After the End

I have a number of friends who have decided to take on the challenge of running in a marathon as a means of personal growth, self-discipline, and achievement. I’ve watched them training via social media for months ahead of the race, then finally on race day, anxious and excited before it starts, and exhausted and exhilarated afterwards, wrapped in those silver mylar blankets and kissing the medals they’ve received, basking in the celebration of such an accomplishment.

So it was particularly meaningful to watch the news of Eliud Kipchoge completing a marathon in Vienna in under two hours this week through the eyes of my runner friends on social media, because they could appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishment in a way that only a veteran of such an experience could.

Kipchoge is, not surprisingly, the best marathoner in the world right now, so simply completing a marathon is basically just a day at the office for him. Winning a world-class marathon, obviously, is the whole reason he does what he does, but even that is just a particularly good day for him. His real accomplishments are things like winning the Olympic gold medal in 2016, and obliterating the previous world record in 2018 by a full minute and 18 seconds to finish just over two hours and one minute.

For Vienna, though, he set out with the goal of breaking the two-hour barrier, which was considered by many to be unbreakable. So in addition to all the normal preparation a world-class marathoner has to do for a race, he spent months following a special regimen of extra exercises and activities to help him train, eat, rest at his optimum performance levels, all while conducting a minute analysis of the fastest route, not simply mile by mile, but inch by inch.

For the race itself, he  had a phalanx of pacesetters who rotated in and out to run beside him, setting the pace and even showing him the way with green lasers on the pavement. And it worked; he not only traveled faster than any human ever had before over a marathon distance, he did what most people who really know about marathons thought a human being could never do.

In the midst of admiration for what it took to accomplish such a feat, though, I wondered what I often wonder about Olympic athletes and the like after they achieve everything that they have worked so long and so hard to do, giving up any semblance of normal lives or relationships in the process: what is the next day like?

What is it like to wake up and simultaneously know that you defeated all your competitors, proved all your doubters and challengers wrong, received total vindication and validation, and yet also have no clear goal or purpose for the first time you can remember? How do you even begin to say, “okay, what’s next?” when every moment of your life, waking and sleeping, has been dedicated to a singular goal that you have now accomplished? Very few of us can understand that, I think, because very few of us spend so much time and energy and sacrifice so much for such a particular and definitive goal, and then have to figure out a whole new life afterwards.

Now, take all of that, all of the long and grueling preparation, and the sacrifice of time and comfort and relationships, and the pressure of performing in such a public way, and the achievement of something that everyone else said was impossible, but instead of that singular accomplishment being an achievement of unimaginable individual glory, it is one of unmitigated community disaster.

For years, the prophet Jeremiah has toiled with the burden of being called by God to warn the kings and people of Judah that they are going to bring disaster upon themselves by turning away from God and seeking their own purpose and even salvation in international power, undergirded with unsteady political alliances. Over and over again, he’s been told that nobody believes him; he’s been ignored, rejected, opposed, even imprisoned for his prophecies; he’s lost all semblance of a normal life or relationships.

But he continued to persevere because he believed what nobody else would: that the kingdom of Judah would fall to its enemies, despite being God’s covenantal people. And then it finally happened: he received total vindication and validation for all those long years of toil and sacrifice, defeated all his competitor prophets who kept insisting that nothing bad would happen, proved all his doubters and challengers wrong.

But the next morning when he woke up, it was not to see the shiny medal sitting on his bedside table or to see a throng of fans and well-wishers outside his window; it was to see the smoking ruins of Jerusalem after the Babylonian army sacked it, and to see many fewer people on the street because the Babylonians had carried all the wealthy and powerful important and creative and respected people off into exile in Babylon with them. How do you even begin to say, “okay, what’s next?” then? How could there even be a “next” at this point? Isn’t this the end, the end that Jeremiah himself had been prophesying?

Well, no. That’s what pretty much all of the people of Judah believed at this point, that this was the end of everything; but not Jeremiah. Jeremiah said a lot of bad stuff was going to happen because of the choices that the king and people of Judah had made, but as we heard just a couple of weeks ago, when things were at their worst, with Jerusalem surrounded by its enemies, Jeremiah went off to buy a field in this apparently doomed city to show that “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

Now, Jeremiah is writing to the people in exile in Babylon, the same important and wise and wealthy people who had rejected him for so long, to tell them what to do between now and then. They didn’t even really believe in a “then,” in a future; their question was simply what should we do now, after the end? Should we resist our captors with armed insurrection? Should we try to escape and return? Should we give up our Jewish identity and fully assimilate into Babylonian culture? Should we withdraw into ourselves, sealing our community life off in exile so we are physically in Babylon but in every other way still in Judah?

To all those questions, Jeremiah answers no. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce,” he instructs. “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.” Clearly, that is not a call to arms or escape, but neither is it a call to surrender and assimilate.

Exile is going to be a marathon, he’s saying, not a sprint; it’s going to require sustained effort over a long, long period of time, long enough to not simply build houses and plant and harvest gardens, but to have multiple generations of children. That would have been unwelcome, though not shocking news.

What comes next is shocking, though. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, says the Lord; and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah says God wants them not to withdraw into a protective huddle among themselves, but to invest themselves in the welfare of Babylon while they are there. Invest themselves in the welfare of their oppressors, in the welfare of those who destroyed their nation and kidnapped their leaders? It seems not only shocking, but offensive. Why should they do such a thing?

I think it’s because, just like Jeremiah himself, God is calling the people of Judah to a mission “after the end” that will help them resist the magnetic pull of the two poles that seek to guide them in exile instead of God: the poles of despair and revenge. What despair and revenge have in common is hopelessness; despair expresses hopelessness through submission and withdrawal, while revenge expresses it through violent action.

Both would result in the destruction of the exiled people; revenge would probably just do it faster through retribution from the Babylonians rather than assimilation into them. But seeking the welfare of Babylon, and understanding that their welfare is bound up in its welfare, recognizes that living after the end means they are also living before a new beginning, that this exile, like everything else, will end, and a new beginning will start, and the real question is how to live in faith and justice and hope until then.

In seeking the welfare of the Babylonians, God is calling God’s people, in Babylon and right here in Bethlehem, to reject the very logic of exile and enmity and division. God is calling them and us to be defined not by captivity or limitations but by faithfulness and freedom, the freedom to serve God by seeking the welfare of everyone, even our enemies, without ever excusing or justifying what they have done, without giving in to despair or to revenge.

And God is calling them and us to always ask, “okay, what’s next?” as a discipline of hope that, wherever we find ourselves, we are always living before the next beginning until the end of time itself; and that in the meantime, God will hear, and answer, and be constantly beside us, setting the pace beside us and showing us the route to follow, no matter how long or short, quick or slow the race may be, helping us do things that we thought we could never do, until the final race is run.

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