The Grace of Restoration
“Thus says the Lord: I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound and the citadel set on its rightful site. Out of them shall come Thanksgiving and the sound of merrymakers. I will make them many, and they shall not be disdained.”
As we continue our discussion of Thanksgiving and Gratitude, I thought this passage might be an interesting segway into idea of restoration. Our passage today makes it sound as though the restoration comes first and then the thanksgiving comes as a byproduct of the restoration. I’m not so sure this is really how it works.
While it is true that we find thanks and gratitude when that which was lost to us has been restored, what I find most in my own life is that gratitude and thanksgiving come first. Let me explain.
In the book of Jeremiah, we encounter the story of the Israelite people being whisked away to Babylon in captivity. In the previous chapter – chapter 29 – we read, “4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But 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.”
It was God who sent the people of Israel into exile. But he doesn’t tell them to weep or be depressed. Instead, God tells them to find gratitude and thanksgiving: build houses; take wives; have children; plant and grow food; and seek the welfare of the city. These are not things that you do when you are ungrateful or unthankful. No, these are tasks that people engage in when they are trying to make a way where it appears there is no way.
Chapter 29 is also the chapter where God says to the people, “10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
What we learn from this text is that God is requiring the people to adopt a particular kind of attitude, one where they are grateful for the circumstances of their lives regardless. This is not easy, but it makes sense that when we lack gratitude and thanksgiving, what we are really doing is taking our situations in life for granted. God is often absent in these moments.
God is trying to get the attention of the people in a dramatic way. All other attempts have appeared to fail. We can ask, “What ways has God tried to get our attention?” and likewise, “Has God failed?”
This entire story reminds me of how stubborn we can be as a people. We think we know what is best and we fall prey to the age-old adage that we can conduct our lives any way we want with few if any consequences. We see evidence of this all around us. And yet, we are called to be accountable for our behavior. We are called to take seriously how we show up in the world. What God is asking the people to do in the diaspora is to reevaluate their lives. Take stock and make changes. To ultimately find a way to be grateful for where they are and what they have been given, even though they are not in their homeland.
When we have been stripped of all that we know and love, it is difficult to find gratitude. None of us wants to look at difficult circumstances as if we deserve them. In fact, the idea of deserving hardship is not really what God is about. I do think, though, that God wants to equip us for these difficult moments and that having an attitude of gratitude and being thankful for what we do have provides us with some necessary tools to weather any storm.
The idea of restoration coming on the heels of some dark moments fills me with hope. I like the idea of being restored. Whatever malady I am facing, God can work through the noise and help me find wholeness again. But God can’t do it alone. Well, I suppose God could if God wanted to, but I think God chooses, quite intentionally, to not treat us like puppets with God as our puppet master. We are not toys for God to play with, we are part of the created order. And while it may seem strange to us, I believe that God desires for us to be active participants in the work. God can’t make us be or do anything that we aren’t willing. This means that we have choices and with those choices are consequences.
The act of restoration comes over time; it is a gradual healing and making whole of that which is broken. Sometimes we veer so far off course that it can take a while for us to find our footing again. The beauty of working with God in tandem is that God meets us where we are. Not only does God show up, but God walks us through the difficult moments of finding ourselves again. It really is a partnership.
In this moment with the Israelites, I imagine that the writers of this text felt that God was the one who had shipped them off to captivity. While it is difficult for me to imagine a God that would do such a thing, even to teach someone a lesson, this is where we find ourselves. What the people were told, though, is to thrive where they were planted. And they were reminded that God wasn’t forsaking them but was expanding their understanding of what it means to be a community.
In some ways, the text in Chapter 29 is not really good news. But by the time we get to Chapter 30 and beyond, there is an understanding of God’s power of restoration. Does it make their current situation any better? Probably not. And yet, the people did thrive, and they did return, and the temple was rebuilt. And all of these things happened because the people figured out how to find some gratitude and thanksgiving even in the midst of discomfort and grief. What are we being called to overcome in our own lives by actively seeking gratitude and thanksgiving? How can these positive things reshape our understanding of what God is trying to do in our lives?