My sister often wrote long letters and I returned the favor, letters we added onto for days like a diary before we sent them off. My parents wrote, Keith’s parents wrote, both my grandmothers wrote, and a couple of friends as well. It was a rare week I did not receive two or three letters. This generation with their emails, cell phones, and instant messaging has no idea what they are missing, the joy a simple “clunk” can bring when you hear it.
I was far from home, in a place so different I couldn’t always find what I needed at the grocery store. Not only were the brands different—and to a cook from the Deep South, brands are important—but the food itself was odd. It was forty years ago and the Food Network did not yet exist. Food was far more regional.
The first time I asked for “turnips,” I was shown a bin of purple topped white roots. In the South, “turnips” were the greens. I asked for black-eye pea and cantaloupe seeds for my garden, and no one knew what they were. I asked for summer squash and was handed a zucchini. When I asked for dried black turtle beans—a staple in Tampa—they looked at me like I was surely making that one up.
So a letter was special, a taste of home in what was almost “a foreign land,” especially to a young, unsophisticated Southern girl who had never seen snow, didn’t know the difference between a spring coat and a winter coat, and had never stepped out on an icy back step and slid all the way across it, clutching at a bag of garbage like it was a life line and praying the icy patch ended before the edge of the stoop.
Maybe that’s how the exiles first felt when they got Jeremiah’s letter, but the feeling did not last. They did not want to hear his message. They were sure the tide would turn, that any day now God would rescue Jerusalem and send Nebuchadnezzar packing. But that’s not what Jeremiah said.
The letter…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 their 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: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. Jer 29:3-8, 10.
You are going to be here seventy years, they were told. Settle down and live your lives. It took a lot to get these people turned around. Ezekiel worked at it for years. They may have been the best of what was left, but they were still unfaithful idolaters who needed to repent in order to become the righteous remnant.
Which makes it even more remarkable that they had to be told to go about their lives, and especially to “seek the welfare of the city,” the capital of a pagan empire. To them that was giving up on the city of God, the Promised Land, the house of God, the covenant, and even God Himself. And it took years for Ezekiel to undo that mindset and make them fit to return in God’s time, not theirs.
And us? We have to be reminded that we don’t belong here. We are exiles in a world of sin. Yes, you have to live here, Paul says, but don’t live like the world does. This is not your home. Peter adds, Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims… 1Pet 2:11. Too many times we act like this is the place we are headed for instead of merely passing through.
How many times have I heard Bible classes pat themselves on the back: “We would never be like those faithless people.” But occasionally even they outdo us.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Heb 11:13