Making the Best of Babylon

We don’t always get to choose our circumstances, but we do get to choose how we respond. How can we make the best of bad circumstances?

Listen here:

Read Jeremiah 29:1,4-7 here[1]

Stuck.  What does it feel like to be stuck?  It can happen in all sorts of ways.  The summer that I was around fourteen, I got stuck.  A group of my friends and one of their moms took us on a road trip from our hometown of Simi Valley, California to visit Oregon and Washington.  We had packed everything we needed into the mom’s van, stopped by A&W Root Beer to get jugs of soda for the trip, and headed off out of town, excited to get started on our two-week adventure.

I5 freeway past Fort Tejon2A little over an hour later, we were on the interstate (I-5) going through the mountain range that separates Southern California from Central California, trucking along . . . until the traffic slowed to a crawl, and then to a stop.

8lanes-new2-

We groaned.  Traffic! Not now!

Ok, no problem, traffic is a normal part of life in Southern California.  We expected to get going soon.  Except that we didn’t.  We sat, and sat, and sat.

We were at the top of the mountain pass where there were no offramps for miles, and there was a canyon and a river between us and the other side of the freeway.  No way to get off the freeway or turn around.  Stuck. But we remained hopeful that we would start moving soon.  Except that we didn’t.  People started turning their cars off, and after a while one driver got out and walked ahead to find out why we were stopped.  When he finally came back, he brought bad news.  A semi had overturned and spilled its load across all four lanes. The freeway was completely shut down and we were going to be stuck until they got it cleared, which would take hours.  We groaned.  We whined.  Now what?

What do you do when you’re stuck? You throw a freeway party.

Have you ever played frisbee on the freeway?  We did.  Several frisbees were flying around.  Quite a few decks of playing cards were put to use.  We shared our jugs of root beer and our snacks.  We spent six hours on the freeway that day.  We made some new friends, and even exchanged addresses.  One of the girls in my group even wrote letters to her new freeway friend for years afterward.

Hanging_Gardens_of_BabylonWe were stuck with no way to get out and we made the best of it.  That’s what Jeremiah tells the people in Babylon to do in our Bible reading for today. They got stuck.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Jerusalem around 600 BC.  He’d been warning the people of Judah to repent and turn back to God.  They didn’t listen.  King Nebuchadnezzar attacked and carried a bunch of them off into exile in Babylon,[2] including King Jehoiachin (yeh-ho-yaw-keen),[3] the queen mother, the court officials, the other officials of Judah, and all the craftsmen and artisans (Jer. 29:2).  Some of the prophets that were with them in Babylon were trying to keep their spirits up by telling them that the exile would be short and that they would get back home in two years (Jer. 28:3).  So God gives Jeremiah a message for the exiles – Settle in and make the best of it.  Build houses, have babies, and be a blessing to your neighbors.  And then he explains why:

This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let your prophets and fortune-tellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, because they are telling you lies in my name. I have not sent them,” says the Lord10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:8-11 NLT)

Seventy years!  That meant that most of those hearing the words of this letter would never see Jerusalem again.  They would die before the seventy years were over.  I’m sure they weren’t happy about this letter, and it’s likely that some of them refused to believe it.  But as the years dragged on, they came to see that what Jeremiah had told them was true.  They were stuck. In exile. In Babylon.  900 miles away from home. The food, the language, and the customs were all different.[4] They probably felt abandoned and alone and troubled.

StuckHave you ever felt like this?  Have you ever been stuck somewhere far from home?  It might be in a far-off country, or another part of this country.  Maybe you were stuck in an airport, or maybe the place where you received bad news that felt like exile was a hospital or a classroom.  Maybe the bad news about being stuck in a new and unwanted reality came in a doctor’s office, or in a boss’s office. Wherever the bad news comes that changes our lives, that moment can be vividly seared into our memories. Or it can happen gradually without our realizing it, until one day we discover we are somewhere we didn’t want to be.

Whatever the bad news is, there’s always good news, right?  Like the time a man named Ben wasn’t feeling well and went to the doctor.  They did some tests and took some blood.  When Ben came back the next week to hear the results, the doctor said, “I have good news and bad news.  Which one do you want first?”  Ben said, “The good news.”  “Ok, here’s the good news.  They’re going to name the disease after you.”[5]

I don’t know if you noticed, but Jeremiah, in his letter to the people in exile, doesn’t start with the bad news.  He starts with good news, instructions about what to do after they hear the bad news.  “Build houses…plant gardens…marry and have children…work and pray for peace and prosperity.”  In other words, bloom where you’re planted.  Maybe Jeremiah said this part first because he was wise enough to know that after they heard the words “seventy years” they wouldn’t hear anything else.

