This is my sermon on Jeremiah 29:1-14 (for Proper 23 Year C) at Grace Anglican Church.
“I know the plans I have for you,
declares the Lord,
plans for welfare and not for evil,
to give you a future and a hope.”
These words are perhaps very familiar to you. They’re commonly found on those nice Christianey wall-hangings or bookmarks, and often quoted by well-meaning folk when you’re stuck in a bad way. They’re words of comfort and words of hope. Sometimes when you hear them your heart is warmed with gladness, remembering the great love that God has for you, personally. Other times you hear them and perhaps your inner cynic kicks into gear: “plans for my welfare and not harm, eh? Sure, just like St. Paul’s welfare, and St. Peter’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle, and all the martyrs of blessed memory. God sure had great plans for them. Too bad they died and missed out on those blessings!” If you’ve ever had a reaction like that, you’re in good company. While this famous verse is indeed a word of comfort from God himself, there’s more to it than is usually considered.
Good news hits home better in the midst of trouble.
As we just heard in the Old Testament reading, this comforting promise from God was spoken into a very extraordinary situation: the remnant of the people of God – the kingdom of Judah – had been conquered by Babylonians and carted off into a foreign land. The Temple was destroyed and the king was overthrown; according to the Law of Moses, there could be no more sacrifices for sin, no more offerings before God, no more blessings for the people. It seemed as if God’s great plan for the redemption of the world had just failed. That is why the lamenting that we experienced last week in Scripture and song was so intense. But instead of leaving them there, God spoke into their situation a new word of hope.
An important observation at this point would be to say that good news hits home better in the midst of trouble. This is true in many situations. In college, I learned that getting an A in a class was way more exciting after I tasted the bitter failure of an F in another class. (Yes, I failed a course in college; it was Calculus II, and I’d taken it purely for ‘fun.’ No I was not drunk at the time, but apparently I was somewhat delusional.) Another example is the Gospel itself. After being a Christian for some time, it can become all too easy to take the radical good news of Christ in a cavalier manner. “Yup, Jesus died for our sins so that we can have eternal life in the New Creation. Cool, huh? So, do you think the Patriots are gonna be able to beat the Saints this afternoon? (Kind of an oxymoron if you’re a Boston fan, but anyway…)” Seriously, though, the very Gospel itself can be difficult to take seriously sometimes. But when we’re brought face-to-face with sin and death, and reminded of the bad news, then the good news is once again a big deal.
This dynamic, of better recognizing good news while in the midst of trouble, is precisely what we find going on in Jeremiah 29. The country is conquered, the city destroyed, the Temple ripped down, the Ark of the Covenant who-knows-where, the king dethroned, and finally the people are beginning to hear God’s words with open hearts. And we know that the Israelites in exile finally began to listen because we can read about them in another book written by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch. In the first two chapters of the book of Baruch, you’ll find an almost perfectly direct response to this very message in Jeremiah 29; the people finally got it.
This is a well-timed lesson.
And, I’ve gotta say, this is a very well-timed lesson. For the past couple months, especially last week, we’ve been subjected to quite a few depressing readings from the Old Testament prophets. Warnings of judgment, declarations of failures, litanies of sin, pronouncements of punishment… culminating in lament and sadness and anger… and now as the dust settles and cries of Lamentations are hushed, we’re hearing God’s words of hope. This journey that the lectionary has taken us through is a powerful (if painful) re-enactment of the drama and trauma of the ancient nation of Israel. And in the life of our own congregation here, we’ve also experienced quite the reminder of pain and suffering that this world can inflict. Reminders ranging from health trouble to financial trouble to town-bureaucracy trouble to house-moving-complications trouble even this past week alone has been all too numerous. It’s about time for all of us to hear a message of comfort and hope!
God will fix all this mess!
The message is simple: God will fix all this mess! For Israel, in Jeremiah 29, this meant that their exile in Babylon would be temporary. He promised them 70 years would be the time. Granted, that’s a long time; long enough that one or two generations would live and die away from their homeland before they finally returned. Like the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness under Moses, this was a time of punishment which had to run its course. But the message of hope was more than just giving an end-date to the punishment; God also promised welfare (or prosperity), a future, a hope, a relationship of answered prayer and fellowship with God! How easy it was for Israel before the exile to assume that they already had all this. But in exile, their hope for the perfection of God was rekindled!
