This is week three of our series on the prophet Jeremiah. At this point in the story of Jeremiah, the Babylonians have already come, and they Israelites find themselves in a captivity they can't do anything about. Jeremiah gives them advice for this time in their lives that is very relevant for us.
This message is based onJeremiah 29:1-14.
This morning we are continuing our series on the Prophet Jeremiah. If you remember the first week we looked at Jeremiah’s call – God appointed Jeremiah, with a message, to go to a wicked people, but He promised to be with him. And you probably also remember the week before that, we looked at Jesus’ commissions to us, and we found that when we put them altogether, we have been called, to go to all different people, with a message, but we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’s how God does it – that’s how He did it with Jeremiah, that’s how He does it with us. Our calling isn’t to sit here and live comfortable lives, it’s to “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
Last week we looked at Jeremiah’s message. We saw essentially that it was a call to repentance. He told people, “if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place” (Jeremiah 7:6).
We saw helping the helpless is one of those foundational parts of our faith. James put it so simply, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). There is real need for the Christian to live like Christ, and a part of that was compassion toward the helpless. We should be looking for ways to help other people, especially those that don’t have anybody else to help them.
And I know this is a hard one, because I’ve been kind of stung many times, you can easily get taken advantage of. If you step out to help someone who needs help, they may begin to see you as their provider, as someone who can give them what they need. You become the only one they call. And it can get a little overwhelming.
I don’t know how Jesus did it, maybe that’s why he was itinerant, always moving from city to city. Help them once and you can leave. They could never get dependent on you. Or more likely, when Jesus helped them, they didn’t need any help any more. So maybe that should be our goal. I’m just thinking out loud, but maybe we can find ways to help people so that eventually they won’t need our help anymore. That’s a hard one. It takes a long-term commitment, on your part as well as theirs, and if they aren’t interested, you need to walk away.
When we were helping Heather and Justin, we invested a lot, and the church was behind it, and a lot of people were helping, but it was a long-term investment. We got them a place to live for the first time in a lot of years, we got them some assistance, we got them the ID’s they needed for employment, even took them to some places to fill out apps. And that was all good as long as they were committed to the process, too.
But when they lost their commitment, and things started to derail, we had to step back. It’s my prayer that eventually, they’ll one day be able to hear that still small voice, and they’ll turn to the Church again. Now that’s the Big C Church. I’m not arrogant enough to say they need us, it’s Jesus they need. And I still pray for them, and I ask you to still pray for them. And look for others you can help, too. Others that might commit to the process.
Now I say commit, but at first you don’t ask them to commit. First, you may just need to make some sandwiches. Feed the hungry, look after the sick, build relationships as you help the helpless. When you see the same people coming back, offer to do more, if they’ll commit. And prayerfully consider a plan of action that can really help them.
So helping the helpless is a foundational part of our faith. Jeremiah also talked about not shedding innocent blood in this place, and I missed something. I didn’t have a footnote, and my commentaries didn’t suggest this, but let’s look at Psalm 106:36-38, “They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood.” I missed that last week, but this was in my readings this week and I’m betting that’s what God was referring to. Don’t sacrifice innocent blood to idols.
And we talked about true worship, and that quote I loved so much, “True worship is defined by the priority we place on ‘who’ God is in our lives and ‘where’ God is on our list of priorities.” Worship isn’t just what we do here, it’s a 24/7 attitude of the heart.
Moving on, enough review. One of my favorite things that we do as a church is Awana. I love evangelism and reaching out, and I love kid’s ministries, and Awana puts these two together, so what’s not to love? In a couple of weeks we’ll have an organizational meeting, so pray about that and how you might be able to help out this year. But one of things that makes it great is Scripture memorization. Kids have to learn scripture. Memorization is required to pass a section, and there is a review required, too, you have to say a verse you’ve memorized in a previous week. This helps it stay with us. We learn through repetition.
I’m betting at least some of us grew up memorizing scripture. And even if we haven’t, I bet we all have some favorite scripture quotations memorized now. Verses we can turn to when things get difficult. We might pull them out to quote when appropriate. I’ve heard that called “Biblical cherry picking,” because we remember a verse, but we don’t usually remember the context of the verse.
This morning’s scripture reading has one of those verses in it that a lot of us might remember. “‘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’” (Jeremiah 29:11). We quote these words to help encourage people, to help them focus on the future, and to trust in God for the outcome. But do we really understand the context of this verse?
