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Sunday, August 31, 2014

God's Field, God's Building (1 Corinthians 3.4-23)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 31, 2014
Text: 1 Corinthians 3:4-23

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music - Tanya Bechtler, cello: "Minuets I-II, Suite 1, G Major" (J.S. Bach)
Gathering Music - Tanya Bechtler, cello: "Prayer" (Camille Saint-Saens)
Song of Praise: "I Will Exalt You" (Brooke Ligertwood; Hillsong)
Hymn of Praise: "The Church's One Foundation" (AURELIA)
Offering of Music - choir, cello: "How Deep the Father's Love for Us" (Townend/Harlan)
Hymn of Sending: "We Are God's People" (SYMPHONY)
Choral Benediction: "Now Unto Him" (Morris/Youngblood)
Postlude - Rick Bean, Cathy Youngblood, piano 4-hands: "Praise Him, Praise Him!" (Allen/Shackley)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
There is no sermon audio this week, but you will find the manuscript below.
     4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? 5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
     10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. 18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:4-23)
Earlier this week, Heather and I made the decision to do something about our front yard. A combination of weeds, an overgrown sycamore tree, and erosion had left much of it ugly dirt with scraggly patches of grass. We arranged to get some good dirt brought in, have aeration done, and plant seed. But we needed to cut the overgrown tree back. My neighbor, Reece, came over with a chain saw and took off a number of the lower limbs, and the neighbor across the street even pitched in a ladder. And Heather and I spent a few hours hauling tree debris to the street and cutting it up into the small pieces the city would haul off. Finally, the dirt came and the seed went in, and now we are watering regularly and praying for the Lord to cause it to grow! Lots of people pitched in to help with different parts of that process. Any one of us probably could have messed it all up. None of us, ultimately, can make the grass grow.

Some Illustrations from Corinth

That’s my version of Paul’s first illustration in our text today. Writing to the early Christian church in the city of Corinth, Paul uses just such an analogy to help them see that the church is like a field, with various leaders helping to get it going. But Paul uses the illustration to draw their attention away from those individuals – himself and Apollos – and toward God, who is at the center of it all. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth,” he writes. (v. 6) And he continues, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (v. 7)  Clearly, planting and watering ARE important; what Paul is saying is that God’s work, especially in His church, is infinitely MORE important. Because the church, he says, is God’s field: “YOU are God’s field.” (v. 9)

Paul goes on to offer a second illustration which is quite fitting for us with all the building renovation going on around here. He not only says that you are God’s field; he also goes on to say that you are “God’s building.” (v. 9) In this illustration, too, human beings play important roles along the way: Paul laid the foundation; others build upon it, wisely or unwisely, with Paul noting, “each man must be careful how he builds upon it.” (v. 10) But, Paul says, no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (v. 11) Like the field analogy, God is at the heart of things.

Finally, and in reference to leaders like Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter), Paul ends up saying that the leadership is there for the purpose of the body, the church. And the church belongs to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. (v. 22) Paul’s two illustrations certainly make clear the order and priority of people and ministries within the church.

Are We God’s Field? God’s Building?

I’d like to share two illustrations of my own, those these are real-life rather than metaphor. Both came shortly after I arrived at Good Shepherd. The first came out of a request to the Session by a neighborhood association asking to use  a room in the church to meet. We were early into conversations about what it means to be a lighthouse church – actually before I ever used that term. With few exceptions, we were not in the habit of letting outside groups use the church facilities. I remember the conversation, with legitimate questions raised about liability, the possibility of groups damaging or at least putting wear and tear on our building. We talked about how much to charge them to offset the utilities and long-term wear and tear. And then something turned. Again not quite using the language I’d use this morning, we realized that this was not really OUR building, but God’s building. And if our mission and purpose was to love our neighbors, then we needed to be willing to extend a hospitality like this, with no charge and with a sense of purpose. We did say yes, to that group and to many others coming out of this nearby community, until we managed to have almost every usable meeting space used morning, afternoon, and evening, most days of the week. We could charge people, of course, but that is a very different thing, like charging your neighbor $5 to bake them a pie as opposed to inviting them into your home to share a piece of pie with you. I think that early shift – and it was just one of many we needed to make and have made – has made all the difference in the world to our work and witness here in this place. And I think it is a living example of what is being taught in this text.

