Scripture can be found here

The Narrative Lectionary skims over a couple of centuries to bring us to what is arguably, along with the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, one of the two most important events in shaping the identity of God’s covenant people: the Babylonian exile. After the defeat of the Assyrian empire by the Babylonian empire, there were three separate deportations of Jews to Babylon, which took place in the years 597 BCE, 587 BCE, and 582 BCE. In this week’s passage, the prophet Jeremiah is addressing those removed from Jerusalem/ Judah in the first of these deportations. This occurred after Judah had “rebelled” against its status as a client-state of Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar had laid siege to Jerusalem and pillaged the temple, installing Zedekiah as a puppet ruler. The first wave of deportations was thus carried out,  sending the upper classes (the elders, priests, and prophets, as they are described in 29:1) into exile in Babylon. *

Jeremiah’s word from God to the exiles comes as a surprise. First, and we probably shouldn’t be surprised by this, God takes responsibility– these are God’s words to “all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4). If the people are experiencing anger towards the Babylonians, God seems to imply it is misplaced.

There follows a stunning list of directives: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what you grow; settle down, get married, have families. Don’t let your numbers decline. In short, don’t stop living. Don’t wait until an elusive “some day” to get on with the business of continuing to be God’s covenant people. And, perhaps the most difficult directive of all: “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” (29:7).

God is not encouraging rebellion against the oppressive superpower. God is encouraging the covenant people to bloom where they are planted. To make the best of things. To thrive, despite their devastation.

God goes on to explain through Jeremiah that anyone who prophesies otherwise is a liar. God offers a sobering forecast: seventy years, and not a moment less, will pass before God will end the exile and bring the people home. With a life expectancy of about 35 years, that means that the exiles could plan on their grandchildren returning home. Maybe.

In other words, don’t plan. The passage comes to a conclusion with the assignment of the task of planning to God. God promises that God’s plans are for the people’s welfare and not their harm, to give them a future with hope.

Then when you call upon me and come to pray to me, I will hear you.

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,

I will let you find me, says the Lord,

And I will restore your fortunes, and gather you from all the nations

and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord,

and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.  (29:12-14)

There’s a subtle kind of paradox operating here: the promises of a future restoration combined with admonitions to live in the present, thus encountering the living God who will make that future possible.

For the sermon:

1. What kinds of exile do the people in our congregations face? For some it may be a sense of displacement because of literally having moved from a beloved hometown. For others it may be the loss of the home associated with aging and the need to live in retirement communities or skilled nursing facilities. For some, there may be a sense of exile from the their own body as a result of illness, injury, stroke, amputation. For others, an exile from their sense of self after the loss of a job or being laid off.

2. How can we help the congregation enter imaginatively into the experience of the exiles? Is there any parallel loss to a sacred place they can connect with?

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3. The loss of “Christendom” (with Christianity but one faith in the vast marketplace of ideas and philosophies) suggests to some that followers of Jesus’ Way are, themselves, in exile in this culture and in the church. Would this idea resonate for your congregation?

4. How are the exiles being asked to trust God, and can those in their particular “exiles” in your congregation be invited to the same kind of trust?

I look forward to our conversation in the comments!

* This passage has been edited to reflect corrections and clarifications regarding the historic background. Thanks so Tony Stoutenburg for his help!

7 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: A Word to the Exiles (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14)

  1. Loving this trip through the land of the prophets. I have preached quite a bit about exile so may look into a little different direction with this passage.

    For the coming weeks I am looking an arc to tie the prophet language we have had and those readings in Advent into a theme. We will see.

    I might focus on the “Seeking Shalom” phrase and what might look like and feel like. There is a layer of communal grief as a long time member died this weekend. For a tiny church that worships 35…it is very noticeable.

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    1. Purple, I am convinced that there is always an undercurrent of grief somewhere in a congregation– we’ve taken to quarterly healing services for that very reason. Sounds like the right way to go with your congregation!

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  2. Good stuff, but your history is a little off here, (and this may be important depending on the direction that a preacher goes.)
    The Assyrian Empire collapsed internally. It fell apart over a 20 year period, but for all intents and purposes, Judah was a free country from 625 to 609.
    It is during this free period that we get Josiah’s Reformation. Of course, there were other forces at play, including Assyrian Holdouts and Pharaoh Neco of Egypt on one side, and the rising forces of Neo Babylon on the other. Josiah was killed trying to keep the Egyptians from helping the Assyrian holdouts in 609.
    The Egyptians put Jehoiakim (son of Josiah) on the throne. He ruled until the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem in 597. He died while under siege.
    His son, Jehoiachin (aka Jeconiah) held out for 3 months, then surrendered. He and a large groups of Judah’s leading citizens were taken into exile.

    THIS is the group that Jeremiah writes to in Jeremiah 29.

    The city still stands, and Zedekiah (Jeconiah’s uncle) is king. He will rule as a Babylonian vassal for 10 years, and when he rebels in 586, THAT is the destruction of Jerusalem (and Psalm 137 comes from after that period.)
    The Wikipedia articles on all of this are very good.
    Hope this helps somebody. Tony

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    1. BTW, there are 4 major schemes of dating the Royal period. By this point, all of them are within 1-2 years of each other, so 586 or 587 is a quibble not worth noting. I used 586 not to correct, but out of habit.
      Blessings and thanks for your insights!

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  3. Tony, I do thank you for clarifying the dates and times of what is a fascinating (if somewhat confusing) period!

    All of which is to say, it sounds as if my exegesis is off in terms of the grief factor over the loss of the Temple. I imagine the grief over exile was strong, of course.

    I do apologize for getting my dates wrong (and I appreciate the clarification on the ten year disparity as well).

    Thanks for your close reading!

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  4. I think this might be an opportunity to talk about the exile, execution, and assimilation of Native Americans from their homelands and cultures. Not quite sure how. Perhaps immigration reform could be part of the conversation too.

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  5. Sandra, that is both a completely exegetical direction to take and a brave one. Thanks so much for sharing this inspiration. Blessings as you write!

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