, make the best of your situation, hunker down, keep on living as faithfully as you can right where you are, serve me where I’ve put you.”
In this message from the LORD to those Babylonian exiles, there is something quite interesting that Jeremiah is stating: He’s telling them, “keep your hope alive, it isn’t as bad as you might think or believe. Look, be thankful that the Babylonians are giving you enough freedom to own property, build your own homes and produce your own food. Compared with the life of your ancestors in Egyptian slavery, this exile is bearable for you—you can handle it with God’s help. See the hope for you and your children in these everyday, ordinary activities. God is with you in and through all of this if you have the eyes of faith to see God at work.” That too is a message of hope for us. Do we have the eyes of faith to see God at work in and through us as we go about doing the everyday, ordinary activities of life? Don’t give up, there is hope for us in the future if we but trust in God.
The third radical message in this letter from Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles is highlighted in verse seven: “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.” The Good News Bible puts it like this: “Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.”
Now this is a radical, new message for those Babylonian exiles! They had believed that they were God’s Chosen People; thus God was with them; they were special; therefore entitled to receive special favours and blessings from God. Now Jeremiah was saying: “Have I got news for you! You are not the only people that God cares for and blesses. Those Babylonians, your enemies, are also God’s people; the Gentiles are also blessed by God.” Jeremiah was instructing the Jewish exiles to engage in intercessory prayer for their enemies and work for their well being. This message underscores that God is the God of all people—Jew and Gentile. No single racial or ethnic group; no one nation can have a monopoly on the God of all creation. God loves all people and cares for their well being.
This message of intercessory prayer for the welfare of one’s enemy reminds us too of the New Testament teachings of the Golden Rule—”do to others as you would have them do to you;” and, going further than that: “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, bless those who curse you.” The following story reveals the power of intercessory prayer on behalf of one’s enemies:
From the end of World War II to 1991 Albania was under a crushing communist dictatorship. It was more rabidly atheistic than even Soviet or Chinese communism. During the nearly 50 years of oppression 1600 churches were destroyed. In 1967 the dictatorship ordered complete religious prohibition. Even private expressions of faith were forbidden. The mere act of dying an Easter Egg (which to most of us hardly seems like a radical confession of Christ) could bring the secret police to your home to carry you away, never to be seen again. During that time Marika Cico and her sister secretly kept the Church alive in their house. [Jim Forest, "Albanian Resurrection," Touchstone July/August 2001, p 31] For 23 years, from 1967 to 1991, members of this secret Christian congregation “repeatedly engaged in ‘unsleeping prayer’—40 day periods of continuous prayer, each person praying in one or two hour shifts, for the end of persecution.” Now at age 95, and nearly blind, Marika has lived to see her prayers answered. She is described as a “fountain of joy.”
For 23 years Marika and the church that met in her home prayed shamelessly, persistently, for an end to the persecution. It was a shameless act because it was so ridiculous. Old women, a secret priest, a handful of believers, pitted against the power of a totalitarian state by getting down on their knees, and crying out to an unseen God for help. It was shameless because they did it over and over when things got worse, and when no help seemed to come.1
We too, can be inspired from such a story and from Jeremiah’s letter of encouragement to work for the welfare of others and engage in intercessory prayer. In our state of exile tossed and turned to and fro by a growing secular society on the one hand and a violent fundamentalism on the other; the LORD desires our prayers and action. Here in Medicine Hat, our ministerial has a prayer cycle for spiritual and civic government leaders, which we include in our Prayers of the Church every Sunday. Our churches also help out various organisations. Many Christians, many of you, volunteer for these organisations, groups, and institutions to improve the welfare of people in need. Our contributions of time, talents and money, along with our prayers can and do make a difference—just as they did in Albania and, long ago for those Jews in Babylonian exile. Rather than seeing “the other” as our enemy, may God grant us compassionate hearts and lives to see that we are all in this together; may we continue to be diligent in intercessory prayer for all people, including enemies; may we also be inspired by Jesus to continue to act with kindness and love. Amen.
1 Ben Sharpe, “Pray Shamelessly,” July 29, 2001, at <www.orthovox.org/cornerstone/sermons/sermons.htm>.