About a month after I turned fifteen years old, I came out to Vancouver with two bus loads of youth from East Central Alberta for a National Youth Gathering. This was the first time that I was away from my family for an extended period of time and I was terribly homesick. One time, I phoned my parents and I was so sad as I talked to them. But I could not bring myself to say how I was really feeling. When they asked me, “What’s wrong?” I responded by saying, “I forgot to bring a fingernail clipper.” My Dad really teased me about that after I got home.
Feeling Homesick for a Better World
Every human being, from time to time, feels homesick for a world to which they have never been. These longings tend to be strongest when things don’t go the way we hope and a dream dies, or when someone we love turns their back on us and a relationship dies, or when an accident happens or a disease takes its toll and a loved one dies, or when we are no longer able to overcome the challenges of life and it becomes our turn to die.
We all somehow know that things are not supposed to be this way and we cry out for a better life in a better world. This makes sense because we read in the Bible that every human being was made in the image of God. Therefore, there is an innate desire to live in the presence of God. And that is what heaven is: life in the presence of God. All human beings were created for life in God’s presence, for life in heaven, and that is true even if we don’t believe in God.
But those feelings of being homesick, of being separated from the life that we should be living are even stronger for someone who follows Jesus. In the moment that we trust in Jesus as our Savior, he brings to life within us a new person. This new person is a new creation, a citizen of heaven, and a beloved, forgiven child of God who loves the Lord God with all her heart, soul, strength and mind and loves her neighbor as herself. This new person is in the world but not of the world. We know that from John 17 where, as Jesus prayed for his followers, he said, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it…. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:16, 18)
So what do we do when we feel isolated and alone in a world where we feel like we don’t belong? Two common approaches that we humans often use are to compromise our beliefs so that we fit in with those around us, or to self medicate the loneliness away with our drug of choice. That drug of choice could be retail therapy, food, alcohol, drugs, gambling or other harmful substances or behaviours.
But what is uncommon is the approach that God gives us, which is to wait. In Psalm 27, we read, Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:14).
It is fitting that we are thinking about waiting at this time of the year because Advent, the season of the church year that we are now in, is a season of waiting. We wait for the day when we can celebrate the birth of our Savior who came. And we wait for him to come again to bring to us the heavenly life that we all long for.
So the question that I am asking you to think about today is: How do we have hope as we wait?
Jeremiah & the People of Judah
To help us as we wait, we are starting a new series today called the Promise of Advent. Our theme for today is Hope and the passage that we will be looking at is Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you have a Bible or a Bible app nearby, I invite you to turn there now. As you do that, let me share with you some background information that will help you to better understand what is going on in our passage. This passage is from the book of Jeremiah and Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah during a very tumultuous time. In April of 597 BC, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to the capital city of Judah, which was Jerusalem, defeated it, and took into exile Jehoiachin, the King of Judah, most of his family, all of his leading officials, his army and the country’s craftsmen and artisans. Nebuchadnezzar left behind Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as a puppet king, and the only people left behind for him to rule were the poor of the land.
Now God’s people are divided. The best and brightest are separated from their homes, their land and many of their people. Those left behind are separated from their leaders, the economic engine of their land and from many of their people as well. Nobody’s life was left untouched by the devastation the Babylonians caused. And the question that God’s people began to ask, which is the same question people have been asking since the beginning of time is: How do we have hope?
And the way that some of the prophets in Babylon answered that question, was to do what we humans often do, and that is they came up with a human solution. Prophets, you see, speak God’s Word to his people, which is what a pastor does in our current context. And the human solution of those prophets in Babylon was to pretend to speak for God and make promises that God did not make in order to give God’s people some hope. But a hope based on a false promise is a false hope, and trusting in a false hope will shatter the person who believes it when that false hope fails, which it will invariably do.
This is why Jeremiah’s work as a prophet was so important. He had to counteract the lies the false prophets were telling the people, even though those lies were what people wanted to hear. And he also had to declare to the people the truth of what God was saying. The people of Judah were defeated by Babylon and separated from their God-given home as punishment from God for turning away from him to worship other gods. What the people needed in this situation was repentance, a change of heart and mind where they turned away from their old, sinful ways and turned back to God.
And the problem with the false hope that the false prophets were giving to God’s people is that it stopped the process of repentance and it cut the people off from what they really needed from God, which is to be realigned and recentered in him.
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles
So Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon and, in that letter, he said three things. First, he said Settle and seek peace. The lying prophets were saying that God was going to bring the exiles back from Babylon to Judah in a couple of years. But God told the people through Jeremiah, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. (Jeremiah 29:5-6)
God knew that it was going to take time to undo the corrosive effects of centuries of idolatry in the hearts of God’s people. He knew that it was going to take decades, not months. God’s people in Babylon were going to have to stay there for 70 years. And God also knew that things were going to get worse before they got better, because within that 70 years the Babylonians army would go back to Jerusalem and totally destroy the city and the temple there in 586 BC. God’s people needed to learn repentance and God dependence and it takes time for those things to happen. So God told the people to settle down and live fruitful lives while they waited.
But God also said to them, Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Can you imagine how radical this is? God is telling his people to pray for and work for the peace and prosperity of their national enemies. And what makes this command even bigger is that the Hebrew word that we translate as “peace and prosperity” means much more financial well-being and a lack of war. In this verse, each time the English words “peace” or “prosperity” are mentioned, the Hebrew word behind it is shalom. And shalom means more than peace. It also has this sense of wholeness, wellness and completeness in all aspects of life.
If we read the passage again with the word shalom in the places where it is found in the original Hebrew, here is how it would sound: Also, seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it experiences shalom, you too will experience shalom.” (Jeremiah 29:7) So God’s people were to be conduits of God’s shalom wherever he had placed them, even in the land of their enemy.
The second thing that God told the exiles through Jeremiah’s letter was Sift truth from lies. God’s people had to be on guard against truth claims that were not true, even if they were made by well-meaning people. So God said, Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:8-9)
We used to have a doctor in our church whose name was Norm. There was a time when something happened and a lot of people were stirred up, but Norm wasn’t stirred up at all. When I asked him why, he told me something that stuck with me. He said, “I take everything I hear and see and I filter it through the Bible.” I thought to myself, “What wisdom!” You see, a practice like that helps us to hear things, sort out the lies from the truth, and then take in what is true while we cast aside what is not true.
The third thing that God said to the exiles through Jeremiah’s letter was Square your heart and mind with God’s promises. He tells the exiles, This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
God’s first promise in this passage is to bring his people home, and God will do that according to a time that he, not humans, knew was the right one. God’s second promise in this passage is that he has plans to shalom them, to give them hope and a future. Again the word behind “prosper” in this passage is shalom. So God is telling his people that they are not only going to be conduits of shalom. He is also telling them they can align and rest their hearts and minds on his promise that he will bring his ultimate shalom wellness to them in the future.
What does this mean for us?
You and I are in the same situation as the Israelites in exile in Babylon. We don’t belong in this world. Sometimes, we are hated by the world. The world is not our home, yet here we are. What do we do?
We do what God told the Israelites to do through Jeremiah. We settle down and seek shalom peace. We sift truth from lies. And we square our hearts and minds with God’s promises. For the God who loved the Israelites even when they were in exile, is the same God who also loves us, as we live exiled from our home in heaven.
And just as God faithfully kept his promise and brought his people home to Judah decades later, so also God faithfully kept his promise, first given to Adam and Eve, to send a Messiah who would undo all the brokenness and destruction caused by sin, rescue humanity from our bondage to sin and death, and bring us back to our proper home, the healed and restored new heaven and earth which Jesus will recreate at the end of time.
Imagine what our lives could be like if we stopped placing our hope on the things of this world and instead placed our hope solely on Jesus and his promises for the present and the future. What are those promises? Two that pertain to our reflections today are found in Hebrews 13:5:“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) and John 14:1-3:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 13:1-3)
We don’t need to be worried or afraid in troublesome or turbulent times because Jesus is with us and he has promised to bring us home. And that is a hope that will never be shaken.
To help you have more of that unshakeable hope, today’s challenge is based on the fourth thing that God told his people through Jeremiah’s letter. God said that when we believe that he has good plans to give us shalom peace and prosperity: Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14). Dear friends, the challenge that I am leaving with you today is to seek the Lord with all your heart.
By going to the cross, dying for us and rising again, Jesus has made it possible for us to live in the presence of God right now, even as we wait for the fullness of God’s presence in the future. You are citizens of heaven and Jesus will help you to trust that God has good plans for you and live a heaven-centered life. You and I need the shalom wellness that Jesus gives. The people around us also need the shalom wellness that Jesus gives. And you or I might be the way God uses to give it to them. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on November 28, 2021. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)