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Sunday, August 25, 2013

God's Blessing (Jeremiah 29.1-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 25, 2013
Text:Jeremiah 29:1-13

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Andante" (JS Bach)

Hymn of Praise: "This is My Father's World" (TERRA BEATA)
Song of Praise: "God of this City" (Boyd, et al.)

The Word through Music (men's choir): "If You Search with All Your Heart" (Craig Courtney)
Offering of Music (men's choir): "How Great Thou Art" (arr. Fred Bock)
Song of Sending: "O For a Thousand Tongues/One Great Love" (David Crowder)

Postlude: "Let Us with a Gladsome Mind" (Albert Travis)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Jeremiah 29:11

Artwork by Emily Pearce

:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
“'I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope.'
~Jeremiah 29:11
This is one of those very encouraging-sounding “promise verses” of scripture that I hear quoted a lot. I’ve seen it on coffee mugs and dorm rooms and dressed up on Facebook posts and more. And I agree that it is a hope-filled, encouraging, promise verse, but to paraphrase a beloved movie character, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using [those words]; I do not think [those words] mean what you think they mean!” So, it is a prime candidate for our summer series of important-to-know, oft-quoted, and often misunderstood verses.

We have spent some time in Jeremiah 29 before, more than once. It has become one of the passages I find most applicable to being the church in the 21st century. In it, the people of God have been displaced from Jerusalem and the Temple, from God being at the center of society. Those tangible and visible reminders of God’s presence and blessing have been lost and they are literally and spiritually far from home, with no sign of return soon. They are a people who long, who LONG, to get back to where they were before, and they have more reason than most to hope and pray for God’s blessing for the future.

And that’s just what God gives them in this verse: God has plans and a future and a hope for them; their future is not calamity, but welfare, a word which is a translation of shalom – God’s peace, well-being, blessing, or wholeness. It is certainly the thing they need, as torn apart, displaced, unsettled, and disrupted as they are. But you can’t understand verse 11 without understanding verses 1-10, which explain how God’s people will come to know this shalom, this welfare and blessing. That’s the part we often skip over to get to the goodies at the end. But it’s a very unexpected and unusual context that sets up this shalom. In a word, it’s the PLANS of verse 11 that need to be unpacked in order to understand it. It’s the PLANS of God that are explained in the preceding verses, and what we need to understand if we are to know and experience God’s blessing and peace.

What Plans… Whose Plans?

Before we get to “what plans?” maybe the more immediate question is “whose plans?” That’s part of where we get off-track right off the bat. We hear verse 11, plug in “OUR PLANS” and latch on to a promise God didn’t make. God didn’t say, “I know your plans and I will give you blessing, future, and hope.” God said, “I know the plans that I have for you…”  That’s a big difference!

So, what are those plans? For the Israelites in 597 B.C., defeated and torn from Jerusalem, the Temple, and their homes, and taken into exile and captivity in Babylon, it was probably hard not to substitute MY PLANS. My plan would have been to get home, to rebuild my house and re-plant my crops, to find my family members and restore what had been lost. Surely God’s plans looked something like that? How often do we assume that the thing we want so badly must be God’s plan? (all the time, right?!)

But God spoke through Jeremiah and described a very different plan.

A Very Different Plan (vv. 5-7)

God’s message comes in two main parts. The first part is in verses 5-6 and is a whole series of verbs set in pairs:
BUILD houses and LIVE in them
PLANT gardens and EAT their produce
TAKE wives and BECOME fathers…
All of those pairs have a common theme.  Yes, you are far from home, cut off, and exiled.  But don’t give up on life; make a home for yourselves.  Build and live, plant and eat, marry and have families.  In other words, keep living life!  For the Jewish people, these particular challenges tied rather directly to the covenant challenges to grow families and teach them about the Lord.  While the Holy Land was part of God’s gracious provision, it was not the only place where His people could be faithful.  Indeed, both in the generations before coming to that land and in many generations after being displaced, His people had to learn and re-learn what it meant to be faithful in every setting.  God’s challenge to the Exiles was no less than His challenge to His people wandering through the wilderness between captivity in Egypt and arrival in the Promised Land: “listen to me; trust in me; make a home and teach them about me.” 

