Leaning on Wisdom from Jeremiah this New Year
Hey there church family and friends! Today's blog is the final for 2021 - a year that has both had some wonderful high's in our church (Reading the Bible completion, Christmas gathering, and the giving of $20k+ towards outreach partnerships to name some) and some deep and painful lows (loss of too many beloved saints and COVID-19 waves continuing.) As we end this year with quickly rushing towards another peak with yet another variant of COVID-19, it's difficult to really feel the "happy" or even the "new" year that goes with the respective warm wishes. Sure, the ball will drop, the year will change, but does anything really feel that different? I nonetheless believe that God remains with us through this and even has words from an ancient prophet to help us.
Jeremiah is one of the prophets during the exile to Babylon and he is probably most well known for Jeremiah 29:11. You know the one - "For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you, and not forsake you." That's a good word for the exiles of COVID-19 going into the new year itching to better ourselves and our relationships. However, the greater context of Jeremiah 29:11 is often not mentioned or preached on because it feels gray in comparison to the grand "light" of that glorious promise. You must understand that Jeremiah is a prophet during the exile. He was surrounded by despair, pain, death, and oppression from the moment he awoke to the moment he went asleep. To make matters even more difficult for him, he was a leader among the people and they often looked to him for counsel, renewal, and decisions. Like many of our brave (and burnt out) medical caregivers, Jeremiah had to face distraught (and angry) families with bad news nearly everyday. One such bad news comes at the beginning of Jeremiah 29 when God gives Jeremiah a message with instructions to relay it to the gathered people. "For the next 70 years you will remain in captivity. Do not try to escape. Do not try to change this. Do not listen to false prophets that give false hope. Instead, build homes, plant gardens, and settle down in babylon." What...? 70 years? Babylon? For us, that would be Dr. Fauci or someone equivalent standing before us and saying "This will last the rest of your lifetimes, even some of your children's lifetimes - nothing can change that." Can you imagine? It would be soul crushing to say the least. It is here, in this absolute moment of despair, that God gives us the tremendous words of Jeremiah 29:11 reassuring us that there is a plan and God will not forsake us.
That's great and all....but what about now? The now that includes building homes, gardens, and settling in to the reality of Babylon? What about the now that will be now for 70 years? This is the threshold of faith that lingers between "light" and "dark" that I believe too many churches, faith leaders, and authors are afraid to look at too long. Ask anyone on Sunday what they want from a church service and the majority of the answers will be something to the effect of: "hope", "encouragement", "inspiration", "to see friends", or something else to the effect. In other words - want affirmation and positivity. Christian hope is a massive success - emotionally and financially. Some of the largest churches in the world follow the law of prosperity teaching and a majority of the top selling Christian books each year have to do with self improvement, not difficult conversations around justice and equality like Jesus would have had. There's good reason for this theologically too. Jesus is called the light of the world who came to cast out the darkness. If darkness represents sin, despair, death, oppression, than Jesus illuminates His followers and liberates them from those things. Those megachurches and successful authors preach such things that if you find yourself in darkness it's not because of the darkness, but rather the lack of your light (read: faith.)
COVID-19 has surely been a "dark" time. Not only have lives been lost, but businesses have closed, the mental health of the country is in the trash, and fear and anxiety have left our nervous systems exhausted. If COVID-19 could erase with a snap of our fingers I believe that the sound of 7.7 billion people snapping their fingers would be deafening. However, we can't and the darkness remains with us for another year. But what if God isn't just a liberator of darkness, but exists in the darkness as well? Hear me out.
In the classic story of Jacob he laments that he wants to experience a blessing like his brother Esau had. However, Jacob's blessing comes in a unique way...he "fights" (technically wrestles) with God all night long. His blessing doesn't come without cost either as he is afflicted with a permanent limp from there on. What was his blessing? He was renamed Israel, meaning "contends with God." What if our blessings come in the night? What if to experience blessing it's not all sunshine and roses but comes with contention and difficulty? Fast forward back to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah surely looked at the nation of Israel (contenders with God) in a place of desperation and despair and had to think about the origin of their people. A blessing that came in the night. A blessing that came at a cost. WIth this in mind, Jeremiah looks to the people and says "settle down" for the night will be long, but the light will come. How do he know that? Because of verse 11. "Plans to prosper you and not forsake you." I believe that we will experience verse 11, but we need to go through the first 10 faithfully believing and even fighting for our faith in the face of darkness, despair, and the night.
As we turn the page on a new year with familiar battles awaiting us on the other side I believe that we're facing our own Jeremiah 29 moment some 2,000 years later. What if the challenge for us this next year isn't to lean fully into the false prophets that offer us cheap hope, but contend with the possibility that we must "settle down, build homes, plant gardens" in Babylon. In other words - what if the pandemic can teach us an unexplored side of God's love that can only be found in the dark?
Perhaps this story will help illuminate (pun intended) what I mean. Every summer as a teenanger I would go to boy scout camp for a week doing merit badges and growing closer with my troop and meeting new friends in neighboring troops. The first night is the scariest and I would keep one hand on my flashlight at all times ready to shine it at any little movement that I heard. But the first night also meant the first round of manhunt - a mix between capture the flag and hide and seek. I remember my first ever game of manhunt my heart was pounding out of my chest and I was staying as close to one of the older scouts as possible. He kept having to turn around to tell me to turn off my flashlight so I wouldn't give away our spot. He reminded me in my anxiety that if I give it enough time without light my eyes will adjust to the dark and I'll see a wonderful world on the spectrum of black. Sure enough I did and suddenly not only was the game more fun but the world was less scary. By the end of the week every boy in that campground was more eager for the sun to set than to rise again because we knew a world we don't often see was where some of the most fun (and growth) would occur.
Of course, we cannot remain in the dark forever. Just as surely as dark will follow light, so too will light follow dark. This is what helps us be people of the light and faithful that God is sovereign and will see us through every dark valley, including this one. So, while you consider your personal resolutions this year I lift up to you the familiar words of Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not forsake you." Until those plans for our COVID stricken world come true...I encourage you to turn off your flashlights, snuff out your candles, and let your eyes do the magic they were designed to do. I believe when our eyes adjust to the dark we'll not only have a new year, but a renewed one too.
Happy new year church, thanks for listening, reading, and being a constant source of encouragement and growth for me this past year. I can only hope to return the blessing.
Scripture that inspired
Jeremiah 29: 4-11
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. 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.
Genesis 32: 22-32
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[c] and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Go to a favorite place in your home, yard, or town during the daytime and write a list of everything that you see, hear, and smell. If you're an artist, perhaps try to sketch it.
Now, return to this place later in the evening when the sun has set. Once more write a list of everything that you see, hear, and smell.
What is different? What is the same? Do you experience things during one that you do not during the other?
Allow this activity to not only be a lesson for your faith as we face another year of COVID, but a lesson for your personal resolutions as well. Even in the "dark" when we mess up, fall out of a budding habit, or fail...there are still new and beautiful things to see in the dark. God is with you in all places and in all times.
Praying with Praise
I love this song for many reasons but I think its fits the theme of today's blog pretty well. Austin French turns the traditional question of "why God" in response to devastating news into a prayer of gratitude and recommitment. In this new year may we discover new ways of turning over despair into opportunities for praise.
Has this blog helped you this past year? Consider sharing it with a friend and encouraging them to follow along with you as a new spiritual practice for 2022.
PS - I've really been digging deep into the whole "light" and "dark" thing this past month with a number of fantastic books on the matter. If you're interested by this let us know - we might be able to turn this into a message series this next year.
Books that inspired today's blog:
Learning to Walk in the Dark - Barbara Brown Taylor (spectacular read)
The Wisdom Pattern: Order | Disorder | Reorder - Richard Rohr (A "Rohr"ing success.) (I'm sorry.)