November 24, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017. The final sermon of the series, “Word and presence: God among us in the Old Testament.”
Text is Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen:
Jeremiah 29.11: the most popular verse in the Old Testament?
Well church, today we’re coming to the end of our journey through the Old Testament for this year.
Advent starts next week. The season where we wait for the birth of the Christ. The Child who was born for us and the Son who was given to us. Jesus, who became our Immanuel—God with us.
But today … today we’re going to spend some time with what may be one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament. Jer. 29.11:
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
This verse is a very popular passage for inspirational posters and social media hashtags and greeting cards. Especially cards for young people who are just graduating high school or college.
And it’s easy to understand why.
Because it sure seems like this verse is saying:
God has big dreams in store for you;
to ensure safety, prosperity,
and success in all your future endeavors.
God already has your personal happily ever-after ready for you—
and a detailed, step-by-step plan that only God knows
to make sure you reach that happy place.
Well, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but that’s not what Jeremiah 29.11 actually means. Unfortunately, I can’t find any passage in the Bible that promises you or me or anybody that God has a customized personal plan make you successful or to keep you safe or slide you into a happy future where all your wishes come true.
Sorry if I just ruined your favorite motivational poster.
Jeremiah 29. 11 is good news. But for us to really understand why it’s good news, and what this good news means for us, we’ll need answer some basic questions about context. Like:
Who was God speaking to?
What was going on in their world?
God talked about a plan for their future. Was this a future God was just going to give them? Or did this future God offered them come with conditions? Were there things they needed to learn or do or become to live into this future God had planned for them?
Scripture is for us, but it wasn’t written to us. So if we’re going to be responsible Bible readers, we need to raise these kinds of questions about any passage we’re reading. And only after we’ve answered those questions can we be safe in trying to apply the Bible to our own lives. And we certainly shouldn’t try to apply anything in the Bible to someone else’s life without first being sure it actually means what we think it means!
Jeremiah 29.11 in context
So, if Jeremiah 29.11 wasn’t written to us, who was it written to? Well, the first verse of our reading today answers that question. Jeremiah wrote these words to the exiles who’d been deported from Jerusalem to Babylon. Especially to their leaders: the elders, the priests, and the prophets.
So the very first thing we need to understand about Jer. 29.11 is that it wasn’t meant for any one individual. When God said, I know the plans I have for you, he wasn’t speaking to you or me or anybody we know personally. God didn’t make this promise to any one person. God’s plans involve God’s people as a group.
God spoke those words to a nation that had been around for hundreds of years. And had made every mistake you can make, and some nobody had ever thought of yet. In spite of all the love and grace and mercy and blessings God had nurtured them with. Until finally, God did what he’d repeatedly warned he would do, and let the Babylonians invade their nation and take a chunk of them as prisoners of war.
God didn’t say these words to people standing on the brink of happily-ever-after. He spoke these words to people whose world had just been shattered. To people who had lost nearly everything, and were about to lose even more. Their nation. Their homes. Their livelihoods. Their freedoms. Even the temple where God had dwelled among them for centuries. All of those had been left in ruins, covered in the dust and ashes of conquest.
So there they were. Strangers in a strange land. No way to get back home, and no homes to return to even if they could get back.
When God spoke through Jeremiah his plans to give these people hope and a future, he was talking to people who had already squandered their future. The only hope they had was that God wasn’t through with them, and would do something to rescue them from this homemade hell they were living in.
#FakeNews in the days of Jeremiah
But Jeremiah wasn’t the only voice the people were hearing. There were other prophets, who had decided they were not only experts on God, but also on foreign policy. They were filling the people’s heads with false hope and alternative facts. They were saying, I know this looks bad, but it’s just a hiccup. God’s on our side. This will all blow over by Christmas, and we can go home and rebuild. I think these false prophets were a big reason Jeremiah made sure to address the letter to the leaders of the people, and courtesy copy the rest of the exiles. Jeremiah was warning them that the false prophets were spreading #fakenews.
The leaders of the people—their elders and priests and kings—had been listening to the false prophets for far too long. And that’s a big part of what had landed them here in exile. The false prophets were nothing but Yes Men for the agenda of Israel’s leaders. Worship other gods? Sure, as long as you make sure to leave room for Yahweh, too. He’s not a jealous God or anything. Make ourselves rich at the expense of others? Of course. God knows there’s winners and losers in the world. And he made you winners. Kick the widows and the orphans and the immigrants out of their homes to build our luxury estates on their land? That’s brilliant! Those people weren’t doing anything to generate any prophet, anyway. Those false prophets only affirmed the wishful thinking and ambitions of the leaders of God’s people. Not the plans and purposes of God.
That’s how they’d ended up in exile. Step by step. Inch by inch. One rationalization after another. Along the way, they became indifferent to God; indifferent to the needs of their neighbors; indifferent to the cries of the poor. Until they became irrelevant to all of God’s plans and purposes for healing the world.
So God had to put them in time out. A long time out. A 70-year time out.
And it’s to those people, sitting in a time-out that will last the rest of their lives, God said:
“I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
God’s plans for the exiles
God wanted his people to know; and Jeremiah wanted them to know; that even though they were under God’s judgment, God’s judgment is also full of mercy. God’s judgment also contains the seeds of hope for a future, because God only tears one thing down to build up something new. And better.
