David A. Davis
August 16, 2020
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From the prophet Jeremiah: “For thus says the Lord…. For surely I know the plans I have for you….plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” For surely I know the plans. I know the plans.” And every child of God at some point in life responds “Really?” I know the plans. And every child of God this summer asks, “Would you mind sharing them? That would be really helpful right now!” “I know the plans”. “Well I certainly hope so, because this current plan? It’s not working so well!” “I know the plans.” It was much easier when that verse was a home-made needle point framed and on the wall over your Aunt Stella’s kitchen table. It made more sense when the youth pastor back in the day handed little magnets with the verse printed on it to you and each high school senior that last night of youth group in the spring. It was so much simpler back before a whole lot of real life rose up sometime in your life and sort of smacked you in the face. “I know the plans” “Seriously God? So how about a plan B.”
“For thus says the Lord…. For surely I know the plans I have for you….plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call on me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” Exile. The people of God in exile. That is the context of this promise of God through the prophet Jeremiah. The context, here, is really helpful. Yes, helpful in leading to better understanding of verses usually dropped only as a snippet. But even more, helpful in keeping God’s promise alive in the reality of our lives.
Jeremiah chapter 29 takes the form of a letter, perhaps parts taken by later editors from several letters from Jeremiah. They are from the prophet to the leaders of the people of Judah who are exiled in Babylon. Some of the elders in exile in Babylon were listening to a few who claimed to be prophets. Jeremiah writes to condemn them for following false prophets, to correct the false teaching, to give instruction regarding how to live and be faithful in exile, and to provide a vision of the future of the land of Judah. The prior chapter in the book of Jeremiah tells of Hananiah. Hananiah boldly and optimistically predicted that the whole exile thing would be over in two years. That within two years, Hananiah would triumphantly return all the sacred vessels that King Nebuchadnezzar stole and carried to Babylon when Jerusalem was plundered. Jeremiah then stood before the priests and all the people of Judah to take issue with that prediction. The return to Jerusalem and the restoration of peace would happen when a true prophet announced it, Jeremiah proclaimed. When that word came true, then everyone would know that the true prophet was sent from the Lord. It would seem there were those in exile in Babylon claiming to be prophets who chose to go with Hananiah’s word rather than Jeremiah’s. The self-anointed prophets went around spouting the Hananaih’s rosy prediction that everything would be better soon, that better days were soon to come, that the whole exile thing wouldn’t last as long as those back in Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s concern was that the people in exile were opting for the misleading, overly optimistic, much sooner time frame for a return from exile. The false prophets were gaining quite a following.
Jeremiah’s letter makes it clear that the people in exile should settle in for the long haul, In the verses from the 29th chapter that I read for your hearing: “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Not two years. Seventy. Earlier in the letter with a word from the Lord, Jeremiah tells them to build houses and inhabit them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Have families. Bear children. And seek the welfare, the shalom of the city, where God has sent them into exile. And, as it says there in Jeremiah, “do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name.; I did not send them, says the Lord.”
The people of Judah held captive in exile. A life so distant in so many ways from what they knew and experience and yearned for again. Some in leadership making the empty promise of an easier path forward, a swifter return to the way things used to be. Leaders building a following which Jeremiah labeled as not true, not honest, not the way it was going be. And the prophet Jeremiah, never one to hold back when it comes either to his criticism of the people of Judah nor his passion for the Lord’s promise, the Lord’s way pleads with the people to plant, to build, to settle in exile and to seek the welfare of the city. He tells them to seek after and work for the peace the shalom, the wholeness of the city. He tells them to settle into exile and work for the common good. People yearning for a return to a more familiar life. Differing timelines set before them. And a call for a commitment to the greater good of wholeness of all.
Sound familiar? Scripture and the living word? Which brings back to Jeremiah and the promise of God.
