Three times within the past ten days I have read (or it has been read to me) the identical passage from the prophet Jeremiah. One was from a pulpit, one was in my bible reading on the same day, and one was (bizarrely) in the Daily Telegraph a week later. Here it is:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7)
The context is important. The Babylonian empire had made a foray into the land that was still controlled by the House of David in Jerusalem. They had lost their King, most of the Royal Family, and substantial numbers of the professional classes, and a puppet king (Zedekiah) had been installed who later rebelled against the Babylonian king, and brought about, some years later, the siege and destruction of the temple and the city that Solomon and David had poured their heart into. The recipients of the letter which starts with the above words are in or near Babylon. They were bewildered and confused and finding life a struggle. Psalm 137 dates from this time, and it is full of the longing of the exiles for home. The passage is the context for the well known passage that starts “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”, which has been ripped out of context any number of times and used by Christians to encourage each other but often without taking care to see exactly what the issues were.
Now I take it seriously if God starts bringing a passage of scripture to me so frequently in such succession and I start asking what it means. As much as we have loved being in this city, the sense of exile has never been stronger. Finding a welcome in churches has been more of a struggle here than anywhere else we have ever lived, and finding a church leadership committed to building the beloved community which the church is designed to be is pretty rare. Maybe I have blinkers on, but it is a struggle. It is a struggle to belong, to be accepted.
And yet, belong we do. The work to which I am called means that more than anything, I belong to a group of people who have asked me to lead them; the school is thus more like a church to me than any church I have encountered in Milton Keynes. There is more reality, more purpose, more vision, more clarity, more mission, and in some ways, more worship. This highlights the contrast between the experience of those Christians working in the school and what we have often said is the experience of being in church. I am glad that this is so (because of the delight of working alongside Christians and others committed to children’s flourishing) and I am deeply askew in my spirit because of it too – because the church should be more than it is, richer, deeper and more rooted than it is.
Part of this word that Jeremiah speaks is to provide for the exiles a sense of God’s purpose and timing – the passage reminds them that the exile is for 70 years – and a strong word that will impart resilience and confidence while they are there. The “nice” passage about the plans God has for us – this refers to the promise of return from exile, not the experience of exile. It is something to inspire hope while they work at the tough business of getting crops from soil, houses from clay bricks and building a family-centred community in which to live. They would not be, one suspects, in possession of the best land that the Babylonians had to offer, and building a community (especially when many of them were white-collar workers) would be hard.
But the challenge of Jeremiah’s letter is even harder for the exiles. They are bidden to pray for the Babylonians, who have killed and brutalised their communities and enslaved them (a foreshadowing of Jesus’ command to bless and love our enemies rather than go to war to kill them), knowing that as they pray, the blessing of the great city will be theirs as well.
How this works has to be counter-intuitive for those who are oppressed in the original context, but for us, it is obvious. We live in a city that is capable of harbouring great blessing and mediating it to the poor and there is a way, through prayer, though mission and through the civic associations, of making this work.
One of these ways is through Citizens:MK, currently using the Living Wage campaign to get the lowest paid workers some sort of better deal in the city and seeking to find ways of enabling old and young to have new ways of supporting and caring for each other through the Weaving Trust initiative.
Another way is to take the responsibility of contributing to the future “look and feel” of our city, through the Plan:MK strategy and consultation being launched by the council.
The issue and challenge that I am sensing from God is that all that we do to pray and foster the wellbeing of this city which harbours and nourishes us will bring glory to him and advance the cause of his Kingdom in all sorts of ways we can only imagine.
Fast forward from the exile in Babylon to the elevation of Daniel and his friends within both the Babylonian and Persian kingdoms and you can begin to see what an opportunity for the word and activity of God there might be in the future, through those that remain faithful, settle down, build houses, plant gardens and create community around them.