(Preached at St. John’s UMC on 9/29/13)
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14
“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.
It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plants gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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. 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, for it is a lie that they are prophesying in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 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. 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 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 in exile.”
The year was 594 BC, and everything was falling apart.
The prophet Jeremiah had seen it all. Coming from a village from the small tribe of Benjamin, he had been called by God and given the unenviable task of being appointed over nations and kingdoms, to pluck and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant (Jer. 1.10).
Babylon was growing stronger and stronger, while Judah was growing weak from internal turmoil. By the time the year 594 had come around, most of the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, removed from their precious promised land.
In the midst of particular unrest in Jerusalem, Jeremiah learned of similar frustrations among the exiles in the foreign land. More specifically, Jeremiah learned that false prophets were claiming that the exiles would soon be going home had provoked the unrest. However, God’s plan for the exiled Israelites would have to take place on God’s time.
In the year 594, with unrest brewing in Babylon, Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles against their false hope for an early return.
For our sermon today I have decided to try something different. In many ways, the letter Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Jews living in a foreign land, speaks to the no longer dominant Christians today living in our culture.
This sermon has been prepared as a letter, using Jeremiah’s epistle as a template, written for both Archer and Abram Pattie, the two young boys who will be baptized later in the service. I hope however, that you will notice that this letter is not just for them, but also for all of us…
Dear Archer and Abram,
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce… 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.
Today is the day that you are welcomed into God’s church through baptism. All of us have gathered together to witness this incredible event, prayerfully waiting and watching for the water to be poured over your heads. We are all here because we love you, because we are committing ourselves to you, and because we have been down your path before.
But, it won’t be easy.
The world today is an entirely differently place than it used to be. 50 years ago, this church was packed with people filling up nearly every single pew. Most of the restaurants, businesses, movie theaters, were all closed on Sunday because it was expected that we maintained Sabbath and reverence for holy worship. When you went out in public you could expect to see families together in prayer, the bible and its wonderful scriptures were a part of daily living often being read from the dining room table, and churches were growing and growing.
Today, you two are being baptized into a church that no longer fits that mold. Instead of the glory days of Jerusalem, you are entering into a time where the church feels like it is in Babylonian captivity.
The church and the world have changed but that’s a good thing! You are privileged to grow up in a church that no longer has to fit the expectations of the world, but gets to instead meet the expectations of almighty God.
Grow up in this community. Dig deep roots. Make friends. Play sports. Study Hard. Take advantage of the opportunities around you. Spend time with people who do not look like you, do not talk like you, and do not act like you; learn about yourself from them. But remember one thing: God’s kingdom is not of this world. You are being welcomed into a new family that is defined by its love of God and neighbor and therefore you are part of something so much bigger and so much greater than yourselves. Rejoice in what you have here, and hold fast to the love of God that will shower down on you every single day.
Do no let 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 in my name; I did not send them.
Archer and Abram, growing up will be tough. There are going to be people, and corporations, and television shows, and politicians, and advertisements, and all sorts of other false prophets that will try to tell you about the world. Every time you turn around you will be force-fed new information about how you are supposed to see, feel, believe, and understand everything. You will be told about the importance of maintaining your individuality and allegiances to the powers around you: Truly I tell you Caesar can come in all shapes and sizes.
They will try to fill holes and spots and negativity in your lives with all sorts of garbage.
False prophets will always tell you exactly what you want to hear: If you take this weight loss pill you will have the body of your dreams, if you drive this car your neighbors will respect and admire you, if you invest enough money in our company you will never have to worry about finances again…
The only one who can ever make you whole, the only one who will every truly love you, no matter what, is the triune God.
False prophets and diviners will try to label you and help you create your own identity on their terms. But today they can never compare to your new identity in Jesus Christ. Today you are being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today you are becoming God’s children and nothing, nothing, can ever compare to that. We, the church, are here to help nurture you in your discipleship, we will take vows of love and commitment to help mold you in the faith, so that you will always remember that nothing, nothing, will ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
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.
Archer and Abram, God has a plan for both of you. From the very beginning it was God who breathed the breath of life into both of you, you were each uniquely created in the image of God. Many have claimed over the centuries that being made in the image of God means we have rational thought, or an imagination, but today I am telling you that being made in the image of God means that you were both created to be in community.
God’s plans for you include growing up in a place like this, feeling the love of God through your brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers in Christ. God wants us to be here for you, and you to be here for us.
Things will get tough in your lives. There will be moments when it feels like God does not have a plan for you, that all you see and feel and hear is anything but your welfare. But God will always be there. This church will always be there. Because of our baptismal commitments to you we will always wait with open arms ready to help you, nurture you, believe in you, and support you in everything you go through.
Many years after Jeremiah sent his letter, after Israel had fallen captive to foreign nations, after Rome had laid siege to great Jerusalem, there was little hope. But one remarkable night, God came and dwelt among us in the flesh and became hope incarnate. God walked through the streets in Jesus Christ teaching about the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and bringing people into fellowship with one another. When our love failed, when we crucified Jesus on the cross, God’s love remained steadfast and the hope that we have always waited for became real and tangible in the resurrection.
In the beginning of our faith, when Christianity was still a budding movement there was pain and fear and frustration. Many people died for the faith that is now being passed on to you, but you will probably never be required to die for your faith. More likely, you will be given the dilemma, or opportunity, to summon up the courage to react against an injustice at the grocery store, or speak up for the voiceless in an argument, or love someone who is so unlovable. It will not be large and it will not be grand, but it will be good enough. Remember who you are, and whose you are.
God has a plan for you, a plan for your welfare, to give you a future with hope. There is something greater than this world; there is something more powerful than we can imagine, something brighter than the sun, and lovelier than the moon. It is your future, your future with hope because God loved you enough to die on the cross.
Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me.
Archer and Abram, God is the one who lets us come to him with our requests and he hears and answers them. God’s gracious will to hear us, to know us, and to love us in prayer is the basis of the covenant that will take place in the waters of your baptism. God’s love is so superior, so majestic, and so clear that it makes our prayers immediately necessary.
God is ready for us to call on him. By living into a new reality, one that is shaped by prayer and scripture, by seeking God with our whole hearts, by practicing justice and loving-kindness we will find God with you.
We do not keep God locked up in this church, you do not have to be sitting in the pews or singing in the choir loft to find God. All you have to do is call upon him. When you search for God, you will find him. You will find God in the wonderment of creation, in the perfectly pitched harmonic notes of a song, in the warmth of the fire in the winter, in the hug of your mother when you make it home, in all sorts of places because God is always there.
Today you are being wrapped up into God’s great cosmic story. When you open the Bible you will now discover that it is not just some story about some people from the past but it is the very story of your lives. We are all here to rejoice with you today.
Rev. Taylor Mertins
Nearly 2,500 years ago Jeremiah wrote a letter of truth to his friends in exile. He warned that things would not turn around immediately, that they would have to persevere through tough times before God would bring them home. This letter continues to live on for all of us today. The false diviners will continue try to make sense of the world for us, we will continue to feel like a strange people in a strange land, but God has plans for us.
God wants us to love each other in the same way that he first loved us. God wants us to wrap Archer and Abram up in love to teach them the stories of scriptures and how to be in communion with the divine. And above all, God wants us to know that no matter what we are loved.