The Plans I Have For You (18th Pentecost, Proper 23C)
“The Plans I Have For You”
18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 23C) - October 13, 2019
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. 2 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. 3 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: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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, 9 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.
When I graduated from high school, my family threw a graduation party for me. We invited family and friends from all the different spheres of my life, from school and from church and from far away places. I got a few presents, mostly gift cards and cash, etc. But there was one gift that two different people gave to me so it stood out. Two different people from church got it for me.
I think it was called God’s Book of Proverbs for Graduates. It presented a bunch of Bible verses arranged by topics. So it had a Bible verse or two to give advice about hard work and determination or feeling homesick or making friendships or what have you. It was a cute keepsake and I held onto it for a while.
But the “proverb” that stood out to me the most and that I remember after all these years is the first one. It was a biblical quotation that you might have seen before on placards and signs, on social media posts, in the LifeWay Christian Bookstore, or elsewhere. It was Jeremiah 29:11, which reads in the New International Version, “‘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.’”
This seems like a really appropriate choice to lead a book like this because high school graduations are usually times of optimism and expectation about the future. And it’s a very comforting thought to hear that God cares for you and has prepared a prosperous future for you.
Except that this verse doesn’t come to us in a vacuum. It’s not a proverb or aphorism that dropped out of the sky. Jeremiah 29:11 is has a larger context in Jeremiah, chapter 29. Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the first few verses of Jeremiah 29 and it notably does not include verse 11. So I’m going to read an extended version of the lesson for us.
[READ JEREMIAH 29:1, 4-14, see above]
Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a larger message that we hear part of this morning
It is a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon.
This takes place in the middle of the same history we spoke about last week when discussing Lamentations.
King Nebuchadnezzar brought his army from Babylon to attack Jerusalem. You might remember that Babylon besieged Jerusalem twice. The first time, the city surrendered quickly and they took a group of 10,000 exiles to Babylon, mostly the wealthy elites, influential leaders, and skilled laborers. The second time, they surrounded the city for 18 months and then burned it to the ground. Jeremiah 29 is a letter that the prophet wrote in between the first and second attacks on Jerusalem.
Jeremiah was not important enough to be exiled. He got left behind.
The Jewish people in both Jerusalem and Babylon are dealing with trauma from losing a serious battle and either getting ripped from their homes or losing their loved ones to exile.
At the time, many of the remaining Jews in Jerusalem predicted that this hardship would be short-lived. There were other “prophets” who claimed to speak the word of the LORD, but they were wrong. Jeremiah says criticized the false prophets who said that Jerusalem would be fine and the exiles will return quickly (Jer 28).
Jeremiah’s true word from the LORD says to settle into Babylon. The exiles should do their best to get comfortable and move one with life in that foreign land because they weren’t going to be coming home any time soon. Jeremiah prophesies (correctly) that the Exile will last a full 70 years (29:10). Most of the original exiles will be dead before they even have a chance to return to Jerusalem.
And as if that wasn’t a grim enough message already, he adds insult to injury. “Seek the welfare of the city where I [the LORD] have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Not only must you endure the suffering of your conquerers and persecutors, not only must you live in their land, adapt to their customs, and blend into their nation, but God says you should pray for them. You should seek their welfare. Jeremiah is saying a very Jesus-y thing here. Love your enemies.
This was a scandalous message. Throughout Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet, he was accused of treason for repeatedly telling Jerusalem to surrender to Babylon in order to save themselves. In 27:6, Jeremiah even calls King Nebuchadnezzar -- the warrior king of Babylon who has slaughtered Judah’s people, decimated the populations, and stolen its people as prisoners -- Jeremiah calls that king a “servant” of the LORD.
Think of what people would say on cable news or social media. Jeremiah would have definitely been canceled!
It’s only after Jeremiah delivers the bad news, that he gets to some good news. Words of comfort only come within the context of this shocking letter. He is abundantly clear that the Babylonian exiles will not be rescued for 70 years. They are stuck in captivity.
But God has made a promise. They aren’t lost forever. God will bring the people back to Judah, to Mount Zion, where they will worship the LORD in a rebuilt temple. God remains faithful despite this long period of suffering and loss. God has not abandoned the people.
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.
God does have a plan for us, but it may not go the way we hope or expect. God doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the challenges and tragedies of life. God is not sentimental or sappy because life isn’t sentimental or sappy. So when we hear promises like that in Jeremiah 29:11, we need to remember that true hope for a future doesn’t just mean everything will be easy-peasy. We instead trust that, even when things go badly, God will be with us and God will bring about justice and mercy.
What does it look like for us to be in exile? How have we felt far from home, far from our roots, or far from God? And what does it look like to have hope? How does God show us glimpses of love, liberation, and new life?
It can be hard to trust in the goodness of God when we’re wandering in exile, far from everything and everyone we love. It’s hard to believe that the invisible God is good when what we can see is often so discouraging. It’s hard to believe that God is faithful when our enemies persecute us. It’s hard to persist in loving and praying for people who harm us systematically.
Since the beginning of creation, God has been trying to teach us to love our enemies. Just as the Judeans were called to pray for the welfare of the Babylonians, we are called to pray for and love all people who we consider enemies, both domestic and abroad. If we’re talking about police violence or racial terror or gang violence, God says to pray for the welfare of a city and a country that doesn’t always accept us. Because “in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7). If we’re hearing about wars or spies or treason or interference in the sovereignty of nations, God says to pray for their welfare even if our government declares them enemies. Because in [their] welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).
We can persist because God has promised that love is the way to abundant life. Even if we suffer for it, love is the greater way. So we stubbornly persist in loving enemies even though it’s inconvenient and painful. We don’t have to invite more suffering, but we can seek the welfare of those who ignore ours.
And God has never failed to fulfill a promise. God is perfectly trustworthy. God did bring the exiles back from Babylon to Jerusalem. And it did take 70 years before they first started trickling back.
And God did come among us as a human being. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. And Jesus showed us how to live abundant lives of love, peace, and righteousness. Jesus taught us that the Reign of God is already among us. Jesus died to forgive us of our sins. Jesus rose again to conquer the powers of evil and death. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with us now until the end of the age.
And on Easter morning, Jesus rose from the grave, proving that love is stronger than death. He gave us a pledge of our redemption, a hint of what was to come for all of us. Jesus continues to be with us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. And we receive this sacrament trusting that God’s grace really can transform the world.
God has a plan for us. The plan is love, grace, and forgiveness for us. The plan is for unity with God and each other in Christ. The plan is that God will conquer evil, suffering, and death with love.
But the plan is not a straight and easy road. The plan involved Judah being carried away to exile before they were rescued and restored. The plan involved Jesus dying on the cross before he rose again to new life. But if we will follow Jesus on the way of the cross, we will find it to be none other than the way of life and peace. Amen.