Jeremiah 29: 1-7
I’ve been thinking lately of how truly . . . odd . . . time feels this year, the year of COVID-19. Things that happened a few months back can feel like they happened years ago. Remember that time when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl? That was this year, right?
Anyway, way back in April, years ago really, when we had been on lockdown for only a few weeks, I noticed that I was developing the symptoms of cabin fever, starting with extreme restlessness. I was actually pretty surprised since I assumed that I was built for a lockdown. Give me a good book and I am content for hours on end. And since I’m not exactly a social butterfly, there was really no place that I wanted to go except to our church. I think it was knowing that I couldn’t go anywhere that got to me: that feeling of being trapped.
Shortly after my first cabin fever symptoms appeared, my wonderful spouse was looking around for projects, things to fix. I read books and Annie fixes things: it’s a perfect system, really. We had a bird feeder, but it was falling apart and had been pretty much abandoned. She replaced it with a new one, and got another – one of those long tubes that you fill with Niger seeds – and she placed both of them close to the kitchen window. Within 24 hours, our backyard was transformed. There were sparrows, of course, and nuthatches, a cedar waxwing or two, and the lovely cardinals, in pairs. I even spotted a Baltimore Oriole splashing in the bird bath (I see one Baltimore Oriole every year; I assume that there is only one in existence and I was glad he showed up). And, of course, the inevitable squirrels who, until Annie devised a very clever baffle, could frequently be seen draped over the feeder, gorging themselves. I tried to train our dog to chase them back to their tree, but halfheartedly, because, I find squirrels immensely entertaining. But for me, the very best was when the finches showed up, my goodness, so many finches. There were first the house finches with their rosy-tinted head and breast, and their drab brown-colored mates. And then one day, a goldfinch showed up at the Niger seed feeder. By the next day, there were dozens of them, all that bright yellow flitting about, on the feeder, circling around the feeder, in the bushes, on the power lines. As many of you know, these birds are crazy for Niger seed, and day after day, they squabbled over the perches on the bird feeder, and I worked to keep the feeder filled, until it was time for them to go farther north.
And I, finally, noticed the gift I had been given. I realized that my heart was lighter. I didn’t feel so trapped. It was as if the birds came to remind me that the life of Creation continued all around me, if I could just, for once, pay attention. It was a balm on my soul.
When I read our text for this week – words from the prophet Jeremiah – I thought of those glorious goldfinches. (And yes, I know – that’s not an obvious connection, so I will need to explain). Let’s start with Jeremiah himself. When he starts out, he’s just a teenager from a little village. In Jerusalem, he is a nobody. But he preaches his urgent call for repentance, because he has had a double vision. In vision one, he sees a flowering almond branch, a clear symbol of life. In the other, he sees a huge boiling pot, tilted toward Judah from the north. His interpretation is that life, the flowering branch, is still possible if Judah repents, but if not, the boiling pot will pour destruction on Judah. And that destruction will come from a powerful nation to the north.
The northern kingdom of Israel is already long gone; it had been destroyed over a hundred years before. Jeremiah warns that Judah is next. At first, he is somewhat optimistic. For one of the only times since the days of David four hundred years before, Judah actually had a good king. And that king, Josiah, was leading a moral campaign to turn his people away from their laxness in religion and their indifference to following the covenant, so Jeremiah, at least for a while, had a fighting chance to be heard. Perhaps the boiling pot could be avoided. But then Josiah was killed in a battle, and from that that moment on, the final unraveling began. Jeremiah had been right. The threat did come from the north, from the new Babylonian empire, which came sweeping out of Mesopotamia. That boiling pot spread ever southward. And finally, Babylon conquered Judah and entered Jerusalem. They ransacked the country and they also stole every single item of material value out of Solomon’s Temple. They deported to Babylon the Judean king, his entire court, all the high officials and scribes, all of the best craftsmen and the most outstanding military officers. What was left was an impoverished nation and a client government, led by the king’s younger brother who was made the local king because he was seen as being compliant with Babylonian wishes.
