J. Ben Wiles (PhD) is special assistant to the President at Pentecostal Theological Seminary
Imagine what it would be like if you woke up one day in a strange land, with a different language and a different culture. That’s what happened to the exiled Israelites to whom the book of Jeremiah is being written. They had been warned by Jeremiah and others that a failure to keep covenant with God would lead to this. And now God has instructed the same prophet to write this letter to those living in exile. "This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon" (Jeremiah 29:4 NIV11-GK). It is significant to note that they were in exile because God has put them there. Nebuchadnezzar didn't catch God off guard. This is the Lord's doing. They are confronted with that reality and forced to deal with its implications.
This is where the Church finds itself today, all over the world. Exile may look different in different places, but it is still exile. In the United States, many remember a day when the church was widely accepted and respected. There was a time when people shared some of our moral and ethical values even if they didn’t completely participate in the faith community itself. But we now live in a culture that wants to flaunt the opposite in our faces. Our views are seen as outdated - even hateful, and we are sometimes the objects of hostility.
But considering what we just read in Jeremiah, we must ask: What if where we are is exactly where God wants us right now? Is it possible that, just like the Babylonian captives, it is the Lord that has us here in this moment? Could we consider the possibility that we are here on a mission, and the only way we can accomplish it is to present a contrast - an alternative community - to the prevailing culture that is dying from enslavement to carnality?
What does God tell Israel to do while they are in exile? He tells them to settle in for the long haul. Plant a garden and eat the produce. Build a house and raise a family (see Jeremiah 29.5-6). God seems to be saying to them “Take off your coat and shoes and stay awhile. Unpack your bags. You’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Today’s church often seems so disturbed by our environment that all we want to talk about is escape. We search the Scripture for clues as to when the Lord is going to get us out of here. Granted, it is good to remind ourselves of the imminent return of the Lord. That is our hope! But, until that day comes, have we given any serious thought to the idea that maybe we are exactly where God wants us right now? Jesus told us to “occupy until I come” (Luke 19.13). That seems to be what the Lord is saying to exiled Israel; and furthermore, He tells them to "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 29:7 NIV).
What can we learn from this? We are here right now where there is rampant evil. Our leaders are often corrupted by money and power. Sometimes innocents are punished and the guilty go free. Human life is devalued as people use one another to fulfill the lust of the flush and then discard one another like yesterday’s trash. The murder of unborn babies, killed in the name of convenience is celebrated. Biblical sexual and gender norms are distorted and violated with pride. We have wars and rumors of wars. What we want to do is just say “Come quickly Lord Jesus” and “get us out of here!”
But in Jeremiah we see the Lord is saying something different – “Seek for the shalom of the city where you live.” How do we accomplish this? Two words in the text are “seek and pray.” “Seek” the peace and prosperity of the city in which we live. That means an understanding of what is going on and what needs to be done. And “pray.” When it comes to the conditions of the world around us, people in exile can do one of three things - we can “cede” which means to “give up.” We can “concede” which means we come into agreement with it. Or we can “intercede” which means to step into the middle of something and take action. “Interceding” is what we are called to do, and our actions should flow from our prayer. We should note that it was during this exile that we hear about the Lord shutting the mouths of the lions and standing in the fire with the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It’s in exile that God will do powerful things as we remain faithful to Him and His mission in a strange land.
But we must always remember, as the old song in the Church Hymnal says, “this world is not my home!” One day we will go to our true home, just as Israel did some seventy years after they arrived in Babylon. Until that time, we are to live our lives in light of that future hope. We must not forget who we are – “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV).