Perhaps, as you woke up this morning, you found yourself in a place you desperately want to leave.
Maybe you moved here for school or work (or your spouse’s school or work), but your heart still lives in the place you left. You think of all the family and friends and familiar comforts back there, and you struggle to imagine how here could ever feel like home.
Or maybe you have been here all your life, but for some time now you’ve been itching for elsewhere. You feel bound by the narrow limits of a town you know too well. You’ve traced every crease and corner of these streets; nothing seems left to discover.
Or maybe, most painful of all, the homes and trees and stores of your current place daily remind you of all you’ve lost. These halls were once filled with laughter, and these sidewalks with the happy patter of children’s feet. But for any of a thousand reasons, that life is gone now, and the ground is haunted by the ghosts of better days.
Maybe you will leave someday. Maybe you will move back home, or get far from home, or start fresh somewhere else without memories. But for now, for today, you live in this place you want to leave.
To the Exiles in Babylon
The story of Scripture is, in some ways, a story of going. In creation, God intended Adam and Eve to fill not just Eden but the whole earth (Genesis 1:27–28). In redemption, God spreads his kingdom as Abraham goes from Ur (Genesis 12:1–3), Israel from Egypt (Exodus 3:10–12), the apostles from Jerusalem (Matthew 28:18–20), Paul and Barnabas from Antioch (Acts 13:1–3).
Yet alongside these memorable goings are less memorable, but still crucial, stayings. Abraham may have gone to Canaan, but Isaac stayed there. The Spirit carried Paul to Ephesus and then beyond, but the same Paul charged Timothy to “remain at Ephesus” (1 Timothy 1:3). And in one remarkable story, when God’s people longed to leave the place they were, and when some self-appointed “prophets” were saying “go,” God said “stay”:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. (Jeremiah 29:4–6)
Among the world’s undesired places, Babylon would have sat near the top for a faithful Israelite. Babylon was a step backward. Babylon was not part of the plan. Babylon was not a place to settle down and raise children. But Babylon, this place they longed to leave, was now home for seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10).
We may not be Israelites living in Babylon, but Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles still speaks to those who find themselves stuck in an undesired land.
Planted by a Master Gardener
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile . . . (Jeremiah 29:4)
The first line of Jeremiah’s letter offers something of a Godward shock. To any attentive observer, Nebuchadnezzar, not God, had sent Israel into exile (Jeremiah 29:1). Nevertheless, Jeremiah says, behind the pride and madness of Babylon’s king, God himself had sent Israel into exile. The Israelites found themselves in Babylon, ultimately, because God’s hidden hand had taken them there.
How often we need a similar reminder when we wake up far from the home of our desires. For whatever circumstances brought us here — a job offer, an urgent family need, our own birth, even our own misguided judgment — a hand beyond our own has been at work. We live where we live, ultimately, because God has sent us here, at least for today. And the providential hand of God never moves without purpose.
Samuel Rutherford, the great Puritan letter writer, once spoke of God as gardener, himself as plant:
The great Master-gardener, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in a wonderful providence, with his own hand . . . planted me here, where, by his grace, in this part of his Vineyard, I grow. . . . And here I will abide, till the great Master of the Vineyard think fit to transplant me. (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 93)
Later, when Rutherford was confined in Aberdeen and forbidden from all public ministry, he wrote of living in “Christ’s palace at Aberdeen.” He knew that the same Christ “who sent me to the West and South [to his prior pastoral calling], sendeth me also to the North [to confinement in Aberdeen]” (119). What if we too saw our present place as a garden and a palace — not because the soil feels rich or the furniture looks elegant, but because our Father the Gardener has planted us here, and Christ the King dwells here?
We do not live where we live alone, nor is our present place the result of mere circumstances we can see. We have a Master gardener, a present Christ, even in a place that feels like exile.
Souls with Packed Boxes
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. (Jeremiah 29:5–6)
An air of restless expectation blew among the exiles in Babylon. Some claiming to be prophets spoke of an imminent return to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:8–9). The thought of going home so soon tugged at many, keeping their roots above ground. They slept clothed and with suitcases packed. They refused to act as if they would live long in Babylon.
