Rev Ron Ham
The twenty ninth chapter of the prophecy of Jeremiah contains a letter he wrote to former citizens of Jerusalem and Judah who were now in forced exile in Babylon, way out across the desert east of Judah. One of the main reasons they were there was because of the political mistakes of their recent kings. These kings had ignored the advice of the prophets who urged them to put their trust in God, not in alliances with foreign powers. But their leaders could not resist their political meddling.
Try to imagine the effect upon them of forced transportation to a foreign enemy country. Back in Jerusalem the Temple had been the symbol of the presence of God among them, but now they were not only removed from the city; the Temple had since been destroyed. Their centuries-long assumption that God was their protector now seemed to have been wrong. The prophet in this letter wrote, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile…” In addition to this action of God against them, archaeological evidence suggests that in Babylon they were living along broken-down and unused canals which had deteriorated into swamp land infested with malaria and mosquitos, and in the summer they endured high humidity and temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees.
But notice carefully what the prophet wrote, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…” At least God was not remaining silent! As they heard those opening words read to them in assembly, perhaps they felt a spark of hope. The letter went on to advise them to settle down to a normal life, as though they were still in Judah – “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; raise families, and seek the welfare of the city of Babylon, because only when you have been there seventy years (a lifetime) I will bring you back.”
Can we imagine how they felt when they heard that letter read? Perhaps most of them took weeks, even months or years to accept the fact that all escape was cut off. They could either live out their days in regrets and bitterness, or they could take on the new conditions and build a new life. If this letter penned by Jeremiah in the name of God was really a message from God, then perhaps they had to learn how to discover God with them in a new place and in new ways – without the Temple; without independence.
As we visit this old event, we may discover that we are surprisingly close to it. There are other kinds of exile than being forced to live where you do not want to live – you can be in an unwelcome situation through unwanted events in your life. There is the exile that comes to those who have lost their job or have been retrenched ahead of time. They find themselves in an alien place where they may feel worthless or useless or rejected. There is the exile that comes through illness or bereavement. Ifillness, you may find yourself in an entirely new place with restriction on movement, with shortened years of life and maybe loss of income. If bereavement, you are in barren territory where loneliness is painful, where decisions are no longer shared and other circumstances are forever altered from what they promised to be.
There is the exile that follows divorce, or a broken friendship which meant everything to you. Now you find yourself in strange territory which you did not even know existed. You may feel failure like never before; you may feel betrayed and used. There is the exile you seem to enter when the things you believed most deeply are shunted aside by doubt, or are seriously brought into question because one of these other exiles has happened to you.
What does Jeremiah have to say to us in our exiles? I have already suggested that Jeremiah was passing on God’s word to them in their exile which at least meant that God had not abandoned them, and was still speaking to them. One of the intolerable things for believers in God is the thought that in their exile God has abandoned them. Sometimes that is how it feels: prayer dries up; anger may force us to blame God, and disappointment may make us wonder whether we can trust God any more.
God does not abandon us, and we are called to discover God in our exile as Jeremiah’s letter was urging them to do. Jesus knew about this. Very few people have gone through as many exiles as he did: the constant attacks upon him by the very people who were God’s teachers; the disappointments he often faced when his closest friends argued about their own greatness, or got the wrong end of a parable, or betrayed him and denied him and took off when he needed them most; and the awful moment when he asked in anguished cries why God had forsaken him.
How are we likely to experience God in this new landscape of our life? Rainer and I have discussed a few times whether it would be helpful to you if I were to share with you my experience with cancer in the last year, an experience with something of exile about it. I have been reluctant to do this because I don’t want to draw attention to myself. But I have chosen this sermon with its exile theme to speak briefly about my experience. You have a right to know whether those of us who preach sermons and who sit with you in your exile experiences, and even travel the last journey into death with you, are able to live out the gospel we are called to proclaim.
Please take this as a confession of faith which I share with you, but please know also that I am aware that some of you have a better confession than I have, and I have much to learn from you.
When faced with the knowledge that cancer cells in my body had at last entered my bones, I was suddenly faced with my own mortality as never before. Practical and disturbing thoughts assailed me – I might not live to see my granddaughters grow up, or share more years with my wife, and my daughter and son and their partners. I would not see this church and each of you becoming what God is taking you to. I did not like the thought of my own death. That sounds very strange from someone who in his pastoral caring has spoken of God’s presence and of eternal life with many people facing death. But no one of us, whoever we are, escapes the struggle to make sense of, and find God in the exiles into which life takes us.
I was in exile, in foreign territory. What should I pray? Should I pray for healing? You may think that I should, and I know that some of you are praying for that healing. I thank you for that love and support which has touched me deeply and helped me so much. God may do a miracle, but what if God does not, because some devout, beautiful praying Christians are not healed!
I want to pay special tribute to my colleague, Rainer. Two days before he flew to Germany for the funeral of his father last year, we were having lunch together in St. Kilda when I had the call on my mobile from the oncologist telling me about the results of my bone scan. At that time, and in conversations since when I have shared with Rainer what was happening to me in my exile, he has been a wise and life-giving counsellor.
I have learned in my exile, as the people of Judah did in their exile that God is with me. Bonhoeffer in his great hymn which we love here says, “We know that God is with us night and morning, and never fails to meet us each new day.” Every morning I am reminded of the presence of Christ and I go into the day with his life in me. I recall every morning Paul’s words from Romans 8:11 – “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the one who raised Christ Jesus will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you.” I take my life one day at a time.
We have to learn to live in our exile as Jeremiah urged the people of Judah to do – not to live there abandoned by God but to live there with God who gives life. God was in Babylon, even without the temple! The people of Judah, robbed of much of the paraphernalia of their religion, were to grow into new experiences of the presence of God – and God is with us even in the uncertainty of the exile in which we may find ourselves. Jesus made it perfectly clear that we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, exile or no exile.
God is with you when the unexpected, the uninvited, the painful, the not-wanted happens to you. The challenge is for you to throw yourself into this new adventure, for that is what it is, in the knowledge that God will never leave you nor forsake you.
In the light of this, we may find it helpful to be still and know the God is God. Let us sing that.