Building Houses and Planting Gardens: A Sermon on Jeremiah 29

We are spending a month in Jeremiah 29.  Joe gave some background information on the chapter and helped us understand what exile was, where Israel found itself and how they were oppressed by the Babylonians.  Israel was taken into exile in 587 BC.  They were pulled away from the land where they were born and the land that was promised to them.  They were forced a few hundred miles away from their homes to a very strange land where everything worked and functioned very differently.  The essential meaning of exile is that we are were we don’t want to be.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, it is an experience of dislocation, everything is out of joint and nothing really works the way it is supposed to.  Exile is a common but unwelcome thing that humans have been experiencing for thousands of years, and even to this day.  It would be very common to what our ancestors did to the natives that were on this land when we showed up.  We eventually forced them into our schools, used whatever land we wanted and forced them to play by our rules.  Even right now, in Darfur, millions of people have been displaced from their homes because of internal unrest and they are left in exile unable to go back home to everything that they have ever known or cared about.

However, I find exile to be difficult to talk about.  I have never known exile, and I don’t think anyone here has really known it either.  So while we can try all we want to make personal parallels about how Israel’s exile out of the promise land signifies our individual examples of overcoming hardship, it is very difficult to understand what is going on in a passage like this.  For years I’ve heard this passage in Jeremiah be used to provide hope for getting something that we want.  “I know the plans I have for you….plans to prosper you.”  This was most people’s life verse even.  This is why I’m hesitant to read a passage like this like it has anything to do with us at all.  As if we are somehow in exile and are waiting for God to free us.

We’ve done a lot of talking about the oppressed.  We spoke about it in the summer about where some of the Psalms come from.  This morning though, I want to try and understand this passage from a different point of view.  What does a passage like this look like from the point of view of the oppressors.  I don’t just mean how would Babylon like a text like this.  I mean how would Israel be reading a text like this if they used to be the oppressor and are now being oppressed.  Because if we are truly going to interact with this text we need to see where we are in the text.  We are not in exile, therefore this text probably isn’t for us in that regard.  The idea of the Lord having plans to prosper us is not language to tell a wealthy nation to keep up the good work and it’s only going to get better.  It’s written to encourage those who have nothing, with no foreseeable future and nothing to care about.  It’s written to remind those who are not prospering and who are being harmed and who have no future that this is only a temporary reality.  To hijack this text into our own lives is to force a improper hermeneutic on the text that will only serve to bloat our heads and make us more ignorant.  So Joe spent a lot of time from the point of view of the oppressed last week and how they would have felt and what exile meant and how we are like them.  This week though, I want to spend our time look at this passage from the point of view as the one who was once oppressed.  Israel used to be a nation that oppressed the people around them.  Now, they are being oppressed.  Jeremiah is written to former oppressors, not innocent bystanders.

So this is what we need to do in scriptures like this.  Without acknowledging our role as the oppressor in today’s day and understanding the circumstances of those being oppressed we will never change.  So before we jump into this passage.  I ask you.

Question: How are we the oppressor?  What are the circumstances of those we oppress?  Who are we oppressing?

I think it would be difficult to look at this passage from the point of view of the Babylonians and how they were oppressing Israel.  I do think though, that if we do some hunting, we can see how Israel was once an oppressive nation and how this is a command to an oppressive nation who finds themselves in a different situation.

Rob Bell in his book Jesus Wants to Save Christians helps us understand the heart of the oppressed and the oppressors and how this happened.  So the next section on Israel is largely attributed to him and how he explains it.

He likes to explain it in the following four stages.  Egypt>Sinai>Jerusalem>Babylon

We know the story of Israel and how there story basically started in slavery.  We know that eventually God heard their cry and freed them from slavery and brought them into the promised land.  So this is the first two steps; Egypt to Sinai.  God needed a nation that could enact his will in the world.  He wanted a nation that would represent his desires and wishes.  Israel, especially under King David, started to become this nation.  Over a few generations eventually Solomon comes into power and the nation of Israel begins to get a more global reputation for how great of a nation they are.

So they have this reputation and there is this story about a queen named Sheba who comes from far away to ask questions and find about what makes this nation so great.  Here is her verdict.

Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.

We know that Solomon had a lot of possessions.  This is one of the things that Solomon is known for.  His massive amounts of gold and cattle and wives…it was all seen as being attributed to God blessing them. Sheba is praising God because she gets it.  She understands that the reason they have all this great stuff and seems to be blessed and everything is going their way is for a purpose.  That purpose is to maintain justice and righteousness.  So finally everyone and everything is in place.  They are in Jerusalem, the promised land and they are happy and content and they are blessed.  So we’ve gone from Egypt>Sinai>Jerusalem.  There was certain expectations, like Sheba mentions, for a city in this type of position.  They were supposed to bless and take care of those in need or as Sheba puts it to maintain justice and righteousness.  So did this happen?  What did Solomon do with everything he had?

Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple…

What? How does this make any sense?  Is this the same nation that was once oppressed  and were forced to be slaved?  Are they now becoming oppressors?  Those who were freed from Egypt, are now in the midst of creating their own Egypt.  In the same breath of finding out that there is forced labour we also find out that these forced slaves were forced to build Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo.  These were military fortresses.  Why would anyone need such large military fortresses?  Well because he had a lot of stuff, and you have to protect all your stuff when you have it.  Israel has now become a nation that is about preserving what they have with their land and possessions instead of a nation that is bent on giving away and blessing those around them.  They did not do what they were supposed to and they did not do what Queen Sheba expected the would do with it all.  Then even further down we hear that he acquired fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousands horses.  Aren’t these the exact same tools that were used to drive Israel out of Egypt in the first place?  Now they are stockpiling all the same things that once oppressed them?  Then we find out that Solomon is importing horses and chariots from some countries and then selling them to others.  Now we have Israel becoming an arms dealer.  In other words, he’s making money of the violence towards the cities around him.  Is that maintaining justice and righteousness?  Is that hearing the cry of the oppressed?

Then we find out that Solomon had over seven hundred wives and over three hundred concubines.  And the women played a part in leading Solomon away from being fully devoted to God.  Of course Israel was warned against this kind of activity.  Don’t acquire a great number of wives, don’t acquire a great number of horses…or else you’ll probably go astray for what God has in store for you.

So this leaves God stuck.  The nation that is supposed to represent him and be his hands and feet in the world, now look nothing different than anyone else.  They look like anti-God.  They have become who God saved them from at the beginning.  God though is a God who hears the cry of the oppressed, and those that suffer.  He is looking for people who care about the things that he cares about and he blesses so that justice and righteousness can be upheld.  Unfortunately at the height of their blessing, Israel misinterpreted everything as entitlement and favoritism.  In the biblical story there is a word for when you have been giving all sorts of blessing and wealth and influence, but completely forget why you were given it in the first place.

It’s called Exile.

Exile is when you forget who you are; its when you forget your story.  It isn’t just about getting kicked out of a location but it is about of state of your soul.  It’s about when you find yourself as a stranger to the purposes of God.  Out of this exile comes the prophets, and comes Jeremiah which is where we are spending our time this month.  So now, with all this in mind, and what lead up to this, let’s read Jeremiah together.

Jeremiah 29:4-14

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.

They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Then 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, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

This isn’t just words to an oppressed group of people.  These are words to an oppressed group of people that are used to the benefits, lifestyle and wealth of being the oppressors.  They are used to easy money, cheap labour and exorbitant amount of amassed wealth.  They were upset because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved.  They were spoiled and now they were ungrateful.  So Jeremiah comes onto the scene, and is not really bringing words of hope right away.  It is more like words of work.  He’s basically saying “listen, you’ve had it pretty easy over the last little while, and even when it is easy you didn’t even live close to how you were supposed to live.  Instead of using what you had got for the benefit of others you used it to oppress even more.  So now, why don’t you just sit tight for a little bit and reevaluate what you are really doing here.  Israel’s entire identity became wrapped up in the idea of a promised land and what it was and that it was for them.  The idea of planting gardens and building homes in a land that isn’t theirs and that they don’t care about is ludicrous.

Israel was obviously not in a good spot, and they were unhappy and lived in unrest.  Many of them longed for a restoration of the power that was once there.  There was plenty of revolting movements found in this area during this time and many of them refused to live in exile as a way of life.  They were used to the political and national power that they had and they enjoyed it.  The only way they knew how to revolt was to live violently against the powers over them.  However, Jeremiah had something different in mind.  He tells them to build homes and plant gardens.  This is not what they would have been expecting.

One of the hardest decisions in buying my house was the idea of permanence that came along with it.  There is something about settling that is uneasy with me.  I want to be able to get up and go.  I want to know that there is always something else, something more out there that I have an opportunity to jump at if things get to bad here.  This was what Jeremiah was telling them to do though.  In the midst of the worst circumstances possible, they were to build homes.  This means to expect a long hall.  This means to get more permanent.  This isn’t a camping trip.  This is not the kind of information that they wanted to hear.  They would much rather be camping, because camping is temporary and they wanted out of there.  So you would not build a house and basically live in the hope that they were going to be freed again one day soon.  Building a house meant sitting tight and becoming more permanent.

Just like exile is deeper than simply where you are, so is building a house.  There is a lot of imagery that goes along with building a house.  Building a house is something you do to participate in the culture you are living in.  You build a house and organize your family in such a way that benefits and approves of the culture that you are building a house in.  This is about a household, not just a building.  Here we have Jeremiah telling Israelites who lived and enjoyed their lives off all the wealth and great things that they had and now they are living in an unknown land, unhappy, stripped of all they had and they are supposed to build a household?

Another thing that I have a difficult time doing is gardening.  Gardening in many ways for me is a waste of time.  I expect other to do it for me.  I want to go to the store and get what I want and come home.  Of course, because I choose to live this way, there are a lot of problems that come with that lifestyle.  I am not in touch with the nature around me and I am out of sync with the seasons.  I can eat Strawberry’s in January.  I don’t have to toil over my food at all.  Jeremiah though is telling Israel to not expect it to be done for them.  Do it yourself.  Grow your own food, do the hard work and be a meaningful contributor to your own sustenance.  You are not a parasite so stop living like one.  Planting gardens goes back to Genesis 1 and it is one of the first commands that humans were given.  This is Jeremiah telling them not to just be happy and provide food for themselves but to live like they should be living.  Be the human that you were called to be even when you are in a situation you don’t like being in.  You can still do what you should be doing.

See Israel’s identity was wrapped up into their land.  They took pride in it.  They went to great lengths to protect it and they boasted about it.  When they were stripped of it they almost refused to stop living.  Who were they without their land?  This message of Jeremiah tells them to suck it up and starting being who they were called to be even without the land that they were promised.  He was telling them that their identity did not rest on where they were, but who they were. He reminds them that all land is God’s land not just the promised land and they can still be the people of God even in the midst of oppression.  They were willing to compromise anything to keep their land.  They had traded the dream of being God’s hands and feet to the world for the smaller idea of controlling their own slice of the planet.

So Jeremiah was telling them to get back to the basics, back to the things that make them human.  He wants them to focus on the things that bring renewal to the present, not just sit around and depend on a promise that isn’t coming for a long time.

This also means that what Jeremiah is asking them to do is to live similiarily the people that are oppressing them.  This is what Babylonians were doing, they were building houses, starting families and planting gardens.  Now Jeremiah is saying that they should look like them.  I have a feeling though that he wasn’t telling the Israelites to do these things so that they will become like Babylon but instead he was telling them to do these things so they will realize that they are no different.  They were once oppressed, they were once the oppressors and now they are oppressed again and this isn’t a good way to live for anyone.  We are all the same, oppressors and oppressed.  So since we are the same; live like them.  Breath the same air as them, raise families along side of them.  Jeremiah is offering very radical advice here because he is trying to bring a realization and understanding to the Israelites.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed By Paulo Freire is a popular book that helps give us some understanding into this.  He would say that for the poor to be free, they must understand their situation and lift themselves above their oppressor without becoming the oppressor themselves.  For the oppressor to be free he must understand that he has become the oppressor and try to let the oppressed become free.  In both cases, the oppressed and the oppressor can not be free without understanding the damage they have done to one another.  Simply put, they are becoming aware of the other and moving towards a life of interdependence, in recognition that they actually need one another to be free.

Last time they lifted themselves above their oppressors they became the new oppressors, but this time Jeremiah is telling them to do it in a different way.  God wasn’t going to come in on a white horse and lead them out and move waters and destroy the enemy.  Rather he wants them to live alongside of their oppressors so that they can truly be free.  Freedom is no longer in getting to a certain promised land, but freedom is found in the interdependence of one another.  They need to understand the damage that they had done to each other.  So that when they did rise away from the oppression, they would not just continue the cycle all over again.

As people like Jean Vanier and Paulo Freire have argued, we go to the poor, not only to assist them in finding their own liberation, but also so that they can help us to be liberated.  He does not want Israel to just simply repeat the cycle.  They must embrace their exile as part of their identity now rather than long for a return to power.  Power corrupts and creates a never ending cycle of oppressed and oppressor.

Egypt – Sinai – Jerusalem – Babylon.  This is the cycle.  Israel now finds themselves back in Egypt and Jeremiah is trying to explain to them that the only way to break the cycle is to not start it up again.

Many obviously did not like this message of Jeremiah, especially anyone who was in charge.  It sort of sounds like giving up.  It certainly doesn’t motivate anyone to rise up and fight against the power and attempt to free Israel.  Jeremiah was persistent though, saying this was what God was saying and that they need to give it up, that Babylon was here to stay and they needed to deal with it. As a result Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet.  He was not a source of good news.