It’s really not very encouraging. It shows us a very different picture of trusting God than we might think of when we use this verse. We use this verse in those times that we want to believe that God is going to prosper us. That everything is going to be okay. But the people receiving this promise had been conquered by the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar had then taken back to his country those people that might be useful to him – craftsmen, teachers, musicians, key leaders and even the king and queen. He marched them into Babylon as slaves. They were captives in a foreign land, humbled and discouraged. And to make things worse, God tells them that they will spend the rest of their life in this situation. It will get better - but not in your lifetime. That’s a far cry from what we think of when we remember this verse.
I’m sure that in the beginning, they dreamed of going home. Their prophets and fortune tellers were telling them their stay in Babylon would be short. Jeremiah was the only prophet who would tell them the truth. Jeremiah didn’t make the trip to Babylon. He was left in Jerusalem. His ministry became consoling those left behind. But he wrote those exiled to Babylon to remind them what he’d been telling them all along. They were captive of things they couldn’t change. It was too late.
Let’s personalize this a little. We each have our own story, and whether we want to admit it or not, we often come up with excuses why some things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped. I think in some areas, you could say that we are captive of things we can’t change. It might be our health, jobs or careers, finances and debts, marriage and family, our faith and our failure. Jeremiah gave them some keys to show them how to handle this “in the meantime” chapter of their history. We all have chapters of our lives that may seem like “in the meantime” chapters. What I hope we’ll learn from today’s message is how to handle this time.
I. Face the Facts. Jeremiah tells them they must come to terms with their circumstances. Their so-called prophets and divines were telling this is just a temporary thing. Don’t worry about. We won’t be here long. But Jeremiah tells them that the voices that they are hearing from their prophets and diviners were not the voice of God. They were false prophets, wanting to please people. Settle in, make yourselves at home, build a life for yourselves. You are slaves, and you will be for 70 years, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Their generation will die in Babylon. The only hope for contributing to the future of their nation will be through their children and grandchildren. They were in denial. But they needed to face reality. Scott Peck, a Christian psychiatrist, spoke about the dangers of avoiding reality. He says that it is “the beginning of mental illness.” We’ve got to come to terms with what has happened and face the facts.
In Psalm 137, the writer talks about their attitudes during this time in Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How do we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1,4). They finally resigned to hang up their harps and stop singing! There may be times when you want to give up. When you just want to lay down and quit. That’s not the right thing to do either. It’s not easy, it can be terribly frustrating and difficult, but we’ve got to come to terms with it and face the facts before we can move on.
I think this is kind of funny, but on Tuesday I went to the Associations Executive Committee meeting, and a few of us get together for lunch before at the Chinese Restaurant in Big Flats, and my fortune was “Always accept yourself the way you are.” Sometimes that means, face the facts.
II. Don’t Put Your Lives on Hold (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jeremiah told them to face the facts, they aren’t coming home anytime soon. In fact, they’ll probably never come home. That promise is for their children and their children’s children – not for them. God’s promise will be fulfilled, but not in their lifetime. But instead of giving up, they should get on with their life, they should marry, build their homes, and raise a garden. Keep on living. There is a song by Ray Price called, “Until Then.” There’s a verse that says,
My heart can sing when I pause to remember
A heartache here is but a stepping stone
Along a path that's winding always upward
This troubled world is not my final home
But until then my heart will go on singing
Until then with joy I'll carry on
Until the day my eyes behold my Savior
Until the day God calls me home
That’s the message Jeremiah had for the exiles. Until then, carry on. The best thing you can do for your families, for your children, for the nation of Israel, is to carry on until then.
Don’t quit. Live on. Do what you have to do to make the most of what you have until things get better. As a pastor, I have walked with some very committed Christians as things happened that threatened to destroy their faith. Serious illness, job loss, loved ones in prison, the death of children. And I’ve encouraged them not to give up. Things will get better, until they do, keep on praying, keep on doing what you can.
III. Understand the Truth about God! The third part of living in this kind of captivity is accepting God’s truth. This exile would last 70 years, so get on with your lives. But there is more. They were told that God is faithful. Even though they might not see it, He will come and lead them back to their Promised Land. They are still God’s people. We who live on this side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus know His promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” and “Nothing shall separate us from God’s love.”
Jeremiah gave one of God’s greatest promises for these slaves when He promised, “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” (29:11). That was a promise that would take the rest of their lives to fulfill, but it’s a promise that’s still true today.
Another promise that’s still true today is that Jesus came to set us free. We may be “captives of what we cannot change,” but we have a future, a hope, a home. Jesus came saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Our hope and that of so many others is fulfilled as we live and tell about Jesus.