In college I got to visit California. I loved it. We were at the snow capped mountains of Yosemite and then an hour later we were dining at the wharf in San Francisco, watching people with all kinds of rare and strange talents. We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and got to look at the bay and bridge from a grassy hill overlook. I remember gazing at the rolling hills, placid bay, arching bridge, and then suddenly a thick fog rolled in. It devoured the city. Everything disappeared and the speed in which it came was disorienting. We lost our bearings and were unsure what direction we were facing and unable to see what we hoped to see we wondered what to do.
Scenes can change in a hurry. Over the last few years our country has gone through some significant changes. Christianity went from the majority view to the minority. Policies that contradict the Bible have become the law of the land. The presidential candidates seemed to little to no sympathy for Christianity. Many large organizations began campaigning against Christian positions and even attacking Christian positions. (And in all fairness, I think people on all sides of religious, political landscape have been a bit disoriented by a constantly changing tide).
This change has left many wondering what lies in store for the church and what is the church’s response. My response is that we need to do what the church has always done in such times. Jeremiah 29 show what Israel did in the past, and we can learn from it. It gives us direction and hope in times where you are not sure what to do.
Jeremiah had experienced change too. His people were conquered by a nation and deported from their homes to another land. In this passage God tells the Israelites what they are to do in a foreign land that does not see eye to eye with them. Lets read 29:1-14
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 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." 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them," declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For 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. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."
Jeremiah is a prophet sent to lead his people back to God. God’s chosen nation has gone astray. God sent prophets to direct the people back to God and Jeremiah is one of those prophets. Sometimes called the weeping prophet because of the hardships he saw his people go through and for the hardship that he himself went through.
Jeremiah is writing this letter to the exiles. An exile is one banished from his native land. Theye lost their land, their kings… everything. The long conflict between Israel and Babylon was for their disobedience and finally it culimnated in defeat. Like a father to a child, God brought various chastisements to them in order to bring them back. In the late 6th century bc Babylon attacked jerusalem and conquered it in 586 bc. Israel fell and Babylon deported some of the people to their nation. They were living in another land under the rule of another country-Babylon.
And consider who the Babylonians were.
“I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; 9 they all come bent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. 10 They deride kings and scoff at rulers. … guilty men, whose own strength is their god." (Habakkuk 1:6-11 NIV)
This is the people they would live under. Babylon was not an ideal place for a Jew to live. Consider other things we know about Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold and then ordered the people to bow down and worship it. Those who refused were kindly thrown into a fiery furnace. Suddenly presidents Trumps brash personality doesn't seem so bad! I mean can you imagine that kind of political pressure?!
The Babylonians were so bad that in the book of Revelation Babylon is used to embody evil and rebellion to God (Revelation 14:8, 18:21). They were immoral and ruthless. Jeremiah writes to the exiles who are left, and that leaves open the possibility that other exiles have died and possibly been executed or imprisoned. And they are in charge. If you ever struggle with why a guys is a jerk and does well in his business, or why the disobedient kid keeps getting homeruns then you have a taste of what Israel was going through.
Imagine living in exile. Imagine, whatever nation you most fear, and every nation always has an enemy that they fear. And then imagine yourself living there. In the 80’s it may have been Russia. In the 90’s it may have been Iraq. Today it’s Al qaeda. Maybe your country had a different nemesis. Picture them and then think what it would be like to live among those you had hoped, labored, and fought to defeat. They have different customs than you, they have different beliefs, than you. They have different gods than you. You, being the minority, have few rights or weight to carry. You are a stranger in a foreign land. That is what it means to be in exile. To live among a ruthless and barbaric people. Suddenly our situation today is not so bad, not so disorienting, certainly not unprecedented for God’s people.
So what would God tell these people. Keep fighting and resist. Take out as many as you can. Be a thorn in the side of everyone? This situation is almost unimaginable and so is God’s direction. He tells them what he has told them throughout history.
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 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."
