Jeremiah 10:17-25, 17:7-8, 31:31-34
The Story, Part 1: Exile and Restoration
Today in our journey through the Story of the Bible, we find ourselves in the Book of Jeremiah, one of the many books of prophecy in the Bible. As I’ve shared before, although we sometimes think of prophecy like fortune-telling, predicting the future, it’s really more about truth-telling. Here’s what’s going to happen if you keep heading down the path you’re on. Most of the books of prophecy in the Bible are centered around one particular narrative of warning about a painful future: With some speaking to the kingdom of Judah and some to Israel, with some warning and correcting decades before events unfolded and some writing from the center of the storm, so to speak, almost all of the writings of the prophets are warning Israel and Judah that if they don’t repent and return to God with all their hearts, they will be conquered by foreign rulers and exiled from the Promised Land. There are a few chief complaints that God has with God’s people. The most persistent is idolatry - people keep putting other gods, other things, before God. They’re not being faithful to their covenant with God. They said that God would be their one and only God, but they’re putting other things first in their life. That’s the main, worst offense. And related to that: when they stopped putting God first, they also stopped making care for the marginalized a priority. They’ve been disregarding the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Through the prophets, God tells people God has had enough of their rejecting the covenant. They have opportunity after opportunity to repent, to change their ways and turn back to God, but they don’t. And so what starts as warnings from the prophets turns into declarations of what will be: God is going to exile them.
That’s what we find in our readings from Jeremiah today. We get three sections of text from Jeremiah, and the first is all about the coming exile. The language is bold and clear. Through Jeremiah, God says, “I am going to fling away the inhabitants of the land … and I will bring distress on them, so that they feel it.” God expresses deep pain because of being rejected by God’s own people. “Woe is me because of my hurt,” says God. “My wound is severe.” I think sometimes we forget that - that God can hurt, that we can cause God pain. Jeremiah describes a God who is brokenhearted. Jeremiah pleads on behalf of the people: “Correct us, God, but if you use all your anger on us, with all your power, we’ll be nothing.” But Jeremiah imagines he hears a noise, a commotion coming - the armies arriving who will make their homeland a desolation.
In the second short excerpt, Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” Those who trust God, he says, are like a tree that’s planted by the water, that sends its roots out into the stream. They’re like a tree that doesn’t fear when it gets very hot - doesn’t wither or yellow in the extreme weather. They’re like a tree that doesn’t worry or get damaged even in a year of drought, but continues to bear fruit all the same. That’s what it is like for those who trust in God.
And then, in the third section, God is looking ahead, looking forward already to the joyful time when God will make a new covenant with God’s people. “The days are surely coming,” God says. God says this time, the covenant will be different, not like the covenant the Israelites broke. This covenant, God says, will be put right within God’s people. God will write it on their hearts. People will know the covenant because it lives with in them, from the greatest to the least in a society. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
I’ve been thinking about exile this week. Being pushed out of your home - banished from your home. In some ways, I think it is hard for us to relate. It is not a typical punishment, anymore, for crimes, at least not in the US. My mom might tell you that on one of her favorite shows, Survivor, you can get voted off the island - “The tribe has spoken.” But mostly, we don’t worry about being conquered and exiled - ourselves, or certainly as a whole society. I think of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo’s punishment for killing Juliet’s cousin - not death, but banishment. To be separated from his love felt like death to Romeo. Today in other parts of the world, political dissidents, ousted national leaders, and war criminals - sometimes they are banished, exiled from their countries, kept on house arrest in some far off land. How can we relate to the pain, the gravity and devastation of the exile if it is so far removed from our experiences today?
When I brought this up at Bible Study this week, the class quickly thought of ways people experience a sense of exile today. As we lifted up the Kairos team that next weekend will seek to share the hope of Christ with men who are in prison, we talked about how prisoners experience exile. They’re often very far from home and family. They’re often in prison in a place like Gouverneur that couldn’t be more different culturally than the place they’re from. It’s a kind of exile, certainly. We talked about those who are homeless, who are on the fringes of society. However a person came to be living in such poverty, they exist in a kind of exile, shut out of the rhythms of a working, consuming culture. People experience a kind of exile when relationships end badly, making even casual contact impossible where there once was a marriage, or a friendship, or a family bond. We talked about people being alienated from faith communities, either from feeling disconnected from the patterns and language and teaching of church, or from feeling unwelcome by church members, or afraid that there is no place for you in spaces considered holy and sacred. The truth is, when we start digging, prodding, the experience of exile is not so far from us after all.
When have you felt exiled? Banished? Cut off from a place or a relationship or a situation that was home to you? Have you ever needed to banish or exile someone from you life? I’ve experienced having to break bonds with abusive family members. Necessary, but painful nonetheless - for those sent away, and for those doing the sending. Exile is hard. In exile, we are saying, perhaps, “Your behavior is so hurtful, so unacceptable, so destructive, that the only path forward for a meaningful change for me and for you is radical action: you can’t be here anymore. Moving forward with you is no longer one of the options we have.”
