Jeremiah 29.11-13 (NIV)
11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
The passage Dan just shared is probably one of the most familiar and beautiful passages in Jeremiah.
But … I’m curious, have you ever thought something was beautiful and someone else didn’t think it was all that beautiful?
(On one of our drives from Colorado to visit Sarah’s family in Minnesota, the plains from Eastern Colorado to Nebraska were covered with these amazing blooming sunflowers …we told Sarah’s dad about the sunflowers, he said something about how sunflowers are pretty much weeds for farmers.)
These words that are beautiful to us, weren’t beautiful to the people who heard them first.
2 Kings 24 (8-14) sets the background for this passage:
… At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it … Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him.
In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner … removed the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace, and cut up the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord. He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.
Their country was defeated. The temple, their most sacred space, was plundered. Their best and brightest, friends and neighbors were taken away. They must have been wrestling with terrible, haunting questions. Can we still be God’s people if this land, God promised to us, isn’t ours any more? What happens to us with no king of our own? What about our people who have been taken so far away from us? Can we have a relationship with God in Babylon? Can we worship God without all the stuff they took from the temple? Does God care anymore? Is God even around anymore?
What do you say to people living through something like this?
My gut reaction would be to want to have some good news. Some prophets said this couldn’t last … it would be over soon … Don’t worry.
Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon. His message was different:
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 29.13-14 NIV).
Seventy Years? A whole generation – that could be pretty much forever!
Get in gear to be there for a long time. Go about life because you will be in Babylon for the rest of your lives. You can thrive in this unfamiliar place. Continue as God’s people … you can live in relationship with God in Babylon.
Other prophets were telling the exiles not to get comfortable, because before they knew it they would be on their way home. But Jeremiah told them, they might as well make themselves at home, because they were going to be stuck for a long time.
Nobody wanted to hear this.
One of the exiled prophets, wrote an angry letter to the priests back in Jerusalem. As far as he was concerned Jeremiah should be locked up for spouting nonsense like this to people who were hurting. How could Jeremiah say this … the exiles had been through so much … now he was saying they would probably die of old age far away from their homes.
“You should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons. So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you? He has sent this message to us in Babylon: It will be a long time. Therefore build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce’” (Jeremiah 29.26-28 NIV)
He didn’t think Jeremiah was helping.
Even though people were in pain – Jeremiah had to tell the truth. He was convinced his peoples’ unfaithfulness led to their present condition. He was convinced his people had the power and responsibility to make decisions that mattered, decisions that could shape their future, for good or bad. Even though it would be hard, Jeremiah was sure that even in exile, people could live faithfully. Even in exile, they could live in relationship with God … they could call on God … they could seek God … they could find God … they could thrive.
I remember the best speech I have ever heard a politician make … I think it was probably so good because the politician didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear. The community was dedicating a rose garden in the middle of the worn out, hard times town … the eighty and ninety year olds remembered at one time it had been a thriving place … things changed … things got hard … business closed … kids moved away to find jobs … buildings rotted and fell apart … a lot of people talked about the state of the town with disbelief, they could’t figure out what happened … it seemed like a surprise … like everything suddenly collapsed. But the politician grew up there, he lived through the rise and fall of the town. He said, “We didn’t get where we are by accident. We have made decisions and not made decisions that have gotten us to where we are today. If we want things to change, we have to make different decisions, we have to choose the path that will get us where we want to be.”
There wasn’t an easy fix.
The change the community needed would take time … it would take choices …
I loved how that speech recognized the peoples’ responsibility … and gave them agency. They could make decisions, they could do things that mattered. They could choose to make a difference.
This is the last sermon in our “Our Future Story / New Beginnings” series.
What does Jeremiah and that politician’s speech have to do with us?
This whole process has to do with making decisions … it has to do with reminding churches that we have agency. We can make decisions that matter. We can make faithful decisions that shape our future, that connect us with our community and with Jesus’ mission to make disciples and be part of the transformation God desires for the world.
As a church, we aren’t where we are by accident. This good place didn’t just happen. You all have been serious about pursuing Jesus and being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, even if it means doing things differently. You have made decisions that have helped to shape the situation we find ourselves in. And we are making decisions now that will shape our church’s future.
As we make decisions about our future, maybe our key shows up in something Jeremiah said, –
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 …