Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Letter to the Exiles

“I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, “plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

exile - /ˈeɡˌzīl,ˈekˌsīl/ noun
1. the state or a period of forced or voluntary absence from one's country or home
2. a person who has been forced to live in a foreign country : a person who is in exile

In my Bible, the chapter heading for Jeremiah 29 is “A Letter to the Exiles.” For most of my life, I have lived in the most powerful and wealthy country in the world. What do I know about living in exile?

Our family moved a lot while I was growing up. By the time I was 21, I had lived in 20 different houses. Some moves were across town to accommodate the needs of my dad’s ministry, to allow more space to hold events. Some moves were across the state to a new job. Some moves were across the country to a new job, a new lifestyle, and a new climate. In most cases, the moves created upheaval that took a while to settle back down. After each major move across the state or country, there was an awkward season of adapting. At first, I felt like a fish out of water, like a stranger among new friends. I didn’t dress like everyone else, I didn’t talk like everyone else, and I did not have the same shared history as everyone else. It was hard. It took time to adjust.

But the experience of exile is deeper. It involves the discomfort of moving, plus more. In most cases, there is the additional burden of having the move forced upon you, then the loss of watching your beloved homeland conquered by your enemies. It means living among a new people who are antagonistic to you and your ways. Exile is the experience of an immigrant who lives in a new land, but with the added oppression of being ruled by your enemy. Exile means you never feel at home and you watch your back.

In ancient Israel, the Babylonians invaded the promised land. The Israelites had been settled there for hundreds of years, from the golden age of King David and King Solomon, through the many kings that followed. They had managed to keep their enemies, such as the Philistines, at bay for all those years. Eventually, the Babylonians rose to power and conquered the people and the land, as God predicted they would when he warned His people to turn back to Him or face these consequences. The Babylonians forced the Israelites into exile, and the city of Jerusalem became a deserted city with broken down walls. Jeremiah lamented what he witnessed. An entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, records how he interacted with God during this tragedy. As they walked away from their ravaged city and encountered the smells and sounds of a new one, what did they think? What did they feel? Did they angrily ask why? Were they ashamed and humiliated? Did they feel guilty, believing they had brought this upon themselves through their sin? Did they wonder how long this exile would last? Were they desperately looking for a sign, a dream, an omen, of better times ahead, of God's favor?

Our covenant-keeping God knows our experience. Not only does he know all things potential and actual, and understand every thought and motivation of our heart (Hebrews 4:12), he himself took on flesh and has actually experienced the world we live in. Jesus Christ sympathizes with every experience and temptation we might encounter, according to Hebrews 4:15. Jesus knows the temptations of the exile.

Jesus chose exile. He chose our experience. He left perfect fellowship with the Father. He came to the world He created, but He entered enemy territory (1 John 5:19). He came to his own people, but, as John 1 says, his own people did not receive him. He was despised and rejected by men, according to Isaiah 53. He was a stranger in a foreign land, with a mission that interfered with the status quo. I wonder if Jesus ever, ever felt comfortable.

God wrote a letter to His people in exile. It is recorded in Jeremiah 29. Stop. Think about that. GOD wrote a letter to people like you and me, scared and hopeless, in exile. What does that act alone tell us about Him? It tells me He cares. He really cares. You might say, “If He really cared, He would deliver them.” Well, sometimes deliverance is how He shows He cares. Just look at the story of the Exodus. What a great deliverance! In this case, immediate deliverance is not part of His plan. As prophesied in Scripture, the Jewish people would be allowed to return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. In 537 B.C., that prophecy was fulfilled and the Jews were allowed by King Cyrus of Persia to return to Israel. With Ezra and Nehemiah, they begin rebuilding the city and temple.

He is God. He often has plans that are far more encompassing than what we understand. Instead of immediate deliverance, He intervenes, like a lightning bolt from heaven, with words of hope, instructions, and promises during the long season, in fact, the generation, of waiting.

In short, He says: 1) I know. 2) Bloom where you are planted. In other words, embrace where I have placed you. Settle and prosper where you are. 3) I have a plan already mapped out for your future, and it involves good things. 4) I do not like the religious people who are telling you lies about me and giving you false hope. I will deal harshly with them.

These are words of love from a good Shepherd to myopic, fearful sheep. They are the words to us, the ones who are in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). They are the words to us who live in the kingdom of darkness, although we have been translated to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13). These words are to us who often feel that we are strangers and pilgrims sojourning through a foreign land, as our forefathers of faith experienced generation after generation before us (Hebrews 11). These words are for you and me, living in a powerful country, but not feeling quite at home here. Perhaps that is the way it is supposed to feel. We are like all who have gone before us in faith. We are like our Lord Jesus. We are not comfortable here. Our heart, our allegiance, is to the King of another Kingdom.

But the letter says even more than that. God spoke to them. He speaks to us. He tells us to live! He tells us to embrace life and get to work! “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). We are not supposed to detach from our culture and surrounding, live ascetically, grit our teeth in joyless endurance, nor oppose our neighbors in rebellion. We are called to live quiet lives and work with our hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11), persevere in prayer (the most powerful tool and weapon we have), and build. We are called to seek peace and prosperity right where we are. How can we do this? By faith. The LORD, our covenant-keeping God, has a plan. This plan involves good things for us. He keeps His promises. He is vision-casting but keeping some of the details to Himself. We are to catch the vision, at least as much as He is willing to reveal. And then, we are simply called to do the next thing, in faith.

God knows the plans He has for you and me. Imagine that, fellow planners. The God of the universe has plans. And He wrote you a letter to tell you about his plans. These are plans to prosper and not harm you. These plans give you a future and a hope. In the same letter He says, “Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. Seek me … with all your heart… I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:12-14.) To me, this says He wants a relationship with us through every season of our life. He knows He is our strength. He knows we need Him to live. He wants us to keep that connection to Him through prayer and worship. He wants us to believe Him. To me, His letter to us exiles says He loves us.