November 19, 2017 Sermon
“I Will Praise You in This Storm”
First Scripture Reading – Jeremiah 29: 1,4-7
29 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.
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.
Second Scripture Reading – Jeremiah 29:8-14
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.
“I Will Praise You in this Storm”
Happy Thanksgiving Sunday!
I love Thanksgiving Sunday. I really do. I like to preach about thankfulness. I like to preach about thankfulness because I find giving thanks and praise to God to be instrumental in keeping my focus above the little pains that crop up in human life…it’s just so much BETTER to focus on God’s great works than it is to focus on the petty stuff I can get bogged down in. And I like to preach about thankfulness because it’s a lot more fun to preach about the great stuff God has done than it is to preach about hellfire and brimstone. So, yeah, I like to preach about thankfulness. But that’s not the ONLY reason I love Thanksgiving Sunday. I also love Thanksgiving Sunday because it means I get to enjoy an abundant meal with my congregational family…which is a lot of fun. And I love Thanksgiving Sunday because it means Thanksgiving Day and another feast is coming up this week, AND it means Advent is right around the corner…so Thanksgiving Sunday is like the first course of the amazing month-long festival that is Thanksgiving Day, Advent, and Christmas!
I LOVE Thanksgiving Sunday, and yet, for me, at least SOMEtimes, I find Thanksgiving to be a difficult holiday to preach. It can be difficult to preach what sounds like “happy, happy, joy, joy” when I know that “happy, happy, joy, joy” is NOT what some of you are feeling in life right now. It can be difficult to preach because this very holiday and everything it represents can bring up memories of one race of people oppressing another race of people. It can be difficult to preach because the holiday has BECOME associated with food, food as a symbol of abundance, when that very FOOD is for some in our midst not just a symbol of but a very SOURCE of struggle – just look at the statistics surrounding obesity and diabetes and other food-related health issues. And, as I hope you discovered during our Meditation Time a few moments ago, there are all kinds of things happening in each of our lives that are doing their darndest to get in the way of our being able to give thanks. So, yeah, Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday to preach.
Fortunately, as a Christian minister, I am called to preach the scriptures and NOT a U.S. national holiday. And the scriptures have an amazing message about Thanksgiving that all of us need to hear…because it’s a message about giving thanks to God even in the most DIFFICULT of circumstances.
“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.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? In the context of a people who were enduring as great a hardship, as great a barrier to giving thanks and praise as any people throughout time, these words sound like EXACTLY what God’s people needed. Exactly what WE need when we’re having difficulty giving thanks. And so, a great many people of God in the modern time have turned to this verse given by God through the prophet Jeremiah as words to get them through their own difficult times. And they should. BUT, there’s a possibility – a chance – you might be receiving the wrong message from these words, which I wouldn’t want you to do because the ACTUAL message is so much greater than the message many people receive. If it sounds to you like these words send the message that God is going to swoop in and take away whatever badness confronts you, that God is going to swoop in make everything everything ok again in the next few minutes, hours, days, or years, that God is going to turn your failure into success or turn your poverty into prosperity at the snap of God’s mighty fingers, that God will very soon cause your troubles to disappear forever…I would suggest you need to look again at Jeremiah chapter 29, I would suggest you need to look again and discover a message that won’t crumble to the ground if the troubles you’re experiencing LINGER for a while. Because that happens, right? Sometimes we pray to God for help in the midst if trouble, but the harm isn’t replaced by welfare so quickly. Does that mean God’s promise through Jeremiah is NOT for us?
Y’all, God’s message of hope given through the prophet Jeremiah is a message that can prevail against ANY trouble, even trouble that sticks around for a while. I hope you’re listening.
Let’s dive into the text and find that message.
Quite a bit has happened since our reading last week. Almost 200 years have passed since Amos spoke God’s words to the Israelites, God’s message that God would not smite them but rather give them new life if only they would turn toward God. Guess what? They didn’t turn back toward God. And so, about 40-50 years later, God allowed a foreign invader called Assyria to remove the northern kingdom of Israel from the map.
Fortunately, the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah turned back to God just in time, and God spared them…for about 135 years, which is to say until the Judeans went too far in choosing against God. So, in 586 BC, another foreign invader, this one called Babylon, invaded the capital city of Jerusalem and carried most of the Judeans, ESPECIALLY members of the ruling class, into exile…forcing them to live as a reviled and ridiculed people among the Babylonians.
As you can, imagine, it was a VERY difficult time for God’s people. Not only were they questioning whether or not God would ever be on their side again, but they were forced to live among a people whose ways were quite different from their own and who seemingly spent a great deal of their time taunting the Judeans about the ineffectiveness of the Judeans’ God. So God’s people cried out for deliverance, the kind of deliverance God had given through Moses, the kind of deliverance God’s people could seemingly ALWAYS count on God to provide, the kind of deliverance, by the way, we seek when we ask God to make our troubles disappear.
But God did NOT provide what the people asked for. God provided something else, something I suggest is even BETTER for the realities of the difficulties and challenges we face as modern people of God.
Just so you know, in response to the people’s prayers, some prophets DID arrive on the scene who told God’s people that God would respond to their requests with almost immediate relief, that God would deliver them back to the Promised Land, out of the hands of their evil captors. Did you notice what God told Jeremiah to say about those so-called prophets?
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.
God did NOT send anyone to tell Judah they’d be returning to the Promised Land anytime soon. Rather, God sent Jeremiah to tell the people exactly the opposite. God sent Jeremiah to write a letter to the exiled Judeans to tell them what they should do and what God was going to do.
Can you even begin to imagine their surprise when Jeremiah told them that God’s response was to tell them to get comfortable in Babylon…because they would be staying for a while? Can you imagine their surprise when Jeremiah told them that God’s response to them was to tell them to do all they could to help their CAPTORS succeed? Can you imagine their absolute CONTEMPT when they heard that God’s response was to tell them to stop praying for deliverance and INSTEAD pray for the well-being of their captors? Imagine their dismay when God told them that they would never see the Promised Land again, that their children and grandchildren might, but THEY would not.
Imagine how well you would take it if God’s response to your prayers for whatever pain or difficulty you’re experiencing is something akin to “tough it out…because your pain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
I bet you’re wondering about now how I could possibly suggest God’s response was even better…for us…than God saying that God would quickly deliver God’s people from exile.
Well, it turns out, that was only the first part of God’s response. And it turns out that we’ve ignored a big part of the context. Y’all, the Judeans weren’t in exile because God just forgot about them or stopped caring about them. No, the Judeans were in exile despite warning after warning after warning from God that God would remove God’s protection from them and ALLOW them to be overtaken and exiled if they didn’t turn back to God. The people God spoke to through Jeremiah, THEY made the choices that put them in exile. That’s the context of their prayers. They were not asking God to remove from them some bad thing that happened TO them; rather, they were asking God to remove the consequences of generations of turning against God. But God wasn’t in the habit of removing consequences of bad behavior…and God said NO! At least, “no” was the first part of God’s response. It’s the second part that provides the hope.
Remember a while ago I mentioned that the exiled Judeans were wondering if God would EVER be on their side again? According to the terms of their covenant with God, God would have been justified in writing off the Judeans FOREVER. But in the second part of God’s response through Jeremiah, God gave them a profound message of grace:
- I’m still with you, even in your exile, even in your suffering;
- I still have plans for you, GRAND plans, mind you. They might not happen right away, but they will happen;
- In other words, even after all you’ve done, I still love you, and, even though you must endure the consequences of your actions, in the the grand scheme of things, everything will turn out ok for you;
I hope you are starting to understand why I say this is a BETTER message than the message that if you prayer whatever it is that torments you right now will be removed:
- This message is better because it reveals that God is WITH us in our suffering, so we don’t have to endure it alone;
- This message is better because we know from experience that sometimes the bad stuff lingers, and this message reveals to us that even when the bad stuff lingers, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us; rather, God STILL has great plans for us in the future;
- This message is BETTER because it’s a message that is for the sinFUL, not just the sinLESS, and, let’s face it, we’re all in the sinful category. If God’s message was simply a quick release of pain for the sinLESS people, where in that would be hope for us? (And let’s face it, since God is a just God, immediate relief would pretty much ONLY be reserved for the sinLESS.)
- And this message is BETTER because it applies to you, every single one of you, no matter where you’re at. If things just started going bad, this message is for you. If things have been going bad for years, this message is STILL for you.
“I was sure by now, God you would have reached down
And wiped our tears away, Stepped in and saved the day.
But once again, I say amen, and it’s still raining.
As the thunder rolls, I barely hear you whisper through the rain,
‘I’m with you’. And as your mercy falls,
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away.”
Y’all, today is Thanksgiving Sunday. Wherever you are in the journey of life, I hope you’ve got some reasons to give thanks and praise to God. But even if you’ve got some things, some barriers, getting in the way of your giving thanks and praise to God, even if it’s still raining for you, I hope God’s message delivered to the exiled Judeans through the prophet Jeremiah gives you reason to give thanks and praise to God, even amidst the barriers. Because whatEVER difficulties you’re facing in life, God is there to face them with you and to give you comfort and strength in their midst. And whatEVER difficulties you’re facing in life, even if you’ve been facing them for a long time with no relief at all, God STILL has plans for you, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
God has NOT abandoned you. And no matter what else is going on, THAT’S a reason to give thanks! Amen.