God’s People in Exile
Passage: Jeremiah 29:1–14
Jeremiah 29. A passage that contains one of the most often used coffee cup or youth t-shirts of all time. Today we get to look at the context of that verse and hopefully know what it means for us today. The context isn’t as cheerful as you might think if you just see the verse on a Lifeway poster or a social media post. The context of the passage is God’s command for his people as they live in exile outside of the promised land and inside the pagan kingdom of Babylon.
Exile has historically been seen as one of the strongest forms of punishment. To be exiled meant being cut off from the most important things in your life. For the Israelites, it meant not only being taken from the promised land, but away from the Temple in Jerusalem which they saw as being taken from the very presence of God, even though God had already removed his presence from there. But, as we will see, God remains committed to his people and we will see what plans he has for them.
And this is important because it also instructs how we live today as Christians in a world that does not value the same things we do. As Christians who live in this world, but whose citizenship is in heaven, we will live our whole lives in a form of exile. Exile means away from home. Humanity had a home in the Garden of Eden we were exiled from in the fall, but those who trust in Christ have a newer, perfect, and eternal home waiting for us. Exile is the norm for God’s people at this point in redemptive history and we can learn a lot from this passage about how to be faithful, fulfilled, and fruitful in that life.
In this passage we will see 1) How we are to live in exile, 2) who we are to listen to in exile, and 3) what are the promises in exile
- How we are to live in exile.
God tells the Israelites that they are to seek the welfare of the city where he has sent them into exile. That had to go against much of what they would be feeling inside. These Israelites were brought forcibly outside their land and living in the epitome of paganism in Babylon. They had to be feeling fear, sadness, grief…everything that would paralyze the average person and God is telling them they are to embrace this as their new normal. What he’s telling them goes against everything they probably felt inside.
They had to have some desire to disrupt the culture that had taken them. They had to have some desire to stir up rebellion. Rebellion is in our human DNA. There is something deep within us that is drawn to a rebellious spirit. This is why we have the Hunger Games, the Matrix, and all of the Star Wars movies. My goodness, our whole country is based on rebellion from oppressive rulers. Now, it’s beyond the scope of what I can do this morning to differentiate between good rebellion and bad rebellion. For now, I just want to make the case that rebellion is deep inside us.
Just sit in what God is saying here. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you. There are times we go to the Bible and we don’t like what we see. If you haven’t seen things in the Bible that you don’t like, you haven’t read enough of the Bible. The word used here for welfare is shalom. It’s most often defined as peace. This word is used all over this passage. This is a comprehensive way of saying seek the type of well-being that touches every aspect of your lives. It means to make all things more like the way they should be. Last week Robert talked about the allure of false peace. Now God is telling them not only can you have peace in exile, you can spread it. You have an infectious peace. So, they are to build houses, plant gardens, eat the Babylonian food, and have families.
Why would God tell them to do this? [PAUSE] Well, the two things that stick out to me are, first, because what is good for Babylon is good for the Israelites. This is what God means when he says, ‘for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.’ Again, the word is ‘shalom.’ God is protecting his people by using them to bless Babylon. Second, God does also seem to care about the pagan Babylonian people. God’s desire for all types of people to be saved is all over the Bible. It’s all over the prophets. We saw this last week in Robert’s text. When you read the book of Daniel, it does seem that Nebuchudnezzar came to a real and saving faith because of God’s work there. My goodness, the whole book of Jonah shows this.
So, how does this apply to us? Well, if you are here today and you are a Christian, you are living in exile. Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven. Peter, writing to Christians spread all over the Roman Empire says, 11 Beloved, I urge you has sojourners and exiles ito abstain from the passions of the flesh, jwhich wage war against your soul. 12 kKeep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, lthey may see your good deeds and glorify God on mthe day of visitation. - 1 Peter 2:11
I think our awareness of the reality of our living in exile has only increased over the past 30 years. We weren’t relocated, but the culture we find ourselves in has changed significantly around us. I said this back in August, but I have a buddy who is an Acts 29 pastor in New Mexico and his heritage is Mexican and his family has lived in New Mexico since a time when there was only old Mexico. He says that his people didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them. They didn’t move, but the culture they lived in changed significantly around them. I think that’s a good illustration for how many Americans feel today.
But, we would do well to see that exile is the norm for God’s people and his instructions to the Israelites informs how we understand our state of exile. Christians for thousands of years have misunderstood how we are to live in this world by either separating or assimilating. Neither is good. We shouldn’t wall ourselves off and we shouldn’t wholesale adopt the culture we find ourselves in. We are not of the world, but we are sent into the world.
Many of you are familiar with Tim Keller and his passing this week. In my opinion, he was one of the best voices we had for what it looks like to live as Christians in this world. In a sermon he gave back in 2000 he said that this passage tells us three things about how to live in this world. First, “move in and become deeply engaged with the cultural and economic and social life of the city, but secondly, keep your identity as my people. Don’t assimilate, but don’t separate. Thirdly, work for the peace of the whole city. Work for the prosperity and the peace of Babylon.”
And this is going to be hard because it is uncomfortable to live in exile. We are not home and as Christians, we will feel this every day. Even in a ‘free society’ we should not feel at home and if we are not cognisant of this, we will either demand too much of the culture we live in expecting it to satisfy us and be disappointed or mad when it doesn’t. Or we will demand too little of ourselves and our role as Christians inside the culture we live in never seeking the shalom of the city we live in.
I was walking down Park Avenue last week with Angela and we passed this large group of high school girls and they made us laugh because they were all wearing the same thing. I mean down to the name brands. They looked like a walking group advertisement for LuluLemon. But I realized as we were laughing that this hit a little too close to home for me. They want to fit in and that’s what they did to fit in. They want to feel comfortable. I remember being at that age and doing the same things to fit in to feel more comfortable in this world. And if we are honest, that desire never changes. The way it plays out does, but the desire itself stays with us. All Christians are going to have to embrace the reality that we will never fully fit, never be comfortable in this world. Now, to be fair, maybe there are times when being all things to all people and seeking the peace of the city means wearing Lululemon and pink on Wednesdays. I have a category for that and maybe one of those girls was doing that.
God, through Jeremiah, though, says to the Israelites to settle in. This is not going to be a quick ordeal and the same is true for us. So we live as exiles doing the best we can to seek the welfare of the city we live in. We work in offices led by unbelievers, we buy groceries and supplies from Walmart and even Home Depot. We have children and raise them alongside families with very different world views. That’s the design and that’s how it will be until Jesus comes back or we go to him. Paul tells the Thessalonian church .. to aspire bto live quietly, and cto mind your own affairs, anddto work with your hands, as we instructed you, - 1 Thes 4:11.
If you struggle to find purpose in your work or to know what it looks like to live as a Christian working in a very non-Christian environment, a great resource is a book by Keller called Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. In it, he says, “Work of all kinds, whether with the hands or of the mind, evidences our dignity as human beings – because it reflects the image of God the Creator” Which gets me to my next point, who are we to listen to (and who are we not to listen to) as we live as exiles and sojourners?
- Who are we to listen to in exile?
Verses 8 and 9 tell the Israelites to ignore the false prophets among them who speak of an early return and restoration. This group would have likely been the very anti-babylon crowd. They likely made claims that God himself has raised them up to stand up against these pagan rulers. God cares about his people and he cares about who they are listening to.
False prophets have been around for thousands of years and it’s no less true today. We have many different kinds of false prophets today. We have people preaching that we should make this world our home. That God’s plan for us in this life is to make us happy, healthy, and wealthy and if you don’t feel that way, something is deficient with your faith. We have people saying that if we can win our government back, then we will feel comfortable again. I’m not against political activism, but anyone who says we can make this country a place where we won’t feel like exiles is a false prophet. The theological term for this kind of false teaching is over-realized eschatology. That’s when we take what is only fully true of the kingdom yet to come and try and apply it here and now.
But, false teachers can go the other way too. They can preach under-realized eschatology which is not embracing the real blessings and stewardship that God has for his people in the here and now. This is when we throw up our hands and stop seeking the welfare of the city we live in. It’s when we lose heart in our culture and act as though God has no plan for the unbelievers living in it.
In a way, the false preachers in Jeremiah’s day were doing both. They were over promising a short stay in Babylon and because of that, their advice was to stay outside the city and not engage. The real question we should ask ourselves is why do we want to listen to these false teachers. I think the answer is pretty simple. It’s the same reason the Trojans believed the Greeks about the horse. It’s the same reason Israel listened to false prophets that gave them false peace. False prophets tell us what we want to hear. We want to hear that this life should be more comfortable. We want to hear that we aren’t required to do hard work. We don’t want to acknowledge how much is truly outside of our control. So we are inclined to listen to teachers who tell us what we want to hear.
The teachers we should listen to are the ones who hold the proper balance of the already/not yet. That is, we live in the tension of what Christ has already done through his life, death, and resurrection and the not yet of what he will do when he returns. We need to listen to teachers who tell us that just like the Israelites being given a 70 year sentence, there is also a predetermined time when Jesus will come back, when we will no longer live as foreigners in a foreign land, but will live in the eternal home we were created for with the One who created us. There will be no sin, no pain, no discomfort, no sin, and no rebellion. We need to listen to those who remind us of that. But we need even more than that. Last point. We need to know what promises we have in exile.
- What promises we have in exile
Ok, this is where we get to the famous, misunderstood, and misused part. We have to first understand what the promises are for the original audience, then we can faithfully figure out how they apply to us.
