Jeremiah – Seeking the Welfare of the Place You Live

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a person in the Bible? What would it have been like to be someone like Hagar, Samuel, Isaiah, John, Mary, Elizabeth, or Paul? It might be an amazing experience, but I know I wouldn’t want to have been Jeremiah. He had a tough life.


March 8, 2015
Jeremiah 29:1-7, Jeremiah – Seeking the Welfare of the Place You Live
Pastor Doug Scalise, Brewster Baptist Church

Audio only – below[powerpress]

The Prophet Jeremiah was born 645 years before Christ and he began to be involved in public life at the age of twenty-two. His ministry and teaching reflect the influence of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, and Amos. Forbidden by God to marry or have children; his truth-telling made him enemies and he had only a few loyal friends. He spent more than a decade of his life in prison, and died in exile in Egypt at the age of sixty. In just the first three verses of the Book of Jeremiah we learn a lot about him. Jeremiah was the “son of Hilkiiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel explains what is revealed in these few words about Jeremiah’s family background. “Poverty and sadness dominate the homes of Benjamin, whose tribe fared the worst of all the twelve tribes during the partitioning of the land under Joshua. Their territory was narrow and long and dry; no fields, no trees, no fruit. Nothing but desert winds and heat waves.

Even worse was the lot of those who dwelt in the village of Anathoth, some four miles outside of Jerusalem. Its inhabitants were priests of a special kind, notorious for the curse that lay upon them for some four hundred years: they were not allowed to officiate in the Temple. Without knowing why, they were forbidden to discharge their hereditary duties. Thus Jeremiah was a victim of injustice by virtue of his origin. He remained a victim. In fact, he became everybody’s favorite victim: God’s, Israel’s, Babylon’s – and Egypt’s as well. There was no joy in his life, ever. No pleasant surprises, no warmth, no smiles, nothing but sorrow, anguish, and tears. Words of woe and anger – words he was made to speak against his will.” Aren’t you glad I’m going to talk about Jeremiah today?

Doug5The book of Jeremiah came into existence during a tumultuous time. The little kingdom of Judah had the misfortune to be caught between two much stronger powers: Egypt to the south and Babylon to the east. In Jerusalem it was a tense time of political maneuvering with one faction being pro-Egypt and the other pro-Babylon. Jeremiah was in the Babylon camp. Judah’s kings and not surprisingly most of the prophets and priests leaned in the other direction. Jeremiah’s outspoken endorsement of the Babylonians as the instrument of God’s discipline led to charges of treason and that he was unpatriotic. Most of the prophets and priests associated with the temple opposed to Jeremiah. They said he was wrong that Judah wouldn’t be destroyed.

The king’s name at this time was Jechoniah,(also called Jehoiachin, Joiachin, and Coniah), he was one of the last two kings of Judah. He came to the throne in 597 B.C. at the age of eighteen after the death of his father, Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24:8). At that time, Babylon besieged Jerusalem, and, after he had reigned only three months, he, his mother, wives, servants, princes, and officers surrendered themselves to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians who also took back to Babylon as captives ten thousand soldiers, officers, craftsmen, and smiths, leaving the land without skilled labor and administrators (2 Kings 24:14, 16; Jeremiah 24:1; 29:2). The Temple and palace treasures were also looted. According to the book of Daniel, this exile included Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Dan. 1:1-7), and, according to Esther 2:6, it included Mordecai. The Prophet Ezekiel was also among the captives (Ezek. 1:1-21; cf. Jer. 29:1). So basically, Nebuchadnezzar, who knew a thing or two about empire building, took the elite of the land of Judah and brought them back to his capital city where he could use them and benefit from their skills and make it much harder for the people of Judah to revolt.

Jeremiah had been right about what God was doing, which is why his words were preserved. However, sometimes there is no joy in being right; especially when people are hurting or suffering. Jeremiah chapter 29 begins with a letter from Jeremiah – stop for a moment and think about how amazing that is – we have a letter that is over 2,500 years old and we not only know who wrote it we know who delivered it! Here is the first part of it: Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles in Babylon Jeremiah 29:1-7

“29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar (neʹbuh-kuhd-nezʹuhr) had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah (jekʹoh-nīʹuh), and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan (shayʹfan) and Gemariah ((gem-uh-rīʹuh) son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The word translated as “welfare” is the Hebrew word “shalom” which means peace, wholeness, and well-being. It might sound a little strange to hear God saying to people in exile, to people who are in a new place in life where they didn’t choose to go, where they don’t wish to be, “Make the best of where you are in life.” Have you ever had to move to a new community, state, or country? If it’s our choice we probably feel very differently about relocating than if we’re taken and compelled to leave our home and forced to settle in a new place. Jeremiah’s letter goes on to tell the exiles that this is not a short term situation; they’re going to be there for 70 years. So the Lord is telling the people, “Find meaning in your situation even in suffering; continue to choose life. Rather than growing bitter, resentful or cynical; seek the shalom – the success and prosperity of the place where you live.” Not only does God tell the exiles to make the best of a bad situation and to go on living, he even tells them to “pray to the LORD on its behalf.” I can imagine some of the exiles listening to Jeremiah’s letter and saying to themselves, “Is he serious? Pray to the Lord on behalf of the capital city of our enemy? Is he joking?” No he wasn’t. God’s people still struggle with biblical teaching like this even though it’s stated in a similar way by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us to pray for our enemies and by Paul in Romans 12.

Remember this series is about finding God in unexpected places and when you’ve been uprooted and moved and have to make a new life in a place that is foreign to you; when you may be tempted to lose your faith and to think that God has abandoned you or is too weak to be worthwhile if the Lord couldn’t prevent the heart ache or disaster that happened to you; when you find yourself in a place you don’t want to be- it’s somewhat unexpected to hear the prophet of the Lord saying not only to seek the welfare, the well-being of the place where I’ve sent you and pray on its behalf.

I think this is true whether we’re in a new land or where we’ve lived all our life; whether we chose to move or had no say in being relocated; whether we moved because we had the freedom and ability to retire or because we had to flee for our life from danger; I believe the Lord wants us to seek the shalom of where God has led us and to pray on behalf of our community. In the world in which we live all these years after Jeremiah there are still those who are violent and selfish and those who are caring and seek to live in a way that serves and blesses others.

The biggest story in the local news this week is the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It hurts when people like him and his brother who were welcomed by our country and commonwealth and given education and opportunity show their gratitude by killing and injuring so many innocent people. Hundreds of bombing victims had their lives changed forever and found themselves in a place physically and emotionally where no one wants to be, like the exiles in Babylon to whom Jeremiah wrote; yet they are the ones who seeking the welfare of their communities and overcoming the evil that was done to them. I shared the following Facebook post by Rebekah Gregory on Thursday because I think it captures the spirit of going forward in life regardless of the suffering or hardship one is facing. She wrote.

“Dear Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,

My name is Rebekah Gregory. We don’t really know each other and never will. But over the last two years, I have seen your face not only in pictures, but in almost every one of my nightmares. Moments before the first blast, your stupid backpack even brushed up against my arm, but I doubt you remember because I am no one to you. A complete stranger. And although I was merely just a blip on your radar, (someone that happened to be standing 3 feet from your designated “good spot” for a bomb), you have been so much more to me. Because you have undoubtedly been my source of fear since April 15th, 2013. (After all, you are one of the men responsible for nearly taking my child, and for the permanent image embedded in my brain of watching someone die.) Up until now, I have been truly scared of you and because of this; fearful of everything else people might be capable of.

But today, all that changed. Because this afternoon, I got to walk into a courtroom and take my place at the witness stand, just a few feet away from where you were sitting. (I was WALKING. Did you get that?) And today I explained all the horrific details, of how you changed my life, to the people that literally hold YOURS in their hands. That’s a little scary right? And this afternoon before going in, I’m not going to lie..my palms were sweaty. And sitting up there talking to the prosecution did make me cry. But today, do you know what else happened? TODAY…I looked at you right in the face….and realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. And today I realized that sitting across from you was somehow the crazy kind of step forward that I needed all along.

And I think that’s the ironic thing that happens when someone intends something for evil. Because somehow, some way, it always ends up good. But you are a coward. A little boy who wouldn’t even look me in the eyes to see that. Because you can’t handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger. And if your eyes would’ve met mine for just one second, you would’ve also seen that what you “blew up” really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.

So yes…you did take a part of me. Congratulations you now have a leg up…literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before, blessed that he is THRIVING, despite everything that has happened.

So now…while you are sitting in solitary confinement, (awaiting the verdict on your life), I will be actually ENJOYING everything this beautiful world has to offer. And guess what else? I will do so without fear….of YOU. Because now to me you’re a nobody, and it is official that you have lost. I truly hope it was worth it. Sincerely, Someone you shouldn’t have messed with #‎bostonstrong

As Christians, like Rebekah Gregory, we’re called by God to pray and work for the welfare of the place where we live, wherever we are, even if it’s a place we’d never have chosen to be. Working and praying for the welfare of where God has placed us enables us to bear witness to the love and faithfulness of the Lord in our communities. “Promote the general welfare” is such an important a concept that the Committee on Style who wrote the preamble of the US Constitution included it in the introduction to that important document. That is what Jeremiah is encouraging the exiles to do – promote the general welfare. Jeremiah tried to help the exiles to change their attitude in the midst of what was a terrible ordeal. He sought to direct their focus to shalom and prayer; to life, gratitude, and hope – things we should hold onto with all the strength and tenacity we can muster. Gratitude is how faith responds in remembering God’s faithfulness in the past; hope is how faith responds in trusting God’s faithfulness in the future.

In Jeremiah 29:11-14 which is part of the prophet’s letter are words which have encouraged countless believers ever since: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Prayer

Lord, give us deep in our heart the assurance that your plans for us are for our good and to give us hope. When like the exiles the circumstances of our life may cause us to wonder if you truly care or even if you have abandoned us, help us to keep on believing. Remind us that adversity and even suffering do not mean that you aren’t still with us. Inspire us every day to call on you and to pray and seek you with all our heart. May we have the joy of finding you no matter what we’re facing and may we be your people choosing life and hope and blessing our communities. In your name we pray, Amen.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

Have you ever had to move to a new community, state, or country? If so, was it your choice or someone else’s decision? What did you find most difficult about getting settled in a new place?

 

What would be the most difficult part of being forcibly relocated like the exiles in Jeremiah or refugees today from nations like Syria, Iraq or Myanmar?

 

How do you think the exiles from Judah would have responded to Jeremiah’s letter urging them to settle down and make lives for themselves in Babylon?

 

How would you feel about being told by the prophet of the Lord that you were to seek the “shalom,” the welfare, the well-being of the capital city of the empire which had overwhelmed your country and to which you were taken?

 

How would you feel about praying for the capital city of the empire you saw as your enemy (which is what the Lord tells the people to do)?

 

As Christians, if we pray and work for the welfare of the place where we live, how does that help bear witness to the love of God in our communities?

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