Grace and peace from God our creator, Hope in our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. Amen.
There are few words that bring more comfort to my mind than the word “home.” It’s a small word. Only four letters. Only one syllable. Home. “Honey, I’m home!” we shout. “Home, sweet home,” we sigh. We go home for the holidays, or our families come home to us! It’s where the heart is, we sometimes say. It’s where your mom is, a friend of mine says.
And we can feel at home even when we are not—when we gather with people from home in a new place, when we hug an old friend, when we hear an old, familiar song. Home is a place for togetherness. It’s where we celebrate important occasions and life milestones. It’s where we pass on traditions—food, music, dress, customs, ways of being in relationship. It’s where we look at old photos and laugh about fashions and learn about generations that came before us. Home is where we become who we are.
For Jeremiah’s listeners, those in exile in Babylon, the word “home” did not mean what it means to us. For refugees and internally displaced people in our modern world, “home” does not mean the same as it means to us. People in exile live in an uncertainty as to how long they’ll be where they are, if they’ll ever return to where they came from—if their dwelling places will even be standing, were they to return there.
It’s likely that the exiles were a bit grumbly about their forced migration. The Israelites are a grumbly people, if you recall their upset about the manna from heaven in the wilderness being tasteless and uninteresting, after God had miraculously provided it to them for their survival. It’s always something.
But in verse 7 of the Jeremiah reading, it is written, “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.” That doesn’t make it sound like Babylon is a place they’re just visiting.
An Episcopal priest named Martin Smith wrote a really great piece about this, and he says that, with these words, the exiles are being invited to trust that their time in Babylon is not outside of God’s vision for them as the chosen people.
“If they would only reject the poison of resentment,” Martin Smith writes, "then they could live and learn—and be prepared by God—for an eventual restoration. They must feel for and with their new neighbors. They must identify appropriately with the city that is now their provisional home, for all its overpowering strangeness.” It is by digging in to their new community that they will be restored.
And so God tells the people to make themselves at home in Babylon. “Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah writes. “Plant gardens, and eat what they produce. Take wives, and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage; multiply there, and do not decrease.” If God is encouraging the exiles to have children and to ensure that those children have children, this exile is not going to be over any time soon. Generations will live in this new place, and generations will pass away in this new place. This exile is going to be a whole different ballgame.
For those of us who certainly can go home again, it can be hard to hear this Word of God about exile and know what to make of it. But Malinda Elizabeth Berry says that, “Our experiences and the ways they teach us to adapt, change, and grow is part of God's shalom project—caring about the communities where we find ourselves because our welfare is beautifully bound up in those places we call home.” It’s our responsibility to get invested in the communities in which we live, for we are inextricably bound together.
Though we may not feel like we live in a state of exile this morning, we can still heed these words. We can still dig in to the communities in which we live, seeking the welfare of those with whom we share this place. We as the people of God are not meant to insular and self-centered and exclusive. We’re meant to shine the light of the promises of God to all nations, all people, all neighbors. That’s what the exiles were supposed to do, and that’s still what we’re supposed to do.
But it’s not that God misunderstands, though, that it is going to be hard. The “overpowering strangeness” of the Babylonians cannot be understated. The customs were not Jewish, there was no temple, there was no liturgy, there were no priests. It was not like home. In fact, it was the worst environment that many of these people had ever found themselves in. The oppressive Babylonian regime was no walk in the park. The exiles needed these words of support from their God.
Renita Weems, a professor from Georgia, wrote a commentary on the book of Jeremiah. In it, she explains that Jeremiah is survival literature and protest literature. Have you read The Joy Luck Club or Night or Souls of Black Folks? These are modern literary examples of the kind of thing that Renita Weems is saying Jeremiah was writing for his people. She writes that, “Rather than trivializing their suffering or interpreting it away, these writers face their community’s suffering with courage and in protest.”
Because, from the sounds of this letter from the prophet Jeremiah, they weren’t headed home at the end of the day. For the exiles, thinking of the word “home” was no longer going to call to mind the warm feelings of comfort and family that we’re calling to mind, now. That image of home was just going to be a reminder of their exile. Of their away-ness from that. Of their inability to raise their children in the traditions they’d been raised with. Of their inability to eat and drink and work and worship the ways they’d always known. And so, because home could not be that place, could maybe never be a place at all, anymore, home-ness came from God. It was in the promises of God that the exiles could have confidence in their identities. They could raise their children in the same covenant relationship they had known. In that sense, they could be home, again.
And the book of Jeremiah tells us all about God’s relationship to God’s people. Later in the book, he’ll write about his vision for a new beginning and a new covenant, not just a touch-up. Renita Weems writes that Jeremiah, “imagined God painting a different picture of life with a completely new canvas.” And “God is one who so empathizes with the world as to identify with broken societies, exiled communities, tortured peoples, and lands laid waste.” If we take Jeremiah seriously, he’s telling us that “out of ruin can come resurrection.”
Earlier, I said that we may not feel like we’re in a state of exile this morning. Maybe you do. Maybe you feel like you just can’t get a hold on things. Like you’re always in between things, always transitioning, rushing, changing, moving. Never quite settling. Never quite home. Maybe, in the midst of that, you feel like God is too far away. Maybe you feel like you need to be restored. Maybe you feel dead enough to need resurrecting.
Throughout his prophetic writing, Jeremiah knows that God has not abandoned them. God has not broken God’s promises, not once. You’ve maybe heard Jeremiah 29:11 a million times—“for surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” There’s a future, and it’s hopeful. And God is with us, here, now and there, then. “When you search for me, you will find me,” Jeremiah says that God says. “When you call upon me and come and pray to me I will hear you.”
In the hymn we’re going to sing, we’ll hear these words once more. “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” We’ll sing. “Come and follow me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine.” These are words that we know to be true because they were said to us in our baptism, and are said to us continually by the God who calls us each by name. And so you see, we are never far from home, for God is always with us.
And as we enter the season of Advent in the coming days, we’ll proclaim that a line shines in the darkness, and that the darkness does not overcome it. But in making that claim, we acknowledge the darkness that surrounds us. We acknowledge the sin and death that can pervade even the sunniest of days. But with that coming shining light, we know for certain that the hope and the peace that surpasses all human understanding lives and breathes and walks among us.
God with us, Emmanuel.
Thanks be to God.