We can lump the promises God has in this passage under two umbrellas. First, God promises that he will be with his people. He says he will visit them in verse 10, he says they can call on him and pray to him and he will hear. That when they seek him with all their heart, they will find him. Remember the worst part of exile for a true believing Jew was the distance from the Temple which was essentially distance from the very presence of God. But God is promising his presence during exile. And God is reiterating what he said back in Deuteronomy 4: 29 sBut from there (exile) you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. - Deut. 4:29
The Israelites had to wrestle in their hearts as to whether they really valued God more or the good things that God can give. Do they value the gifts more or the Giver? Is it better to have all the comforts in this life that we can have and not God or is it better to have no comforts and have God? Do you remember in Exodus 33 Moses said he would rather not have the Promised Land if it came without the presence of God. God is graciously promising Israel that the thing they need more than anything else while in exile they will have. There is something to be said about the stripping away of comforts for the purpose of seeing what is most important. All people take on physical comforts to avoid dealing with the emotionally uncomfortable Being able to sit in the uncomfortable helps us to realize our need for God.
The second promise to the Israelites is that he has a plan for them and that plan is good. Jeremiah 29:11. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. - Jer. 29:11 It just flows so well. It feels like it belongs on Tim Tebow’s cheeks. His plan is for their shalom. All is not lost. There is a good future for them as God’s people. They will be back in their land one day. Their fortunes will be restored. God has not forgotten or forsaken them even though they have been unfaithful to him. His plan for them isn’t what they would have chosen for sure. Everyone who was old enough to hear and understand this message would have heard that they will never see the promised land again. But, their children and grandchildren would. God has a plan for them that will sustain them in their exile and that will bring them home to their land one day.
So, how then does that apply to us? Of course, we can’t take that promise and literally apply it to us because there is no promise of returning to an earlthy Jerusalem for us. But, we have to be careful not to go to the other extreme either of thinking there is no application of this promise to us. We have to look at these promises through the lens of all of Scripture. Paul says that 20 For lall the promises of God find their Yes in him. - 2 Cor 1:20 That is, in Jesus. When we back up, we can see that we are exiles. Like the original hearers of this message, we will remain exiles for our entire lives. But, because Jesus became the ultimate exile, being in the very form of God, but emptying himself to take on the likeness of man…leaving the very throne room where glory, comfort, and joy knew no limits to enter pain, sorrow, and shame. Dying as a criminal on the cross, exiled at that very moment from the love and grace of God only to take on the wrath of God we deserve. .
Jesus willingly took on an exile no Christian will ever know so we could have a path back home. [SLOW] So we could be sustained in our exile. So, we can have access to the throne room every second of every day until we see him face to face. Tim Keller once asked, “Who can go to the king at 3am and ask for a glass of water? We can. That is the access we have to his presence.” That is God’s promise for our shalom and our future hope.
The culture says that we demand those around us change so this life feels more comfortable. The problem is that we all demand different changes. And we look at those who will not change as the problem which only fuels our own sense of self-righteousness which makes us even more uncomfortable in this world. But, the gospel says we bless this world and seek its welfare because only in Christianity is our identity received. By following Christ and trusting him, we are made sons and daughters of the king and we know that this exile will end. And when that identity settles in, we are able to look at the culture around us and instead of looking down on it, we can look at it with compassion the way Jesus did.
And one of the great blessings we are given in exile is gathered worship. There is this idea thriving today that our spiritual lives are a private thing and that we can be sustained without worshiping in a local church. That just isn’t true. Worship is when we as exiles come together to taste our future home.
I said this in my Easter devotionals online, but when we lived overseas, every so often, we would get to go onto a US military base. And immediately when you pass the gates, you are on US soil. All the signs are in English, the fashion is American and you begin to see great dining establishments like Pizza Hut and Burger King. You pay in dollars and you get free refills again. The police cars make the right siren sounds. The architecture is even American. There you have this group of very different people that even though we aren’t truly home, for a moment, we kind of are.
And that is what the Sunday gathering is for us. We come together as very different people feeling acutely that we are not home, leaving the world we live in to worship the King of our new Kingdom and for a moment, even if we aren’t truly there, we can taste the home we long for. This is a picture of our Sunday gathering. It has a centering effect on us and to the degree we make the gathering a priority in our lives, to that degree we will taste our true home and flourish as citizens of heaven living in exile here on earth.
In worship, we are reminded that we are his children. That we are his beloved. That we are a part of a spiritual family that will never be broken. We were wayward, but the Father found us. We are in exile, but the Father will bring us home. And every Sunday, in every church across this globe, we are reminded of the resurrection that makes that possible. It seems only appropriate to end with a quote from Keller. “If the resurrection is true. If Jesus really came out of that grave and hundreds of people saw him. And I’m convinced he did. Then everything is going to be ok.” That’s what we are reminded of each Sunday in worship. That’s what will get us through this exile.