Advent | December 20, 2019
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Patience for the Kingdom

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
—Jeremiah 29:4-14 (NIV)

Waiting is not something that I’m good at. I’m more of a “get it done” kind of person. I like to start projects and to be actively involved in finding solutions to problems — and I’m often the first to speak up for change (sometimes this turns out well, and yet other times I speak and act too soon!). I guess patience is one of those fruits of the Spirit that I need to work on the most.

It’s one thing to try to cultivate patience in my daily life — to have more grace to wait for simple things like an email reply from a coworker, or for a housemate to wash dishes left in the sink. It’s an entirely different thing to have patience when I consider the broader systems of oppression and injustice in the world — systems that affect the neighborhood I live in and people I love.

I am impatient for my neighbor who, due to his struggles with mental health, is on a disability pension that barely covers his rent — let alone food and other expenses. How long does he have to wait to have enough to live on every month?

I am impatient for my refugee friend who fled to Canada with her children, having faced racism and violence in her home country. Her refugee claim was ultimately denied because she was unable to access the legal aid she needed to properly plead her case, and she was sent back to a dangerous situation. How long does she have to wait for a fair legal system and a safe place to raise her children?

I am impatient for the folks who sleep rough in the park behind my house. The shelters in my city are overflowing and can often be places that trigger people into backsliding if they are trying to stay off drugs or avoid violence, so some folks feel safer in the park. How long do they have to wait for a better-funded shelter system that adequately meets the needs of street-involved people? How long do they have to wait for Canada’s much-lauded National Affordable Housing Strategy to “trickle down” to them so that they can have a place to call home?

The Israelites in exile were probably quite impatient as well. They were exiled because of disobedience, having broken covenant with God, so they had been carried away by their enemies. While this context is quite different from that of my friends and neighbors who bear the brunt of broken systems at no fault of their own, the frustration of being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be is similar.

When I think of Jeremiah writing to the exiles, the first thing that comes to mind is Jeremiah 29:11, a verse that appears on many inspirational posters and t-shirts! “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Sounds pretty great! Sounds like something I wouldn’t want to wait around for, right? But the thing we miss when we only focus on this verse is that the rest of God’s message to the Israelites is that his plan for a hope and a future involved waiting for a long, long time. Just a few verses before this one, Jeremiah writes that the exiled people should expect to be in captivity for seventy years, so they should build houses, plant gardens, plan weddings, and have kids. These are not short-term activities! The people are essentially being told to settle down and engage long-term in the very place that they want to be delivered from. The Israelites longed to go home, to what was familiar and felt safe, and to end their suffering under a foreign rule. Staying and waiting was the last thing they wanted to do!

Then God goes even further. He instructs them, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Not only does God want the people to wait, but he wants them to pray for the peace and prosperity of these enemies who have carried them into exile! God wants his people to make themselves at home and pray for the well-being of the very place where they don’t want to be. They are to accept that this is the way God intends to bless them for now, when they’d prefer immediate liberation instead. How long do they have to wait for freedom? How long do they have to remain captives to an oppressive system? How long do they have to wait to return to their homeland?

The world as they know it has fallen apart, and yet God’s message is to wait, pray, and invest in the place of their captivity. What are we supposed to do with that? How are my friends and neighbors and I supposed to practice this in the midst of our own modern exiles? What far-off hope can we look to while being crushed by unjust systems?

I think this means that while we continue to earnestly long for these broken systems to be undone, we also do what we can in the meantime to seek the peace and prosperity of all who are around us. I think it means working and advocating for better governmental policies while acknowledging that they’re complicated and that there are no easy fixes. I think it means that we take action in the face of injustice but also reach out with compassion when our sisters and brothers get caught in a system that is too slow to change.

I think it means having a holy impatience, waiting in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom of shalom, where everyone will have enough to flourish — while at the same time cooking dinner for my neighbor, volunteering with my local refugee center, and getting to know the folks in the park. These actions may seem small and may not “fix” anything, but they’re a tiny taste of that kingdom I’m waiting for.

Prayer: Dear God, help us to be patient when change doesn’t come as quickly as we have hoped. Instill in us a desire to see your kingdom come even in the midst of broken systems, and for your peace to reign even while we wait.

Cindy Stover is a justice mobilizer in Canada for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She is interested in seeing people realize God's call to enact justice and mercy in every area of our lives, from how we shop, to how we talk to our neighbors, to how our churches respond to the most vulnerable people in today’s world.

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