Here’s a bottom row Jeopardy clue for you; “EXILED FOR 70 YEARS.” The answer is “What is Babylonian Captivity?” Most church goers would miss this basic question. Yet this was one of the pivotal events of the Old Testament. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, the temple of Solomon destroyed, and the people of God carted off to Babylon. It’s what makes Jeremiah weep the book of Lamentations. At this critical time our faith was nearly defeated. Not destroyed by a military loss to Nebuchadnezzar, but drained by a loss of heart. The people went into Babylon and hung up their harps on the willows, saying we can’t worship or sing the songs of God in foreign land (Psalm 137). If God’s people stop worshiping, the faith dies.
All transitions are painful. In the great changes of life, it is common for us to say, “I’ve lost my faith.” Yet transitions are essential. In Babylon, much of the Old Testament is transferred from oral tradition into written word. New concepts about the universality of God were developed. The Advent passages of Isaiah, that Handel set to music in his Messiah, were written for later generations to sing.
Transition also presents a choice; one can become inward and bitter, or one can embrace the change and deepen your faith. This is true of life changes, such as, divorce, loss of loved ones, empty nest, retirement, etc. It is also true of changes in the church; leadership transitions, loss of building, worship changes, death of key members, etc. It is also true of national transitions; exile, wars, major shifts in government policy, such as, healthcare, immigration reform, etc.
Jeremiah hears the Lord command the people to embrace the change. Look outward. Stop hanging up your harp and mopping around. God says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce... 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. (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
There was a time when the last phrase was a rallying cry for the church in America. From 1930 to 1950, faith was understood as an outward command to seek the welfare of the city. Today, God may be once again bringing his people into transition so that we renew our commitment to social change. We are called by Jesus to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We cannot do that without allowing change to strengthen our own faith.