Jeremiah 29: 1; 4-14 (NRSV)
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon… It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. Then when you call upon me and come and 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.
I have always thought the message delivered in this text was remarkable. The exile the people to whom Jeremiah’s letter was addressed was surely a bitter experience, and the last thing they would have wanted to hear was that their stay in Babylon was unlikely to be short-lived. They would have wanted with all their hearts to believe they would soon be returning to their homeland. But Jeremiah’s message was that it would be foolish for them to think in those terms, even if there were “prophets” among them who claimed otherwise. As things turned out he was right about that, and the advice he gave his intended audience has long been recognized as a model for people of faith in dealing with situations in which they find themselves inhabiting an environment that is not under their control. Throughout the time they would be spending in that strange place, he said, they should never lose sight of the God they worshipped or forsake His ways; but at the same time they should not allow their faith to turn them into antagonists of the native population and its ways, either. Not unless it was absolutely necessary, at least. They should settle in, he said, making the best of that situation, doing everything they could to seek the welfare of the place where God had chosen to put them.
Few of us have ever experienced exile in anything like the sense Jeremiah had in mind, nor are we likely to do so. But in the times in which we are now living it is not at all uncommon for people to find themselves being transported to places they find strange. Or even to experience an alien environment without ever moving physically. So the message of this text has in principle much wider applicability than might initially appear to be the case.
Lord, we give thanks for the prophets you have given us in the past (and continue to give us today) as well as the wisdom you have communicated to us through them. Help us to heed that counsel and do what is acceptable in your sight. These things we pray in the name of your Son.