The second part is in verse 7, with the challenge to “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”  This challenge also connects to the covenant of old, in which God told Abraham He would bless him and his children so that they might be a blessing to the whole world.  It does not matter that God’s people have been taken from Jerusalem; they are still able to fulfill their covenant purpose of being a covenant community of faith and blessing those among whom they lived. God is charging them with praying for their captors for the very thing they so want for themselves – shalom. Can you imagine? “But what about me, Lord?! What about MY welfare?” Listen to what God says: “In the city’s welfare you will have welfare.” In other words, as you pray for your captors, your enemies, and their shalom – as they experience my peace, healing, and wholeness – then YOU will experience my peace, healing, and wholeness.

Let me say this one more way, which I have said before in studying this passage: the shalom I long for – that I NEED, Lord – is not found in the place I came from, nor where I think I might want to go, but in obediently following the Lord to the place He leads.

Some Warnings (vv. 8-9)

I would be remiss in not also noting the warnings Jeremiah gives in vv. 8-9. Not only might God’s people substitute their own plans for God’s plans, but there are always multiple voices pulling in every direction. On first pass, one might think the false prophets mentioned in v. 8 are Babylonian, and there would have been plenty in the Babylonian culture to tempt God’s people. But these are false teachers among the Israelites, for God makes it clear that He did not send them. What might they have been saying? And how would one know whether to trust them or Jeremiah? We aren’t told in the text, but we can be pretty sure they were not speaking the same message. Perhaps some of their “dreams” were just what the people longed to hear – that they would soon return home. Or maybe some of their messages were to continue to view the Babylonians as enemies and have as little to do with them as possible. That certainly would be easy to do when they took so much away. How would God’s people know they could trust Jeremiah’s challenging words to make a home and live among the Babylonians? One good clue is that his message was so rooted in and resonant with the covenant, with God’s Word. They had always been a people meant to pass faith on through the witness of the family. They had always been a people blessed to be a blessing. There was nothing novel or new here; it was just a new, unfamiliar, and difficult setting. But there was a path of faithfulness and a message of faithfulness, and Jeremiah was delivering it.

I think about our own calling as God’s people: to BE the church IN the world. It would be so easy to listen to the preachers who tell us just what we want to hear, that God majors in wish-fulfillment and will give us everything we ask for. It would be so easy to withdraw from the world and huddle in our Christian enclaves and leave the rest of the world to themselves. But this is not God’s way; it has never been God’s way. If it were, we’d not know Him ourselves! Being the Church IN the world is very challenging, but it is the very thing Jesus prayed for in John 17 and something we can obey with confidence.

Jeremiah’s Challenge and Us

So, how exactly might we apply Jeremiah 29, realizing that there are significant differences between then and now? In Jeremiah’s challenging words I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) If you and I were to take Jeremiah and Jesus seriously, what would that look like?  For whose welfare would we pray?

Perhaps the most literal application would be to seek and pray for the welfare of our city.  God challenged the Exiles to pray for Babylon – their captors!  Surely we should pray for our city and our neighborhoods.  Let that be the first and broadest challenge today: and not JUST prayer but “seek and pray” – get up, move, do, listen, pray, follow, obey, connect with Charlotte, with the Old Providence neighborhoods, with our neighbors around the church and around where you live.  Where in our neighborhoods and city do people most long for or need God’s shalom – His peace, wholeness, help, completeness, and healing?  If we are to be God’s covenant community in this place – this Church – than that is our mission.  If we want to know God’s complete plan for us, then we need to seek and pray for the welfare of THIS city.  After the pattern of God’s people of old, we are to live full and godly lives where we are, and diligently pray for and seek out those all around us, that they might know the fullness of knowing God.

More specifically, I want to challenge you on a personal level.  It may be for different reasons than the Exiles, but you may recognize a need for God’s healing, help, and wholeness in your life.  It may be work-related; it may be a hole in a relationship; it may be physical disability, sickness, or limitations; it may be spiritual dryness or feeling completely disconnected from God – in whatever form you need God’s shalom, consider this prescription for finding it: Seek and pray for those who need what you need, and in connecting with them and laying those other similar needs before the Lord, you may find the peace and wholeness you need as well.  Amen.

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