|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
October 9, 2022
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Revelation 18:1-3
As a campus minister, I used to keep some weird hours. I still do, who’s kidding who? And on occasion, I’ll find myself watching late-night television. One of the features of late-night television is that they have commercials for products you never knew you needed. From vacuum packing your leftovers, blankets with sleeves (for you and your pets), air purifiers, space age chamois cloth to anti-acne cream, there is a fix out there for whatever ails ya.
In fact, the question really only seems to be: what is the best way to fix what’s wrong? There are all kinds of competing products and strategies out there to make your quality of life better. There is the traditional route with medicines or procedures. There is the holistic or homeopathic route. There are those who swear by exercise and particular diets.
And, of course, there are the old standbys that people have turned to for a long time: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, and money. The things that we crave and the things that we imagine will fix whatever is going on wrong with us. It’s easy to scoff at such a notion, but there sure are a lot of people out there trying those strategies. They’ve been around for a while, and it seems like they’ve got quite a following.
II. THE PRODUCT
But see, we in the church know that those things won’t make you better. We know that money won’t bring happiness and contentment. Alcohol and drugs provide relief for a time but cannot bring healing and wholeness. Sex, power, success, possessions, status… none of those things can bring you happiness. We know that. All of those products are flawed. All of those products fail to deliver on their promises. You will not find fulfillment in any of the things of the world. There is only one thing that can bring you fulfillment: God.
After all, isn’t that what all those healing stories in the Gospels are all about? People who’ve tried everything else, doctors, medicines, but find that nothing can bring them healing like Jesus. All you have to do is reach out and touch his clothing, and it works just like magic.
There are a lot of competing products out there vying for your attention and claiming to be able to cure what ails ya. But not one of them comes close to what God™ can do for you.
God™ is the greatest product. You can almost hear the little trademark symbol after it. God is the best life strategy you can find to fix whatever might be wrong in your life. God is the ultimate product, and lucky for you, we have a lot of God on the shelves here in Church, so come on down! Because we have the ultimate product, don’t we? We know that happiness and contentment won’t come from alcohol, drugs, and money. And we sure as hell know it won’t come from a ShamWow or a Snuggie. It can only come from God.
For so long, we’ve been told about God in precisely that fashion. The solutions of the world have been lifted up and then thrown down as incomplete, ineffective, and false. We have been told that none of these things will lead us to happiness, wholeness, and peace. And then we have been told that God is the answer. In effect, the Church has become the ultimate Infomercial sponsor.
Because God™ is a fix-all. Unhappy? Get some God™! Lonely? God™’s all the company you need? Sick? God™ can cure that! Short on cash? Give a little money to a televangelist or pray hard enough and God™ will bless you with more money! Whatever it is that you need, God™ can take care of it. God™ is like Oprah, Apple Computer, Google, and James Bond all in one! What more do you need? You’ve got God™; everything is fine!
There’s only one problem with that approach: it’s a crock.
Statistics vary but according to one survey, women lie, on average, three times a day; while men average six lies a day.1http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1213171/Men-lie-times-day-twice-women-study-finds.html It was reported, however, that the most common lie for both sexes was, “Nothing’s wrong; I’m fine.”
And boy, is this problem compounded in the church. For so long, we’ve been talking about God as the solution to all our problems, as opposed to the solutions offered by the world, that we have failed to see the great lie at the heart of that message.
Because things are not fine.
It’s curious that we have lost sight of that reality. Because our scriptures are full of lessons about the world not being fine. Just looking at the Old Testament alone, we have fratricide, universal sinfulness requiring the flooding of the entire world, human hubris, sibling rivalry, slavery in Egypt, abuses of royal power, idolatry, abuses by the powerful against the poor, persecution of the prophets, and then we get to the major example that dominates much of the Old Testament: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon.
III. THE EXILE IN BABYLON
In 587 B.C., the armies of Babylon, led personally by King Nebuchadnezzar, breached the walls of Jerusalem, captured the city, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and dragged the population off into exile in Babylon. The catastrophic nature of this event is hard to grasp for people who have never been occupied by a foreign power, had their homes destroyed, or were taken into captivity.
This event was not only devastating to the people of Judah militarily and politically, but it was also devastating theologically. For, everything they believed about their covenants with God lay in ruins. The covenant with David, wherein God had promised that a ruler from the line of David would be on the throne of Israel in perpetuity and promised to dwell in Jerusalem, was shattered. There was no longer a descendant of David on the throne, and God’s holy and inviolable capital was a wasteland, torn down stone by stone. Even the covenant with Abraham was in tatters: Abraham had been promised land, descendants, and blessing, and his descendants were now bereft of their land and accursed. The psychological and spiritual trauma of the Babylonian Exile cannot be underestimated.
In fact, it is the only thing that helps us to make sense of certain Biblical passages, like the 137th Psalm, which begins
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
A lament that in Exile, driven from the land and from everything they had ever known, notes the mockery of their captors who taunt them: “Sing us one o’ them Jew songs!”and responds by asking the painful question: “How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
It is a lament that ends with a verse usually left out of the lectionary readings or the musical adaptations:
“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!Psalm 137:8–9
That’s a sentiment that can only make sense coming out of the terrible pain of loss and alienation in Exile.
In the Jewish tradition, the very name “Babylon” would come to mean “the enemy”, the evil empire, synonymous with oppression and persecution. This sense was picked up on by the early Church as well, and “Babylon” became code in the Book of Revelation for the Roman Empire. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” writes John of Patmos, heralding the day when God will bring the system of Roman oppression down.
And Babylon has even entered the popular culture as a place of desolation and wickedness. Usually referring to places like Las Vegas. And even one of the first apocalyptic nuclear war novels—that I had to read in the 7th grade—was called Alas, Babylon.
Babylon is not a good place. Even though there would continue to be Jewish communities in Babylon long after the Exile was over. Communities that continue in Iraq to this day.
IV. SPIRITUAL BABYLON
It should be no surprise then that “Babylon” has also come to take on a metaphorical, spiritual meaning. In the Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, particularly that of Rastafarianism, the word “Babylon” symbolizes oppression, injustice, and hardship. And in the broader Christian tradition, it often represents a place of spiritual exile and alienation.
See, people will ask us how we’re doing and we’ll answer, “I’m fine” but in reality we’re in Babylon. Things are not fine.
But the church so rarely reflects that.
See, we have a real problem with our hymnal. And I’m not talking about those dreadful hymns written in the ’80s (or the dreadful hymns written in the 1800s, depending on your point of view). I’m talking about the fact that the hymnal is terrible at lamenting. The hymnal is terrible at embracing brokenness and leaving it broken.
I have done a couple of Lenten sermon series on the various “wilderness” experiences of faith: want, despair, tragedy, loneliness, and betrayal. It’s always really difficult to come up with hymns for “despair.” The hymnal simply refused to despair. All the hymns were about hope. Not one of them said that things were terrible. They all said that things may seem terrible, but in reality, they’re okay because God is with us.
We keep acting like God is the fix-all product that we have to offer. The cure-all to all problems that we ignore the reality that so many people outside the church—hell, so many people inside the church—are in Babylon. We seem ill-equipped to embrace that reality in the way we do church.
V. MAKING HOMES IN BABYLON
But that is what the prophet Jeremiah is telling us to do.
Prior to Judah’s destruction, Jeremiah had warned the people that they would have to accept the Babylonian yoke—that is, they would have to accept being under the domination of the Babylonians because of their faithlessness. The people and the king rejected Jeremiah’s words and believed that because God was on their side, everything would be fine. It was not fine. The rebellion that Judah launched against their Babylonian masters resulted in the destruction of the city, the Temple, and the beginnings of the Exile.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because his writings are often laments that mourn over the destruction headed Judah’s way or the destruction that has already taken place:
“If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”Jeremiah 9:1 CEB
In fact, the Book of Lamentations is the prophet’s own reflection on what has befallen his people:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.Lamentations 1:1–2
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”Lamentations 1:12 NRSV”
But it was this same Jeremiah who, after the exiles had been taken into captivity, wrote the lesson that we heard earlier:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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.
That is: You’re in Babylon. There is no quick fix. There is no rescue right around the corner. You’re going to be there for a while. You’re going to have to live in Babylon. Accept it. Embrace it. And pray for it.
What if the church, were not a place that promised that everything was okay, but that acknowledged that everything was not? What if the church were a place where people could be broken without feeling like they were somehow being terrible Christians because they still feel broken? Even after coming to church and singing hymns about how everything is great.
We rarely consider the spiritual violence we might do to someone when we tell them that because they’re a Christian, everything is fine. And they know that things are not fine and wonder Does God not love me? Why don’t I feel better? Why am I still hurting?
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, writes of how worship might be reframed to embrace the reality of brokenness. He quotes a song by Pádraig Ô Tuama called “Maranatha” composed of words taken directly from the laments of Jeremiah, that could be a hymn for such a church:2Peter Rollins, Insurrection, Howard Books: New York, 2011, p. 176-7.
You are strength but I am weak… Maranatha…
I’ve given up sometimes when I’ve been tired… Does it move you?
I curse the day when I received the light… When you deceived me
I’ve f—ed it up so many times…Hallelujah
I’ve found my home in Babylon
I’ve found my home in Babylon
I’ve found my home in Babylon
Here in exile
Here in exile
Here in exile
As Rollins writes, “This is not simply a song about suffering and the sense of cosmic homelessness—it is sung from that space, remains within that space, and renders that space palpable. It is a song that invites us to connect with the depth of our suffering rather than running from it or trying to cover it.”3Ibid., p. 177. A song like this speaks to people who are broken, who are living in their own Babylons, and helping them to face that brokenness directly, without shame and surrounded by love and grace.
In another sermon I once preached about how God likes to use broken people, I reflected that it may be that God has no other option.
And so it may be for us that we have no other option but to make our homes in Babylon, because we inhabit a world that is broken, full of broken individuals. The church that would minister to those broken people in the midst of brokenness must be present in the brokenness.
Indeed, this was a lesson the Jews in the Exile learned. The Davidic covenant was in shambles but they realized that they had not left God behind in Jerusalem, but that God had gone with them into Exile. God could be known even in Babylon.
At its heart, Christian faith proclaims that our salvation is given to us by one who is the Incarnation of the very word of God. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. God’s eternal heart is made real and present with us.
That means that we are called to live out a faith that is Incarnational. A faith that comes to where people are and is present with people where they are.
We are called to be a church that creates spaces not full of quick fixes but of acceptance of people as they are, broken and hurting. We are called to be a church that does not shy away from people’s doubts, fears, loss, alienation, and pain. But a church that embraces that same doubt, fear, loss, and alienation in a community of love and grace. And in so doing, modeling the Christ who welcomed us as we were, who stood with us in solidarity, and through whose solidarity we are saved.
We are called to be a church that witnesses to the Kingdom of God, but a church that makes its home in Babylon.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
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; 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.
After this, I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was filled with light because of his glory. He called out with a loud voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a home for demons and a lair for every unclean spirit. She is a lair for every unclean bird, and a lair for every unclean and disgusting beast because all the nations have fallen due to the wine of her lustful passion. The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth became rich from the power of her loose and extravagant ways.”