Bible reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘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 have sons and daughters. 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 to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’
This passage has the privilege of having the most nominations for the ‘Verse tattooed on my leg but completely taken out of context’ award. But to write a reflection based on that one verse (verse 11 if you didn’t know) would be foolish. The theme of exile dominates this passage. Jeremiah writes the letter to counteract the false prophets who were heralding a swift return back to their homeland. In fact, the exile was to last a long, long time and Jeremiah encourages his listeners to carry on normal activities as far as they are able. To build homes, marry off their children and ‘settle’ by praying for the prosperity of their new home.
The theme of exile is one which will resonate with many of us as Christians. Paul Bradbury’s book Another Route Home uses the metaphor of exile to explain the way in which the church has increasingly lost power and influence in society. At one point in history the church and the Christian faith it represented could count on reputation and recognition. That is generally no longer the case. Even in rural settings the church that was once the centre of the village and village life may have been replaced by the pub or the school. The church may no longer be even open. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this situation in many settings. My sister was church warden for her little village in rural Devon. There have been no services for months and even if lockdown ended tomorrow and all was well again the likelihood is that the church may never reopen regularly.
This obviously gives us as followers of Jesus in rural settings some cause for concern. But the theme of exile and being marginalised may in fact be a gift rather than a curse. The early church up until the mid 4th century was the religio illicita (outlawed religion) and it was at its most vibrant and creative, forming an alternative community of radical love and inclusion which caused many to join.
COVID-19 infections and the continued high death rate so far this year may illicit fear and despair in us. The way in which the church is struggling may make us feel hopeless. But there is hope. The church is responding in incredibly creative ways. Zoom might not be our favoured medium of connecting but it’s opened up opportunities to be together (even if only virtually). This past week as part of my work at Christians Together in England I was encouraged to hear how Churches Together in Cornwall are planning to work closely with the Big Lunch to gather people in the post-COVID-19 recovery period. Stories of creative responses to restrictions, like Churches Together in Thirsk’s drive-in carol service this Christmas, have been fantastic to hear. Whilst we feel shut up and at times disconnected the Church has survived through more trying periods in her history and we will grow into the new shape God might have for us.
Connecting with neighbours
Having moved into a new home during lockdown we have found it almost impossible to get to know those in our community. We are a family of 6 so it’s been a challenge even when restrictions were looser. My children have making things and putting these little gifts through the doors of our neighbours who have three small children. Find a way to bless you neighbour with a tangible sign of God’s love this week.
God of all hope we call on you today.
We pray for those who are living in fear:
Fear of illness, fear for loved ones, fear of other’s reactions to them.
May your Spirit give us a sense of calmness and peace.
We pray for your church in this time of uncertainty.
For those people who are worried about attending worship.
For those needing to make decisions in order to care for other
For those who will feel more isolated by not being able to attend.
Grant us your wisdom.
Holy God, we remember that you have promised that
Nothing will separate us from your love – demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.
Help us turn our eyes, hearts and minds to you.
Revd Dr Ben Aldous, Churches Together in England