I had just begun my tenure as the student pastor of a small congregation up in “The County;” only three weeks in, as I recall. Understand, like most student pastors just starting out I was essentially clueless; what I lacked in experience and ability I made up for in energy, enthusiasm and sheer determination fueled by the leading of God’s Spirit and the care of God’s people. And I was totally jazzed by what I was doing: I was learning my way around, getting to know names and faces, sweating every line of the Sunday sermon to the point of absurdity; just working very hard to make a good first impression! And by all accounts, things were going pretty well and we were off to a good start as pastor and parish.
Or by most accounts anyway: I will never forget that one Sunday morning – again, just three weeks into my ministry there – when one of my new parishioners, a long-time member of the congregation, came up after worship and greeted me with a dour face and a half-hearted handshake. There was obviously something troubling her, so I asked her what was wrong. And she heaved a heavy sigh and simply said, “I thought you were going to be different. But I guess I just have to face the fact that things are never going to change at this church.”
Talk about taking the wind out of your sails! I was crestfallen, and for the rest of the day I kept thinking about it, wondering what it was she’d been expecting. That my arrival as the new pastor would immediately double the size of the congregation? That pledging would suddenly increase by a hundred percent? That the congregation would miraculously be purged of every poor attitude, with every old argument finally laid to rest and every good thought transformed into a successful program? Well, first of all, a pastor doesn’t do that alone; even back then I knew that God does it in partnership with the whole congregation, including the pastor. But secondly and perhaps more to the issue at hand; in three weeks? After the initial sting of her words had worn off, I was left with this feeling that her concerns might have been a bit unwarranted, not to mention unrealistic considering the time frame!
Over time I came to understand that her words were not meant as a complaint against me or the church – in fact, this woman turned out to be one of the most supportive and hardest working members of the congregation (!) – but on this particular day, she’d come to me out of concern, this overwhelming sense of frustration, really, that all these things she’d been hoping, and praying and yearning for in that church for so many years had not yet come to pass in the way she’d been expecting. And that I could understand; I mean, if you’ve been spending your whole life anticipating a particular set of blessings and yet it never seems to happen, this does have a way of discouraging you; to the point where while once you felt bound for the Promised Land, now you feel hopelessly mired in the wilderness!
And the fact is, this discouragement is by no means exclusive to matters of the congregation, but can easily seep into the rest of life. Many of us know all-too-well what it is to have things not live up to our expectations, time-wise or otherwise. All it takes is something like the loss of a loved one, a problem with a job or within a relationship, or some kind of economic challenge, and suddenly everything we’ve always assumed to be true about how things should go in our lives is forced to change. And even when it seems as though life is proceeding pretty much as it should we’ll often have this sense – call it youthful disillusionment or mid-life crisis – that maybe everything we’re expecting, all of those things that are the result of what scripture refers to as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1), that is, faith (!), maybe isn’t ever going to happen for us after all. Suffice to say that there are times for most of us in this life that we begin to think that the promises that have been made will never, ever be the promises that are fulfilled.
And that, friends, is the context by which we need to approach our text for this morning, Jeremiah’s word to the people from the Lord himself: “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.”
Now, this is a verse of scripture that may well be familiar to your ears, particularly if you’ve ever bought or received a graduation card: this is one of those passages tailor made for encouraging anyone who’s heading out into the world knowing in their heart of hearts that God has a real purpose for their lives. These words represent a true promise of God; a promise that has been claimed by countless believers over the centuries as an assurance that God does indeed have “a good plan” for you and for me. All of which is true, and appropriate; and yet, it is also a piece of scripture that we’ve tended to misinterpret, or at least, take out of its proper context.
It’s important for us to understand that these words were actually spoken (written, actually, in the first of several letters from the prophet Jeremiah) amidst one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and when many of the leading citizens had been carried off into exile in Babylon. To call this a catastrophe would be to put it mildly; here we have a people whose city had literally been reduced to rubble, the few survivors who remained forced to rebuild their lives in a foreign land hundreds of miles away. At this point they’re barely even existing as a people; much less a nation of God’s chosen people! And in fact, there’s this growing sense of dread amongst the people that God had surely abandoned them forever; and the worst part is they knew full well that in many ways it was their own faithlessness that led them to this place.
But now, here comes Jeremiah, and he’s got the word of the Lord: “I know the plans I have for you:” “plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me… I’ll turn things around for you.” (The Message)
Don’t worry, I’ve got everything under control: that’s the message God brings to these people; but here’s the thing. Whereas there were so-called “false prophets” who were quick to assure the Judeans that their stay in Babylon would be short-lived and they’d be home soon, Jeremiah is pretty specific about their exile: seventy years, he says. Seventy years you’ll stay in Babylon, and only after those seventy years “will I visit you, and… fulfill to you my promise” to bring you home.
