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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Sunday, March 24, 2019              

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 29:1–14

These 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. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.

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, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 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. 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 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. (NRSV)

At first glance, this passage is a puzzling one, for in verses 4 to 8, God seems to be admonishing the Jewish exiles in Babylon to make the best of their situation, to settle down and live productive lives and even, interestingly, to seek the peace and prosperity of their captors! Is this a story about assimilation or a story about diaspora?

To me, God’s words can be applied not only to the Jews of Jeremiah’s time but to exiles in diaspora throughout history. When we think of “diaspora” historically, we immediately think of the Jewish people, who certainly have assimilated, or at least adapted, and contributed mightily to the countries where they find themselves, willingly or unwillingly, but have never lost their faith. The other prominent example, of course, is African-Americans, who had no choice in the matter but today provide a rich legacy of African American culture and contribution. Today the massive scale of contemporary immigration, estimated to be some 217 million people, has led some commentators to proclaim this the Age of Diaspora.

Almost every diaspora has involved the idea of return. Sometimes “return” is literal and physical, as in the case of the Zionist movement or the goals of the Palestinians today. More often, however, the desire to return is highlighted by the knowledge of its impossibility, as in the case of African Americans or most probably, Palestinians.

The words that speak to me most powerfully in this passage, however, are the words, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with your heart.” Indeed, this passage reminds me of one of my most beloved works of sacred music, Felix Mendelssohn’s operatic oratorio, “Elijah,” in which the tenor sings “If with all your hearts, ye truly seek me, ye shall surely find me. Thus saith our God,” words clearly drawn from Jeremiah. In essence, God is promising that if his people remain strong and true to their faith, even in the face of false prophets and “diviners,” salvation will be theirs. That, to me, is not just a promise to the Jews of Jeremiah’s time but to all those today who may find themselves separated from their spiritual homes or, more importantly, from their spiritual faith.

Let us not despair, Gracious God, even in times of utmost hardship and uncertainty, knowing that in the end, if we remain true to you and your Word, your will for peace, justice, and equality shall be realized for all your people. Amen.

Written by Claudia Boatright, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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