“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)
I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context and making it mean something it does not. So, in order to dispel that myth ahead of time, I add this disclaimer that I have in fact and indeed read the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 and, at one time in the past, read the entire book. There. Now, on to other things…
As I read this early today before worship I wrote in my Moleskine something to the effect of, “Yes, but what does this mean for us, the church, disciples of Jesus?” I kept on thinking about it until we arrived a little late for bible school. We arrived late enough to interrupt and but early enough to hear a few remaining prayer requests from the young folks in the class.
One woman asked for prayer for herself and her husband. They want a child and, evidently, are having trouble conceiving. Another asked for prayer as they are trying to buy a house. Another asked for prayer concerning financing of a house already being purchased. I used to find this strange—all these prayers for simply mundane things that have nothing to do with the Jesus who told us to ‘take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow [him].’ What sort of self-centered people are we to pray that God provide us houses, children, money, crops or worse? Does God care about these things? “Dear God, please help my marriage,” is a lot different from, “Lord, your kingdom come.” But maybe it is not so much different after all.
I volunteered to pray for the class and as I did these words of the Lord written down by Jeremiah came flooding into my mind. I prayed for the people in bible school and reminded them of what the Lord said to the people through Jeremiah.
The importance of Jeremiah’s letter, his ‘word of the Lord’, is found in what the Lord told his people to do while they lived in exile among strange people: seek the well-being of the community in which you live, prosper, set-up shop, plant crops, have children, get married, do business and seek peace. This reminded me of what I read in Hosea chapter four last week, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (Hosea 4:1-3).
So we walk a fine line. God tells us in nearly the same breath: seek the prosperity of the place you live and deny yourself. Hosea spoke to those who, because of one sin or another, allowed the place where they were to become a wasteland, uninhabitable by anyone or anything. Jeremiah spoke to another group of Hebrews and said: Don’t allow disaster to happen to the land of your exile as your fathers allowed disaster to happen to the Promise Land. Seek their prosperity. Pray for them; seek the Lord.
I find it strange that God commanded them to seek prosperity and yet I don’t. It’s like Jesus on the water in Mark four who calms a furious storm not just saving his disciples but also the ‘other boats with him’ (Mark 4:36). We live and move and have our being in the land of exile and while we do, we do not cease being people who curiously belong to God and who belong to a curious God—a god who cared not only about Ninevah but the ‘many cattle as well’, this strange God who ‘sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.’
I fail to see the connection between prayers such as, “God help me be a rich person so I can bless those around me” and “God help the city where I live to be prosperous and productive so that you will bless me through them.” How does this strange God bless his people through the prosperity of a pagan city where we are being held captive? Strange are the vessels God uses to bless his people and make himself known. Strange that I should want Blockbuster video to do well.
God’s grace in our lives is a light in the darkness. WE, I say that with no quiver in my voice, WE are called to be God’s means of dispensing grace in the world. We are not to decrease, but to increase. We too, like Israel, live in exile. Peter calls us strangers, aliens, foreigners. This place is no more our home than our possessions are our own. We live in this place for a little while, but our home is someplace else—we ‘long for a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). While we are here we are to make the best of it, to seek the Lord for the city, to help it prosper. We are not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but also for the peace of Madison, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, and California; the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa; the World.
Our prayers, and certainly God’s grace, extend far beyond the walls of the places we call sacred. We pray for the world that God might be known. We pray to God that the world might prosper in crops, people, and commerce. As such we should disregard the lying tongues of those who tell us otherwise. God seems to think such prayers are necessary, matter, and are vital to our own existence. Nor will I pray for the destruction of those who are opposed this godly message because that is not what God said to do. He said to pray for them and seek prosperity for their sake—for when they prosper, so also will I. So I’m not only going to pray for a young couple to have a child, for another couple to have a house, and for another’s crops to grow. I’m also going to pray that they will prosper wherever the Lord plants them—wherever their exile is manifest. And I will pray for the city where they are planted that it, too, will prosper.
Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son.” For God so loved the world…for God so loved the world…