Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
(sermon note: 11-28 sermon note)
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. 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.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 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.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man who boarded a flight from New York City to Minneapolis. Midway through the flight, there was a bit of turbulence and then an announcement over the intercom. “This is your captain speaking. We have a bit of bad news. During the turbulence we experienced, one of our engines failed. But there’s nothing to worry about, the plane still has three engines functioning. We will land in Minneapolis with a delay of one hour.” A few minutes went by until the plane made quite a bit of noise on the outside and then silence, followed by another announcement. “This is your captain speaking. We have a bit more bad news. We are not sure what hit us, but because of it, our second engine has failed. But there is nothing to worry about, the plane still has two engines functioning. We will land in Minneapolis with a delay of two hours.” Half an hour later, the plane shook violently and oxygen masks dropped from the overhead compartments. The shaking continued for several minutes until it finally stopped. An announcement followed. “This is your captain speaking. We have been hit by a few migratory birds. This has caused yet another engine to fail. This is still not a matter of worry as we have one engine still functioning. But this does mean that we will be landing in Minneapolis with a delay of three hours.” Exasperated, and a little shaken, a passenger turned to his neighbor and said, “Hopefully the fourth engine doesn’t fail or we’ll be up here forever!”
Isn’t that how it always feels whenever we’re suffering or uncomfortable or simply inconvenienced? We focus on how unbearably long it seems to be lasting. A delay of one hour turned into a delay of two hours which turned into a delay of three hours…”how long, O Lord?!” Of course, all suffering comes to an end eventually, at least in this world. No suffering in this world is everlasting, it always comes to an end. And yet when we’re caught up in it, it feels like it’s mercilessly unending. But we know that simply isn’t true about suffering in this world! A failure to that plane’s fourth engine would have quickly ended the suffering of that delayed flight. All suffering comes to an end eventually…
The exiled Israelites in today’s reading were in a time of long and seemingly unending suffering. They had been cast from their home of Jerusalem to the city of Babylon nearly 400 miles away with no real timeline of when they would be allowed to return. Despair had settled in as they felt abandoned by our God. The prophet, Jeremiah, had been telling them all along how their irreverent lifestyles had displeased God and they needed to change them. But they didn’t listen and were taken into captivity by King Nebachadnezzor and exiled to Babylon. Naturally they were left there in a stunned state, wondering what to do next. Lucky for them, they belonged to a merciful God who likes to give second chances. God told Jeremiah to encourage them to build houses, plant gardens, and raise families right there where they had been exiled, in the city of Babylon. In effect, God told them not to give up hope, that even they had a future in their foreign land. We heard God’s familiar words of encouragement, “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.” (vs. 11) God still had plans for his exiled people…good plans, hopeful plans! God hadn’t abandoned his people. He still held them in his precious hands. Some would say that their exile was a part of his plan all along, that it would help them to become more faithful and trusting in him. Perhaps God allows for suffering to help bring us closer to him when we have strayed so far away. Nonetheless, God was with them in their suffering, eager to ease their suffering and give them hope.
An interesting passage to reflect on at the start of another Advent season. Have we walked in exile, wondering where God is in our own lives, for a while? It certainly was another year caught up in the struggles of a global pandemic. Over the summer, it was looking like we were beyond the pandemic but it sure roared back this fall. Maybe we were a little too optimistic. But that’s okay, we weren’t without hope and that’s what God wants us to have: hope. God wanted his exiled people in Jeremiah’s time to have hope just as He wants you and me to have hope. It’s what we’re celebrating this first week of Advent, the hope in Christ’s birth. We may live in times of darkness and despair but our God is a merciful God who gifts us with hope and the ability to endure the suffering of this world. That’s why hope is a one of the three great gifts of God, faith and love being the other two. Hope gives us the ability to endure. Some of us have more to endure than others but all of us need help in enduring. We are all fragile, vulnerable children of God and none of us is immune to suffering in this world. We all need a little help to endure the suffering of this world. Hope gives us the strength and courage to endure life’s sufferings. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” (12:12) We are to rejoice and give thanks for God’s precious gift of hope. It gives us the patience we so desperately need.
And there is hope in Jesus, in waiting for the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the light of the world as we reflected on last week. He not only reveals our sin and sickness but he also heals it. Few of us actually like being sick. Most of us would prefer healthiness over sickness. In Jesus, there is health and wholeness. In Jesus, there is no sickness. The prophet, Isaiah, tells us, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount us with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (40:31) In waiting, in hoping, we are strengthened. It is good to be waiting for the Lord as we are in this season of Advent.
As we set out on our Advent journey, let us cling to the hope of this season. Let us not focus on our suffering, on the seemingly unending nature of suffering. This season is a brief respite from our suffering. Jesus will be born into our world and this is a good thing. Why? Because in him there can be found great and lasting joy. In him, there is a future for us. Proverbs says, “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” (23:18) We have a future in him! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.