God put his people into exile to remake them from the bottom up. And Jeremiah wanted them to embrace what God was doing. Not to fight it. But also not to despair forever over what they lost. Not to let their past failures defeat them and paralyze them so they couldn’t move forward. So Jeremiah told them to put down roots in Babylon. To start rebuilding, preparing themselves for God’s future plans for them, right where they were. This is what God told the exiles through Jeremiah:
Build houses and settle down … Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29.5-7)
God called for the people to be fruitful and multiply. And to make whatever city they landed in a better, richer, fuller, more lively, more just, more beautiful place than they’d found it. Which is what God has wanted from his people all along.
God’s plan when he sent his people into exile in Babylon—to give them hope and a future—was that they’d get back to basics. They wouldn’t be indifferent to God, to their neighbors, to the poor, and to the work God wanted to do through them in the world. The exile was the place where God sent them to rebuild their faith; renew their vision; and restore their love for God.
And so God promised them: You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29.13)
When they sought God in prayer and obedient faith;
when they learned again to love God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind;
when they learned to love their neighbor as themselves;
they would find God.
And God would bring them home.
I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Those words were written to people who’d sinned; who’d made poor choices for generations; who’d listened to all the wrong voices. And now they were losing everything. But God spoke those words to reassure these people that he wasn’t finished with them. If they’d seek God with all their hearts—in prayer, and in service to their neighbors, being the light to the world God had always meant for them to be—they’d learn that God was still with them. Even through the dark days of exile. Through Jeremiah’s words, God told them the way to a future filled with hope was through this time of God’s judgment. Not instead of it, or in spite of it.
God’s plans for the church
Okay, so we found out what this passage meant for the people it was first written to. Well, what does it mean for us? It may not have been written to us, but God’s Word is always for us.
I think something Christians need to keep in mind is that the church always lives as exiles in the world. 1 Pet. 2.11 specifically calls us foreigners and exiles. That’s what we mean when we say things like, We’re in the world, but not of the world. It means we’re strangers in a strange land. We don’t live according to the values of the culture we’re living in. We live by the values of our heavenly homeland. Being strangers and exiles here also means that God doesn’t call us to work in the world from a place of power. God calls you and me and all of us together to work from underneath—from the bottom up.
It’s only when you and I and us together as a church embrace our outsider status as exiles that we can hear Jeremiah 29.11 the way God meant it to be heard: I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. That word from God comes with a responsibility. And that responsibility was also spelled out in our reading today. It’s seeking the peace and prosperity of the city where God has put us. [Slide 13] God tells us to prayerfully work for the wholeness and wellbeing of the place where we live and work, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
God ties the peace and prosperity of his people—our wellbeing, our wholeness, our hope and our future—to the peace and prosperity of the towns and cities and neighborhoods we live in. Our destiny rises and falls with theirs. God gives us hope and a future so we can share our hope with others. God calls us to to express our hope by working for the wholeness and wellbeing of the people and places around us. So that they can have hope for the future, too. God has called us to work alongside God for the peace and prosperity of our neighbors. Those are the plans God has for us.
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I’ve put you, is what God tells us exiles, here in Stockton and Lodi and Linden and Galt. You know, that’s what we were doing the other night, when we made those Thanksgiving baskets and delivered them to our neighbors who needed them. You may not have known that’s what you were doing, but it was. Those baskets are one way we share our hope with people who may not feel like they have much hope. We invested our money and our time into the wellbeing of our neighbors. That’s exactly what God calls his people in exile to do.
We come here on Sunday to hear God’s words, which nurture us with grace and mercy and peace and hope. And then we go from here and speak our hope into the lives of our neighbors. We live out our hope among our neighbors, with them and for them.
And you know what? What we did the other night was awesome, and I want us to do more of that kind of thing. But we don’t need a church program to seek the peace and prosperity of our city. There are so many things me and you and us together can be doing on the regular to bring wholeness and wellbeing to our neighbors and neighborhoods. Just within the normal rhythms of our lives. Maybe we could begin by unplugging from television and social media. Stop posting those political memes that are designed to divide people, so we don’t seek each other’s wholeness and wellbeing. We talk to people online in ways we’d never dream of in real life. Try spending more time on your front porch or front lawn. Be neighborly. Invite people over for dinner. Or for coffee and conversation. Be a listening ear. Organize play dates for neighborhood parents and kids at your home. Get involved with volunteer or community organizations, and find ways to get the church plugged into their projects. And invite your friends, neighbors, and coworkers to volunteer in this church’s service projects. Organize a neighborhood carpool. Plant a garden and share its produce with your neighbors, friends, and coworkers. 
I know some of you are already doing some of these things. I hope you now see that what you’re doing is holy work. And that you’ll be even more intentional about seeing what you’re doing as ways of seeking the peace and prosperity of the city. To the rest of us, this is our challenge. This is how God will bring peace and prosperity into our lives, and into our church. This is God’s plan for us, to give us hope and a future. By speaking our hope into the lives of our neighbors, and living it out in our city and neighborhoods.
As we seek the peace and prosperity of our city and our neighbors, we’re actually seeking God. And we’ll find God in this simple, holy work. In our city. Among our neighbors.
God has spoken. God is with us. Amen.
 These ideas were suggested by Josh Reeves, “25 Simple Ways To Be Missional In Your Neighborhood.” Verge Network. December 16, 2014. Accessed November 24, 2017. https://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/08/23/25-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-neighborhood/. I suspect you can think of even more ways to seek the peace and prosperity of your city.