11 I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11, CEB
Although this verse has a very specific historical context, I still love it today. I don’t use it as a magic rabbit’s foot of faith – allowing me all sorts of latitude about how I live because I figure God will work it all out in the end – that’s not how I think about the passage.
But what I do remember when I read this verse is the kind of God that I worship. Here are a few characteristics of God that I hold onto in times of suffering AND in times when I’m celebrating.
God has his people in mind. He thinks about us. This fits in the category of too big for me to understand. Who am I that God would think of me (or even us for that matter)? But he does, and I do not grant myself the luxury of making up theology to fit my own limited perspective. So this I believe, as a spiritual discipline: God considers his people.
God’s disposition towards us, even when we’ve messed up, remains steady – he has plans that are for peace, not disaster. He isn’t petty or vengeful. He wants our future to be filled with hope.
I don’t always FEEL these things, but I discipline myself to BELIEVE and ACT on these things, as a being who reflects God in my world.
These last few weeks of the year, I’m putting feet to my gratitude and trying to think about how I might reflect God in my giving. I’m not talking about the perfect presents under the tree. I’m thinking about how my PRESENCE matters. I acknowledge that presence can also involve giving gifts and making fudge and sausage balls. That’s ok too. But I am actively practicing remembering that this is because of who God is and who I am, not because retailers tell me it is the Season.
11 I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11, CEB
At this point in the story, God has allowed them to be taken into exile. They are now ruled by the Babylonians. They ignored the warnings of the prophets and now they’re in yet another pretty unenviable position. But, in spite of this, God offers a promise. He wanted the people to know that this was temporary. So he gives them the words above. Keep in mind, God had a pretty specific plan. He was going to save some of his people from exile and not the others. The ones that were going to be saved are called the remnant. These words, this promise, was for the remnant. He promised to, one day, bring them out of exile. And he did.
We often want to take this promise and use it directly on ourselves. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to me because this promise is in the Bible. But, again, this promise was specific. It was a promise to save a particular group of people at a particular time. And that already happened. I believe that God still has a plan for his people and a hopeful one at that. But between now and then things are complicated.
Yes, we have a God who saves. But some still lose their lives (we all will at some point. womp. womp.) Some endure vicious suffering and tragedy. Some lives, no matter how faithful, are simply not “okay”. That’s why we need to remember the past even as we hope for the future. We trust God is who he says he is. We trust that he is faithful and merciful and loving. We trust that, no matter how our lives are turning out, that there is something more hopeful on the way, even if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime.
That’s the kind of hope the people in this passage had. They were not alive when the exile ended, but they lived with hope. That hope was founded upon who God was and what the future held. We now know that our hope is much larger than an end to exile, which has already happened. But that God has a much more extensive future in mind. It may not solve today’s problems to know that, but perhaps it gives us just a little bit of extra strength and courage. And perhaps just a little bit extra is all we need to keep moving forward.
The Lord proclaims: the learned should not boast of their knowledge, nor warriors boast of their might, nor the rich boast of their wealth. No, those who boast should boast in this: that they understand and know me. I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord. Jeremiah 9:23-24
Frankly, there’s a lot of scary stuff in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah says all sorts of harsh words in an attempt to get God’s people to remember who they are as God’s tribe. But I find that today’s two verses kind of transcend time and circumstance.
Here’s the deal – we have strengths and weaknesses; we spend lots of time focusing on our weaknesses, but it turns out that sometimes our strengths can actually get us in trouble. Do you have a strength that you have relied on too much?
I watched a funny guy this week try to use humor to muscle his way through a terrible situation – it wasn’t pretty. I have a friend who has that angry man routine down – but when his wife got a cancer diagnosis what he needed was less mad man, more vulnerability.
Today, spend a few minutes asking yourself if perhaps you’ve leaned too heavily on your strengths. There’s more to you than you think! Remember who you are. You are a child of God. You have everything you need to be who you need to be a blessing to others in any circumstance. Tomorrow, Scott will help us remember more the historical context of the book of Jeremiah.