From here on, Jeremiah is charged with what I think might be the oddest task – and probably the most impossible one – ever given to a prophet. God told him that he was to have only one message: Judah is to submit to Babylon, to accept its own status as a dependent client state. Accept that status, Jeremiah is ordered to say, and nothing worse will happen. He even takes to wearing a wooden yoke, the kind one would put on an ox for plowing, like some sort of weird necklace. And all the while, he insists that it is the will of the Lord that Judah submit to the yoke of Babylon. That is the reality that the Lord has decreed.
Seriously? How on earth can a proud people who remember so well their independence accept that this is the new reality? How can this clearly defeatist message be true for the chosen people? At least half of the king’s court is openly defiant, dismissing Jeremiah and listening to the court prophets who say exactly the opposite. “We are the chosen people,” they say, “and we will never submit.” And so, Jeremiah becomes a pariah. He is barred from preaching in the temple courtyard. And the campaign of humiliation and violence against him escalates. He is imprisoned and threatened with execution. He is eventually thrown into a cistern and left to die in the mud and survives only because a god-fearing eunuch from the king’s household rescues him. Jeremiah is an alleged traitor, precisely because he urges his countrymen and women to accept reality. When reality conflicts with deeply held ideology, the acceptance of reality tends not to be the winning argument. And yes, if this reminds you of anything going on in our own country right now, it probably should.
Jeremiah was, of course, right, or rather, God was. Eventually, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon gets sick of the plotting and returns with his armies. And this time, they level Jerusalem. All that is left of Solomon’s Temple are smoldering piles of ashes and rubble. And thousands more Judeans are taken to Babylon, but this time in chains, as slaves.
But this is to get ahead of our story for today. While all the plotting against Babylon is going on in Jerusalem, some of the same was going on among the Judean exiles already in Babylon. Those exiles weren’t free, of course, but mostly, they were allowed to live in peace. But some of their so-called prophets in Babylon were saying that God would never allow this state of affairs to continue, that in two years, they would be freed. It is in response to that undercurrent of intrigue that Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles.
I think that the words of this letter, the words you heard today, are among both the loveliest AND the most bittersweet words in all of the Bible. Build houses and live in them, Jeremiah writes. Grow crops and harvest them and nourish yourselves with those crops. Have children and raise them. And when your children grow up, see that they are married, so that you and yours may prosper in the place you find yourselves. And above all, pray for the place in which you find yourself, that you may thrive along with all of its inhabitants. In short, “Live life and live it as God’s people.”
But these lovely words taste bitter because they come with a dreaded reality check. “You see,” Jeremiah says, “you will be in Babylon for seventy years, and then, and only then, will you be able to come home.” Every adult who heard these words understood the implication: they would die far from home. There’s a line from Psalm 137 that captures the anguish they must have felt. “By the rivers of Babylon,” the psalm begins, “we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion.”
Jeremiah’s letter was not what these exiles wanted to hear, but as prophets do, Jeremiah closed with words of comfort. Remember this, he told the exiles: God will never abandon you. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Live your life to the fullest, guided by that hope, or, live a stunted life with a heart full of hate and the corrosive longing for revenge. That’s the choice. You should know that many of those exiles chose life. The Babylonian Jewish community survived for more than a thousand years.
My friends, I suspect that many of us feel like exiles right now, exiles from our own lives. “When,” we ask ourselves, “will things get back to normal? Will they ever get back to normal?” And maybe Jeremiah can help us right now. Here’s a reality check: God has not abandoned us. God still asks that we live out our covenant with God and with each other. There is so much misery surrounding us, and sadly, that misery has always been part of what we call “normal life.” It just has added dimensions in our current crisis. There is still so much injustice to fight in every way we can. There are still the hungry to be fed. There are, right now, a growing number of people without jobs and soon to be without homes. There are still strangers to welcome. And we can still do all that. We must do it – with our facemasks on, of course, because that is, you know, reality. And, praise be, there is still the life of Creation all around. As I was trying to finish this sermon, I went and stood at my kitchen window for a little while. It was a quiet morning. There were sparrows hopping around in the bushes, and my dog was vigilantly keeping the squirrels in the tree, and a beautiful little gray bird that I didn’t recognize was eating at the feeder. The perches on the Niger seed feeder were empty but my heart was not. I found myself wondering where the finches were now, and hoping that, when God’s time brings the autumn, they would be back. I know I’ll be looking for them. Let us live our lives, my dear friends, and let us live with the peace of God in our hearts.