It's graduation season, so we're trotting out Jeremiah 29:11 again. Over and over, people will give cards to graduates including this verse:
"For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope."
It's a good verse, and probably worthwhile for a graduate to hear. But if they look it up, and do the context work to figure out what it's really saying, they'll probably be a lot less grateful.
In Jeremiah 29, the people of Judah are in exile. They've been hauled off to Babylon in droves, imprisoned in a foreign land. Well, they're not really imprisoned, but by royal decree of the king they're forbidden from returning to their homeland. So they're trapped in exile in a foreign land. Naturally, these exiles are wondering how long they'll live in Babylon. Some of them are struggling with bitterness (check out Psalm 137). Others are listening to prophets who stand up and say, "Don't even unpack your suitcases, because the Lord says you will be going back to Jerusalem any day now!"
In this context, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles. In the letter he confronts these false prophets and says that the Lord hasn't spoken through them. Instead of telling the people not to unpack, Jeremiah gives them the real word of the Lord:
"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" (Jeremiah 29:5-6).
A little later, God goes on through Jeremiah's pen: "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 in my name; I did not send them" (29:8-9). Then we get the really bad news. "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." Wow -- talk about a let-down. Talk about a disappointment! We're stuck here seventy years. I will never see my homeland again. If I'm lucky, my grandkids will go back when they're adults. Seventy years. Ouch!
It is only at this point -- in the middle of the really bad news -- that God speaks the word of hope we love to put on coffee mugs: "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 he goes on: "Then when you call on 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" (29:11-14).
The New Testament picks up on this image of God's people being in exile. Peter starts his first letter by addressing it "to the exiles" (see 1 Peter 1:1). Paul talks about our citizenship being elsewhere (Philippians 3). In John, Jesus prays that God would keep his followers safe in this world even though they don't belong to the world (John 17).
How do we live in exile? If you were paying careful attention above, you noticed that I skipped one verse in Jeremiah 29. In the middle of the bad news about this Babylonian exile lasting seventy years longer than we'd like, verse 7 says, "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." Jesus' followers are exiles in this world, but we are sent by God into specific countries, cities, even neighborhoods (see Acts 17:24-27). We are called to work for the good of the places God sends us. We are called to "work for the good of the city."
So as salt and light, scattered in the world, Jesus' followers work for the good of this world. We pray for its inhabitants and we work for justice and mercy. We act with love toward our neighbors. We watch out for and lift up the needs of the least of these, whether they be the poor, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, the immigrants ... We can never allow ourselves to become arrogant, or to give in to our desires for self-protection at the expense of others. We are exiles here, and we work for the good of this place.
The twist on the story is that after seventy years -- however long that is in terms of this world's chronology -- we will not be called to go back to our homeland. Instead, we wait for Jesus to come and claim his rightful place as Lord of this city, King of this land. Part of the miracle is that in that day when all things are made new, the work you have done here to benefit this place will be incorporated into the new heavens and new earth that God will create in fulfillment of all things.
So what task is in front of you? What small thing can you do today to work for the good of this place?