But they would. Seventy years would pass before God’s people would come home (Jeremiah 29:10). So, God tells them to build and live, plant and eat, marry and parent. Settle into this place you want to leave. Sink your roots into this soil, hard as it may feel, and dare to believe that fruit can grow even here.
“Sink your roots into this soil, hard as it may feel, and dare to believe that fruit can grow even here.”
Our own desires to leave, change, move can tempt us to similarly live lightly upon the soil, our soul a tumbleweed rather than a tree. Stacks of boxes still packed may line the walls of our hearts as we hesitate to settle into this place, hoping instead we might leave soon.
In our case, of course, we really might leave soon; so far as we know, God has not given us a seventy-year sentence here. But could it be that our reluctance to treat this place as home keeps us from finding here the home we could? Might our desire for elsewhere become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a spade that continually digs up the ground and keeps us from gripping the soil here?
When I was in seminary, a classmate spoke of his wife’s hesitation to decorate their apartment, knowing they might live there only for a year or two. He told her in response, “Let’s put some nail holes in the wall.” Let’s unpack the boxes. Let’s build and plant. Let’s make this place, however unwanted, as much a home as we can make it. And maybe, in the process, we’ll find more home here than we imagined.
Stay and Make Disciples
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf. (Jeremiah 29:7)
Exiled people, lost in a foreign land and pining for home, might understandably focus on a small set of priorities: Protect your family. Make a living. Find some small measure of happiness where you can. But God called his people to look farther and higher, beyond the walls of self and home, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Do good, even in Babylon. Seek the welfare of the place you want to leave. Pray for its peace.
The command brings to mind a scene from the Gospels, where a man formerly demonized begs to follow Jesus, his deliverer (Luke 8:38). Surely he longed to be near the one who had restored him to his right mind (Luke 8:35); perhaps he also longed to be free from the place of his former misery. But Jesus, after telling so many people to follow him, tells this man not to: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Go home, stay where you are, and speak into this place the welfare of the gospel. And so he did (Luke 8:39).
Wherever we live, there are people on our block, in our neighborhood, and throughout our city who need to hear how much God has done for us, and how much he might do for them. No doubt, people elsewhere need to hear the same; hence Jesus’s call to go (Matthew 28:19). But like the man in Luke 8, we may need to see that this place, though perhaps filled with unwelcome memories, has fields ripe for harvest — and we are the ones to work them.
In the depths of our desire to leave, we may have adopted a set of small purposes, at least functionally: Keep the kids happy. Get through today. Do your work and find some time for rest. But Jesus gives us another purpose that can transform what seems like a cracked and barren ground into a field waiting for harvest: “Declare how much God has done for you.”
Exiles Till Heaven
To all the exiles . . . (Jeremiah 29:4)
As painful as the word exile may have sounded to the Israelites in Babylon, the word welcomed them into a reality they may have struggled to remember at home: God, not Jerusalem, was their true dwelling place (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:1). They had always been “strangers and sojourners,” even at home (Leviticus 25:23). So, though the word exile was a sting and a thorn, it was also a gift.
“One day soon, we will wake up in the place we have always longed for, and we will live there forever.”
In Christ, we too are “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), even if we live in a place we love. Those who feel like exiles, then, have a certain advantage in this world: their sense of homelessness daily reminds them who they really are.
Every morning we wake up in a house we don’t like, we can remember the room in God’s house with our name written on the door (John 14:2). Every time we drive through a city we want to leave, we can look forward to the city “whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Every time we fall asleep feeling far from home, we can assure ourselves that we are indeed far from home, but also that home is coming quickly (Revelation 22:20).
One day soon, we will wake up in the place we have always longed for, and we will live there forever. But for now, dear Christian exile, trust the wisdom of your Master gardener. Unpack the boxes. Stay and make disciples. And love this place you want to leave.