Jeremiah 29.1, 4–7
Sometimes, when I look at where I am in life, I wonder how I got here. I could never have predicted when I was a young boy growing up that one day I’d be a minister in a church that I’d never heard of, a church that didn’t exist yet. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be living in a place on the other side of the world, where my birthday was in winter and Christmas was in summer.
I couldn’t have dreamt that most of us would have phones even better than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. I never imagined that the smart phones we now have would have more powerful computers than those that guided the moon landing in 1968.
I couldn’t have dreamt that my daughter Erin would come to me when she was a little girl and ask my if I played with Blu-tac as a boy. When I told her that we didn’t have Blu-tac when I was a boy, she straightaway asked me if I played with twisty-ties. I had to tell her there were no twisty-ties when I was a kid either. I felt so old.
I couldn’t have dreamt that the pace of change would be so fast that you now hear twenty year-olds saying, Back in the day…
It’s not all light-hearted, though. I couldn’t have dreamt in my wildest nightmares that I’d be living in a time when 97% of climatologists tell us that climate change is real, and that human activity bears a great deal of the responsibility.
I couldn’t have dreamt I’d see the largest displacement of people from their homes in world history. That’s what we’re seeing in Syria right now as people flee or are driven from their homes. The World Health Organisation has called this the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis on earth. According to The Atlantic magazine:
Four million Syrians are internally displaced; with homes either destroyed or unsafe, they have moved to temporary housing within Syria’s borders. Another two million have now fled the country, pouring into neighbouring countries at a rate of nearly 6,000 every day.
Those of us who went to the Holy Land in April heard something about this while travelling through Jordan.
No one knew how true it was back in 1964 when Bob Dylan sang The times they are a-changing. But then, I doubt he did either.
We don’t all ‘do’ change well, so what do we do when the times are changing? Hide from it, embrace it, go with the flow?
We’re not the only ones who have lived in changing times; the prophet Jeremiah lived in such times too, except much worse. In his day, Jerusalem was under threat from the Babylonian empire. The Babylonian armies had Jerusalem by the throat. What could they do?
The Jerusalem ‘establishment’ plays with the idea of resisting the Babylonian armies. They believe that if they fight, God will not let Jerusalem be taken.
Jeremiah, the prophet who speaks in the name of God, says resistance is futile. The choices are to die or submit to Babylon. According to Jeremiah, God wants the people to submit. If they do, they will go into exile for three generations—but the nation of Judah will survive. (See Brueggemann, Jeremiah.)
This message gets Jeremiah into a lot of trouble. People don’t like it. He almost loses his life over it.
In the end, Jeremiah tells them they will go into exile, they will be taken away from their land. It will last seventy years. And he tells them what to do in exile.
Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
In other words, see God’s hand in the events of your life and your time in history. Put down roots, flourish where you are, don’t yearn for the ‘good old days’ or itch for things to get better again. Choose life, and choose life now.
That’s not exactly what we expect to hear when things are changing perhaps too quickly for us. It’s certainly not what people who are in exile in a foreign land expect to hear. Mostly, they expect to hear something like Psalm 137 (REB):
By the rivers of Babylon
we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there
we hung up our lyres,
for there those who had carried us captive
asked us to sing them a song,
our captors called on us to be joyful:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Jeremiah says something quite different: Settle down for the long haul. It’s going to take a while. Work for the good of everyone around you. Including your enemies, the people who brought you into exile in this strange land.
The change that Jeremiah went through may be vastly different from anything happening here in our corner of Brisbane. But we are going through times in which the pace of change is going up and up and up. What should be our response?
We could take the Psalm 137 approach, and lament our situation. And sometimes, that is the creative and life-giving thing to do. We’re not used to hearing about ‘lament’, even though the scriptures are full of lament. It’s not the same as feeling sorry for yourself; lament is pouring your aching, grieving heart out before God who listens to our cries and collects our tears. When we lament before God, we open up the way to taking a step towards being whole again.
The way that Jeremiah counsels is perhaps a step beyond lament. When the change has happened, when our tears are dried, what should we do next?
Jeremiah says put down roots, be planted in the present, and look for what God will do. And seek the welfare of everyone around you—not just your own people, but everyone.
We are living in the midst of incredible change. That’s part of the background to our Ministry Development Month. We’re being asked to Lend a Hand when much of our energies may be coping with changes in our life, in the world, in the church—changes that make us feel busy. We’re being asked to follow Jeremiah’s word, to help this congregation flourish and grow. I hope we’re all examining our place in this congregation, the roles we can play, the groups we can be part of, the life we can share one with another.
But remember also: Jeremiah says, Promote the welfare of your city. We’re not lending a hand just for us, or even for new people who join us. It’s for the good of the city, for the good of the world. It’s so we can reach out to others with love and grace, so we can forgive one another, so we can join with people of goodwill to build a better world.
I invite you to reflect on lending a hand in this time of change, and don’t forget—it’s never ever just for us.