1. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen. The message from God’s Word today is taken from Psalm 137.1-6 & Jeremiah 29:4-13 (READ TEXT). The message is entitled, “Sing Us One of the Songs of Zion,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. Disaster, destruction, deportation—Judah suffered all of these at the hands of the Babylonians. The Babylonian captivity was a terrible time in the history of God’s people. In Babylon the captives sat, far from home, wondering how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. You and I are also strangers and pilgrims in this world. We can learn from this sermon’s two texts, written at the time of the Babylonian captivity, how to sing the Lord’s song in our strange land. The key lies in the old and true saying that the Lord wants his people to be in the world, yet not of it. This is especially important for us today as we reflect on Christian Education Sunday.
3. There’s no question that we’re in the world, just as there was no question that the exiles were in Babylon. The familiar sights of home were hundreds of miles away. Still worse, so was the temple—until the Babylonians destroyed it. How could the exiles continue to worship? Their Babylonian captors didn’t make things any easier, either. Mocking, they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” They were suggesting that these songs were oldies, but no longer goodies. The Babylonian taunts amounted to saying that the Lord had proven either unable or unwilling to help his people. It’s always easier to believe something when everyone else around seems to believe it, or at least when they don’t fight against it. Belief becomes much harder when you have to stand alone, and when those around you are trying to tug you away from those beliefs.
4. This remains so for us today, just as Judah’s captives in Babylon discovered it to be true. For centuries, the Church enjoyed a cushy place in Western culture, dating back to the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. That relationship had its flaws and problems, but it’s been breaking up for a while now. Maybe a few of us have only recently been waking up to realize that it’s all but gone. Now instead of the “Charlie Brown” Christmas TV special, with the reading of Luke 2 and “Hark, the Herald Angels” at the end, we have the “Arthur” Christmas special—it’s called the “holiday” special—which makes room to acknowledge several different religious traditions.
5. First, we’re learning how much harder it seems to believe when the people around us don’t reinforce our beliefs. These days, there seems to be more reason than ever to echo the hymn writer who wrote of having an unsteady heart that is, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love” (LSB 686:3). We can complain about our circumstances or get frustrated about them, but we aren’t always able to change them. The Lord has given us a difficult situation in which to live as his people. While we may be irritated at this state of affairs, did we really think we sinners had a right to an easy time? The days in which we live increasingly resemble those of Judah’s captivity in Babylon, or maybe those through which the Church lived during the first couple of centuries after Jesus died and rose. No question about it, we are here.
6. And here we can be constructive, for the Lord is here too. The exiles in Babylon didn’t have to go without the presence of the Lord. To be sure, he had vowed to be present at the temple, where the sacrifices proclaimed to people the forgiveness of their sins in the promised Messiah. But, the Lord didn’t need the temple in order to be present with his people. He had been with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, even before the temple was built, or the tabernacle before it. Wherever they went, the Lord went with them to bless. So it was for the exiles. The Lord God remained present with them, present to bless, through his Word. See David L. Adams, “The Present God: A Framework for Biblical Theology,” Concordia Journal 22 (July 1996): 279–94.
7. In the fullness of time, God’s presence at a particular place and his presence accompanying his people came together, in the Person of our Lord Jesus. He’s the Word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He challenged people to destroy this temple and he would raise it up in three days, meaning the temple of his body, God present among men. He promised that he would be with his Church always, to the end of the age. This Lord, crucified and risen, is the One who paid for our sins. Christ brings us the presence of God to forgive and to save. He brings it through his Word. That was all the captives in Babylon had, but it proved more than enough. It was all the prophets and patriarchs had, too—God, his Word, and his promise not to let that Word return to him empty. Ultimately, it’s all we have. But you weren’t planning to live on bread alone, were you?
8. God does things through his Word. You might say he’s constructive. He certainly wants his people to be constructive where they are. Therefore Jeremiah, still in Judah, wrote to the exiles in Babylon. He told them to build homes, have children, and seek the welfare of the place where they were. God’s people have done much the same thing at other times. In the days of the Early Church, Christians were noted for their discipline and self-control. One pagan Roman emperor noted that Christians not only cared for their own poor, but took in other poor people and cared for them too. Christian slave girls remained with their Christian mistresses who were imprisoned or tortured.2 All of that and much more amounted to being constructive in this world. See William C. Weinrich, “Evangelism in the Early Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 45 (Jan.–Apr. 1981): 61–75, especially 71–73.
9. We can be constructive, too, for the Lord remains with us. He cares about this world, which he created and sent Christ to redeem, and he uses us to spread his love and care. We should care for children, help the poor, pray for governing officials, vote responsibly, value the good and the noble. All of these things, and many more, can amount to being constructive in this world.
10. Yet while we’re being constructive, let us not grow too comfortable. For although we’re in this world, we’re just as certainly not of it. We’re not here for the long run. Therefore, let us look beyond this world, to the future that Christ himself has opened up by his resurrection from the dead. Our stay here is temporary. By way of the letter Jeremiah wrote the exiles in Babylon, they found out that their captivity would last for a definite period of time— 70 years. Light shone at the end of the tunnel, as it were. That made all the difference in the world for the exiles, not only at the end of the 70 years but also at the very time when Jeremiah wrote. They had hope.
11. An old catechism pictures God sending Christians to an “island colony,” the world, and saying: “The greatest danger is that you may fall in love with this island so that you will not care to return to the home-kingdom. Love the island because it is My possession, but do not love it because it is your home. It is not your home! Your home is here in the palace with Me. Someday I will call you back. How soon, I shall not tell you. But one day I will usher you up to a doorway called death. Be not afraid of it, because on the other side of the threshold is Life. I will take you by the hand and lead you across. Then you shall see Me, face to face. Meanwhile, My peace I give you.” 3 Alvin N. Rogness, On the Way (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1942), n.p.
12. The analogy in this old catechism breaks down in several places. For instance, God doesn’t really “brief” Christians before we are born. But, the point comes through all the same, that we won’t remain here. Christ shed his blood to buy and pay for us, but not so we would continue to live in this fallen, sinful world. He prepares for us an eternity that’s so much better, and we will have the privilege of spending it with the Lord who bought us. Often people ask the question, “Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?” Maybe the world dares to ask about 5 years into the future, but it doesn’t bring up eternity very often. The world’s eternal prospect is too scary. But, by faith in Christ, ours shines bright. As surely as we’re in this world now, we’re not staying. For we are not of this world.
13. Therefore, let us look beyond. That’s what the psalmist did. Maybe he seems only to be looking back, if anything, in saying, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!” In fact, he was remembering all the promises of redemption and rescue the Lord had given. He was remembering them in God-given faith. We do exactly that in church. That reminds of something I read recently from a Lutheran theologian Chad Bird, he writes, “When the elderly struggle with memory, they can often still sing along with the liturgy or a beloved hymn. Put yourself at that advanced age. What do you want to remember when you’ve forgetting virtually everything else? Sing that.” When you find yourself in troubled waters, all you can do is lash yourself tightly to the mast. We need to lash ourselves tightly to God’s Word and to the Church that’s created by this Word. In Church, the Lord puts his truth into us by his Word and Sacraments. With the truth in us, we can see beyond this world. We can look at the evil around us, refuse to believe its lies, and give people something better. We can tell the Good News about Jesus.
14. For our time in this world is short. In 2012, earlier in my ministry down in Southern Illinois near the St. Louis, MO metro area, I remember baptizing a man named Rudolph Sommer, who was in his 80s. He was on his death bed. Rudolph died a couple of days later. He knew that his days in this world were numbered, though he had no idea what that number was. He had problems with his health, and a number of other problems compounding the health issues. Rudolph’s body was failing him, and in many ways the world wasn’t looking like a nice place. But, during the last few days of his life, this man, who had been unchurched for years, was singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. He heard Christ’s forgiving word and took comfort in his baptism. This man, Rudolph, had become a saint in Christ. He knew that he was in the world, but not of it, so he was looking forward to being with his Lord.
15. Your days and mine are numbered too. We just don’t know what the number is. We, too, are in the world, not of it. So long as we find ourselves in the world, let us be constructive as the Lord wants us to be. Since we’re not staying here, though, let us look beyond in faith and hope. Then we, too, will break forth in singing the Lord’s song, even in a strange land. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting Amen.