Can you imagine the people’s response to that? Seventy years! Nice promise, Jeremiah! Why don’t you ask God what we’re to do in the meantime? We’re certainly not going to last 70 more years, especially under these conditions; our children won’t even survive that long, so what are we supposed to tell our grandchildren? Does God actually expect us to trust in this promise of his that we won’t even see come to pass?
You see the dilemma? It’s hard to embrace a future with hope, when that future seems so very far off, and the here and now is uncertain at best! How can we possibly plan for retirement a few years down the road when right now the cost of everything from heat to healthcare just keeps skyrocketing? How can we possibly invest ourselves and our resources in future possibilities when current realities make that kind of decision difficult and… risky? How do we give, trusting in why we’re giving, when we might not yet see all of the results of that giving? Isn’t it just easier… safer… just to hunker down and wait to see what happens?
Maybe… but then, listen to what God has to say to the exiles who are now facing seventy years of “hunkering down:” “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters.” “Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away… make yourselves at home.” (The Message) In other words, people, live your lives… walk in faith… do what you know, in faith, needs to be done. And as you do, trust in the promise, because God has a plan! And the beauty of that plan, writes James Howell, is that “it all begins now… but the consummation, the fulfillment, will be when I’m not around any longer.” To trust in God’s promises, you see, is to be part of something bigger than just ourselves; it is to be part of a vision, a purpose that stretches far beyond our lifetimes; it makes us “a small but significant part of the grand adventure that is God’s plan. We call that grace. And grace gives us hope, which is dogged enough to cope with unrealized dreams,” and seemingly delayed results.
What does all this mean for us, friends? Well, in terms of our lives, yours and mine, it means “keeping on keeping on” with faith, hope and love even when everything that comes at us in this life would seek to take us off the pathway. It’s about seeing God’s presence and power and activity in the midst of the everyday and ordinary; and recognizing that even though all has not been yet revealed, God is at work fashioning that promised future. It’s because of this, we can live; we can move forward with our lives, we can be fruitful and experience the kind of simple grace that comes in knowing that there is always hope, beyond the next horizon… because God has made a promise, and God has a plan.
It also seems to me that this says to us a great deal about stewardship! Because who are we as the church if not the bearers of this incredible promise that God has made; “purveyors of the plan,” as it were? The thing is that the concerns that were raised by that woman I told you about earlier I’ve heard from a whole lot of people in a hundred different ways over the years. We gather together as the church, this incredible place where we’ve found faith and community, and we are grateful for how God has blessed us. But still we worry; we begin to wonder in these uncertain times how it’s ever going to last. We concern ourselves, and rightfully so, with money matters and tight budgets, and we speculate as to how long we can possibly hold on given our limited resources; all the while asking why it is that people don’t come to church in the same numbers they did when we were growing up; we even begin to entertain the notion that the world has become so secularized, maybe this church we love has already started to become antiquated and out of touch.
Sometimes, you see, we in the church start to feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land.
But to this, God still says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future hope.” And that’s why, despite the challenges and the occasional bouts of discouragement, we press on; why, day by day and in every season that comes, we continue to be people of faith and truly the kind of church that God has called to be here on Mountain Road. That’s why we take the time, and make the effort to reach out to one another in Christian love and through prayer and action, both in times of joy and of sorrow; that’s why we work so hard in this place to nurture our children in the ways of faith, so that they might come to know Jesus as more merely some long-ago character in the Bible, but rather as a personal Savior, teacher and friend; that’s why we seek to stand together for love and mercy; for justice and equality; and on behalf of all those whom the rest of the world has cast aside. That’s why, in faith, we continue to invest ourselves in a graceful future that even now is blossoming in our sight.
It may not have come to full bloom just yet; but the thing is, it’s happening. Every time somebody walks into this sanctuary and knows they’ve found a spiritual home, it’s happening. Every moment that there’s a song, or a prayer, or an idea, or a Spirit that touches a heart because of our worship, or our fellowship, or our mission, it’s happening. And every instance that we let ourselves trust in what God is doing in and through the lives of these people who surround us in these pews, it’s happening, and it will come in its fullness.
It’s happening because God has a plan, and he’s made us a promise. The only question is what we’re to do about it; how we will respond to the promise made.
Beloved, I hope and pray that however else we respond, it will begin with trusting in the promise… and letting our thanks and praise be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c.2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry