Friday, April 15, 2011

Staying a While

Seventy years is a long time. It’s a lifetime. It’s enough time for three generations to begin. And, back in Jeremiah’s day, it was even longer than that. Seventy years—that’s how long the prophet told the exiles they must wait before the Lord would visit them and bring them back. To that end, in this morning’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-13), Jeremiah offers some startling advice to the leaders of the Israelites in exile: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and five your daughters in marriage…multiply there, and do not decrease.” In other words, the prophet says, “Make yourselves at home. This is going to take a while.”

So much of the New Testament is focused on “Stake awake! Be ready! The Lord could come at any minute.” But this passage from Jeremiah is just the opposite. And I wonder how that sounded to the exiles who were desperate to see their homeland again. The Christians who were eager to see their Lord’s return, like Paul, encouraged each other by making the parousia (end times) seem imminent. And, even though it’s been 2000 years of waiting, we still talk about the coming of Christ in immediate terms. I think that’s because we’ve figured out that God’s work, although it takes a long time, should feel like it’s just around the corner. We’re supposed to keep watch so that we might see just how God is already working in our lives.

But the exiles were told to be comfortable. They were encouraged by being told to sit and wait…for a long time…long enough for many of them to live and die without ever realizing the fulfillment of their hopes and of God’s promises. Why? Why did Jeremiah tell them to take their time? Maybe it’s just because the editor of this book of the bible was writing after the exile was over and knew that the exile would take about sixty years (597-538 BCE). But I think it’s more than that.

I think the prophet wanted his people (and us) to understand that sometimes God’s providence takes a lifetime (or longer) to be realized and that we are called to make the best of what we’re given in the present era. Although valid and useful forms of prophecy, telling a people that they must wait forever or that God is coming at any minute leaves us with the sense that God’s work may never be accomplished. By giving the people in exile a sense both of the length of their troubles and the expectation that they will abate after a reasonable period, the prophet invites the people to live in the present. They aren’t hopelessly tied to an abstract future nor are they attempting to inhabit a frenzied understanding of what might be coming any minute. Instead, God tells his people (and us) to wait but also to carry on.

We might find ourselves in a long stretch of challenges, but we can neither dismiss them nor be defeated by them. We must live into the struggles, put down roots, seeks God’s assistance with what we’re facing, and not get lost in an abstract hope.

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