The passage this morning from Jeremiah is about people trying to come to terms with a new and hard reality. Jerusalem has fallen and God’s people have bent taken into exile in Babylon. They want God to come and save them and take them back home. It is almost impossible for us to understand the trauma of this experience for the Israelites, unless we have been refugees ourselves.
Imagine it this way. “Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. (Perhaps, given the current situation, this seems like a good thing, but that is another sermon!) There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well. To these terrified and shell- shocked exiles, the prophet Jeremiah sent a pastoral letter.”
If you’ve ever been far from home and homesick, you know what a terrible feeling this is. You long for a comforting letter from a familiar place. When Christie and I were homesick living in Haiti, a friend sent a package of fall leaves – red, yellow, orange and brown – from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The people in exile were surely expecting Jeremiah’s letter to be filled with comfort. Something like, “Be strong and hang on, I’m coming to bring you home, says the Lord. It won’t be long.”
Instead they are told just the opposite. “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.” In other words, get used to it. No one is coming to rescue you and take you back home. This is your new reality.
When something happens in life that changes your reality – a job transfer or a job loss, a divorce, a diagnosis, the loss of a child, some kind of failure – then there are different ways of coping with reality.
Denial is one way, minimizing problems is another way, which is a working form of denial. I was talking to a very witty woman who was clearly self-aware when she said, “My therapist told me I was in denial, which I, of course, denied. Then he said I minimized my problems, to which I said, well, that’s no big deal!” Humor, you’ll notice, can cut through defenses.
Compartmentalization is another way of coping with a difficult reality. When C.S. Lewis was a young man, he fought for 2 years in France during WWI and experienced the horrors of modern warfare. Much has been written about the physical and psychological damage the Great War had on young men, many of whom had nervous breakdowns upon returning home. Yet, Lewis barely mentions the war in a later autobiography. Why and how?
Lewis writes, “I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier.”
Maybe you know someone who is so out of touch with his own emotional archeology, as it were, that he seems to operate as an automaton – telling the same jokes, subjecting you to the same stories, going through life as a zombie, not really alive, not fully dead, but undead.
In opposition to denial, minimizing, compartmentalizing, or making a treaty with reality, the Lord has a different word for his people. Accept your reality. Accept your life for what it actually is. Accept the people in your life for who they actually are, rather than the people you wish they would be. This is, of course, difficult to do. How much time and effort do you expend trying to change people? And, how’s that working for you?
It wasn’t working well for the Israelites. Accepting reality was no easy feat given the Babylonian people and culture. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, razed the temple in Jerusalem and flouted Jewish laws and customs. They weren’t repentant and made attempt at making peace with the Jews. Yet, God tells the Israelites to inter marry, build houses, plant gardens, settle down in the strange land. In effect, He tells them to bloom where they are planted. Do not make at treaty with reality, do not fix a frontier between you and everything around you. Accept your reality.
Accepting reality also means accepting yourself, your own givens, weaknesses and predilections – all the parts of us we try to hide or change or improve. Personally, I’ve never found much success in the self-improvement category. Particularly when it comes to ongoing insecurities and deep-seated needs.
There is a New Yorker cartoon with two women discussing self-improvement over coffee. The caption reads, “It’s easy. The first step is to entirely change who you are.” Ha! In terms of self-improvement, who can’t relate to songwriter Derek Webb? “I’ll do all I can to be a better man. I’ll clean up my act and be worse than when we started.”
A young mother told me about a poignant conversation she had with her 4 year old daughter about accepting reality. Her daughter wondered why she couldn’t play by herself at the end of the driveway.
Mom: “You can’t play there where I can’t see you because someone might come and pick you up and take you from me.”
Daughter: “But no one would do that, Mommy!”
Mom: “I’m afraid there are people out there that do bad things, honey.”
Daughter: “Well, if a robber did get me, he would realize it was wrong and bring me back to you and say he was sorry.”
Mom: “I wish that was true, but it just doesn’t always work that way.”
As the little girl adapts to this hard reality, a new idea pops into her head. “Oh, but if someone took me then a superhero would come save me!” At this point, I think the mom said something like, “I don’t think there are superheroes, but we’re all doing the best we can.” Then she scooped her daughter up and hugged her tight.
Accepting your reality may not feel like the brightest news. The Israelites longed for a superhero to come take them away. They glommed on to some false prophets who said, “God is coming to change things.” They rejected Jeremiah because they didn’t like what he told them. It felt like death to them.
Maybe you can relate. You have a reality that feels like death. Continuing singleness, new widowhood, an estranged child, a body that is failing, a mind that is slipping. The funny thing is that in that very death you have everything you need for life! Being dead is so much better than being undead!
Here is good news for zombies, compartmentalizers, minimizers, deniers, and frontier fixers: Just go ahead and die, let your reality kill you. You can’t keep on denying forever, anyway. Your face will catch up with your psychology. Accept your reality, because your reality has already accepted you!
And although we aren’t sent a superhero to save us from our reality, we are sent a savior who meets us in our reality. To us in our exile, God sent more than a pastoral letter; He sent His Son.
As our friend Robert Capon says, “For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”
Jesus, our savior, knows about accepting a hard reality. The night before he was killed for our sins, he asked God to change things and save him. “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me”, he cried, even as he sweat blood. Then right after his plea for change, he acquiesces to the coming reality. “Nevertheless,” he says, “not as I will, but as you will.”
That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Accepting reality means accepting God’s will. So it’s a good thing we also have this passage from Jeremiah just a few verses later. “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
God’s will for you is, in fact, your best life now. And in the meantime we just might look around at the life we’ve actually been given and see that there are plenty of houses to build, gardens to plant, and resurrected lives to live. Amen.
- Jeremiah 29:1 - 7