Honest Hope: Hoping in the Future, While Living in the present

Honest Hope: Hoping in the Future, While Living in the present

            Jeremiah 29:11 – “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” is one of the most popular verses in the modern Christian world.  We put it on coffee mugs, and inspirational colanders, we share it social media posts, and hang it on our walls, painted in beautiful script across a pieces of fine canvas.  When a verse so completely permeates our culture it is particularly important read the surrounding verses, and ask how the verse fits into the larger passage and that passage into the rest of the book.  It is always important, because context is key to understanding exactly what any given verse means.  It is particularly important when it comes to popular verses like this because it is easy to think we completely grasp what the author, speaking by the inspiration of The Holy Spirit, meant, and often the fullness of what the verse means, taken in context, is much bigger and much more beautiful and more powerful than what we think of in popular imagination.  Jeremiah 29:11 is a perfect example of this.  So let’s take a moment and read this familiar verse in its context.

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

10 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. 11 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. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 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.

– Jeremiah 29:1-14 NRSV

Can you hear it?  It is so much bigger and more beautiful that it is ever given credit for.  But before we dive into it let’s take a moment to talk about Jeremiah himself and the book as a whole, so we can see this passage in it’s broader context.  Jeremiah, who delivered one of the most inspiring and hopeful messages in scripture, particularly when understood in its context, was known as the weeping prophet.  He was a prophet in a time of great pain and tragedy.  He was a prophet both in the time leading up to the Babylonian exile, when Nebuchadnezzar s armies came and conquered and enslaved his people, and during the exile itself.  He prophesied the coming exile, when false prophets and soothsayers whispered sweet lies of false hope, that the exile would never come to pass.  During the exile God’s megaphone, pushing back against those same false prophets still whispering sweet lies and proclaiming a message of real hope, honest hope in a time of anguish and heartbreak.  The book of Jeremiah, which was most likely written by his assistant Baruch, is a complex book that at times jumps back and forth along the timeline, similar (but no means identical) to the show This is Us, which moves back and forth along the timeline, with some scenes set in the present, some in the past, and some in the future. With this in mind lets reread verses 4 through 14.  I’m going to read from the ESV this time, so that we can see the scripture through another window.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the  places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

– Jeremiah 4:4-14

Jeremiah’s message to his fellow exiles is that the calamity has come.  “We are here; we are in this, and we are in this for the long haul.  Our call is to live well right here, right now.  We are to hope in the future, knowing that one day – one day – this will end.  God has not abandoned us, even in exile.” This message, written to the exiles but preserved by The Holy Spirit for all people, teaches us something important that speaks into this present moment, because it tells us something about God.  The “you” in verse 11 refers not to us, but to the exiles. Yet this passage was preserved by The Holy Spirit for all people and carries a message for all people because it tells us something about God. God does not abandon God’s people in times of trial.  The LORD God restores, and speaks hope, not watery wishful thinking that ignores the tribulation of the moment, but real hope that fully acknowledges the struggles in light of which hope is so necessary.

 This theme is repeated so many times throughout scripture.  There is a beautiful story in chapter 32.  As the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem (remember that the timeline bounces around a little bit), the king comes to Jeremiah to ask why he prophesying that they are going to loose the battle and be taken into exile. The prophecy which Jeremiah gives in response is not one of gloom and doom, but one of hope. The LORD instructed Jeremiah to buys field in his hometown, which belonged to a family member, to keep it in in the family, so it is safe.  He was then buries to bury the deed in an earthenware jar, where it will last for a long time, because “houses and fields and vineyards shall be bought again in this land.” (Jeremiah 32:15b). Likewise, in Ezekiel 1, while in Babylon, in chains, Ezekiel sees a vision of the throne of God, and it has wheels.  God is enthroned upon a chariot, and is with them in exile.  While the exile will one day end, the exiles don’t need to wait for God do a great thing, because God is already doing it. 

This is not an exile, but it often feels like it.  We are separated from normalcy.  We are surrounded by unknowns.  We don’t know exactly when this will end.  There could be a major scientific breakthrough in the near future, or when the weather changes and flu season hits, things could get a whole lot worse.  We don’t know.  But we do know something so much more important.  We know that we worship the LORD God: The Lord of the Broken and the Downtrodden, The One Who Restores.

 One day – one day – this crisis will end. Yet, we are to live well where we are, live well right here, right now.  We are to look forward with hope but live in the present and see how God is at work right now. We must not be so focused on a future return to normal that we fail to live in the present or see how God is at work today.  God is at work in incredible ways right here, right now, both in this church and all around our world  There are new ministries being developed, new mission projects and small group ministries being brought together right here, right now. There are new innovations to make ministry accessible both now and long, long, into the future.  People are coming to faith and growing in faith and love in unexpected ways and through unexpected means.  Corners of the church which have long been at war with one another have laid down their swords and clasped each other’s hands.  God has worked to create a defiant unity in corners of the body of Christ that have not been unified in a long time.  I have never seen, nor did I think I would ever see, the level of collaboration that is happening right now among churches and leaders in this annual conference.  God is at work in surprising ways right now.

This does not negate all of the challenges and all of the darkness.  We are here, calamity has come.  But all of those things do not change the fact that God is still at work. There is a scene in Doctor Who, in the episode where the Doctor meets Vincent Van Gogh.  After going on an adventure with Van Gogh, and inspiring him, showing him how meaningful his life and work are, The Doctor and his companion return to the present.  His companion, Amy, believes that they will find that Van Gogh now the a long and happy life and there will dozens of new paintings, filling the museums.  The Doctor, with his ageless wisdom is skeptical, and when they return they find that he was right.  Amy breaks down, thinking that this means that all the good they did was pointless.  The Doctor wraps his arms around her and says, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant, and we definitely added to his pile of good things.” There is a lot of darkness and lot of terrible things in the world right now, but there is also a lot of good, and the good does not take away the bad, and the bad does not change the good or eliminate the ways that God is working right here, right now.

We are called to both hope in the future, to look ahead to the restoration with faith, and to live well right now, right where we are. We are to step into work God is doing in our midst today.  You are called to be an instrument of faith, hope, and love, in the world today.  Let us look forward in hope – real hope that fully acknowledges the struggles in light of which hope is so necessary – and let us step into what God is doing in the midst of those struggles and be instruments of faith, and hope, and love, in the hands of Lord of the Broken, The Lord of Hope and Life, The One Who Makes All Things New.

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