The Exiled

I originally shared this message in 2015. I’m catching up on posting old sermons.

Our conference, LMC, is using Jeremiah 29:4-14 for it’s “Dwelling in the word” (2015). At most of the LMC meetings, we spend time dwelling in the word and for the last couple of years, the scripture chosen for this is Jeremiah 29:4-14. At these meetings we start our meeting by reading Jeremiah 29 in table groups and then spend 15 minutes reflecting together at our tables. It was at one of these meetings that I made an important connection with this scripture that I hadn’t before.

Almost all the times I read Jeremiah 29:4-14, I would think about Israel’s history. Starting near the beginning of the story in scripture, Abraham and Sarah were called from the land of Babylon to a new land far from their home and Abraham and his descendants are given a promise. In this new land, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, gains a new name, Israel, and his family eventually moves to Egypt to escape starvation. They spend hundreds of years in Egypt where they became a very large family, but during this time they are forced to become slaves to the Egyptians. God called Moses to lead this family out of slavery in Egypt to the land he brought Abraham to, which we now call Israel. During this journey, God gives his people the Law, a significant moment, showing the Israelites how to worship God in a formal way for the first time. It takes a couple of more hundred years until they form as a kingdom with king Saul as their first king. Under king David, they became a powerful kingdom and when Solomon becomes king, the first Temple is built. This is a high point for the people of Israel. United as a kingdom, with a common law and now with it’s first Temple building dedicated to worshiping God.

Over the next several hundreds of years, the kingdom splits into two. Sometimes they fought, sometimes they were allies, but they never come together as one. The larger northern kingdom is destroyed by the Assyrian empire. And when Assyria comes to conquer the southern kingdom of Judah, God saves them miraculously. God would protect his remaining people and Jerusalem, his city because of his Temple that bears his name.

What was once a great and powerful kingdom of Israel becomes smaller and smaller, beaten down by larger empires. Even if they were not defeated, they were looted. Their riches taken. Their towns destroyed. Yet the remaining people believed that the presence of the Temple guaranteed their survival, God would not let his house be destroyed. He would remain faithful to his people.

Then God let his house, the Temple, be destroyed and the last of the remaining people were carried off into exile into Babylon, to the home of their ancient ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.

Does God love his children?

Babylon conquered Jerusalem over a period of about a decade. In the first invasion, they captured many people and carried them away, but didn’t destroy anything. I think the prophet Daniel would’ve been among these early exiles, taken as a boy. Babylon setup one of the king’s uncles as governor and king with the basic instructions to keep the peace and pay tribute to the king in Babylon. He rebelled against Babylon. So Babylon returned in force and destroyed everything that was Jerusalem, the walls, the palace, the homes and the Temple.

It is in this middle time, when the uncle is king, where we likely hear Jeremiah’s words in chapter 29. They are hard words for him to tell his people: Go into exile, do not resist. Exile, to the people, meant that God had abandoned them. The Temple was God’s home, that’s the place where they could worship God. God would never let this home be destroyed, God would not abandon his people.

The Temple was a defining moment for Israel, God was making a permanent home among his people. A sign of his love and blessing. With Jerusalem destroyed, their Temple demolished and the people removed from their home and carried into exile, did this mean that God stopped loving them?

Who carried Jerusalem into exile?

Who can answer that question? There are two valid answers. The practical answer and the spiritual answer.

I have 5 insights from Jeremiah 29:4-14:

First: God carries them into exile: The fear that the people of Israel had was that they were being abandoned by God. God had abandoned the Temple. God had abandoned the kingdom of Israel. God did not abandon the people of Israel. He carried them. Just as he carried them out of slavery in Egypt, he was now carrying them back to the land of their ancient ancestors, the land where Abraham and Sarah came from.

Second: Increase while in exile: God’s ancient command in the book of Genesis to fill the earth is echoed in this command to increase while in exile.

Third: Bless those pagan foreigners: Seek the prosperity of the places where you are sent because their blessing is your blessing. God is reminding them of his promise to Abraham: to bless all nations through his descendants by having them figure out how to be a people among other people.

Fourth: Do not be deceived: The people could not believe that God would abandon them because of the Temple and so false prophets encouraged a message that said God would save his people in a miraculous way, because he did it before against the Assyrian empire. This did not happen. God abandoned the Temple. God abandoned the kingdom, but God did not abandon his children.

Fifth: God’s promise of restoration: The most powerful line in God’s promise, for me, is verse 13 “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart”. The question they needed to answer was what did God want most? Did he want sacrifices at a Temple? Did he want a kingdom for his people? Yes, but he wanted their hearts even more and he had lost that and he wanted it back again. It is only in exile that he can reclaim the most fundamental necessity for relationship, the heart.

It was at a LMC gathering last year (2014), where we spent time at tables reading through this scripture yet again, that I realized something new that I hadn’t read before.

We are going into exile

Prohibition, which changed the US constitution so that alcohol could be banned or restricted in the US, ended in 1933. Despite some of it’s positive effects, the law failed to have a lasting affect on most people’s hearts.

The Christian church, in the US, is going into exile. We aren’t being carried off into another country, but we are heading into cultural exile. And God is carrying us there.

Christianity has served as a moral compass for the culture in the US from it’s beginning, but things are changing. We are heading into an era where a different compass is used. The church’s institutions and it’s leaders used to be respected by society, but not anymore. The Bible used to form a common reference for our culture, where anyone would know the stories, but you can’t expect others to know that anymore. Christianity has moved from the center and is now making it’s fastest transition to the edges of society.

Some of you who feel the need to fix things will be quick to try to identify the problem and then propose a solution. Don’t bother. God is carrying us into this exile. The problem in the Christian Church began long ago and was well on it’s way before I was born. We are only witnessing it’s fastest transition in these days.

Just like the kingdom of Judah believed it would always have the Temple, we believe that we’ll always have our church institutions and programs. Do not believe this. God does not need our church institutions, or our buildings, or even our Sunday morning worship services. God wants our hearts.

Going back to the beginning

This is a picture of a Greek alter to an unknown god. In the book of Acts chapter 17, Paul spends time in Athens learning about their gods and then uses this alter as a way to introduce the gospel.

Just like the Israelites were carried off into exile into the home of their ancient ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, we are carried off into exile into the culture of our ancient ancestors, the early church, the church of the apostles and disciples, the era of the church before it’s many institutions and many services and programs, back to the basics.

Our culture will become that culture. And here is what we are to do in this new culture:

First: Increase, do not decrease. Make disciples, like the disciples of the early church. Our church has relied on paying people to make disciples using church programs, but it is not working. If the church is going to grow, it will be different from how we’ve been trying to do it.

Second: Seek the peace and prosperity of our culture, if it prospers, we too will prosper. What does this mean? Christians have spent a lot of time trying to change laws instead of trying to turn people’s hearts toward Jesus. As an example, we are more concerned over laws permitting abortions rather than the fact that there are many who want to have abortions. The gospel message transforms people and creates a healthy culture. What is better than a law preventing abortions? A country where no one wants an abortion.

Third: Do not be deceived by the prophets and diviners among you with the dreams you are encouraging them to have. If they tell you that the US is a Christian nation, do not believe them. Let me be clear, every nation on planet earth is under God, not just one nation. Laws can make a country good or bad to live in, but not Christian. Jesus was once tempted to become the ruler of every kingdom of this world by the devil, all the nations could be his, if he worshiped the devil, and Jesus refused to do this. Jesus is not the ruler of any earthly nation, he is the Lord of your heart, and his kingdom is not of this world.

Fourth: We will return: God’s desire is for the church to be central, but it is not buildings or programs, it is the church family. It is hard to know what the church in the US will be like for the next generation. The Mennonite Church may not survive the turmoil of this generation, but God has not abandoned us, God is carrying us, and he will take us back.

Verses 13: You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

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