As some of you may know, my husband Rick and I are moving after 6 years in the Houston area to a new home in the beautiful hill country of central Texas. We are thrilled about this change and new start.
But if you’ve ever moved—and I assume if you are an adult, you’ve moved at least a time or two—you know how physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging it is to empty one home and think through what to do with all the stuff. What to bring, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away? If this is to be our new home, how do we make it feel like home when we’ve never lived there before?
As I’m going through this sorting, planning, and envisioning, I’m also continuing through the book of Jeremiah (it’s a long one!) The words of this embattled prophet remind me that the Bible throughout is all about coming home. Sometimes coming home again after being in a far country.
Think about it. Beginning with Abraham, who traveled at God’s command “to the place I will show you,” the Bible speaks of God’s people often not being in the place where they belong, and eventually journeying there. And in a sense, we who are part of God’s story still long to go home to God’s ordained place.
Moses led the Israelites back home. It was a long, perilous ordeal getting them there, but that was always the vision and the goal. After Joshua took the baton of leadership from Moses, they finally got there. The patriarchs were buried there because you bury your ancestors close to home.
After many generations of disobedience, idolatry, treachery, and rebellion in their homeland against the God who rescued them, the people of Israel were driven into exile in Babylon by foreign invaders.
The psalmist depicts that strange place:
“Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.For our captors demanded a song from us.
Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: ‘Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!’ But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?” (Psalm 137: 1-4)
Do you hear the grief and longing for home, especially for worshippers of the one true God?
Eventually the people of Israel were allowed to return and restore their homeland, as portrayed in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, and by the prophets of the exile.
Jeremiah’s contribution to this narrative is fascinating. He resided in Jerusalem before, during, and after the invasion by Nebuchadnezzar. He was treated horribly by the cowardly kings and the people allowed to stay behind. Ironically, the invaders treated him with more kindness than his own people did.
Jeremiah gave the people lots of bad news—as prophets typically do. But there was some really good news mixed in, too. A favorite Old Testament verse for many Christians is Jeremiah 29:11:
“’ For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
We love to claim this verse for ourselves, hanging it on a plaque in our homes, or embossed on our Bible covers or coffee mugs. It accurately expresses God’s devotion to those who love him, and gives us much hope, especially at times when life doesn’t seem to make sense.
We use Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage our children that whatever happens, God is looking out for them and has a plan in mind. All they need to do is stay connected to him and they will receive this promised future and hope.
But I don’t often hear people consider the context in Jeremiah where this Scripture is found. I believe it adds even greater richness and encouragement to the verse when we remember that these words were written by God’s prophet to the Israelites in exile. The folks with their harps hanging in the trees.
They had been wayward and idolatrous. They were in their predicament for a reason. God had pleaded with them over and over to come to their senses and be faithful to him. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and eventually, God allowed foreigners to bring some heavy consequences.
But let us not forget that while God was their judge and is our judge, he is infinitely merciful! He says to Israel, as her true Father, “I will not be angry with you forever” (Jer. 3:13).
For seventy years they would stay in exile. While in Babylon, they were to seek the good of Babylon. They were to plant crops, have babies, and invest themselves in their new land. They could do this, knowing that they were held within the loving embrace of Jehovah. He had plans to bless them, even in their captivity, and then—
“I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again…I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land…I will bring them home to this land that I gave to their ancestors, and they will possess it again. I, the Lord, have spoken!” (Jer. 29:10, 14; Jer. 30:3)
We resonate with this, don’t we? We often feel like strangers in a strange land these days. As the writer of Hebrews states about those who died in faith, without yet receiving what God had promised,
“…They saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously, people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own” (Heb. 11:13-14).
No matter how good we have it in this life, we all know we are not quite home yet. This place and these circumstances are not where the story ends.
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is with Jesus’ parable of the prodigal coming home to his forgiving father and unforgiving brother. After wasting all of his resources and languishing in a foreign land,
“when he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ (Lk. 15:17-19).
Even the most lost, intransigent soul can head towards home, and find the Father watching longingly for his appearing around the bend in the road. Most of us have been that person at some point.
Beyond the comfort of knowing that in this life we can always run to the safety and fellowship of the Father, is knowing that Jesus is preparing an incredibly special place we haven’t visited yet, unless in a dream or near-death experience.
We are waiting to go home. Home again.