The message of hope for us is very similar. We, too, live in a sort of exile. Many times, the New Testament describes us as citizens of the Kingdom of God. As “ambassadors for Christ” we represent a different kingdom. You and I are Americans by birth, but we’re Christians by second birth. We live temporally in the USA, but we’re called to live eternally in the Kingdom of God. But until the personal and bodily return of Christ to this earth, we’re living in a sort of exile; subject to the power of earthly rulers and visibly separated from our true homeland.
In the meantime, we’re to invest!
So the final question right now is this: what are we supposed to do while in exile? In our American philosophy of utilitarianism – do what’s most sensible, cost-effective, and efficient – the temptation is often to prepare ourselves entirely for the eternal life in the Kingdom of God and simply ignore this world. It’s all going to burn anyway, as some would say. But is that what God actually tells us?
Verses 5 through 9 of our Old Testament reading paint a very different picture of expectations: build houses, and live in them. Plant gardens, and eat of their fruit. Get married, have children, and multiply. In other words, invest, invest, invest! Make yourselves at home, get to work, and increase in number! And, if that wasn’t radical enough, while you’re at it, pray for your government and your leaders, because in their welfare you’ll find your own welfare too. Yes, the government, the corrupt evil heathen King Nebuchadnezzar who dethroned your own king, tore down your temple, committed atrocities against your people, and dragged you away to live out your days an impoverished refugee. Yes, that guy; pray for him. I know Obama isn’t terribly popular among many Christians these days, but let’s be realistic – he’s got nothing on Nebuchadnezzar. If the Israelites could be told to pray for him (and actually do so according to Baruch 1 & 2), then so can we pray for our own leaders and “seek the welfare” of this country. It’s the same the world over: a stable government makes for a more stable country, whether it’s evil or good, just or unjust. Just because we’re Christians, that doesn’t mean we’re immune to this effect.
So how are we to invest in this life? The call to build homes and have families translate pretty clearly into modern life. Many of you have already done so, others are still in progress there, and a few of us are only just beginning. As for planting fields and eating its fruit, this points us in a couple different directions today. Perhaps the main modern-day analogy is having a job and working. We participate in the economy, we support ourselves and our families, and gain some measure of wealth (be it great or small) such that we can be generous with those around us according to need and calling. But in addition to this is the analogy of caring for God’s creation. Back in the Promised Land, God apportioned the land to all the people according to their families.
This was dual-purposed: first of all it gave everyone a home to call their own. Secondly, it gave all the land someone to care for it! Let us not forget God’s instructions in the beginning: care for the earth and subdue it. We’re stewards not just with wealth, but with the earth itself. So no matter where we are on the planet – at home or in a foreign land – God wants us to look after it. Most of us here today aren’t great land-owners, but we all can make decisions that impact the environment in good and bad ways. For example, last Sunday, my wife and I got a cat. It sounds cute and insignificant, but it’s actually a relevant example. By adopting a shelter cat we’ve not only gained a really cute ball of fur whose constant purring will brighten even the greyest days, but we’re also providing a home for a cat who would otherwise be stuck in a shelter or on the streets, or in a home of neglect. The relationship is two-fold: caring for the earth goes hand-in-hand with caring for ourselves.
To recap briefly: good news hits home most clearly when we’re familiar with the bad news. That’s why it was in the midst of Israel’s hardest punishment that God’s good news finally started to sink in. And with that comfort in place and that hope in sight, God’s people were able to start afresh with the basics of living righteous lives even in captivity, so that when they finally got home, they’d be more ready to honor God in worship as well as in their lives. It is the same with us; we are strangers in a land that is not our own, but we are called to invest in it anyway, to persevere and flourish as best we can within the confines the system. We are called to pray for our government, seek the welfare of our nation, and care for ourselves, one another, and the earth itself. In doing all this, we learn to live out lives that are characterized by hope.
And may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope!