Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Thanksgiving in Babylon

Jeremiah 29:1-1
Jeremiah 29:4-7
Luke 17:11-19
Sun, October 11, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
When we think of Thanksgiving

we picture mythical images of prairie harvests ...

churches overflowing with sheaves of wheat,

cornucopias bursting with pumpkins and squash

of every size and shape,

not a seat left in a pew

and everyone in their spit and polish Sunday best.

Even here,

even in a city of two million strangers

we hold on to this formative memory of Thanksgiving.



But imagine a different Thanksgiving.

Imagine Thanksgiving in Babylon.

The little community of Israelites

who had survived the long march

from devastated Jerusalem

to the Big Apple, Babylon,

still keep the old festivals,

still celebrate the harvest.

They mark Thanksgiving far from home.



Except that their hearts just aren't in it.

Yes, there is plenty of produce

to place on the altar.

Babylon is rich in consumer goods.

It is just that no one feels all that grateful to God.

They keep reliving the nightmare

over and over again ...

the horror of the pitched battles

in every neighbourhood of the city ...

the sight of bodies piled up in open graves ...

the desecration of the Holy of Holies,

the Temple a burnt-out shell.



Until now Thanksgiving had always taken place

in Jerusalem

at the Temple.

All of the Thanksgiving hymns

had been written for the Temple.

All of the rituals

had been developed for the Temple.

And all of the words

had given thanks to God

for preserving Zion,

for protecting the Temple.



Now, in Babylon,

gratitude is in short supply.

Anger is more in favour.

Rage.

Vengeance.

These are the emotions

that the community voices.



It is in Babylon that they compose Psalm 137:

"By the rivers of Babylon -

there we sat down and wept

when we remembered Zion ...

How could we sing the Lord's song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither ...

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!"



These exiles are ripe for the taking

by charismatic preachers and talk-show hosts

who play on their rage

and encourage their hatred of all things Babylonian.

And who can blame them?

No wonder they flock to hear self-proclaimed prophets

who claim to have it on good authority

that it won't be long until they can return home

to precious Zion

and rebuild Jerusalem to its former glory.



They aren't the only ones who long for yesteryear.

We, too, are tempted to pine away for the 'good old days'

when Zion was thriving with activity ...

the churches full,

the ten commandments

and 'the golden rule' taken as a cultural given,

our world ordered and predictable and stable.

We, too, are ripe for the taking

by charismatic preachers and talk-show hosts

who play on our fear

and encourage our disdain for all things foreign.



Imagine, then, the shock

that ripples through the exiles in Babylon

when Jeremiah's letter is read aloud:

"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 what they produce.

Take wives and have sons and daughters ..."



It is not what they are expecting ...

Not what they have been hoping and praying for.

Jeremiah doesn't say:

"Hurry home ... we'll leave the light on."

Instead it's:

"Settle in for the long haul.

Your generation will not see Jerusalem again.

Get used to it.

Babylon is going to be home.

Get building.

Start planting.

Raise children."



There is more.

Jeremiah has another shock in store:

"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."

Seek the 'welfare' -

in Hebrew 'the shalom' -

of the city.

Seek the peace and well-being

of Babylon ...

Babylon which is the Evil Empire ...

Babylon which has just devastated the Holy City ...

Babylon which holds Israel captive.



Imagine the state of shock on the faces of those

who hear Jeremiah's words of Wisdom.

It's not hard to do.

On Thursday I leave for two weeks in Atlanta

to begin studies in the intersection of

'Gospel and Culture'.

Like the exiles in Babylon

we Christians in North America

are increasingly marginalized,

even at times ostracized.

Our exile leads us to separate ourselves

from an alien culture ...

a culture whose 'gospel' of

material wealth

and personal comfort

is so foreign to the Gospel of

costly love

that lies at the heart of our life together.

Jeremiah writes to us

when he says:

"Don't make any plans for an early return

to the 'good old days'.

Settle down in Babylon.

Put the 'home sweet home' signs on the wall.

Seek the shalom of your Babylonian neighbours."



In other words,

"Hear the call of God

to embody the gospel in the midst of the culture ...

even Babylonian culture."



Listening to Jeremiah I thought of people I know ...



I thought of Terry, such a valued member

of the ethics committees

at Children's and BC Women's hospitals ...

seeking the shalom of women and children,

of nurses and doctors

faced with such complex and painful moral dilemmas.



I thought of Doug whose passion for the faith

and for the shalom of the city

has transformed the 'Religion' section of the newspaper

from a joke

into a column that is discussed and debated

around the water cooler

as often as it is in church.



I thought of women and men

who quietly and courageously

seek the shalom

of corporate Babylon ...

the work place which

is such a foreign culture

for so many exiles from the Holy City.



I thought of so many here

who describe their own families

as foreign turf ...

and yet who continue to seek the shalom,

to work and pray for the well-being,

of spouses and parents and children

who cannot comprehend

how the transcendant mystery of God

could so captivate, nourish and transform

our lives.



I thought of today ...

of Thanksgiving.

And I remembered that it is in exile

that Israel discovers new ways to worship God.

With the Temple in ruins

worship can no longer be located in a place.

Instead it becomes located in a people

and in a text.

It is in the exile that Israel begins to 'synagogue'

which means 'to gather'

from which we derive 'congregation'

as in 'University Hill Congregation'.

It is there, too, that the reading and interpreting

of scripture

not the offering of sacrifices,

becomes the central drama in the worship life

of Jews and of Christians.

We owe the structure of our common life

to the survival habits

of the ancient exiles in Babylon.



Strangely,

it is in the absence of the Temple

that Israel learns to give thanks to God

with a fresh voice

and a renewed heart.



Mysteriously,

it is in Babylon

that the exiles

find home

away from home.



And look at us gathered here.

It is in the aftermath of selling our 'Temple'

on University Boulevard

and becoming a leaseholding tenant

and risking life as a salty, yeasty people

on a campus of 40,000

that we re-discover how to give thanks to God.

Here worship is as Martin Luther says it is intended to be.

"Worship", says Luther,

"is always the tenth leper turning back". (Luke 17:11-19)



That is who we are:

far from home ...

living in a strange world ...

in need of a healing touch ...

when to our abiding astonishment,

Christ comes near

and we are cleansed ... transformed ... reborn.

"Thank God" is all we can say

with our lips

and with our lives.



Our Babylonian neighbours

may yet rejoice

that the shalom of God

works through

such a surprisingly grateful people.