A quick search of Jeremiah 29 produces a seeming endless decorations and knick-knacks you can buy and gift away, many of them are graduation gifts, reminding the young person, or whoever, that God knows that plans for you. Plans for you to prosper, to hope, to have a future. And I won’t lie to you. I really like this verse. I think it’s lovely and beautiful and full of promise. Or, out of context as it often is, maybe it seems trite. Regardless, on it’s own, out of context, written with lovely calligraphy, it’s nice, uncomplicated, and for everyone.
So let’s complicate it.
Jeremiah is a prophet to the Judeans, the southern Kingdom where Jerusalem is. In 722 BCE, The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the first great Empire-Assyria. Israel’s people were scattered, the story is they will never return. 125 years later the southern kingdom Judah is overwhelmed and conquered by the new power in the land–Babylon. They didn’t deport everyone, but anyone in leadership and with power and influence who opposed Babylon, who wouldn’t fall into line, who they thought would rebel were sent into the city of Babylon to live as exiles. A decade later, the king that Babylon had put over the people in Judah and Jerusalem decided it was time to fight back. Babylon exiled more people and destroyed the temple, leveling significant portions of the city of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah is writing between these times, after the first deportation of their leadership and before the final rebellion. He doesn’t know what is to come, he doesn’t know what the future will hold. He’s writing to the people who are in exile, not the ones who have been left behind. Jeremiah is writing to those who had seen the wars, who had led the rebellions, who were the children and the grandchildren, great grandchildren of those who had been able to keep Assyria from conquest and failed to do the same with Babylon. Jeremiah was writing to a the people who were hoping to hear good news from their prophets. And we learn from Jeremiah that there were prophets offering exactly what the people wanted to hear. but sometimes what you want to hear and what is truth aren’t the same thing.
Jeremiah tells them that this hope, this future, this wellness from God, it’s going to take time, 70 years to be exact, which is almost 2 generations in biblical times. The people had experienced traumas, fears, horrors of war, they were experiencing oppression and captivity. They were far from the land that was home, far from the place where they worshipped their God. I wonder if it felt like everything they had known about the world was just made untrue–what they knew about who they were, who their God was, about their place in the cosmos. I can imagine that what they really wanted to hear was “Rise up! Fight the Power! Down with the Man!” That was not what Jeremiah gave them.
Jeremiah said, “Settle in, but don’t get too comfortable. Pray for good for the city you are now in but don’t forget, this city will not always be your home.” He told them to build homes, get married, have children, but remember who and whose you are. Wait on the God who will bring you home.. in time. Jeremiah was unknowingly writing from the time between the times, knowingly inviting his community in exile to live in the time between the times, between what had been and what God has promised would be.
Pretty quickly into our time of pandemic and quarantine metaphors of exile began being used. Exile, especially as Jeremiah presents it, is the time between the times. It is a time of waiting, it is a time when the old has passed and no one can be sure of what is to come. In those first couple of weeks we put our lives on hold, we thought in a month, 2 at most, then we’d be past all of it and back to “normal.” Weeks turn to months, months to a year, another year into unknown. And now there is news of new variants and we are still living in the unknown.
If Jeremiah were telling the same kind of prophecy to us in that time, it might have been very similar, learn to live in the midst of the time between the time. pray for each other, for the good of each other, but find a way to live life.
And some did. Some folks got really healthy. Others learned how to bake their own bread. I’m assuming those were two different groups of people. Some wondered how do we make good out of quarantine, reaching out, starting book clubs, connecting with old friends and lost family. It isn’t that the pandemic was good, but we learned to accept that this was the citation we were in, this was what we were able to do. We cant’ accept the future because it’s not written yet, we can only accept where we are, who we are in this moment, the power that we have in this moment–which means we can’t control other people or that there is a pandemic but we aren’t powerless, and we aren’t letting the world happen to us.
We are building houses and planting gardens and raising children. We are learning to bake bread and be healthy and homeschool kids and reading books and learning about the world around us.
And it’s hard to live in the midst of struggle, or pain, or trauma, not matter what it is. maybe quarantine hadn’t been the trauma of exile for you. Maybe it is something else, some other struggle, some other pain. We have seen pain this decade, this year, this week. We watched up close or from a distance, as it happened or later, the unexplainable pain in Waukesha. We question why and how and how to stop it from happening again. and I understand how we would most likely like to hear the prophets proclaim that “rise up” rather than settle in.
But I think there is a place in the midst of most struggles for radical acceptance before there is change. Here is the place we find ourselves. This is the pain, here is a cause. This is what is happening, sometimes it might be, here is my role in it. Radical acceptance says: this is the power I have, the resources I have, the things I can change and the things I cannot. And it might be marching, protesting, making sandwiches, showing up, reparations, overturning systems, raising your voice, telling your story, making room for others’ stories, writing letters, teaching children, prayer. Radical acceptance isn’t passively saying this is how things are and will always be, rather, this is how things are, now we can make a plan for what could be.
Jeremiah told the exiles to live lives the best they can and to make their communities the best they could because they could not rise up against the full power of Babylon and win, but they could make their lives and their world full of wellbeing and hope, they could guarantee a future for themselves, or their children, and their children’s children. They might not see the safe return to Jerusalem, but they will ensure their descendants survive and thrive and the work of God beginning their hope to life. So it does not mean that one should passively accept their persecution, their suffering, their abuse–accept where you are, who you are, find life, and a way to thrive. It might mean moving on from your current situation but one can’t do that until we have radically accepted the place we are.
It is living in and trusting in the hope that God is coming to set the world right, that Jesus is coming to set the world right. That the place of Emmanuel was and is to teach us to participate in the kin-dom of God, the renewing of the earth. That while we are on this earth but for a little while, we build houses, plant gardens, create a legacy of hope, that will be for the wellbeing of where we live. That we may not see the end of war, or racism, or sexism, or abuse, or oppression, but we can be part of laying the groundwork, of taking the steps that will give a future and a hope for every generation to come.
So it’s a balance, living in the in-between, between Christ who was born and Christ who is to come, between the world as it is and the world made right. We can’t get too comfortable in the houses or with our gardens living in empire, but we also can’t deny we are here. We live and we work, we pray and hope, we strive and we live in and for and on behalf of the world of hope that God is planning for us, for each one of us, for all of creation. So yes even in the pain, even in the suffering, in the exile, in the waiting, and waiting, and waiting, God has a plan, one filled with hope, and life, and abundance, and a future. And may that give you courage, and hope to accept where you are and find life and living in the midst of this moment. May it give you hope while we wait as those building the kin-dom.