A second example was only a year or so after that. We had an early form of our contemporary worship team going – just Cathy and me – when Jason and Tiffany Hinton came back to town and started singing and playing with us. All of a sudden the worship team grew from two to four, and we had bass guitar and vocal harmonies along with Tiffany’s heartfelt way of leading worship and prayer. I remember mine and Cathy’s excitement over seeing how God was using the worship team. Then about a year after that, Jason and Tiffany told me they were leaving for the mission field. “But we need you here in this mission field!” – I thought and felt it so strongly that they probably could hear it even though I don’t think I said it out loud to them. Cathy and I commiserated, “What a loss to us!” But, God soon got ahold of our feelings. Jason and Tiffany didn’t belong to us; they didn’t belong to Good Shepherd. They were God’s people and were following God’s mission. We were able to turn that emotional corner and celebrate with them what God was calling them to do. And Cathy and I decided to pray for other musicians, especially a bass player. Interestingly enough, Jason was teaching high school at Weddington High School, and had introduced us to this wonderful young couple, Graham and Katie Meeks. And though it took a while to discover it, we realized within weeks of Jason’s leaving that this short, Irish red-head had grown up playing the bass in a family band. And she sang harmony! I think it was at that moment that Cathy and I vowed never to doubt God’s ability to provide musicians (or anything else!) again. A similar thing happened within a week or two of graduation of Cory Klein, our high school drummer a number of years back. This brand new couple visited and in casual conversation the husband, pretty new to the church scene, said he would be interested in playing drums. And Yrjo played until God led him and Melissa to move back to Alaska with ministry on their mind.

Will We Be?

Why do I share these illustrations and these stories? I do because we again face two huge changes in the life of our church family. The congregation has given sacrificially to renovate our worship space and our youth building. When things are new and costly, it is sometimes easy to get guarded and draw inward and think, “These are for us; we paid for this.” Nobody who doesn’t know “the rules” needs to be in either of these spaces with the brand new carpet and the clean new chairs. We need to keep it all pristine and spotless, almost… unused! I know the way I’m saying it makes that seem silly, but I feel that a little inside; it’s only natural.

Anyone a golfer? Ever gotten a brand-new driver? Can you imagine going out golfing with your buddies and coming up to the next tee, a par-5, huge hole. And you pull out the old, worn driver. “Aren’t you going to use your fancy, new driver?” your buddy asks. “No,” you respond, “I don’t want to get it dirty.” NO WAY! If you get that new driver, it’s for driving the heck out of the ball and that’s just what you are going to do! We have repaired and renovated this place because we want to drive the heck out of it in terms of worship, welcome, hospitality, and outreach. I know we will have to get over the fear of getting something dirty. But it’s God’s building, for God’s mission… I CAN’T WAIT to tee off!

This morning is also Cathy Youngblood’s last Sunday here as our director of music ministries. I almost said that we are going to say goodbye to her, but that’s just not it. For one, she’s not dying or leaving town. We’ll still see her and Quay. But more importantly, out of this morning’s text and the illustrations I’ve shared, I want to invite you to consciously choose with me that we are not “losing her” but “sending her.” She is still serving God’s church, and doing so in ways that God has led her and blessed her. She simply does not belong to Good Shepherd, the choir, the worship team, or to anyone of us. Like Apollos and Paul, she has been a vital part of what God is doing at and through Good Shepherd, and God is calling her onward to more vital work in another field that is also is God’s. I also claim the very experience she and I have had many times now, that God will give us who and what we need to carry on faithfully.

I know all this is a lot to ask. But I want to ask even more. Not only do I want to ask you to understand that this building, renovations and all, belong totally to God for His purposes, and not only do I want to ask you to understand that the music ministry at Good Shepherd – choir, worship team, staff, volunteers, past, present, and future – belongs entirely to God and His purposes; I challenge YOU to understand that God makes the same claims on your life. If you trust and follow Jesus, then your life is not your own. Work, wealth, family, free time, health, hope, and everything else and everyone else that makes up LIFE – it belongs to God. That’s why Paul says YOU are God’s field, YOU are God’s building, created for God’s purposes and God’s glory.

That will be the focus of the sermons this Fall, because I believe it lies at the very foundation of what it means to be alive.

May God bless the hearing and living out of His Word this day. Amen!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Obedience in Exile (Daniel 1.1-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 24, 2014
Text: Daniel 1:1-21

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Holy, Holy, Holy" - Susan Slade, flute (arr. Joan Pinkston)
Song of Praise: "Holy Spirit" (Torwalt)
Hymn of Praise: "If You Will Trust in God to Guide You" (NEUMARK)
Offering of Music: "Lighten Our Darkness" - Celtic Band (Keith Duke)
Hymn of Sending: "Be Thou My Vision/Open My Eyes" (SLANE; refrain Youngblood/Austell)
Postlude: "Be Thou My Vision" (arr. Don Wyrtzen)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
There is no sermon audio this week, but you will find the manuscript below.
1 It was the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city. 2 The Master handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the furnishings from the Temple of God. Nebuchadnezzar took king and furnishings to the country of Babylon, the ancient Shinar. He put the furnishings in the sacred treasury. 3 The king told Ashpenaz, head of the palace staff, to get some Israelites from the royal family and nobility4 —young men who were healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated, good prospects for leadership positions in the government, perfect specimens!—and indoctrinate them in the Babylonian language and the lore of magic and fortunetelling. 5 The king then ordered that they be served from the same menu as the royal table—the best food, the finest wine. After three years of training they would be given positions in the king’s court. 6 Four young men from Judah—Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—were among those selected. 7 The head of the palace staff gave them Babylonian names: Daniel was named Belteshazzar, Hananiah was named Shadrach, Mishael was named Meshach, Azariah was named Abednego. 8 But Daniel determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food or drinking his wine, so he asked the head of the palace staff to exempt him from the royal diet. 9 The head of the palace staff, by God’s grace, liked Daniel, 10 but he warned him, “I’m afraid of what my master the king will do. He is the one who assigned this diet and if he sees that you are not as healthy as the rest, he’ll have my head!” 11 But Daniel appealed to a steward who had been assigned by the head of the palace staff to be in charge of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: 12 “Try us out for ten days on a simple diet of vegetables and water. 13 Then compare us with the young men who eat from the royal menu. Make your decision on the basis of what you see.” 14 The steward agreed to do it and fed them vegetables and water for ten days. 15 At the end of the ten days they looked better and more robust than all the others who had been eating from the royal menu. 16 So the steward continued to exempt them from the royal menu of food and drink and served them only vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and skill in both books and life. In addition, Daniel was gifted in understanding all sorts of visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time set by the king for their training, the head of the royal staff brought them in to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 When the king interviewed them, he found them far superior to all the other young men. None were a match for Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 19 And so they took their place in the king’s service. 20 Whenever the king consulted them on anything, on books or on life, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom put together. 21 Daniel continued in the king’s service until the first year in the reign of King Cyrus. (Daniel 1:1-27) [The Message]
Last week we looked again at the Jeremiah 29 text about God challenging his newly exiled people to find God’s blessing through making a literal and spiritual home there in exile. Beyond that, God even challenged them to seek and pray for the blessing (shalom) of their captors, and in that act of obedience to find God’s blessing.

Today we look at another passage about the exile. The reason for doing so is that I believe in many ways we are sharing more and more in common with those exiled people of God. Though Christianity, the church, and Judeo-Christian values were once at the center of American culture, we are more and more finding ourselves living in a secularized culture, sometimes one even hostile to Christianity.

The question I’m after is this one: Is it possible to be faithful to God in exile?  Specifically for our context, is it possible to be faithful to God in the midst of a culture that is increasingly secular, if not openly hostile to our faith?

Captured, Conquered, and Commanded

The story today has some familiar characters. Though this is not the story of the “Fiery Furnace” (Daniel 3), it does introduce Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city (v. 1). He took these young men from the royal family back to Babylon, where they were identified as “healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated , good prospects for leadership positions in the government.” (v. 4)  They were to be indoctrinated in the Babylonian language and the lore of magic and fortunetelling. (v. 4) This would involve complete enculturation – the best food and wine of Babylon – and three years of training in preparation to serve in the king’s court. (v. 5) They were even given Babylonian names – taking away the names that all identified them as belonging to God, and replacing them with pagan Babylonian names.

    Daniel – “God is my judge”        Belteshazzar – “Bel protect his life” (aka Marduk, chief god)
    Hananiah – “Yahweh is gracious”    Shadrach – “the command of Aku” (moon god)
    Mishael – “Who is what God is?”    Meshach – “Who is what Aku is?” (moon god)
    Azariah – “Yahweh has helped”    Abednego – “Servant of Nebo” (another Babylonian god)

Last week we talked about the loss of being taken from home, from Jerusalem and the temple. These young men lost all that and more. Coming from a people who prized ethnic and spiritual identity so highly, they were being pressured to give it all up and, for all practical purposes, become Babylonian. Surely, they were lost, with no way to remain faithful in this hostile and godless setting!

What I am moving toward is a core conviction that I believe scripture and history teaches: it is possible to be faithful – to give glory to God – whatever one’s setting may be.

Let’s look at what Daniel and friends did. Not only did they choose an area where God had instructed them – healthy eating – but they used it as an opportunity to bear witness to their Babylonian captors. Instead of refusing to comply or inviting trouble, they “read the situation” and made a request. The situation was that the King was looking for leadership from some of the young Jewish nobility. This was an opportunity to live out that core covenant with Abraham – to be a blessing to the nations. They looked to what God had already taught them regarding food and asked their captors to let them eat vegetables and water and see if they were not the better for it. And indeed, they were. Not only did God bless their faithfulness, God’s Law itself was blessed, a healthier way of living than what Babylon had to offer.

And when the trial period was over, the young men stood out in the eyes of their captors and were placed in the king’s service. We find God using this whole process – including their bravery and faithfulness – such that “whenever the king consulted them on anything, on books or on life, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (i.e. ‘wise men’) in his kingdom put together.

Like Jesus would later teach, Daniel and his friends became “salt and light” in their world, not retreating from it or giving in to it, but bearing faithful witness to God in the middle of it. Amazing!

Cultural Captivity

Does that story seem relevant for us? I sure think so. There was once a time when being a church-going Christian was not only easy, but advantageous, particularly in the South. If you moved into town, one of the first things you did was find a church. When you met someone for the first time, one of the first things they might ask you is, “Where do you go to church?”

But things are changing. There is so much now competing for time and attention. And going to church isn’t culturally expected any more. In fact, in some places it can be a bit suspect, with some assuming you are either uneducated or bigoted for continuing to be part of this old institution.

For a number of reasons, many churches’ response to a changing culture, particularly one that is more and more secular and hostile, is to retreat or hunker down. So we’ve created an entire Christian sub-culture of music, sports, entertainment, schools, reading lists, clothes, and more, isolating ourselves and defending ourselves from these cultural changes. But there will be less and less space to isolate and hide away. My recent trip to Scotland was a stark look at what is ahead of us in terms of secularization.

But listen; rather than see this as a one-way ticket to obscurity, realize the great opportunity before us to bring witness to God. It’s not so far from what Daniel and his friends faced. We still have God’s Word to cling to. And faithful obedience is possible, even in the world in which we live. Faithful obedience isn’t forming a Christian sub-culture or withdrawing altogether. Those are strategies. Faithful obedience is trusting God’s Word as true and good and blessed. There may even be opportunities to live out faithfulness to that Word in a way that witnesses to God’s goodness in a “salt and light” kind of way.

How do we love our spouses and children? Do we conduct ourselves with integrity and compassion? Do we care for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden? Do we keep gathering to worship and departing to love and serve? Are we willing to try life God’s way and let it speak for itself?

These are the kinds of things Daniel and his friends did, even though their home, titles, names, and families had been taken away. And God used their small act of faithfulness in amazing ways – just read the rest of Daniel’s story!!

Can I be Faithful Now?

Being faithful in a changing culture is not the only pressing question of faith. We face sickness, job loss, unfaithful spouses, disappointing leadership, lying, stealing, depression, racism, violence, and a thousand more challenges. Is it possible for a person of faith to be faithful to God in the face of those things?

I believe it is. I believe that whatever you are facing today, there is a way to be faithful before God. There is a way to honor God and bring God glory. A starting place is trusting God’s words to be true and good and useful. That trust also bears fruit as people see that truth and goodness applied into your life – and sometimes overflowing into theirs.

You’ve heard the call and response before, right?  God is good… all the time; all the time… God is good.  That gets at the heart of today’s text. God is not just good when you are sitting in church or comfortable in life or prayed up or behaving. God is good ALL THE TIME, in every place and every circumstance… even the bad ones; even the hostile ones; even the dark and deserted places. Faithfulness is trusting in God to be good. What good and glorious news that is! Amen.

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.