"'For I know the plans I have for you'—this is the Lord’s declaration—'plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. You will call to me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart'" (Jeremiah 29:11-13, CSB). Many catechumens have learned this passage (or at least the first verse). Countless Christian speakers have included it in addresses for graduations, confirmations, and other milestone events. The reference is written in congratulation greeting cards the world over. The message of "God's got big plans for you, and a hopeful future" is such a powerful affirmation not only of His faithfulness up to this point but also His continued presence throughout the next leg of the journey. A future with God is always bright, especially in light of our final destination, the promised "new heavens and new earth."
This potent dose of Gospel is rendered even more powerful when put in its proper context. The fact that I'm starting to feel like a broken record with the following phrase doesn't change its importance: "Context is key." In this case, context is everything. God's people weren't sitting on a mountaintop vista after conquering the uphill climb, as many people may feel when they read these verses. God's people were in exile! Far from home. Stuck in a bad place with no movement. Scattered among the nations instead of gathered in their homeland.
Nobody has to tell us that isolation is a tough spot to be in in the year 2021. "Isolation" is a pretty compact summary of what we experienced last year and are carrying into this year. Being scattered instead of being joyfully gathered has been a common theme. Being stuck in place instead of going where we want to go hasn't been for geo-political reasons like Israel's exile by Babylon, but a medically-induced quarantine can't feel much different. The angst and uncertainty feels almost antithetical to the hopeful tone of Jeremiah's letter to God's scattered people.
But hope remains! Hope prevails! Jeremiah doesn't sweep the hard circumstances of exile under the rug. He acknowledges them, and provides hope and direction in the midst of them. Listen to this: "This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive'” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, CSB). In other words, "Don't give up on life until God plants you back in your homeland. Don't forget to live and thrive while you're in exile...because home can be found wherever God dwells with His people."
I really resonate with the plight of these exiled people of God. Not only has the current tone of isolation and disconnection in our culture made the growth of God's Kingdom difficult, but cultural forces throughout the world have also made me feel like the church has been exiled from crucial, mainstream conversations. I do my best to listen to what God is trying to tell me, as I trust you do, too. By His Spirit and for His glory alone, I seek to communicate what I'm hearing to those around me. But I often wonder if people are listening, following.
Yet hope remains! I trust in the power of God that has always led His people through good seasons and bad, through wilderness and Promised Land, in battle and peace. He's always faithful to us regardless of our great orthodoxy or devastating heresy. The future of the church has always depended upon nothing less than Jesus' power to take dead people, conflicted families, disheartened communities and broken nations...and make them alive and vibrant. The Kingdom comes when God's people humble themselves, turn back to the King, confess their weakness and sin, and find healing and wholeness at the foot of the cross (2 Chronicles 7:14). The great Good News is that even sitting in exile, feeling hopeless, God's people can find hope in the final resurrection of all flesh, and all of the tiny reminders in everyday life that it WILL happen someday. God promises; God delivers. Praise God!
I've been reading a really good book recently about how the church needs to reclaim some of its roots to find a way back to being what Jesus has always wanted it to be. It's called Future Church, and it says many things that I've noticed or tried to express in the past, but with a clarity I have often lacked. You should read it, too. Chapter 7 in particular should encourage any dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran with its strident defense of the Gospel over cultural relevance. While it's not hard to read, the concepts the book presents are incredibly challenging to digest and embrace. It forces the reader to confront many of the unhealthy patterns the church has fallen into over the years. Making healthy changes is never easy (Luther could tell you a bit about that!). But if we're going to thrive as God's people, hearing His call to mission and faithfully answering it, we're in for some hard work and some hard conversations.
Nevertheless, I have hope (Can you sense a recurring theme here?). My hope isn't in a book or human wisdom. It's not in the fortitude of the human spirit. It's not in earthly power or intelligence. My hope is in the saving, majestic grace of a Man hanging on a cross, showing you and me what it will take to reach a dying world. My hope is found in the nail-scarred hands of the same, resurrected Man, who beckons you and me to follow Him into broken places where resurrection is the only repair. My hope is in the power of the Spirit of Jesus residing in His people, whether in exile or at home, whether in cultural prominence or disgrace, that leads us to do the things Jesus taught us, shaping and moving us as His disciples. So embrace the journey! Take on the challenge! I am confident and hopeful that you'll find joy in following Jesus, because...
Adventure is out there!