The Shalom of the City

October 10, 2010                Jeremiah 29:1-7

You have heard that it was said:
“The LORD is my strength and my might.  He has become my salvation.”
It comes from a passage of scripture that’s known as the Song of Moses.  It’s found in Exodus chapter 15, right after the part where God led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry land.
What happened was that God was leading these people through the wilderness.
They had been slaves in Egypt for a long time, but finally their time had come for freedom.  So God sent 10 plagues, and by the end of the tenth plague, the Pharaoh had had enough.
So he told Moses that they could go.
And they left.
They turned their backs on the life they once knew–the slavery, the whips, the making of bricks.  These people of God turned their backs on all that was familiar to them–the only life they had ever known.
We like to think it was a joyous and liberating time in those people’s lives, and I’m sure in many ways it was.  But I’m guessing it was pretty difficult, and scary, too.
Life in Egypt at least had some guarantees.  Life following a Sovereign God had very different guarantees.
So they entered the wilderness.  But God led them, step by step.
By day He was a pillar of Cloud and by night He was a Pillar of Fire, so they could see Him with them at all times.  When their faith faltered, at least they had that clear symbol of His presence with them.
Now soon after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind.
He sent his army after them, to bring them back.
So the chase was on!  The Israelites were led to the Red Sea.
They were led there by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
But there they didn’t know what to do.  They couldn’t go forward, and the Egyptians were coming up in the back, breathing down their necks.
And so God worked a miracle!  He touched the sea and broke it like bread.
They walked right through on dry land, each and every one of them, until they were safe and dry on the other side.
And just like that, as their pursuers were gaining ground across that same stretch of broken water, the sea returned to it’s place, swallowing up both horse and rider in their hot pursuit.
And there, on the other side of the Red Sea, Moses paused with his followers and uttered these words:
“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.  The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”
What a glorious victory!  How could the Israelites ever question God after witnessing such an awesome show of power?!
The crossing of the Red Sea has come to symbolize the exodus from Egypt for generations of God’s faithful people–it symbolizes that saving moment in time when God clearly brought His people out of bondage, acting on their behalf in a mighty way.

But fast forward a few hundred years, and the scene changes quite a bit.
Again the Israelites are sitting by water.
Again they have just come through a life-changing ordeal.
Only this time it’s not the Red Sea.
Instead of God breaking the sea like bread and taking them safely through, this time it’s the people themselves God has broken.  The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire were nowhere to be seen.
Jerusalem had been attacked, they had been carried away.
Instead of Exodus, they were experiencing Exile.
So instead of singing the song of Moses, they sing Psalm 137… “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”
How can we sing of liberation in captivity?
Indeed, these are two very different stories.
One has to do with Exodus–God’s mighty hand clearly, visibly leading the people out of the land of slavery.
The other has to do with Exile–kind of the opposite end of the spectrum.
It’s the place where God seems absent, where the people are defeated, bound, and taken away.

Exodus and Exile.
Our faith story encompasses both.
There are times that God leads us through the Red Sea, drying the ground before us and powerfully saving us from the hands of our enemies.
And there are other times our enemies bind us and carry us away, with our security in ruins behind us.

I’m taking a leadership class right now, that Leah Miller teaches.
Partly because of that class, and partly because I’d heard a lot about it, I recently picked up the book ‘good to great’ by Jim Collins.
In that book, the author and his team of researchers try to find what factors are responsible for moving a company from being ‘good’ to becoming ‘great’.
Anyways, in one of the chapters, the author interviews a leader of one of the companies they were studying.  He was a guy who had been captured in Vietnam along with his unit.
They were in a POW camp for I don’t remember how many years.  He walked with a limp because of some of the torture he endured.
At some point the interviewer asked him if there was a difference between the ones who survived that ordeal and the ones who didn’t.
Without missing a beat, he said “the optimists didn’t stand a chance”.
The ones who ‘just knew’ they would be rescued by Christmas, or that the war would be over in a couple of months–they didn’t last long.
The prisoners who saw reality for what it was, who could face it head on, no matter how bad it got–they were the ones who had the best chance at survival.
It’s hard to live in and respond to the moment when your mind is constantly elsewhere.
It’s not that optimism is bad–It just needs to be tempered with reality.
For the Israelites in Babylon,
Months turned into years, years turned into generations.
Is it any wonder Jeremiah told them what he did?
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives, have sons and daughters,…multiply there and do not decrease.”
They needed that message.  They needed to live there, to face reality in Babylon if they had any chance of returning.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
It’s easy for us to read that verse in isolation from the story around it.
Unless you know the story behind it, that city could become anywhere, right?
But it’s not anywhere.  It was Babylon.
These exiles were living among their enemies.  The very people who had broken Jerusalem, who had shattered the hopes and dreams of this people of God.
These were the people who had killed their friends, who had torn them from their families and all that was familiar–the people who reduced their security to rubble.
But nevertheless, God speaks through Jeremiah to these exiles in Babylon, saying “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
That word ‘welfare’ is used 3 times in that one verse in the NRSV.
The NIV uses the term ‘prosperity’ or ‘peace and prosperity’.
The King James version just says “peace”.
There are a number of words you can use there, but the Hebrew word that’s behind all of them is ‘Shalom’, which does mean peace, but also includes something like ‘wholeness’.
The Israelites had been broken, during a time of war.  They were forcibly removed from everything that was familiar.  And yet they were commanded to bestow peace and wholeness upon their captors, right there in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar had taken away every outer expression of Jerusalem’s Peace and Well-being.
But he couldn’t take away the wholeness that God gives to His people!
Today, that wholeness comes through Jesus.  He is the healing “shalom” of God!
But this shalom is something that you can only keep by giving away.
Life can be forcibly taken.  Buildings and city walls can be destroyed.
Families can be torn apart.
But Shalom can only be found in giving it to others.  (kind of like that ‘magic penny’ song).  🙂
“seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.”
So what’s that mean for us?
Jesus is our shalom…but what’s that mean?
Earlier in the week, when all I knew about the sermon was the passage I wanted to use, I was sure I’d end up by talking about Millersburg or Holmes County and the need to be active participants in building ‘shalom’ right here.  And on one level, that’s a good lesson to take from this passage.

But Millersburg isn’t my enemy.  Holmes County isn’t my enemy.
We are hardly in exile.
We enjoy a kind of shalom here–or at least the outward expressions of it.
Most of us have enough, if not more than enough money, shelter, food, and clothing.
We can rest well most nights, at least secure in the knowledge that we’re not going to be physically attacked by enemies and hauled off to Babylon.
So in a lot of ways our situation is a little more precarious.
What I mean is, it’s easier for us to hide behind illusions of wholeness than it was for the Israelites.   It’s hard to maintain an illusion of wholeness when your house is burning and the enemy is at the gates.
It’s when life is going well that we need to pay attention.  Where are you Broken?
Is it personal?  Does it have to do with your home?  Your family?  Do you feel like an exile in your own house?
Is it your church?  Is this place your Babylon?
As you sit here, among this group of people–is it now that you feel like an outsider?  a foreigner?  an exile?
Where are you Broken?
Is it your workplace?  Is it there that you hope for a quick and clean rescue?
Is it there that you long for the voice of Hananiah saying ‘don’t worry about it’, tempting you towards a false optimism that robs you of the moment and the chance for Wholeness?
Jesus heals.  He restores.  He is our peace, even in times of exile.
God’s peace is the kind of thing that you can only keep when you give it away to other people.
Just because the structures that gave your life meaning and purpose have been destroyed
doesn’t mean you have to self-destruct.
The day will come when your exile will end.
But in the meantime, keep the faith in Babylon.



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