Sunday, August 17, 2014

God's Blessing (Jeremiah 29.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 17, 2014
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" (Vicki Courtney)
Song of Praise: "Holy Spirit" (Torwalt) (link - live from worship)
Hymn of Praise: "God's Holy Ways are Just and True" (LASST UNS ERFREUEN)
Offering of Music: "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" (Helvering)
Hymn of Sending: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (FAITHFULNESS)
Postlude: "Toccata in G Major" (J.S. Bach)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
This particular "manuscript" is from the last time I preached this sermon (about a year ago). It was the basis for my Aug. 10 sermon in Scotland and the sermon today back at Good Shepherd. What is here below is basically the middle part, with an introduction about why I went to Scotland and a conclusion about two examples of "healthy churches" and a challenge for us to keep on keeping on with being the lighthouse/searchlight church-for-the-world we have been trying to be for a number of years. If you'd like to hear this, I'd recommend the audio version linked above or on iTunes.
1 Now these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. ... 4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ 8 “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. 9 ‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the LORD. 10 “For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29.1-11)

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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