This sermon was preached on November 24, 2013 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 and you can hear the sermon below.
Who here has a “life verse”?
Who here knows what a “life verse” is?
When I was younger, people in some circles of the church would ask you that question: What’s your life verse? This was often a verse from the Bible that had spoken to you at a certain point in your life, or maybe it was just a really popular verse that you liked, or just something inspiring or encouraging that you tried to live out in your daily life.
In my experience, Jeremiah 29:11, in addition to being the verse that was embossed onto every high school graduation gift imaginable, it was also a very popular “life verse.” And why not? It is pretty inspiring and encouraging after all:
“I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”
At times in our lives when we are feeling confused, unsure of the direction our lives are going, or just feeling generally uninspired about our future…this does seem like an uplifting verse from scripture. It is assuring to know that God has a plan for us, and that they are good plans, not bad ones. And who doesn’t want a future filled with hope, anyway?
But as I spent time with this passage this past week, there were a few other things that stood out to me:
First off, many of us have probably heard Jeremiah 29:11 used to reference the plans and future that God has planned out for us, as individuals. Those who might have claimed this as a “life verse” were trusting Jeremiah 29:11 to be true in their own, individual lives. But as we read this passage in the context of the word of the LORD coming to a community, to God’s people in exile, I think we see that this is not just about an individual life. This is about the community, the collective…yes, God works in the lives of individuals, absolutely, but throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and into the New Testament, we see that God is a God who cares for the community.
Second, I think the overwhelming message here is that God wants God’s people to be filled with hope, and that’s a good thing. I know that we could all use more hope in our lives. But as I read Jeremiah 29, I imagine one could read these verses and think that perhaps God means a hope that is only in the future.
The word of the LORD is coming to the people in exile through Jeremiah, and God says “I have plans for you – I have a future for you – and it is a bright one – it is a future filled with hope. Call to me. Pray to me. I will listen to you. I will hear your cries. Search for me…yes search with every fiber of your being…because when you do, you will find me. I will be there for you…I will be there with you…and I will end your captivity. At the right time, I will gather you from all the places that I’ve sent you…I will bring you all together and I will bring you home. It’s been a long time and I will finally bring you home.”
I think we can understand why this would have been comforting to those Israelites in exile. The city of Jerusalem has been sacked, twice now, the city wall has been destroyed, the temple has been destroyed…there have now been two waves of deportation of Israelites into captivity…and yet, they are told that God will make sure that they have a future filled with hope, that God will come and bring them home.
I get that. And I hear that clear message of hope in that passage. I hear the ever-loving and compassionate God speaking out of God’s true character…God is going to do the only thing that God knows how to do…love God’s people, gather them up, and bring them home. But the implication of saying that God will bring them home, and that everything will be better once they are brought home…is that the place where they currently are, is not their home, that it is more of a place that the people simply have to endure until God comes to take them home.
I’m sure we’ve all heard about versions of Christianity today that promote a vision of this world as simply something to endure, and that we don’t really start living until we die and go to be with God. I think that flies in the face of much of what Jesus said about this world and what our role is in it.
And I think that has the possibility of turning us into lazy Christians. Christians who are content with sitting idly by while injustices are rampant in our world, because…well, this isn’t our true home anyway, so why should we worry about it? This life is OUR exile, and…we just have to grin & bear it, and then once we’re able to make it through this life, God will come and whisk us away to heaven, where everything will be as it should be…
But if we heard the full text this morning from Jeremiah – we know that can’t be true. That can’t be the way God wants us to go about living our lives.
For the word of the LORD comes to God’s people and says:
“Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”
To God’s people in exile, to God’s people who were wondering where God was amidst their trials and tribulations, God says: “I’m here. I’m here in this place. So be here. Make this your home. Settle down. Build homes. Build families. Build relationships and communities and connections with others.”
And then a command from God that might seem a little bit shocking:
“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”
This is not a “just try and get by until I come to take you home” kind of commandment. This is saying: “this matters. Now matters. This city, the place in which you find yourself settling down…the place in which I have put you into exile…It. Matters.”
I’m sure this was difficult to hear. All the Israelites probably wanted to do was get back to Jerusalem, and start rebuilding. You see, the presence of God was always seen as being inextricably tied to the temple. That is where God resides, in the temple. And with the temple destroyed…? Well, what did that mean about God? Where was God? Where would God go, after the temple had been destroyed?
The answer? God would go with God’s people.
God always goes with God’s people.
And so while Jeremiah preached a message of a future filled with hope, while Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that God would come and bring them home one day…Jeremiah also preached a message from the LORD that helped the Israelites to know that God was no longer just in the temple…but that God was with them, in their captivity, in their exile, and so because God was with them, they could settle down, they could build houses and cultivate gardens and get married.
For while they are reminded of a future filled with hope – they were also called to a present filled with hope – to a life lived with hope.
And perhaps the most striking part of all – is that this hope is not just for them. They are called to work for the hope of all, including those who besieged Jerusalem, and whose land they are now living in exile in.
The text says: “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”
Really? Promote the welfare of their captors? Pray to the Lord for Babylon? Pray for those whose land they are exiled in? Not only were they called to live filled with hope, but they were called to promote the welfare of this new city…so that others could experience hope as well.
It reminds me of a scene from what I would argue is one of the best, most theologically rich television shows that has been around recently, LOST. For those who aren’t familiar with it, well…I forgive you. But it’s about a group of passengers on Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 whose plane crashes on a mysterious island. We learn very soon into the series that this is not just any ‘ole island, and they are scared and not sure what to do. Eventually, Jack, the doctor, becomes their leader and gives an impassioned speech to everyone which ends with this line:
“If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.”
“If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.”
They’re all in it together – their future depends on each other’s welfare…
I think it’s safe to say that we know this world isn’t how God dreams it could be. We are constantly not living out God’s hopes and dreams for this world, and we hope and trust that one day, this world might be able to be transformed into something that is saturated with the shalom and peace of God…
But until then – this is our home. This is the place in which we have been called to live, to build houses, to cultivate gardens, to get married and to pray and work for the welfare of the city, because our future depends on its welfare. We don’t have a pie-in-the-sky faith – we know that our faith is a living faith, one that matters in THIS world, in this home that we have been entrusted with…in this city that we live so close to.
We are blessed to already be partnering with so many organizations in Chicago to help work for the welfare of the city…but there is surely more that could be done…there are more gifts in this congregation that haven’t found their place to be used yet…there are new partners we can find, new initiatives that we can join, that will provide opportunities for us to share hope with others, those strangers in our city whom we are connected to.
So let us be people who live full and hope-filled lives. It doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of hope…rather, it is a both/and. We can have hope for the future, and the ways in which we will be more fully reconciled to God and to each other … and LIVE with hope for our present moment, working for the welfare of our city, so that we can share that living hope with others.
The call is to live into hope. Hope for the future when God will return us to the places where we most belong, but hope also for the present: for this life, this city, and this world. Amen.