Sunday September 15th 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Never In Their Wildest Dreams
Sometimes we end up in a situation in life that we never expected to find ourselves in.
Perhaps it’s a job that you never expected you would be working at. Perhaps it’s a house or community where you never imagined you’d live. Maybe it’s a relationship that you didn’t expect to be in. Or maybe you expected to be in a relationship at this point in your life, and you’re surprised that you’re not.
The Israelites never expected to find themselves in Babylon, even though Jeremiah had warned that if they didn’t mend their ways and turn back to God that God would allow them to be taken into captivity.
Although they never thought it would happen, indeed they were taken captive — forced to march almost a thousand miles from their home. Taken against their will to a place where people spoke a different language, ate different types of food, and dressed differently, thought differently, worshipped differently. The climate was different, the houses were different, there was absolutely nothing that felt familiar.
And in many ways they didn’t want it to ever feel familiar. They never wanted to feel at home in Babylon. They wanted to go back to Israel, back to everything that they knew, everything that they had grown up with. They wanted to sleep in their own beds, talk to their friends and families, eat their favorite foods, and shop in their familiar marketplaces. They wanted life to just go back to being normal.
This is not where they had ever imagined that would be. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would end up here.
Meanwhile back in Jerusalem…
Meanwhile, the prophet Jeremiah had been left back in Jerusalem. I don’t know why Jeremiah wasn’t taken along with all the best and brightest to Babylon. Perhaps the Babylonian captors didn’t feel the need to bring the fiery prophet who was always prophesying doom and gloom with them to Babylon.
But so it was, that while many of the Israelites sat far away in Babylon, waiting and hoping that they would soon be able to return home, Jeremiah received a prophecy from the Lord, which he sent as a letter to those living in exile in Babylon.
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles
The word from the Lord was essentially: “unpack your bags!” Settle in. Take off your shoes, make yourselves at home, because it is going to be a while. In fact it’s going to be seventy years. Seventy long years. Long enough that probably all of those who had been taken into exile would die in Babylon. Their grandchildren might get to return to their homeland, but the majority of those who had been taken captive would never see home again for themselves.
So Jeremiah tells them that it’s going to be a while, so they might as well make the best of it. Settle down, have children. Roll up their sleeves and get busy planting gardens and building houses. And seek the peace and the prosperity of the city where they lived.
This last past part probably came as quite a bit of a shock. Seek the what? Seek the peace and prosperity of the city of our captors? The captors who forced us to march hundreds of miles away from our homeland against our will? Are you sure you don’t mean that we should pray for the destruction of Babylon and the peace of Jerusalem? Shouldn’t we pray that God would reign fire down out of the sky and consume our enemies? You really want us to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, and pray to God on its behalf??
But indeed this is what God was calling them to do. And the only explanation given to them is that if the city where they live prospers, then they too will prosper.
If they want to prosper in this land where they were taken against their will, if they want to flourish in this place where they never thought they would end up, then they should pray, build, plant, and seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they live.
Praying and Working for Peace
Some of you had your lives mapped out from the moment you were old enough to talk. You knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. You knew what type of family you were going to have, what type of house you would live in, what type of person you would be married to.
But things rarely work out the way we planned. To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns,
The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry
And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy.
And so we are often faced with the choice — to be resentful, angry and bitter that things didn’t work out the way we had planned, or to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
There are, of course, times when we need to change our circumstances — in the case of an abusive relationship, we should escape if at all possible. And there are other times when we may feel God calling us to move — to seek out a job that is more lifegiving or that pays the bills, a housing situation that is more adequate.
But there are other times when God calls us to stay. To make ourselves at home. To settle in, and to roll up our sleeves and try to make the situation better. Plant gardens. Plant trees. Build houses. To work for the peace and prosperity of the place where we live, work, or play. Even when our boss gets on our nerves.
Even when it seems like our job is going nowhere. Even when our neighbors are being noisy or nosy. Even when our friends or loved ones are not being so loving, we are called to pray for them. Not to pray that God would curse them or reign down fire out of heaven to consume them, but that God would help them to prosper and to flourish. For when we pray for the shalom — the peace, the wholeness, the prosperity of others, then we too will find shalom.
As Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we may be children of our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44).
And we’re called to pray and work for the peace of the city where we live.
The Peace of Baltimore
We live in a city that is known to have quite a few issues. The president of our country even described parts of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and tweeted that “no human being would want to live there.” And in truth, there are probably many people who wish they could live somewhere other than here.
But there are also many in our city (including many of you!) who are actively working for the peace and prosperity of our city, many who are building houses and planting gardens, and praying for the peace and prosperity of our city. Many of you have the option to live wherever you want, and yet you choose to remain here, to work for the good of the community, to be a peaceful presence in our city that is so often known for violence.
During the past few years I’ve been privileged to get to know many pastors and ministry leaders, educators and businesspeople, and even lawyers and politicians who are working for the peace and prosperity of our city. On a monthly basis I gather together with other pastors from throughout the city to lift up the needs of our communities in prayer. While there are many needs in Baltimore, this is also so much good that is being done.
Some days it seems hopeless. Some days it seems that no matter how much good is being done, that things are getting worse. Some days it seems like the darkness might overcome the light. We see people that we grew up with who now look like a shadow of themselves, places we used to frequent when we were younger that are now vacant or abandoned. We see the divisions in our city grow stronger, the hatred and animosity and violence increase. We worry about safety, we worry about our friends and loved ones. We worry about where all of this is heading.
And yet we know that God has placed us here. This is where God has called us to be. And it might be a while until the Lord returns to make everything right.
And so we plant. We pray. We build. We seek. We combine faith and action, prayer and work. We join community associations. We look out for our neighbors. We pick up trash, water the flowers, and pull up weeds. We plan parades, and Family Fun Nights. We give out food to those who are hungry, and provide clothes to those who are in need. We gather for worship, we invite anyone and everyone to join us in praying and seeking the peace and prosperity of this city in which we dwell.
Seek the shalom — the peace, prosperity, wholeness, flourishing — of the city where you dwell, for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.
I’d like to end with the words of a song that is in our United Methodist Hymnal, entitled “All Who Love and Serve Your City” (UMH 433)
All who love and serve your city,
all who bear its daily stress,
all who cry for peace and justice,
all who curse and all who bless:
In your day of loss and sorrow,
in your day of helpless strife,
honor, peace, and love retreating,
seek the Lord, who is your life.
In your day of wealth and plenty,
wasted work and wasted play,
call to mind the word of Jesus,
“Work ye yet while it is day.”
For all days are days of judgment,
and the Lord is waiting still,
drawing near to all who spurn him,
offering peace from Calvary’s hill.
Risen Lord, shall yet the city
be the city of despair?
Come today, our Judge, our Glory,
be its name, “The Lord is there!”