6 The Lord proclaims:
For three crimes of Israel,
and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment,
because they have sold the innocent for silver,
and those in need for a pair of sandals.
7 They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way. Amos 2:6-7, CEB
The prophets section of God’s story has very little to do with telling the future. That’s how we usually think of prophets. Instead, the prophets were usually the people who stood up and told the people what they were doing wrong. Typically, they would tell everyone that they weren’t properly caring for the needy, that they’d been selfish and greedy, that they had pursued other things before God, and so on and so forth. They would look at the people, collectively, and figure out how their lives did NOT reflect God. And then they’d say some pretty nasty stuff about it.
This took place over a long period of time. The individual books we call prophets had different settings. Some of these prophecies were warnings. The prophets were telling the people, look, if you don’t start reflecting God again, then he’s going to take away what he’s given us. He’s going to let someone else come in and take over our land and rule over us. It took many, many ignored warnings before God allowed the people to be taken over. They were put in “exile”. It was like another Exodus story was happening. The people were again being ruled.
Amos takes place before that exile happened. His voice is one of warning. He points out that the people have sought money and personal gain over the needs of “the innocent”. God has repeatedly asked his people to prioritize each other, to look out for each other, and to provide for each other’s needs. Amos is pointing out that they haven’t done that. In fact, they’ve added to each other’s problems.
People often ask the question, why did God allow his people to be taken into slavery once again? How is that fair? In reality, God saw the injustice that was going on amongst his people for ages and ages, begged them to follow his path of mercy, justice, and righteousness, and they refused.
We, as God’s people, still do this today. We’ve all been part of communities where we see people forget how to prioritize each other, how to prioritize people, and it ruins everything. Many churches and faith communities lose sight of their calling to live out God’s love. These words are not just warnings to an ancient people in an irrelevant story. They are timeless reminders of who we’re called to be, day-in, and day-out, for the totality of our lives. We’ll forget and we’ll go astray. We’ll have times when we don’t live these things out. But it’s important that we help each other remember these words. Otherwise, well, I suppose we will be just as lost as the Israelites were at that point in time.
As Scott said yesterday, the Israelites finally entered the promised land. But we’ll soon find out that it didn’t change their defects of character. In recovery rooms, there is a saying that goes something like this, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
When I was in fourth grade, I asked for a bicycle for Christmas. I prayed for God to help Santa deliver said bicycle, believing that this bike would be my vehicle to freedom. I bargained and promised and begged. I asked for a particular bike of a certain color with a light on the front. Even at that age, I believed that wonderful and mysterious adventures occur more often in the dark than light. (I had a few years left in this age of innocence before my dad started telling me that NOTHING GOOD happened after 11:30 pm at night- hence, my curfew.) So it was with great fear and anticipation that my brothers and I crept down the stairs to the basement about 4 a.m….and what to my fiercely searching eyes should appear? A teal green (perfect) bike with a brightly shining headlight stared back at me! Oh the joy! But our 4 a.m. foray was discovered, and we ran back to bed. In haste, I left the lamp on the bike burning, and by 7 a.m., the light was no more. The batteries were dead, and somehow they never were replaced. From 4 to 7 a.m. I was the happiest girl on the planet, but by 11 a.m., my smile was still intact, but my creeping disappointment was getting the better of me. What I continued to learn from Christmas was not even the perfect Santa delivery actually changed my internal state of affairs – stuff just doesn’t have that power. And evidently, neither does a big chunk of land.
4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord.
7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me[a] from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.” 1 Samuel 8:4-9 CEB
Although the Israelites made it to the promised land by the grace and mercy of a God who brought them out of slavery, they soon studied their neighbors and began to covet their “stuff”. In this case, it was their style of government.
Today, can we spend a few minutes asking God to show us the ways we keep coveting “stuff” rather than remembering rightly that God is with us, and he is up to something that is far more important than a shiny bike or a mere mortal for a king?