Seventy years was the bad news.  What’s the good news?  God has not abandoned you.

God has not abandoned youThey were not alone and we are not alone.  God had Jeremiah send them a letter so they would know that God still cared and God had not forgotten them.  When we are feeling lost and alone, that’s our good news, too.

  • God loves us so much that he sent us Jesus to show us and tell us that we are not forgotten or abandoned.
  • God gave us the words of the Bible to keep reminding us that God is always with us.
  • God speaks through friends and family to show us and tell us that we are not alone and not forgotten.
  • God has given us the Holy Spirit to keep reminding us and guide us and bring us peace.

Whenever we are in exile, whether it’s geographical or emotional, it disturbs our sense of peace.  It’s like we are in the midst of a raging storm.  We cannot see or hear anything but the storm.  Our natural response is fear, sadness, anger.  We have to find our peace that’s deeper than the storm.  We have to trust that God is still with us in the storm.

Our peaceOur sense of peace will continually be disturbed if it’s based on our circumstances. Instead, our sense of peace needs to be based on God. That’s what Jeremiah is saying to the exiles.  It’s going to be ok, but not because things are going to go back to the way they were before.  It’s going to be ok because you’re going to make the best of the new circumstances, and you’re going to learn to trust God in new ways and in new situations.  This is the meaning of a word that means more than peace – shalom.

That’s what Jeremiah is talking about when he tells them to pray and work for peace. He says:

 “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7 NLT

Peace and prosperity and welfare are all different ways to say shalom.  What that verse says in Hebrew is:  “Work for the shalom of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its shalom will determine your shalom.”

Shalom is often translated as peace, but it’s more than peace.  It’s wellbeing, and wholeness, and a deep-seated faith that God is good and wants what’s best for us.[6] So we are called to work for and pray for the shalom – the peace, prosperity and welfare – of the place where you are, wherever you are, even if it’s not the best of circumstances.

Jesus says almost the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)  And Paul tells us in 1 Timothy to, “Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well…” (1 Timothy 1-2 MSG).

We are to work and pray for shalom.  How do we get unstuck and find peace?

  • Make peace with God by turning to Jesus and by confessing our sins.
    • Reconnect with our own shalom by asking God to renew our peace and remembering that the God who created the universe is bigger than our circumstances.

Sometimes we need to figure out if we’re stuck on “if only’s.”  We might be saying, “If only I could change my job…” or get a different house, or buy a new whatever, then I’d have peace.  “If only’s” will only bring us temporary peace.  Lasting peace comes through trusting God to help us make the best of whatever we have and wherever we are.

  • Make peace with our neighbors
    • We do this in small ways through kind words and helpfulness
    • We do this in bigger ways by having conversations that deepen our understanding of one another, and seeking to resolve our differences
  • Ask God to help us see what we can do to make wherever we are better.
    • When we were stuck on the freeway we made it into a party.
    • The people in Babylon were to build houses, plant gardens, find spouses, have babies, and make peace with their new neighbors.

We see in the book of Esther how that was working out for some of them.  Years later, after some of them had already returned to Jerusalem, we see that the people in exile had been fruitful and multiplied, and that one of the officials high up in the government of Persia came up with a plan to get rid of them.  Esther had to take a huge risk by going to the king to put a stop to the plan and restore peace to her people.

Sometimes working for peace involves risk –

  • maybe because we need to go talk to someone in power, or maybe because we need to confess something to a friend or family member and ask forgiveness.

Sometimes we’re not at peace because something needs to change. That’s why it’s important to work and pray for peace, so God can help us see.  To help us with this, I like the serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:[7]

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

When we’re struggling to find peace, and when we find ourselves stuck and in need of shalom.

  • Sometimes we need to change something about a situation or about ourselves.
  • Sometimes we need to trust God to make the change.

So we do what we can, and work on being prayerful in all things.

Let’s work and pray for the peace and wellbeing of ourselves, our families, our church, our community, our state, our nation, and the world.

Check out some ideas here

[1] By Rev. Melissa Krabbe, preached at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS on Sunday, October 13, 2019.

[2] Read more about Babylon here: https://www.historyrevealed.com/eras/antiquity/in-a-nutshell-babylon/

[3] Archaeologists have found a clay tablet that lists the rations to be given to Jehoiachin of Judah. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehoiachin%27s_Rations_Tablets

[4] Alphonetta Wines http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4184

[5] https://www.aish.com/j/j/51478822.html

[6] https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v01-n10/the-shalom-of-god-issues-shalom/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

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