“For thus says the Lord…. For surely I know the plans I have for you….plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…I will hear you….I will let you find me…I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all nations and all the places where I have driven you….I will bring you back.” In the context of Jeremiah’s letter, the Lord’s promise is to the people of Judah. It is a promise to the whole of the people of God. “I know the plans I have for you.” Yes, one could hear that word of the Lord on a personal level of my future, what’s next for me. The affirmation that while I may have doubts about my career path or life path or even about tomorrow, God knows. Jeremiah and the promise of God can be likened to a Psalm 139 kind of assurance. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You search out my path…your hand shall lead me.” Amen and Amen.
“I know the plans I have for you.” It is also, maybe more so, a macro promise from God. An affirmation of God’s sovereignty. A proclamation that even in exile, the Lord is still the Lord of all. Not just I know the plans, but I know thee plan. The plan of salvation for my people, for the world, and for all of creation. A healing of the brokenness that shall break the yokes of oppression and burst the bonds of captivity, serve the welfare of the city, bring a light to all nations, and establish a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Not just a macro promise. A greater promise. No greater promise than “I know the plans I have for you.”
Last week in our shared preaching life, I offered a sermon on the generosity of God. A Christ-like God. Last weekend an article also came out in the New York Times by Elizabeth Dias entitled “Christianity Will Have Power.” I was struck by the overwhelming theological contrast between my sermon and the content of the article. Elizabeth Dias is the main religion writer for the paper and also a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. The title of the article is actually a quote from a speech given by then candidate Donald Trump at a campaign stop in Iowa. “Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else.” The bulk of the article quoted interviews with evangelical Christians about their support for the President.
While a bit unsettling, I found the quotes quite helpful in trying to understand a perspective on the gospel so different from my own. They were honest, sincere, absent of hate, and rather unadorned of editorial commentary. What came through loud and clear was fear. With America’s changing complexion, they fear the loss of freedoms and the loss of a way of life. If the President wins the election, one man said “At least we will be safe for four more years.” Many of the quotes taken collectively in the piece come down to not only a fear of freedoms being lost and guns being taken but Christianity itself being taken away. The God described in one quote from one congregation’s prayer was a God who will vanquish our foes rather than a Lord who is generous to all who call upon the Lord. Of course, you could find biblical support for each of the respective understandings of God. Not so much with the image of a Christ-like God.
The newspaper article has been on my mind this week like a song in your head that won’t go away. If we are honest, who among us has not been wrestling with fear the last six months. A fear that may take many forms. Maybe a fear of different things. A fear for many different reasons. Plenty of things, plenty of reasons for fear. Fear expressed in very different ways. Perhaps the people of God from all perspectives and positions can find strength and peace by leaning into the God’s greater promise. The prophet Jeremiah and the greater promise of God.
“I know the plans I have for you.” God is still the Lord of all. Christ is still head of the church. The church and Christianity, are still in Christ’s hands. Just like you and me, brother, sister, sibling. Just like the whole world. In God’s hands. An affirmation of the Sovereignty of God. A proclamation that even in exile, the Lord is still the Lord of all. An assurance that when you are in it for the long haul, God’s grace is still sufficient. “I know the plans.” God’s greater promise. A promise as real as that of the psalmist: “Your right hand shall hold me fast.” A promise as true as the words of the preacher in the Book of Hebrews: “I will never leave you or forsake you”. A promise as great as that of Jesus: “I am with you…always”.
Comfort, peace, and assurance can sometimes come in just a few words. A few simple words. Often that kind of comfort, peace, and assurance offered with few words to another is even better. A parent to a hurting child. A doctor to a worried patient. A teacher to a frustrated student. A grandparent to a disappointed grandchild. A best friend to one with a broken heart. A wise retired minister to an overwhelmed new pastor. A saint of the church with way too much experience in the journey for justice to a college student with fresh and righteous indignation. A care giver to a life long love whose body aches all the time. Just a few words.
The Word of the Lord to you and to me when the days are long and nights are fretful. The voice of Jesus to you and to me when fear is on the rise and longing for the way things used to be couldn’t be stronger. The breath of the Holy Spirit to you and to me today, this morning, right now.
“I know….I know……I know”