After Moses the Lord’s servant died, the Lord spoke to Joshua, Nun’s son. He had been Moses’ helper. 2 “My servant Moses is dead. Now get ready to cross over the Jordan with this entire people to the land that I am going to give to the Israelites. 3 I am giving you every place where you set foot, exactly as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will stretch from the desert and the Lebanon as far as the great Euphrates River, including all Hittite land, up to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. 5 No one will be able to stand up against you during your lifetime. I will be with you in the same way I was with Moses. I won’t desert you or leave you. 6 Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors. Joshua 1:1-6, CEB
Joshua ends up being a pretty disturbing book. I do not know what to make of some of it. There’s a lot of violence. God brings his people into the land that he wants them to have, but in order to get it, they have to, ehem, remove other people from it first. I have a lot of questions about that and I’ve never really found much in the way of a satisfactory answer. I have heard some really helpful thoughts, though, if anyone is ever interested in that particular conversation.
God’s discipline lasted for a little while and now the people get what God promised. God didn’t withhold or change his promises based on the fact that the people “acted a fool”, but he did delay his promises a bit. Now they have something else to be thankful for, they have something else to add to the list. They’re not a world power. They’re not an empire. But, they have the home God promised. For them this meant safety and security. It meant that they could have a future. The land was a symbol of Israel’s hope that God would provide and honor his part of the relationship. It’s something God promised all the way back to Abraham, and the people held on to that hope ever since. They didn’t hope just because they wanted their own land so badly but because of what getting the land would mean- that God cared for them, provided for them, was honest with them and faithful to them.
It came with it’s own sets of problems and challenges and temptations. But, it serves as yet another example of God standing by his promise to be faithful to his people. He brought them out of slavery, brought them through wilderness, and brought them into the land.
He continues to show them time and again what kind of God he is. He doesn’t do this through giving them doctrines to believe, but instead through acting in ways that show his people who he is. All he asks is that the people, as a unit, also try to act in ways that show people who he is. This is how people continue to live out the task he gave back in Genesis: take care of creation.
In this same way, we learn who God is. It’s less important that we be able to less attributes, characteristics, or doctrines than it is to truly know and believe deep down that God is a God who saves and he’s worth committing to. And he’s worth trying to imitate in our lives. He shows up for his people time and time again.
Are we thankful for that kind of God? How does that change us?
6 The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed:
“The Lord! The Lord!
a God who is compassionate and merciful,
full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
7 showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
punishing for their parents’ sins
their children and their grandchildren,
as well as the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7, CEB
Throughout this story, God is steadfastly loyal and committed to his people. They are not always steadfastly loyal or committed him. As you read the story, you see it takes hundreds of years for God to get upset. Well, it takes hundreds of years for God to act on it. He calls the people, again and again, promising mercy, forgiveness, and restoration if they’ll just do that bit of “reflecting God”. Or trusting him. Or simply continuing to commit to him, however imperfectly.
When the people are out of Egypt, they want a land of their own. They want a place to call home. They’re tired of being nomads. God has promised this to them. But, as always, this becomes a complicated affair. The people consistently choose to follow their own way of seeing rather than God’s way of seeing. They struggle to really grasp the fact that God wants to provide for them. After all, he has a plan. He wants to use Israel to show the world who he is. But they’re making that difficult. So part of what we see in Exodus is the back-and-forth between the people and their desire to get in the land, and God saying, “You know what, you’re going to have to wait.”
But the land isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. It’s never about whatever we think it’s about. The people thought the land would cure everything. Just as they later think having a king will cure everything. They have a God who shows up for them time and again and his only request is that they be “his people”. Show the rest of the world who I am, God asks. That does happen to a certain extent, of course. The story is always a both/and.
We struggle with staying focused today, both as individuals and groups. We see what people in our country think of Christians. We’re often known more for what we hate and are against than for the fact that people really see God’s love in our lives. And yet, we have a God who is steadfastly loyal. His mercy, patience, and faithfulness last thousands of generations where his discipline lasts only as long as it needs to.
I wonder if God’s followers, today, have truly grasped this cautionary tale. What can we do, as a community, to reflect God to the world without getting lost in all of our distractions?