HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
November 19, 2017
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-14 (CEB)
The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.
4The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6Get 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. 7Promote 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.
8The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. 9They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.
10The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.11I 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.12When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.13When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. 14I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord.
Thanksgiving means in-laws. Am I right? Or maybe if it’s not Thanksgiving specifically, it’s the holidays in general. Inevitably, this time of year especially, we are destined to spend some time with our in-laws. Now, most of the time, that’s a really great thing. The kids are happy because they get to spend time with their grandparents and aunts and uncles (and especially cousins). And just getting the family together is a happy occasion. But the flip side of that is that when you’re with your in-laws, it’s not exactly the same as being with your own family. Their traditions are not your traditions, their ways are not your ways. The homemade cranberry sauce just isn’t quite the same, and you miss your grandmother’s sweet potato casserole. Or the in-laws get to talking about their in-laws or distant relatives, conjuring up memories past and laughing for hours on end—all the while you have no idea who they are talking about, and absolutely no way of participating in the conversation. (Just for the record, that’s usually when I go find the kids and start playing with them.)
Now, I’m not saying these things to imply that we have bad relationships with our in-laws that make the holidays a miserable time. Rather, I’m naming the reality that there can be times when we are with the in-laws that it’s difficult to feel like we fit in, to feel comfortable, and settled. Nevertheless, when we are missing our own families and our own traditions, the best thing we can do is enjoy the present, become a part of new traditions, or even making new traditions. And even still, the worst case scenario is you spend time playing with the kids, your nieces and nephews and cousins. I could think of a lot worse than that! So what I’m getting at here is that from time to time, we find ourselves in these situations where things are a little unfamiliar, and it may leave us feeling a little unsettled, but the best we can do is to try and make the best of the circumstances; whether that’s being with in-laws or whatever situation.
This morning, we come to the prophet Jeremiah, who was an important prophet during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon. We read this morning a letter that Jeremiah wrote to some of the first exiles. These people have recently been uprooted from their homes and sent off to foreign cities under foreign rule. They’re in an uncomfortable situation, and what they want more than anything is just to get back home. The reason Jeremiah writes this letter is because there are a lot of false prophets out there who are telling the Israelites that this exile is short-lived, two years-MAX, then God will sort everything out and they will be able to go home. But that is not the case and Jeremiah knows this. This exile is going to last a while and Jeremiah needs to get that message across while at the same time offering a word of encouragement for a people who, at the moment, are quite discouraged.
So Jeremiah has this message for the people. The message we heard read a few moments ago. The Israelites are to settle down. They are to build houses and have children, then encourage their children to get married so they can have grandchildren. In other words, Jeremiah is telling them, you’re going to be here for a while; at least a generation or more (seventy years we are told later), so make the best of it. There is this message to settle down, to enjoy life; and aren’t children and grandchildren fun! But even more, Jeremiah wants the people to experience the abundant life that is promised by God, and he knows that requires more than just getting settled in with family.
Jeremiah goes on to say, “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.” Just think about this for a minute. I don’t think there’s anything that drains life more than holding a grudge, or harboring angst or hatred against another person. I mean, when I think of those times in my life when I was really angry at some one, I was a pretty terrible person. I kept a scowl on my face, I was miserable to be around, I operated on an extremely short fuse, I lashed out at others for no good reason. On top of that, I didn’t sleep well, and my blood pressure was probably up. There’s nothing pleasant about living life that way. Not only that, this is life-draining, not life-giving. So Jeremiah looks at these Israelites forcibly removed from their homeland and he realizes the potential for them to really be in a bad state because of their disillusion at and hatred for the Babylonians, the people who have exiled them. And it’s obvious that this is no way to live. So Jeremiah offers this instruction from God that the people are to promote the welfare of the city where they are in exile (just a reminder, that’s Babylon), and they are even to pray for it! In other words, they are to make the very best of this rather uncomfortable situation. In fact, Jeremiah says, “…your future depends on it.” He might’ve also said, “Your life depends on it!” We simply cannot live our entire lives in a state of perpetual dis-ease, disillusion, and despair. We have to seek happiness, and sometimes that means seeking happiness in unexpected places.
The good news is that even as we will sometimes find ourselves in unexpected and rather unwelcome places, so does God’s grace and blessing also extend to difficult and unexpected places. But what we have to hear Jeremiah saying to us this morning is that there are times when experiencing God’s grace and blessings will require some work on our part, and that may especially be the case when life is difficult. When we are feeling displaced or unsettled, Jeremiah says we should pray, and in particular, we should pray for those around us, even when those around us are the enemy. During this Thanksgiving week, it’s good to remember that when we feel like nothing is going our way, we should still be grateful and practice gratitude toward the God who loves us and cares for us. When we are feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, Jeremiah suggests we should work for good, for the well-being of the community we are in and those who are a part of it. How many times do we recite the mantra that it is, indeed, “more blessed to give than to receive?” We are happier when we are working to make this world a better place, doing good things, and serving others. And as we look at the situation of the Israelites in exile and hear these words of Jeremiah, we can understand why. When we are down on our luck, when things are not going our way, when we are feeling uncomfortable and unsettled, we can either wallow in our misery or we can do something to make our situation better. That’s the message that Jeremiah delivers to the people in exile.
You know, I look around the world today, and I see a whole lot of grumbling and complaining; a lot of unhappy people living unhappy lives. And even those of us who live relatively comfortable lives still tend to do a lot of complaining. We are just never satisfied with the way things are going, and it seems like someone is always out to get us. But what if we started be more intentional about being grateful for everything in our lives that is right? What if we started praying for all the people and the situations that are always bugging us? What if we went to all those places that are causing us so much trouble and started working there to make things better? I think pretty amazing things would happen, don’t you? Of course, of course, the easy thing to do, always, is to sit around and complain about how terrible the world is. But, unquestionably, the better thing to do is to go to work making the world a better place. And I think we need to understand that this was always God’s intention, God’s plan for us, that we would go to work making the world a better place—whether that is by praying for our enemies when we are exiles in a “foreign land,” or working for the welfare of a city or a community that may not even be our “own.” Christ tell us we are to “go into all the world.” This has been God’s plan for us all along, and it is an amazing plan of love, and grace, and justice, and happiness, and most especially—life!
My brothers and sisters—whatever your lot in life these days; whatever may be keeping you unsettled, whatever may be making your feel uncertain, whatever may be frustrating and aggravating you, you can still be eternally grateful today, this Thanksgiving day, and everyday. “For I know the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, hey are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile.”
God will bring us home. God will bring the world home.
Thanks be to God.