Build, Plant, Pray

Jeremiah is the longest book in the bible. I always thought it was Psalms but it turns out that Jeremiah has the largest word count. Much of it is not a happy story so I started out wondering why I was so determined to find Jesus in Jeremiah. Why would I want to talk about such a depressing time at the beginning of Advent?

As I studied Jeremiah this week, I kept remembering something my mother used to say. “There is nothing new under the sun” What she was telling me was that no matter how new and different I might think my generation was, we were the same old thing, just dressed up a little different. Underneath, rebellion has always been with us, people do good, people do bad, seasons change and people remain basically the same. So as we talk about this time in history, we can see (as we often do in the bible) similarities to ourselves.

The Lord had brought his people out of slavery, led them out of the out of Egypt and that story could have ended “and they dwelled in peace and loved the Lord and lived happily ever after.” But the bible doesn’t end after the Israelites are rescued.

We fast forward to the time of Jeremiah, and the temple has stood in Jerusalem for 300 years, but the people had drifted far away from God. They made gods of their own.

Jeremiah 16:20 tells us
…O LORD, my strength and my fortress, my refuge in the day of distress, the nations will come to You from the ends of the earth, and they will say, “Our fathers inherited nothing but lies, worthless idols of no benefit at all.” Can man make gods for himself? Such are not gods! “Therefore behold, I will inform them, and this time I will make them know My power and My might; then they will know that My name is the LORD.”…

God spoke to Jeremiah and told him he was to prophecy and Jeremiah tried to convince God that he was not the man for the job. He was young. He didn’t know what to say. God told him that He himself would give him the words to say. God told him not to marry so Jeremiah just got news that might not have been too exciting. He was going to be alone, and his calling was to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. So Jeremiah begins a not so fun career of telling the Jews, particularly the leaders, that God is going to give them over to their enemies. Jeremiah was the only real prophet at the time and his competition was telling people that God is with them and they will have peace and victory over Babylon so Jeremiah was preaching a message that was pretty unpopular. The people were enjoying their status as God’s people without living up to the reality. Talking the talk without walking the walk. They were not listening. They made gods of their own and there was no justice in the land.

Much of the book is a series of warnings and advice. There are a lot of If/Then statements.

If the people return to God, then God will give them Godly leaders. If there is one honest person among them, God will forgive them. If they reform their ways, then God will allow them to live in the land. If they stop worshipping other gods, then God will not harm them. If they will call on God, then God will listen to them. If they will seek God with all their hearts, then God will be found by them and rescue them from captivity.

Jeremiah’s ministry did not draw crowds unless you count the ones who wanted to kill him. He didn’t inspire people to give up their wealth so he could buy a jet plane (though he did get travel, he got kidnapped). He didn’t preach to a megachurch or have his own TV show or wear a rolex.

Jeremiah questions God throughout his ministry. He wonders why the people plot against him. He asks for vengeance on the wicked who prosper, to heal him, to save him, to put his persecutors to shame.

Jeremiah travels around and speaks to kings, priests, leaders, and anyone else he can find. Over and over you read his warnings, his advice and the peoples’ response and you see that through Jeremiah, God gives the people chance after chance for His people to follow His voice and keep His covenant. But the people didn’t listen. Everything that Jeremiah prophesied came true. Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Jews, the temple was destroyed, the city was burned. The Babylonians set up a new governor and went home. The governor was assassinated and the Jews asked Jeremiah what to do. Their choices were to stay were they were or go to Egypt as refugees. Jeremiah told them that the Lord had promised that if they stayed in their land they would be ok. They will live in peace under Babylonian rule. But they go their own way and so God brings the Babylonians against Egypt and again things do not go well with the Jews.

The people are marched 500 miles though desert to Babylon where they are in exile from their home, no temple, no one speaking their language, surrounded by foreign idols, and there were still false prophets who were telling them exactly what they wanted to here. That they would not be in exile for long. Jeremiah wrote to the exiles and told them they would be in Babylon for 70 years, and that God wanted them to marry and have children and multiply and flourish. They were to pray for the city where they lived (their enemies!) because if that place flourished, so would they.

This seems like odd advice to refugees. Bloom where you’re planted people. Things are not the way you want but don’t have a fit, don’t throw a pity party. Pray for your captors and get on with your life. I have to admit, that part about praying for the people that burned your city, destroyed your temple and marched you off to a foreign land, caught me off guard. But it was practical. They were going to be there for a long time. To wish calamity on the place you are are stuck in doesn’t make sense, does it?

We all have experience types of exile. Sometimes we are in situations of our own creation which is doubly troubling. An encounter with one of your children where you feel like anything but the picture you had of yourself as a parent. Waking up and realizing that you are in debt and you know you got yourself there but how are you going to get out? Times when you are in exile from yourself or at least the self you wanted to be.

Sometimes we are in exile through situations out of our control. The marriage that falls apart, the doctor who sadly tells us the test results are serious. The job, where we walk in only to receive a pink slip. We feel like we are in exile, alone. And maybe we feel the need to drop out of life for awhile.

But Jeremiah drops you a note that says build, plant, marry, pray. God tells us to live our lives, find purpose, be part of a community.

This is great though not always easy to follow advice to us as individuals but what about us as The Church? Does it feel sometimes like the church is experiencing exile? We definitely live in a land of idols and sometimes it seems like the world is speaking a different language. A language that says achieve, gain financial success, protect your own and it’s fine to go to church on Sunday but don’t give me that Jesus stuff at work or on my way to the bank or when I’m shopping at a Walmart on a crowded Saturday. even church has become a social thing – go to the right church, buy the right products, dress the right way, Sing the right songs, sit in the right pew…Don’t be squirming about the pew – it’s ok, we are all creatures of habit. DO things and you will be accepted by who? God? Other people? Do we still gravitate to those who say what we want to hear? Do we still worship our gods of our own making?

Now we come to the part of Jeremiah that speaks to the future. Jeremiah writes to the Jews in exile.
Jeremiah 31:31-34
The New Covenant
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah writes words of comfort to the exiles. He tells them they will be there for 70 years but there will be an end to exile. Meeting with God will no longer be dependent on a place – the temple, but they would know God directly through His son. Todays scripture.

Jeremiah 33:14-16 New International Version (NIV)
14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15
“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

God had a plan for them AND for us. There would come a time when there will be no more exile. Sin and death has been defeated, and God has written His law on our hearts and and now He will be our God and we will be His people. So we begin this season of preparing for a savior to be born by first realizing how badly we need Him. We have been given chance after chance after chance and still our human nature causes us to try to do good all on our own. We try to fashion our own gods, whether is be our job, our families, or our STUFF. We dismiss or minimize our own sin by pointing at our neighbors and saying but look! At least I’m not as bad as those people! We place ourselves in exile. We strive and grasp and forget what God has already done for us. So as the church, we stay in the Jesus, build community, plant seeds of the love and grace and salvation of Christ Jesus, and pray for those who are at the least, unkind to us. It may feel like we are in exile sometimes but God has promised an end to that and the work is already done.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Luke 22:20
And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (there He is – Jesus! The new covenant Jeremiah spoke of!)

So let’s be quiet. Be at peace, experience true glory, real and unexplainable love, and take refuge in knowing that God has sent a savior, to all of us. To you and you and you, and even to me.

I found this poem by Ann Weems months ago and tucked it aside for the right moment and I want to close by sharing it with you now.

The Christmas spirit
is that hope
Which tenaciously clings
To the hearts of the faithful
And announces 
in the face
Of any Herod the world can produce
And all the inn doors slammed into our faces
And all the dark nights of our souls
That with God
All things are still possible,
That even now

Unto us
A Child is born!

Amen!

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