Forty-six years ago this October I watched my parents and my girl-friend drive away in their black Ford Consul leaving me alone on the steps of my new lodgings in Bristol. I was afraid, lonely, friendless and abandoned. I wanted to be back home with my family, sleeping in my own bed with familiar things around me. In this new place everyone spoke with a strange accent and I wasn’t sure that I understood them. I was offered food that I had never had before and I didn’t like it. In my lodgings people lived differently; they had customs and traditions that I was a stranger to and I was apprehensive, afraid of making a mistake. No-one in my family had ever been to university before, and I had no idea how I was supposed to behave, how I was to study, whom I should look out for and whom I should be wary of. The weather was something I was unaccustomed to; it seemed never to stop raining. At least I was sure of one thing: I could go home at Christmas.
In 598 BC the Jews who were exiled to Babylon had no such reassurance. They had been taken to a strange land; they didn’t speak the language; they didn’t like the food; the Babylonians were boorish; the schools were no good; they couldn’t find a church to worship in; the weather was too hot; their complaints kept coming.
It’s strange how every calamity is a business opportunity. Even with the current economic slowdown some people are coining it: bankruptcy lawyers, for example. In the sixth century BC, three chaps, Ahab, Zedikiah and Shemiah, found they could make a good living selling nostalgia. Don’t worry, they said, God hasn’t abandoned us. He will soon take us home. This is only going to last a short while. Don’t build houses; live in tents, there is no point in putting down roots. Don’t bother with marriage and having children, you’ll be back home before they are grown and babies will be a burden on the journey. Have a few ‘temporary liaisons’.
In response to this Jeremiah, back in Jerusalem, wrote a letter to the exiles in 594BC. He tells them, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Seek the welfare of the city. Pray to the LORD on its behalf. Don’t listen to these false prophets.”
In other words you are in it for the duration, better get used to it. Don’t sit and pine for Jerusalem. If you do you will live lives of squalid failure. Instead make the best of your situation. In fact, the exile became the ‘crucible of Israel’s faith’ as JA Sanders in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible puts it. Not only did they renew their relationship with God there, but they were exposed to all the amazing knowledge of the Babylonian Empire. The Library of Babylon was even larger than the Library at Alexandria. Jewish men like Daniel, Mordecai and Nehemiah rose to positions of influence in the Empire and King Nebuchadnezzar himself was converted to believing in the Living God.
Jeremiah’s letter promises that God will restore them to Jerusalem but not yet. They had to spend 70 years in exile and they had better get used to it. God had plans for them, plans to prosper them and not to harm them, plans to give them hope and a future.
How was this to be achieved? You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD.
The first time I heard David Pawson preach, this was his text. Note that it does not say “When you seek me with all your heart you will find me.” The initiative is God’s not ours. “I will be found by you,” he says. He is in control.
We are often nostalgia freaks ourselves. We remember when things were better. ‘If only we could go back to the old hymn book.’ ‘We don’t hear preaching like we used to.’ ‘They don’t seem to do things decently and in order like they used to.’ As a result we find ourselves well prepared to face the problems of the nineteen fifties. We must live in the here and now. We don’t have to become Babylonians, but we must be in the world to win the world. ‘I have plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.’ The promise is still true.
Not only that, it is at times of adversity when people are likely to turn to God. The privations of the Exile brought the Jews into a renewed relationship with God. Nebuchadnezzar was saved out of madness. The credit crunch is exposing the shallowness of the things people rely on. You money was in your beautiful house with its panelled walls? Real estate is plummeting; it is a pocket full of holes. I have my investments? The market is plunging. You feel safe because at least you have a job? I’m sorry, but we’re letting you go. At least I have my health. I have seen too many suddenly struck down to rely on that. They are always coming up with new treatments. But they are so expensive that the NHS won’t pay, Medicare won’t pay and your insurance company won’t pay.
When you seek him with all your heart, He will be found by you.