Imagine, then, what must unfold, what must take place, and what must be felt by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah when it is God who exiles them. Sure, they are conquered, and foreign armies and rulers are the ones who drag them away. But the prophets, Jeremiah included, let us know that this is God’s judgment on them. It is God who is sending them away, God who is saying, “You can’t be here anymore. We cannot have the same relationship anymore.” Have you ever felt exiled from God? “For thus says the Lord: I am going to fling away the inhabitants of the land … and I will bring distress on them, so that they shall feel it.” Have you ever felt that? Flung away from God?
I suspect most of us have. Don Schuessler mentioned in class, how Mother Teresa talked about a ten-year period in her life where she didn’t feel the presence of God. She wrote, “Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them.” (1) John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had some “dark nights of the soul” too - and he wondered if he’d ever really been a Christian, or if he was just a fake, and he wrote to his brother Charles expressing that he didn’t know what else to do in the midst of his doubts except just keep on preaching. This wasn’t Wesley as a young man, but Wesley in his 60s, already the leader of an international movement of reawakening faith. Maybe you think, “Gosh, if even Mother Teresa had doubts, what hope do I have?” But I think, “Oh good - even Mother Teresa had doubts! And yet look at her great faithfulness!” However we find ourselves in the strange land of exile, I think we all encounter seasons of feeling far-flung from God’s presence. Sometimes we know exactly how we got there. We can recount our sins, our failings, we know how we’ve broken covenant with God, and we understand how we ended up just where we are. Sometimes, our journey to exile was inch by inch, and we didn’t realize that we’d gotten so far from God until we looked behind us and couldn’t see God’s face anymore. Sometimes, we go for a season, for a decade, without feeling God’s presence, and we’re not even sure why.
But friends, there is always restoration with exile when it comes to our relationship with God. Exile, our experience of exile, is never the end of the story. Because God’s promises endure, always. Even when God’s people are in exile, even in the worst time in their collective lives, God is with them there, too. I’ve been reading through the writings of the prophets for the past several months as part of my devotional time. The major prophets - they’re just the ones with longer books in the Bible, and now the minor prophets. I’m almost to the “end” of this section of scripture. And reading them all back to back, I’ve noticed some themes, some patterns, some repeated ways that God speaks through the prophets.
My favorite “pattern” of God’s is this: practically before God is done saying what the consequences are for the sinful behavior of God’s people, practically before God is done describing the coming exile, God is already also imagining restoration and reconciliation with God’s people. God says, things like, “You’ve been awful, and I am so upset with you, and I’m so hurt, and so frustrated, and so angry, and I am so going to punish you, FOREVER! But then I am so totally going to relent, and forgive, and things will be awesome between us again and I can’t wait because I love you and you’re my people and I’m your God.” God never leaves us in exile. That works in two ways: God never leaves us - we’re never without God, even in exile. But also, God never leaves us there - exile isn’t permanent, not with God. There’s always a homecoming. The lost sheep is always found. The lost coin is discovered. The prodigal son is welcomed home. God can’t wait to forgive us. God can’t wait for our relationship to be healed. God is so anxious to says, “Let’s renew that covenant.” God can hardly stay mad long enough to not be eagerly describing how joyful it will be when we are reunited, when we return to God with all our hearts.
If you find yourselves in exile, however you got there, I want you to remember those middle verses about the tree by the water, the tree that trusts in God. Even when you can’t feel God’s presence, even when you feel utterly alone, even when you feel like the world is a blazing sun that wants to cause you to shrivel up, or when you feel like your life has been in a long season of drought, dry and parched, seek to be like the tree by the water that trusts in God. Eventually, Mother Teresa, John Wesley, they felt God’s presence once again. And I think they were aided in part by the fact that they had practices of faith that sustained them even when they felt alone. They couldn’t feel God, but they still studied God’s word. They will prayed. They still shared about God’s goodness, about Jesus’s good news. And eventually, those words meant something to them again. We have to establish those practices of faith in the times when we feel God right by our sides, so that we can lean on them in times when we don’t. They’ll help us find our way again.
And if you find yourselves in exile, remember this: God’s promises are written on your hearts. See, even though in Jeremiah, in that last section we read God says God will make a new covenant with the people, it probably sounds pretty familiar to you - because it is really the same covenant as always: I’ll be your God, you be my people. That’s always what God wants. A relationship with us. But remember in Deuteronomy, we read how God wanted us to remember by putting God’s words on our heads and arms and doorposts and gates, so we’d never forget? This time, God says, “I’m putting the covenant directly on your heart. My covenant will be within you. I’m writing it on your heart. Everyone will know it then. You’ll barely have to teach it - because you’ll know it already, young and old, greatest and least. My covenant on your hearts.”
If God’s covenant is on our hearts, then there’s nowhere we can go, no where we can be sent, no place we can hide, no place we can run, no place to which we can be exiled, no state of sinfulness that is too much, no separation that has lasted too long, no circumstance of any kind where God cannot reach us. It can’t be done. “They days are surely coming,” says God. Like trees by the water, let us trust in God, wherever we are. Amen.