It’s not very often I open my Bible – or, these days, open a Bible app on my phone or tablet – and come across a passage I’ve never even heard of before, but, do you know, that’s exactly what happened when I read the Old Testament reading for today, from the prophet Jeremiah. I thought I had read all the book of Jeremiah, but this bit obviously escaped me!
Jeremiah writes a letter to the people of Israel, who have been taken into captivity in Babylonia, and this is what he says: “The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia: ‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and not decrease. Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.’”
Well, what’s this all about, then? What had happened to the people of Israel, and why did God want them to settle down?
Well, a few centuries earlier, the kingdom of Israel had been divided into two, with the northern kingdom being larger, and the southern kingdom, Judah, being smaller. But the Middle East is, was, and probably always will be a very unsettled area, and back in the day, the strongest nation in the region was called Assyria. And eventually the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, known as Israel, and carted its leaders off into exile.
The southern kingdom, Judah, struggled along for another couple of centuries, being more or less allied with Assyria. Eventually Assyria fell in its turn, and Babylonia became a power in the region. King Nebuchadnezzar was able to conquer the kingdom of Judah, and he carried its people off into captivity. Not everybody went, of course, either time, but certainly they would have taken the leaders and influential people, and their families and extended families, and what was left behind were the ordinary people. We do know that some of the people who went to Babylon had great influence there – Daniel, for instance, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You can read their stories in the Book of Daniel.
Anyway, the point was Jeremiah lived around that time, and he was one of those left behind. There seems to have been a certain amount of coming and going. Anyway, Jeremiah’s letter said what he believed God was asking him to say to the people: Settle down in your new cities, raise your families, and, above all, pray for your new homes and your new rulers. The people were obviously going to be away for some years, and it made sense to make proper homes for themselves rather than hope – as some of the crowd-pleasers kept telling them – that they would be able to go back home next week.
Well, that’s all very well, and all very interesting, but what does it have to do with us today? These people lived long ago in history, and there aren’t even many sources to confirm what really happened!
Well, that letter might have been written about two and a half thousand years ago, but it’s still relevant today. We are not exiles in a strange land – but goodness, more people are today than at any time in human history! Millions of people, quite literally, have had to leave their homes and flee to safety; many now have to live in refugee camps, which I believe is all very well in the summer, but would you like to have to live in a wet and muddy tent as winter draws on? No, me neither! Others have been able to get to safety in Europe, and many here, to the United Kingdom. Some of them set out to cross the sea in the kind of rickety little boats that would give your leaders a heart attack – and some, sadly, didn’t make it. And many, if not all, of those who come will do just exactly as Jeremiah told his people, all those years ago. They will settle down, get jobs, and work for the good of their new country. And if they are praying people – and many of them are Muslim, so they will be – they will be praying for their new country, and their new friends, too.
And if they are doing it, how much more should we be doing it? We are told to pray for our city and our homes, and that includes our friends.
Prayer is an odd sort of activity, isn’t it? Especially what’s called intercessory prayer, which is when we ask God for other people, and for ourselves. You would think God would know people’s needs before they ask – and of course, God does! But we are told to pray; it seems in the Bible that it’s absolutely indispensable. Jesus assumed that people prayed; you might remember that he said “When you pray....” rather than “if”. In a few minutes, when we have our intercessory prayer, I’ll be reading out a list of names of people who’ve asked the church to pray for them. Yet God already knows their needs. And it’s the same if you see on social media that a friend is poorly or something, and you stop what you’re doing and say a little prayer for them, even something like, “Dear God, please look after them and help them feel better.” God already knew they didn’t feel great....
I don’t know why we are told to pray, but we are. It seems as if prayer creates a condition, an energy if you like, that enables God to work. I do know that when we pray, things change. We change. The more we pray, I think, the closer we come to God, and the more we are enabled to see things from God’s point of view. We aren’t telling God what to do, although it might start off feeling like that; we are barely even asking, other than to say here’s this person with this need, can you do something about it? And sometimes God says, yes, here’s this person with this need, what are *you* going to do about it?
We can’t, of course, make someone feel better if they’re not well, but we can text them and say we’re thinking of them; if new children come to your school who don’t yet speak much English, you can befriend them, show them what they need to know – where the toilets are, for instance, or where to go when it’s lunchtime. If someone’s being bullied, you can help them report it, or just stay with them so the bullies can’t get at them. That sort of thing. And the grown-ups will have their equivalents, too.
But we need to pray, we need to bring our concerns to God. Jeremiah told his people to settle down, and to work and pray for their community. They needed to become part of their new communities, even though they hoped they’d be able to go home soon. In fact, it was about fifty years before they could go home – that’s another amazing story in the Bible, and you can read all about it in the books called Ezra and Nehemiah. But they did go home, although the Jewish community also ended up scattered throughout the world.
We need to pray for our community, whether large or small – our family, our schools or workplaces, our London boroughs, London in general – the Mayor and our elected representatives.... all of those. And for our government, for Mrs May and her Cabinet. God said to the people of Judah in exile: “Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.” Amen.