Read: Jeremiah 29.4-14
I had been referring to the pandemic like it wasn’t going to last long. I’d say, “We just have to persevere through this strange time of Coronavirus.” I’d close an e-mail with words like, “I hope you’re managing OK through this COVID-19 season.” I didn’t let myself think of all this as more than a blip. An interruption. An anomaly that we’d look back at and say, “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?”
Then maybe a month ago—when all this had lasted, already, more than a single season—I heard a newscaster refer to this time as “the COVID-19 era.” My heart sank. Her words were totally matter-of-fact. The COVID-19 era?!
An “era” sounds way worse than a season. Way more than a blip. An era is something you expect to last a long time.
I kept turning those words over in my mind. “The COVID-19 era.” Really?
My reaction must have been a sliver of what the Jerusalem exiles felt when they received the letter Jeremiah sent them that we have in Jeremiah 29, communicating the Lord’s word to them in far-distant Babylon. These women and men had been uprooted from their homes and families, amidst death and the destruction of their beloved city and their temple, and they’ve found themselves nations away, oppressed, belittled, and hungry.
I wonder if their hearts jump at the news that there’s a letter from Jeremiah. Something, anything from the life they’ve lost. Maybe it will contain some hope.
The truth is, this letter does contain some hope. Beautiful words—so resonant that some of you know them by heart. Some of you surely have them on your wall. Jeremiah’s letter contains these words that have heartened hurting people across centuries:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. –Jeremiah 29.11 (NRSV)
We could bask in these words for a long time. Some of us have, through the hard times we’ve endured.
But if we’re those exiles, reading this letter from Jeremiah, we have to get through a lot of hard words before we get to these hopeful ones.
The hard words have to do with how long this exile can be expected to last. These people must be harboring hope that this sojourn in Babylon is just a blip. Surely they’ll be home for a glorious Easter, or at least by Christmas—which of course we have to translate into the similarly treasured holy days of their time.
But Jeremiah’s letter says, “No, sorry. You’re in an exile era.” This truth unfolds in stages, through the relatively short-term-ness of building houses and living in them, and planting gardens and eating their produce (29.5), to verse 6 which must have stopped them cold. Listen:
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. (29.6)
As those words wash over you, this season has just gotten stretched into lifetimes. Yours, and your children’s, all the way to their children. Before the letter ends, the Lord has said it very plainly. It’s seventy years (29.10).
More years than you’ve got left, if you’re one of the grown-ups.
I can only imagine the weight of that. How bleak that future looks. Seventy years.
We aren’t looking at the ravages of 2020 extending for seventy years.
Still, my surprise at that “pandemic era” reference on the radio reminds me that I have something in common with these exiles. Back in March, we all braced ourselves for a month or two of disruption. We thought the numbers would slide downward then, and we’d get back to business as usual.
We were wrong.
We’ve been wrong a bunch of times since then, not just around the pandemic and its surges and hotspots, but with the many other ways nature and events have piled on. Just when we think we have our feet under us, something hits us again. Wham! And the weeks stretch into months, and we wonder how we can stay standing.
I’m not sure I’d prefer to receive a letter—like the exiles did—in which God lays out an actual timeline! Could I handle the truth? Maybe shadowy, clunky, constantly unfolding is easier. I’m not sure.
I do know that Jeremiah’s letter, and the hard truth it communicated, did more than set off deep waves of grief. It offered some direction for living through the grief, through those decades. It gave some instruction for that meantime. Words that seem important, and true for us, too, right here and right now. For all the differences of our time and context, that letter in Jeremiah 29 tells us some things we need to know, too:
Do you notice how fresh and true these words feel today? I wonder where else we’ll find similar encouragement and strength to live through this (dare I say it?) pandemic era.
Let’s keep looking. Together.
An Invitation: Do one thing this week to seek the welfare of—make things better in—the places and situations where you find yourself. What connection could you make, or note could you send? What could you tend in this meantime, even if you can’t bring about the immediate restoration we all long for?
A Prayer: O Lord, how long? We’ve already experienced so much change and loss in this hard year, and we’re tired. We lay our emotions at your feet. Our hurt, our anger, our exhaustion. [Name other emotions you are feeling.] Even in this time, though, we remember that you are faithful. We know you have purposes for us that you will fulfill, in time. While we wait and watch and prepare, help us to seek the good of the places where we are. We pray for the good of our families, our churches, and our local communities. Help us to discover our own well-being in theirs. In the holy name of Jesus who knows our suffering. Amen.