In 587 BC the people of Judea were taken into exile by the Babylonians. The prophets, who had been berating them for their bad behavior, shifted to be agents of comfort and encouragement. Isaiah did some really beautiful writing on this (see chapters 40-55, for example “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you [Isaiah 49-14-15]”), but today I want to point to a bit of Jeremiah. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits. Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare your own depends (Jeremiah 29:4-7)”.
Jeremiah is talking to a people who were going into exile, and going to be there a long time. There wasn’t a lot of hope that they would ever be a nation again, at least, not hope based on anything in the world. God was challenging them to embrace their situation and not give up but live to the full and be good residents. They would not see the day they could return, but there would come a time that Israelites would come back and rebuild. What was essential was that they not give up and not stop being who they were. They were called to be faithful to God in this foreign land, and do the best they can where they were at with what they had to work with.
One of the really hard things was they had no access to the temple, where they would be able to offer sacrifice. We read in the Book of Daniel (in Catholic editions of the Bible): “For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. We have in our day no prince, prophet or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or tens of thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today to find favor with you; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. And now we follow you with our whole heart, we fear you and we seek your face. Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy (Daniel 3:37-43).”
The book of Daniel as a whole is a good book to read to understand the challenge of being faithful in exile. Some of the book is what we call apocalyptic writing, like the book of revelation. It involves visions of strange beasts and lots of numbers. It is usually written in times of terrible suffering, and seeks to reach beyond our intellect to give us a deep down sense that in the midst of the chaos, God is at work. “Apocalypse” is from the Greek for “removal of the veil” (as “revelation is from the Latin). To veiled eyes, it can look like life makes no sense and is going nowhere. To the clear eyes of faith, we see that God is at work.
There was a TV show called Firefly, and the theme song went: “Take my love, take my land, Take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free, You can’t take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, Tell them I ain’t comin back. Burn the land and boil the sea, You can’t take the sky from me.”
This is where we are called to serve God with all our hearts. If we keep faith, nothing can take God from us. By God’s grace, we can echo the words of River from Firefly: “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.”