Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Today we make a jump forward many years in our look at the prophets as we go from Isaiah to Jeremiah. Last week we heard Isaiah speaking a word of hope into the kingdom of Judah, which was surrounded by enemies on all sides, and we heard Isaiah telling us that our hope is not in earthly kings and alliances, but rather it is in God alone. This week we’re going to a much different historical situation as we hear Jeremiah’s words to us, so I hope you’ll bear with me for a short history lesson. After Isaiah’s career in Jerusalem, things started to go badly for the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In the year 722 BC, the empire of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and displaced many of the people who were living there. However, in the years following, Assyria’s power waned, and the empire of Babylon took over in the east. In the west, however, was the mighty empire of Egypt. And stuck in the middle of these two empires fighting for ultimate domination over the Middle East was the tiny kingdom of Judah, with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.
Into this messy political situation steps the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, who was the last truly good king that Judah had, and King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah, the last kings that Judah would have. The Lord called Jeremiah to prophesy when he was a boy, so we can assume that he had a long career of being the Lord’s prophet. We can tell from the book that Jeremiah also had access to the kings to speak his prophecies, so he had some kind of connections in society. But the message that Jeremiah was called to bring to the people of Jerusalem was a hard one. God was not pleased with the people of Judah because they had disobeyed the Law and had worshiped other gods. Through Jeremiah, God pleads with God’s people to repent of their sins and to return to worship of the Lord. If they did not, Babylon was going to come and take over their kingdom and take the people away into exile. Because of this message, and because tradition says that Jeremiah also wrote the little book of Lamentations, Jeremiah is often nicknamed the “weeping prophet.”
And that’s the thing about prophets: they often say things that the people don’t want to hear. Throughout most of his book, we see Jeremiah telling the people that they need to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. We see him telling the people that God has told him that Babylon is going to come in and destroy them. We see him telling the king and the other politicians that an alliance with Egypt is not going to work. And the people don’t listen to a word that Jeremiah is telling them. The king listens to the false prophets who are telling him that everything is going to be okay and that there will be peace, and that Babylon is not going to bother them. And the king and his court get so annoyed with Jeremiah’s message of doom and gloom that they put Jeremiah in the stocks and then, later, dump him in a muddy well that had no water in it. It’s really no fun being a prophet with a message that the people do not want to hear.
But in the midst of all of this doom and gloom, Jeremiah also brings words of hope. The passage that we have today skips a few verses, because those verses have a lot of names in them that we have difficulty pronouncing. But they are important ones because they give us a date and a context for the letter. In the year 597 BC, Babylon came in to Jerusalem and captured the king, the royal family, and all of the important nobles and hauled them off into exile in Babylon. In King Jehoiachin’s place, Babylon installed his brother Zedekiah as a kind of puppet king—one who would keep the people in line and pay the appropriate tribute to Babylon. In today’s section of Jeremiah, we see Jeremiah writing to these first exiles in Babylon and giving them instructions from the Lord as to how they are to live. They are not to attempt to come back to the land of Judah, but instead they are to settle in Babylon, to live there, and to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been forcibly resettled.
So, let’s imagine the situation for a moment. We are the royalty and the nobles of the kingdom of Judah. Our king has surrendered to the Babylonian king, and we are forcibly taken to live in a country we have never been in before. We are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, an unfamiliar language, and unfamiliar gods. We are terribly homesick. We are wondering where God is—after all, aren’t we God’s chosen people? Sure, we messed up, but is God really so angry with us that the Lord would send us away from the land that God promised us? And what about the people who are left behind in Judah? Are they going to take care of our home the way we would want them to? And is the king of Babylon going to leave them alone now, or will he come in again and do more damage?
And into this situation of questioning, homesickness, and confusion, comes a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. You know, that guy who was forever prophesying that Babylon was going to come in and conquer us, the guy who the king ignored and punished—and now his words are coming true. Maybe we should listen to him. And Jeremiah is telling us that we’re going to be in Babylon for a while, so we should stay put and live out our lives here, with no expectation of returning home. But, God has not forgotten us: the Lord is telling us that we are still God’s children, and that God has plans for our future. And that future will be a future with hope—no more doom, gloom, and punishment. Hope. And a plan for future restoration.
That hope extends to us today in the 21st century. We are a people of hope, and our business is spreading that hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. So how does this letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon still bring hope to us and to everyone we meet today? Well, first, I want to take a look at what might seem like a minor grammar point, but is actually very important to what we’re thinking about today. Many of us have heard the verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many of us have taken the “you” in this verse as a singular “you”. Actually, it’s not singular—it’s plural. God is speaking to the community of exiles, so what God is actually saying is, “For surely I know the plans I have for y’all.” God is not talking to you or to me, personally; God is talking to the community. The Lord knows the plans that God has for us, the congregations of Salem and St. John’s, plans for our welfare and not for our harm, to give us a future with hope. That is good news indeed.
Now, something important needs to be said at this point. There is a lot that God does not spell out for us here. God has plans for our welfare and for a future with hope. But this does not mean that God is going to bring us back to the days of the 1950s and the 1960s with children overflowing our Sunday school rooms and everyone coming to church every week. Those days are gone, and you know what? I think God is a lot more creative than that. As God’s people, we need to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit can take us in some interesting directions. Like the Jewish exiles in the country of Babylon adjusting to a new language and culture, we Christians need to adjust to a culture that does not always regard the church favorably or that simply thinks the church is irrelevant. We need to find new ways of bringing the hope we have in Jesus Christ to everyone we meet, and sometimes that means speaking about that hope in the new language of the culture that now surrounds us.
So, how do we learn the new language of the culture that surrounds us? I have studied several different foreign languages now, and what I can tell you is this: book learning is great to give you a foundation for how a different language works. But the language doesn’t really start to gel in your own mind until you go out, get over your fears, and start to practice it. So, here is your assignment: start talking to people. You can start with people you know who do not regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. If you have adult children or grandchildren who do not come, ask them why. And don’t do it in a judgmental tone, and when they speak, don’t immediately reply or get defensive. Listen to them. Truly listen to them, and try to understand what they’re saying. Then, start talking to people you don’t know as well. Invite them to come to worship with you on Sunday—make the invitation for a specific date, and make sure you are there in church that Sunday to sit beside them. If they say no, start listening to their reasons. Sometimes the reason is simple. One of my colleagues said that they encountered someone who thought she couldn’t come to worship on Sunday if she wasn’t a member of the church. Other times the reason is more complicated, as in the person got hurt by the church in some way. But whatever the reason is, listen to the person, don’t be judgmental, and when it is appropriate, invite them to come to worship with you. I will periodically be asking you in meetings how this assignment is going, and if we are getting a better feel for the needs of the people in our communities. And as we practice the new language of this new culture around us, with God’s help, we will eventually be able to bring hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in a language that they can understand.
Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, God has told us Christians today to settle in to this new, strange culture and to stay where we are. There is no going back to the way that the church used to be. But here is the good news: God has not abandoned us. God has said that God has plans for our communities of Christians, plans for our welfare and not harm, to give us a future with hope. We don’t know exactly what that future looks like yet. But we can trust that God will be with us, no matter what. Amen.