Turns out we know now that Jeremiah was right.  Israel was never (and still isn’t) truly freed from oppression.  They always were in battle with someone fighting over something and oppressing them.  So Jeremiah’s advice would have been good.  Get over it.  Plant Gardens.  Build Houses.  This is home now.  Get used to it.  The people you are living with, you are always going to be living with them.  It’s really not that bad.  They are just like you anyway.  Oppressing.  Oppressed.  Oppressing.  Oppressed.  So I’m going to figure something else out.  But in the meantime…just sit tight and get comfortable and try to be the humans I created you to be here.

Here is an example of someone who tried to do what Jeremiah was telling Israel to do.

Mike Pfotenhauer is a man who started a backpack company called Osprey.  You have probably heard of them because they make great backpacks.  If you are serious into hiking, mountain climbing, then you would most likely be using an Osprey backpack.  Eventually they got pretty good that they moved to Colorado and bought an old factory outside a Najavo Native reserve.  They did their best to hire almost all local people for their workforce from the reserve.  They even got profiled in Fortune Magazine for being one of America’s best companies.  They keep growing bigger an bigger.  They were one of the first companies to start integrating recyclable materials into their packs and they kept innovating and coming up with new ideas.

The hard part is that other companies started coming in and offering backpacks for really cheap because they were making stuff cheaper overseas and the competition started getting really tough to actually sell backpacks so they had to start making layoffs and it was hard to keep up.  So eventually they made the decision to shift some of their production overseas to Vietnam.  Now we all know about overseas production and the types of conditions that the workers go through a lot of times just so we can get low prices on all of our stupid stuff we buy.  They have to work very long hours, under harsh conditions and for very little pay.  So Mike and his wife decide that if they are going to do this, they want to do it right.  So they move overseas so that they can be with the people who will be building their product.  They packed up their family, and moved to Vietnam so that they themselves could experience first hand the conditions in which they were asking people to work.

Where the average wage in Vietnam is $40, they pay an average of $80 a month.  Where the average work week is 63 hours, Osprey’s average is 48 hours.  Osprey pays time and half for overtime and double time for holidays.  This is all going on where their top boss is working alongside of them in the same community and living in the same conditions.  Mike was unwilling to exploit people just to increase his bottom line and keep his business in tact.  Mike chose to understand and be with the people he would typically be oppressing.  Not only that, he chose to pick up everything he knew and was comfortable with and built a house and planted gardens in and amongst them.

I know an older man who I was speaking with over the last month or so, and he has some very strong views on the world and the people around him.  He was talking about Toronto and how lately it is just so full of “Indians.”  He went on and on about how they are just everywhere now and they are taking over the country and getting into positions of power.  He also told me at another point that the number one problem in the world is Muslims.  After all they are reproducing at 8 kids per couple on average and there is so many of them and the Koran says to kill the infidel and they are immigrating over here to take over our country.  He was so up in arms and irritated about these people who were coming to oppress us.

I guess he didn’t remember the time when he was in the same shoes has them, immigrating over to Canada to start a family here, build houses and plant gardens over here.  Somehow he has taken his own journey of being oppressed and wanting a better life and coming here and then turning into the oppressor of people who were in the exact same shoes.  He actually believes the lies of needing to fight against these so called infidels so we can hold onto our freedom.

Question: What can we do to change our lifestyles so that we can better understand the oppressed? What is a modern way that we can plant gardens and build houses? How do we live in and amongst the people we are oppressing?

The point of building houses and planting gardens is not just because you are going to sit around and wait until power is restored to you.  It isn’t just so you are comfortable in the long wait until the wrongs are made right again.  The point is that you are now living in and amongst the people who are oppressing you.  You are like them.  You are one of them.  You are human just like them.  You used to oppress just like they did.  Now it’s time for you to see your own similarities.  You are the same as them.  As oppressors, we need to live in and amongst the people we are oppressing.  Of course, we don’t want to do that.  For starters we don’t think we are oppressing them.  We don’t want to live anything like them.  The reason we are oppressing them is because there is something valuable to be gained by oppressing them.  Whether it be pride, jeans, backpacks, meat or oil.  So how do we as Christians truly live in and amongst the people that we are oppressing?

Just like the story with Mike and Osprey, the only way to change the awful system is if the oppressor lives with and among the oppressed and the oppressed live with and among the oppressor.  If they were looking simply to restore power to their nation then they would never see that the people they were desiring power over are the same as them; humans in need of a Saviour.  We must live with them to discover true power (left handed power?).  Israel can no longer be the hands and feet of God is they are lording power over the people they are there to serve.  Only through sacrificial service and giving up the power that they think is rightfully theirs will God’s wishes come true for humanity.  The only place you have to be a human is where you are right now, at theStory, in Sarnia, right here and right now.  So be who God has called you to be; and be those people to your oppressors and to the people you are oppressing.

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