Echoes of Genesis 1. They were to do normal life. When these words were spoken the people had a degree of freedom. The prophets could minister openly to them (Ezek 8,1, 14:1), they probably had some duties to perform for the state, and while probably second class citizens they were not enslaved. God doesn’t tell them to fight, but to be a blessing.
Here are three things this passage teaches to us.
Ever since the garden God’s people have been in exile. They have not been at home. Earthly exiles has also happened in Egypt, Babylon, and in the NT. Peter began his letter, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world. Scattered throughout…” It is exilic talk. You are not in your home. We are made for another world, and if you are satisfied and comfortable in this world then you do not have a good grasp of what is to come.
Too many people are shaken to the core watching the changing tide of American culture. The reason they are shaking is they were too comfortable. They were more comfortable with a majority Christian culture that didn’t take their faith very seriously. God has something far better than this world. We want to be grateful for this great country and land, but it’s not our ultimate home.
When Amanda and I decided to go plant or replant a church, the hardest thing to do was to leave our house. We loved that house. We still get sad about not having it. The Lord provided so many great memories there. It was an old house and I always had something to work on. I chopped wood to help heat it in the winter. But we made swings, we ate mulberrys, raspberries, cherries. I chased the kids in the back, had bonfires. It was the coolest house ever. And it was hard to leave. As we contemplated planting a church, we realized the only thing holding us back is the house. We couldn’t let God’s blessings deter us from his mission. The decision was hard in some ways, but in others it wasn’t. This is not our true home. There is something better, and right now we are on a mission. It’s worth leaving your dream house for. We have a better and more permanent land that we want.
As good as we have it, we need to identify as exiles in a culture that says you should have all you want now. Don’t think feeling out of place is wrong. It’s normal for God’s people.
Christians in recent times have often displayed their stance by opposition and boycott. That may have been an appropriate strategy at the time. But we have so much more to offer than withdrawal of money. We have the gospel to offer and withdrawal doesn’t allow for that. Withdrawal is more appropriate for a person professing to follow Christ but blatantly disregarding Christ commands. It has less of a place for the person who doesn’t know Christ. We should be moving toward those people. Moving toward them to be a blessing. To love them. To seek their peace and prosperity. Its staggering that Jeremiah tells them to be a blessing.
Don’t look for ways to just survive. Go bless another person. Much of our society is a take, take. They don't want to give anything. I think of John F Kennedy’s brilliant words about giving, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” That means find a way to bless your country. Don’t take. Give. Find ways to make a difference. Countries need people like that. Neighbors need people like that.
We are to seek peace. Peace is Shalom. It is God’s ideal. It means being whole, intact; experiencing prosperity, peace, success. It is God’s ideal state. It is what he is bringing to an undeserving world, and it is what we are to bring to undeserving people.
When God blesses people it means he is empowering. God blessed Abraham in Gen 12 and it means essentially to empower him. We can and should do the same thing to others. Jesus said to love your enemy (Matt 5:44). Same thing. We are to pray, just as Abraham prayed for Sodom. We intercede for others. We want their wellbeing. We dont just pray for their spiritual salvation but also their well being now. Amazing! God made us societal creatures and our well being is connected to others.
I have done a lot on the topic of work and faith, and I want to teach on that at some point. But for now, I want to share one thing that changed my perspective. As I started to see God’s command to be a blessing to others I started to change my mindset in how I purchased things. Previously there had always been a concern for getting the best deal and am I paying too much. Don’t let this guy rip me off. Make sure I can tell everyone I got the best deal! It was a concern for myself. Did Jesus die so I can preserve all my stuff or my reputation? No! I started seeing buying things as an opportunity to bless other people. And that has led me to do many things that don’t make a lot of sense; living for the kingdom doesn’t always make sense. Now I don’t want to get ripped off. There is a place for wisdom. But what is most important to us becomes clear when we buy things. What is most important to you? Do you view that as a time to bless another?
