When the people of Jerusalem and Judah were in exile in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote them this letter containing the Lord’s instruction. I imagine these people waiting for guidance on how to get out of this situation. I imagine them waiting for justice, ready to righteously resist their Babylonian oppressors.
But this is what the letter said.
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:5-8)
So not only is God not coming to rescue them. He’s telling them to get comfortable. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Well, at least for the next 70 years. After 70 years is up, then God promises to bring them back to their home, “For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11).
I think about how many times I’ve seen that verse slapped on bookmarks, journals, posters, and pamphlets. It’s a great verse- don’t get me wrong. I just find it ironic how out of context it usually is. No harm will come your way because God’s got this shiny, awesome plan for your life.
But if you read the verse in it’s context, you realize that God is saying this to people who are probably hearing His “plan” and considering finding a new God.
I think we can all relate to the exiles. I watch Plan A and Plan B circle down the toilet, along with backup Plan C and I explain to God about how much easier my life would be if He would just let me keep one of my strategies. But no. God’s plan prevails. So, I complain about how I’m responsible for this thing and people are depending on me or about how nervous people get when things are out of control. My faith-wrestling comes in waves and in weeks, ceilings and stares, and a host of unanswered questions.
But God is radical. He can’t be tamed. He can’t be put in a box or fit in a brain. He has these outrageous and incomprehensible ideas. According to this passage, personal peace and prosperity is the result of giving oneself generously in service to others. Here, Jeremiah essentially foreshadows the teachings of Jesus, who called His followers to seek their ultimate good—the kingdom of God—by seeking the good of those around them. Jesus said His followers must be generous to those who steal from them (Luke 6:29-30) and pray for those who oppose them (Luke 6:28). So, for the exiles in Babylon, seeking the peace and well being of their oppressors and praying for their enemies would actually be establishing the kingdom of God there.
I think about my Central American brothers and sisters who are deported and dumped at the border and live with our friend Hector in Reynosa because they have no money or means of getting to Guatemala or El Salvador or wherever they may have come from. I think of the Congolese and Sudanese living in IDP camps in Uganda because of war in their countries. I think of the LRA that come out of the bush and want amnesty despite the atrocities they have committed. All these people who aren’t where they want to be.
But God says: Live. Prosper. Plant. Wed. Make babies. Even if you aren’t where you wanted to be. Love. Serve. Pray. Give. Even to the people who have robbed, raped, murdered, and harmed you.
What kind of strength did it take the exiles to do those things God asked and to believe peace would come from it?
Do we think faith can be had without a fight? Or trust given without a cost?
What kind of hope in God does it take for a woman with HIV, a sick baby, and a crippled hand to look at me and say, “Some answered prayers come slowly.”
Here we are at the edge of Babylon. Here we are staring at the journey ahead. Before the plan is revealed, before the waters part, before the breakthrough. And the question is there: What will you choose to believe?