"Back Stories 04: The Exile Story" - Tim Suttle

"Back Stories 04: The Exile Story"

by Tim Suttle


Jeremiah 29:4-14 (NLT)

4 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: 5 “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”

8 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let your prophets and fortune-tellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, 9 because they are telling you lies in my name. I have not sent them,” says the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”

2016.07.10 – Back Stories 04: Exile: Jeremiah 29:4-14

We’re in a series called Back Stories… focusing on things we call narratives.- A Narrative: is the over-arching story about life that helps people make sense of our existence, the way we see ourselves, God, others, & world - Jesus was deeply imbedded in the narratives of Israel, in particular these 4 big stories of the OT: Creation, Exodus, Exile, Priestly.

PT: Jesus was raised on these stories as a boy. They shaped his imagination & were the foundation upon which he built his ministry & his vision of the gospel.

Today: EXILE. Last week…Moses had led the people out of Egypt, they passed thru the Red See, Pharaoh was defeated, & then reality set in. - They were in middle of the desert w/no means to sustain themselves.- They immediately started asking to go back to Egypt.- So for 40 years they wandered in the wilderness until finally they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. 

And so, Israel grew prosperous & reached the pinnacle under King David. - And then there was a long slow decline. - They became arrogant & worshipped other gods. - Wealth concentrated in the hands of the rich while the poor suffered under corrupt politicians & rulers. - The prophets warned them, they kept living selfishly & acting unjustly.- Until finally God had enough & removed his protection. - The Northern kingdom fell first, then the Southern…- And the best & brightest were carried off to Babylon into Exile.

It was like if you lived in Oklahoma in some small town & someone came & took your house & land & stole your oil wells & then moved you the NYC.- Made you push paper for them in an office cubicle.- All your power was stripped away.- Your rights are not recognized… you’re out of place… alone.- You are marginalized…  that’s the experience of Exile.- SO: All they wanted to do in Babylon, was go home to Jerusalem.- Which is exactly what this bunch of false prophets promised them.- “Those left in Jerusalem will be here any day to save us.”- And into that situation came Jeremiah with a word from the Lord… - And this is what he said:1These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon… 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 

And then this huge verse that really frames the story of Exile for the pple of God
7 But 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. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

How interesting is that? It’s really not what you would expect. - These people have just seen their city sacked, their temple destroyed, the king’s family executed. - They lost their lands, homes, & fortunes, & they were carried off to Babylon to serve the house of Nebuchadnezzar. - And Jeremiah comes along & says: Nobody’s coming to rescue you … - So, you need to get on with your lives.- Build houses & plant gardens; have kids & marry them off.- Multiply & do not decrease.- “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, [seek the welfare of the Babylonians… seek the welfare of King NEB] and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” - WELL: This is really not what the people wanted to hear.- But Jeremiah tried to tell them that until they could hear it & stop looking for a solution & move on w/their lives… they would only suffer.

We’ve all experienced this… the feeling of being marginalized in our own lives. Life has pushed us to the floor & we are stuck where we don’t want to be. - In those times we can really see that LIFE sets the terms… not us.- We like to think we’re in control, but that is largely an illusion. - In most ways LIFE sets its own terms.- Jeremiah… he kind of grabs the Jewish people by the collar & says: - This is your life… these are the terms. PT: There IS no quick solution, so get on with it. Start living. Which nobody wants to hear. Even for us in our own lives We don’t want to hear this. We’re Americans after all. We don’t like problems…like solutions (best at solutions).

Take Polio… one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century.- It could strike w/out warning.- In 1953 there were nearly 60k cases of polio in the US.- Jonas Salk found a vaccine, & w/in a decade Polio was nearly gone.- This is the American way… we solve problems… we find solutions.

But, not everybody is like this. I just read an article this week about how Europeans laugh at American’s love affair w/air conditioning.- They don’t understand it… they use it far less.- Americans say, “what do you do when it gets hot?”- They say, “we just deal with it.”- I have to be honest, I think that’s dumb… Air conditioning is awesome.- If asked what time period would you live? Anytime after AC!!- It’s the perfect solution to the problem of summertime.

There’s a whole industry dedicated to providing solutions to everyday problems.- We call it “as seen on tv.”- The Ginsu knife set—because you never know when you’ll need to cut thru a tin can w/a knife & then quick-slice a tomato.- Thighmaster (Susanne Sommers)… solution to flabby thighs.- The clapper, the solution to (I guess) to the oppressive task of actually having to walk over to a lamp & manually turn it on… - Oxyclean – your solution to almost any kind of stain.- George Foreman grill… solution for how to grill w/out having to actually go outside. (btw, Foreman made $200 million from this thing).- Robostir, my new favorite; stirs your soup while u do something else.- The Snuggy: solution for your spouse being physically attracted to you (but it’s completely necessary w/the AC turned down so low).

PT: We love solutions in our society, and there’s something noble about this to be sure. But what do when there is no solution to the problem?

Take something like mental illness. How quickly do we medicate for mental illness of psychological problems?- Not that I’m down on medication… I’ve seen it work wonders.- But what if it doesn’t work?- Or it works for the symptom, but we never deal w/the root causes?PT: In our love for quick fixes & simple solutions we run the risk of missing out on what this problem might be trying to teach us about our lives. We fail to see that the problem might actually be offering us a way to change & grow & heal.
This is hard to accept I know, cuz we live on a society that’s big on solutions. - But what do we do when there is no solution to the problem?- No cure for the disease? - When what is broken can’t be crazy-glued back together? - When the divorce becomes final. - Someone gets sick, fired, dies, loses job, or breaks fidelity with us? - Let’s be honest: LIFE sets some pretty rotten terms for us sometimes, & there is no easy solution… so what do we do then? - As Christians, that’s when we look to the story of EXILE.
I heard a great story this wk about a little town in Belgium called Geel (Hay-el). - Their story begins in Ireland in the 7th century, where a little girl named Dymphna was born to a Christian mother & a pagan father. - Dymphna wanted to serve the church & so she became a nun. - But, then her mother died suddenly, & her father became unhinged… - I mean truly mentally ill. - He convinced himself that since their daughter looked so much like the mother, he needed to marry his daughter & to get over his grief. - Dymphna fled to this little town called Geel (Hayel), where she used her fortune to build a hospital for the poor & sick & mentally ill. 

Her father hunted her down in Belgium & when she wouldn’t consent to marry him, he killed her & the priest she was serving under. - Over the years the Catholic Church venerated her example, and Dymphna became the patron saint of the mentally ill. - Since that time the Cathedral in Geel, where she was buried, became a place of pilgrimage for those who suffered from mental illness. - People would travel there and pray to be healed. - Somewhere along the way the townspeople began the practice of boarding these pilgrims in their homes. 

This practice grew to the point that a formal system was developed to deinstitutionalize mental patients & let them live in homes in the community. - When a mentally ill person came to the hospital in Geel (Hayel), Dr.’s would work on their diagnosis and medication…- Then they would match them up with a family in the community who would take them in & allow them to live with them… like a foster family.- So, for centuries, everyday people in Geel (Hayel) welcomed strangers w/mental illness into their homes to live… often for decades. - At one point almost ¼ of the residents of Geel were suffering from mental illness. - Today there are 500 of these patients living w/families in the town.- So you walk down the street or go to a café and it’s not unusual to see someone having a conversation with themselves or actively hallucinating, or hugging every single person that walks by.

PT: And they’ve all grown accustomed to the strange behavior, so much so that it’s not so strange anymore. they’ve stopped trying to fix the people. They’ve learned see the person not the problem.

There was one man who lived w/a family & every day he twisted the buttons off his shirt. So his host mom had to sew the buttons back on every evening. - This researcher who was there study their process suggested to the woman that she should use fishing wire to sew the buttons on. - That way he wouldn’t be able to twist them off, and she wouldn’t have to sew them back on every night. - The woman was almost offended at the question. - She said, why would I do that? - He needs to twist the buttons off his shirt every day… it helps him.

& what they’ve found is that this unusual approach actually works quite well. - The typical approach to mental illness is to try and find a solution. - Somebody exhibits strange behavior, and you find a way to get them to stop & to conform to some standard of normal behavior. - In Geel (Hayel), they took the opposite approach. - They just made space for the odd behavior. - They accommodated it. It stopped being odd & became kind of normal.

Host families were not told what the diagnosis was for their boarders. - They were just asked to include the boarders into their everyday life. - And when they exhibited odd behavior, they would just roll with it. - One family told of a man who awoke every night hallucinating that lions were coming out of the wall of his bedroom to attack him. - The host father would pretend to tame the lions & drive them off. - It worked every time. 
They began to learn to distinguish between the behaviors that were part of their illness, and when someone was just being a jerk. - So one man kept becoming very angry & belligerent. - The host father would grab him by the neck & take him outside & say you have to stay out here in the yard until you can be nice. - Eventually the anger faded.
PT: What they learned in Geel (Hayel) was that there are some problems you simply can’t fix (that’s Exile, btw). But if you’ll learn to work around them, and not let them bother you, then you can begin to forge a whole new kind of community in which the pieces all seem to fit together, even though some of the pieces are really strangely shaped & oddly related to one another… btw that’s a perfect description of what it means to be a church.- Instead of asking them to conform to an arbitrary model of “normal” behavior… they just worked around the kooky stuff…- So when Doug walks by carrying on a conversation with himself…- Everyone just goes, “Yeah, that’s Doug. He talks to himself.” - The researcher who studied this had one main question:- Does this feel like a burden to live this way… they all said “no.”- In fact the average stay in a home is 28 years… 1/3 say 45 years.

PT: Instead of treating people like a problem & then trying to find a solution, they treated people like human beings & tried to find a way to involve them in the life of a community of faithfulness … committed to seeing the humanity and everyone even when there's no solution for that problem. And what they found was that it was healing for everyone involved. 

In most communities there is this line drawn between the mentally ill & normal healthy people… and these guys just decided to erase the line.- In the Exile story that’s the gospel move!- It turns out the solution to how to live w/mental illness was, in large part, to stop trying to find a solution to the mental illness…- …and to learn to live together in peace.- Build houses & plant gardens, get married, have kids,- Find good work to do… Be a blessing to those around you.-  “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.” 

What Jeremiah teaches us isthat when we bump into a problem that we cannot change, then maybe the gospel is to change ourselves… - Don’t try to change the problem, or find a solution.- Try to change ourselves & our reaction to the brokenness in the world.- The problem comes when we don’t want to change ourselves.- The problem comes when we want solutions = don’t ask us to change, but require everyone else to change…We’ve had a rough week in our nation.- Black men being shot & killed by police.- Cops being killed by a black man w/sniper rifle.- What does the Exile story have to say to us about this stuff?- What if it asks us to seek the welfare of one another & trust that God can lead us to some sort of peaceful existence?- “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 interesting to note that in the Hebrew the word we translate “welfare” is actually the world shalom… Peace.- Peace not just lack of war, but right ordering… everything in its place…- This message from Jeremiah has much wisdom for all of us today.

Where do you feel marginalized? Misunderstood? Out of place? Powerless?Who is the problem in your life? Who do you like to blame for your problems? - Democrats? Republicans? Conservatives? Liberals?- Rich whites? Poor blacks? Illegal immigrants?- Who is the “other” that you wish would go away? Hillary? Trump?- … the people you don’t like & they don’t like you.- Name them in your mind: they are Your Babylon.- You are now sharing a world with them.- Now, plug their name into this verse…
“Seek the welfare of the illegal immigrants… the poor blacks… the rich whites… pray to the Lord on their behalf, for in their peace you will find your peace.”
“Seek the peace of the conservative REP, the liberal DEM… pray to the Lord on their behalf, for in their peace you will find your peace.”- Until our hearts are burdened w/compassion for even the people we feel certain are broken & wrong…- Until we can love them & forgive them in the moment.- We do not know the love of God for them… - … and we are not gospel people

When we bump up against those who are very different from us… those who want very different things & they make us feel like outsiders. - Our temptation is to treat them like problems that need to be solved. - We start to look for quick fixes & solutions we miss out on the opportunity to be a good steward of that struggle. - Frederick Buechner calls this the “stewardship of pain.” - That’s the task in the place of Exile.- I think this is what Jeremiah is recommending. - Not to conform to the dominant culture of Babylon. - Not to pine away for Jerusalem. - Not to look for quick solutions & silver bullets. - But to become a good steward of the situation they are in. - And this is SO hard to do.

One day you are living near Jerusalem, minding your own business, working your farm, & worshipping YHWH at the temple. The next day the temple’s gone & your farm, your fortune is gone & you’ve been carried off into exile. - What should you DO? The same thing you always do. - Build houses & plant gardens, get married, - Have children & marry them to each other.- Find good work to do; be a blessing to those around you.-  “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.” 

In other words: Be the faithful people of God even if you are far from JER & it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. - Seek the peace of the city because the gospel itself seeks those things wherever it is. Redemption in the exile story is not changing the circumstances, but restoring relationship no matter the circumstances.
Stop treating each other like problems to be solved and seek the peace of the city together… Find compassion… find some kind of tenderness 4 each other. - Because, when you reach for the tenderness it takes to create space for the other, a power is unleashed through that act of tenderness that is more healing than any of the solutions we could come up with. 

And the best news is that the story doesn’t end there… back to Jer. 29:10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.- When I’m feeling really helpless or marginalized.- I often find myself reading this passage.- The Lord is saying, I’m going to use Babylon to teach you some things for awhile… but I’ll come for you… I have plans for you…

PT: do you feel alone? Like something must be wrong with you? You can’t catch a break? Feel like you are losing it? Are you marginalized? Persecuted? Oppressed? Depressed? Misunderstood? Do you feel powerless to change a situation that’s just killing you?

The Good News Jesus preached did not depend on relieving the exiled status.  - Jesus never promised to help them fit into the dominant culture.- He never promised to help them create their own dominant culture.- His good news never promised they would leave the margins/exile.- Because, Jesus knew something incredibly important:- Being Jewish meant being an Outsider.- So following Jesus would always mean being Marginalized.- His Followers have always live in the Margins.  

His “good news” – the Good News of the Exile story – was that – here – in the midst of Exile – “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”- It turns out, God Reigns in Babylon just as much as he in Jerusalem.- Your Situation doesn’t have to change for you to find peace.- YES: We are strangers in a strange land.- This world is not our home.- We will never fit into the dominant culture.- We are living in God’s kingdom even now… and that means we will always be on the margins…

The truth is… Everyone is struggling in one way or another. - And when we give each other this signal that we have to change…- That you have to fix yourself to be accepted…- That you have to become like me to find acceptance…- We do great damage to one another & we cease to be gospel people.- Until we learn how to love one another without demanding that we meet some preconceived idea of normal or right… we’ll never experience the peace of the city.- Some of us are broken and we can't help it…- Some of us are struggling w/things that we will always struggle with.- We may get better with time, but we’re always gonna have this struggle

PT: The question is will there be a radical community of Christ followers who know that they are strangers in a strange land filled with strange people who do all kinds of strange things… and will they seek the peace of the city anyway. Will they have the ability to love their enemies?

Gospel in the Exile story is about how God took a people who were living in alienation & marginalization & moved them: - Not back home, but to the center of God’s NEW reality. - The Exile story is about this movement from the fractured margins of belonging, to a life centered in the very life of God (KOG).- This happens in the midst of a people who live with radical love and acceptance toward all the strange & struggling others around them.- Will we dare to live this way?