Have a good time with your car salesman. Be a blessing. He’s trying to make a living and a person that understands that, respects him, and wants a fair price can make his day. Bless your server, your mailman, your cashier, the customer care rep.
If you don’t know anyone outside the confines of church then find a way to get to know someone. Visit a restaurant and bless those people with your business, especially if they are good at what they do. Get to know them. Show some appreciation. Go see them. Go during non peak times so you can visit a bit.
I have been praying for good places to go and get some work done and get to know people. I found one. I can’t wait to go back and get to know the people there. It’s a young guy trying to make it, and I loved their coffee. I ll be back! I had a good conversation with the owner. He is a fascinating guy. Hair that I would never have, tattoos that I would never have, piercings that I would never have but we both like coffee and good food and we talked about that a bit. We may not agree on politics, sports teams, and that’s OK. There are things I can enjoy and learn about him and hopefully vice versa.
Let’s find ways we can be a blessing to others. Let’s also be strategic. As a church, we are going to be most effective in reaching people that are near our church. We want to reach everyone. Dont refuse to share with someone or bless someone in another city. The kingdom is bigger than us. But at same time we are trying to build a church, and building anything takes strategy. If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.
I share that with you because I want us to be strategic in working together, and I want you to be strategic in what you do. Maybe you should map out who you should aim aim to bless. Not exclusive but strategic. Be a blessing and try to have an influence through it.
Our hope is in God, not in the world. Our hope is in God bringing redemption to brokenness, not in the world being unbroken. Our hope is that in the new heavens and earth the curse will be removed, not in it being removed now. Now is the time we hope for and trust God to do what he has promised.
The Israelites had to do the same. They wondered would this hardship ever end. V10 God promises that his chastising will end. It is not permanent. (He says here it will last 70 years. Now they don’t heed God’s commands and that is why the 70 years turned into 7 x 70 in the book of Daniel. But that’s another message.) God gives them an amazing promise.
You will seek me and you will find me, when you seek me with all your heart? What a promise! He doesn’t say you will seek me and find me when you get back to your homeland. It’s not you will find me when you get your life right or get the political situation you want. God doesn’t care about your job title or income. That’s not his priority so it’s stupid for you to make it yours. He wants a relationship, and that desire dominates the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. You can have it now but it demands you seeking him with all your heart. Not lifting up a listless prayer of help before you go out the door. But of bowing your heart to him and wanting him to rule and reign in all your do. Of delighting in who he is even when you are destitute.
He also says he knows the plans he has for you. In the Hebrew it is literally, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you.” He knows them and knows what he is doing. Don’t tell him otherwise. Have you ever had someone tell you what you think. That happened to me recently. I shook my head and said, that ain’t what I’m thinking. I wanted to say, “why don’t you shut up and listen to me.” I think God feels that way toward us sometimes. He says, “It doesn’t matter if you are in a foreign land right now, I know what I plan on doing. All these things are for your good.”
His plans are to bring you peace, shalom. You don’t have it now, but these things are working towards it. Like he is saying, “Listen to my words and not your circumstances.” We know that through Christ all evil is put down. We know that we are forgiven and can have life with God. The end for us is glory. We need to trust God and be faithful to him. He calls us to bless others, and our well being is connected to that.
I think there are a lot of people confused in our country right now. Things have gone from one side to the other, with strong shifts, and many people on edge of both sides of the issues. I think we have a great opportunity to show where true hope lies. I saw an illustration recently that helped me think about us as a church.
Huddle illustration. I need a couple volunteers. They come up to huddle in circle with faces looking at each other. In this huddle the people are together. They see each other but no one else does. They can talk and strategize without others knowing. We see their back side. Curious to what’s going on. (Next have them turn outward with hands on each others shoulder). Now they are together but we see them. We see their face. Their bright eyes twinkling and inviting us in. We want to go from a defensive huddle to an offensive posture. Looking to bless others and welcome them in.
Discussion Questions: Jeremiah 29