“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:4-7
“You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised and I will bring you home again.” Jeremiah 29:10
Eugene Peterson describes exile this way: “The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be. We are separated from home . . . It is an experience of dislocation—everything is out of joint; nothing fits together.”
I just read a delightful book entitled Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrick Backman. In this book, Britt-Marie, a woman in her sixties, is looking for a job for the first time in decades because her marriage has ended and she is frankly a little lost. On the back of the book she is described as a “socially awkward, fussy busybody.”
She gets a job as the caretaker of a soon-to-be-closed recreation center in Borg, a run-down forgotten town. The book overview continues: “The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?”
The skills she had perfected in her marriage were hosting dinner parties, taking care of her plants and her husband’s children, and cleaning. She also is supremely good at making and following lists, so when she finds herself in this new place, she does what she knows how to do.
And somehow, through it all, she endears herself to this little broken-down town and they are all the better for it. In the book, Britt-Marie “wonders how much space a person has left in her soul to change herself, once she gets older. What people does she still have to meet, what will they see in her and what will they make her see in herself?”
I am telling you this story in the context of exile, because I think her story gives us some great guidelines for the life of an exile— which is what we all are if we are Christians—aliens and strangers in the world. I also think it echoes back to the message God gave through Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.
I think her story gives us some great guidelines for the life of an exile.
The first lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 4: “Build houses. Plan to stay.” Make yourselves at home. Settle in.
At the beginning of the book, Britt-Marie is scared and lost and so, so sad. Stripped of everything she knows and living alone in a room in a hostel—a place that “has an address, but it’s certainly not a place to live nor a home.”
It’s devastating to find yourself in exile. Exile has many forms: a physical limitation, a difficult relationship, a tense work environment, a lost romance, having to move to an unknown place, dreams failing to come true.
Have you been there? Are you there now? When you find yourself in exile somewhere in your life, what is your tendency? Do you run away? Escape into fantasies? Numb yourself with food or other substances? Do you try to find someone to blame? Take it out on others? Do you try to hurt someone so you won’t be hurting alone?
After getting the job at the rec center and settling in a bit, Britt-Marie eventually finds a place to live. She moves from being a visitor, an outsider, to being a resident, a part of the community.
Here you are. Far from where you thought you’d be. Build a house here. In your brokenness and your isolation. In the unfamiliar territory. Plant a garden. The only way through is through.
You didn’t even know how much you needed God until you got here. Going along in your everyday routines and the busy-ness of life, you hardly noticed how much you were crowding out God’s presence. Suddenly, seemingly without warning, you find yourself in exile. And it’s a grace.
You didn’t even know how much you needed God until you got here.
Kathleen Norris explains this grace: “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ”
God has our attention. Now what?
The second lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 7: “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you.” Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Britt-Marie and her “unrivaled knowledge of cleaning products” get to work. She cleans and cleans and runs the pizzeria slash grocery slash post office slash car repair workshop when the owner is hungover or asleep or both. She washes soccer jerseys and cuts hair. She does whatever comes her way. She uses what she knows and applies it to her new circumstances.
She does the next right thing.
All through the books of the Law, God gave the Israelites specific instructions on how to live. From the clothes they wore to the way they prepared their food, God wanted to be present to His people. His instructions about how to care for the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and the 7 year cycles of economic restoration showed them how to be good neighbors, filled with compassion and justice. It can be summed up with this simple blueprint for living: “Do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
In exile, the Israelites are expected to live this way in the midst of their captors so they can bring about peace and prosperity to their enemies. Jesus echoes this in his sermon on the mount: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.”
Your exile might be intensifying your attentiveness to God—bringing about your salvation in a deeper way—but your salvation is not for you alone. It is for the welfare of the city—the peace and prosperity of the place in which you find yourself.
Your salvation is not for you alone.
Through her care for her fellow residents and her attentiveness to their needs, Britt-Marie causes this small neglected community to dare to hope again.
Jesus tells us: “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”
The third lesson of Jeremiah 29 is also found in verse 7: “Its welfare will determine your welfare.” If the city thrives, you will thrive. In its peace, you will have peace.
This reminds me of what Jesus says about the sheep and the goats. You saw me naked, lonely, hungry and you met my needs. When did we see you hungry, when did we visit you? they ask him. They didn’t know. They didn’t do it because they thought it was Jesus. They didn’t have a checklist of righteousness—they sought the welfare of those around them. Their faith and compassion in action reflected the condition of their hearts.
This is what happens when you choose to do the next right thing. You plant your tiny seed of faith that becomes branches where birds can nest. Work your little bit of yeast in the dough. Plant seeds in good soil. You bring the kingdom to earth.
The title of the book is Britt-Marie Was Here and—this isn’t really a spoiler—the last sentence in the book is “Everyone will know that Britt-Marie was here.” By being present, working for the prosperity of the place in which she was exiled, she makes a lasting impact.
You bring the kingdom to earth.
The fourth and final lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 10: “I will bring you home again.” Restoration. Homecoming.
The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.”
C. S. Lewis describes our homecoming this way: “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard.”
I’m not going to tell you how the book ends for Britt-Marie. I will say this: restoration comes in a different form after exile. There are things you thought you needed that you no longer need. There are things you wouldn’t have even dreamt to hope for. Near the end of the book, Britt-Marie comes to this conclusion: “At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks him or herself are really just about one thing: how should you live your life?”
Jesus assures us, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” Eugene Peterson says in his book Run With the Horses, “The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible, but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, to discover truth, to create beauty, to act out of love.”
I think some of you know what comes next in Jeremiah 29. Even if you didn’t know it was the next verse, I think it will sound familiar to a lot of you.
Jeremiah 29:11 says: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope; and then verses 12-13: In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”
The “those days” that the Lord is referring to are the days of exile. While you are in exile, you will find what you are looking for.
Britt-Marie found restoration in soccer balls and window cleaner, whiskey and cutlery drawers, rats and Snickers, prison and hospital waiting rooms, pizzerias and parking lots.
God is in the least of those around us, in the whirlwind and in the whisper. In the midst of your pain, in the midst of the wreckage, in the midst of the dislocation and isolation, if you look for God wholeheartedly, you will find Him.
He will be found by you.
“God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
“You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose Me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give Me your hand.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke