Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Many of you know that my parents recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. The celebration happened last Sunday; the planning has been going on since early August. What fun it was to plan this party and to surprise them with it! They knew there was going to be a coffee hour in their honor. They didn’t know that seven family members would be there, and they didn’t know that they would receive a congratulatory certificate signed by President Joe Biden. I was only a single member of a large planning team, but it sure was a joy to do it! And we did surprise them!!
I do like to plan surprises for others. I also like to make plans for myself and my life, and I like to work to carry them to completion. I suspect that I am not alone in this. Right? Anyone else enjoy planning? Whether it be an event or an educational goal, a career trajectory or a growing family, we human beings love to plan. We are created in the image of a God who also loves to plan.
Planning is intricately tied to hope, and both are tied to the future. In our Bible passage today, we heard a passage from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 7th century BC. The passage we heard today contains a fairly famous verse, one that is often stitched or painted or embroidered on wall hangings and quilts and greeting cards.
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.
It must have been a comforting message to receive. And yet, this verse immediately follows verse 10, in which Jeremiah writes that the people will be in Babylon for seventy years! Through Jeremiah, the Lord tells the exiles to build houses, settle down, marry and have children, and give those children in marriage, to multiply in numbers. God tells them to seek the welfare of the city in which they are living and to pray for its welfare.
So, while the message of hope about God’s plans for them might have seemed to be about their return from exile, when read with the earlier verses it seems that God’s plan for them is not some future hope at all. God has plans, right now while they are in Babylon, for their welfare and not for harm; God has plans, right now while they are in exile, for a future with hope.
And the people have a part in bringing about this plan. They are to pray for the city where they find themselves, for its welfare. And they are to keep from listening to those prophets among them whose message differs from this one (we know that other prophets were saying that the exile would end in two years); God stands solidly behind what he has told Jeremiah. It will be 70 years.
Few, if any, of us know what it is like to be in exile in a country not our own. We live in safety, security, and comfort – and we are used to our plans working out pretty well, most of the time. However, we frequently forget the needs of those less fortunate; we look the other way when others are harmed; and we often praise our own cleverness for our own successes, rather than leaning on and thanking our God.
Our world is still in the throes of COVID-19. Although things are improving slowly, we are definitely not out of the woods. We are grateful – very grateful – for the medical advances that have come to our aid and have made certain things possible again: gathering in person for worship; having communion; being together with family and friends at the holidays; and being able to have school in person again, among many others. But most of us live these days in a cautious optimism, hoping that our lives will continue to be more and more as they were, in terms of the virus, while knowing that the reality may be different.
Through Jeremiah, God said to the exiles (who were still going to be exiles for a very long time) that God had plans for them, plans for their welfare and not for harm, to give them a future with hope. Through this verse, as we read it today in our context, God says to us that right now, today, with COVID still around; right now, today, with the ways we continue to ignore the needs of others; right now, today, with our self-centeredness and our following after other gods; right now, today, God has plans for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.
On this first Sunday in Advent, we begin our annual journey to the manger, where all of God’s plans lay wrapped in bands of cloth. Here, in Bethlehem, with his unwed parents who have traveled many miles only to find no room in the inn, this baby comes to shepherds. What kind of a plan is that?!
In his life, and in his death, he did not look like a king. He did not look like the one who would save Israel. He did not look like the one they were waiting for. He looked like a carpenter, with a straggly band of followers, roaming the countryside and speaking of love, while healing hearts and minds. But he didn’t look like a king, or a savior, or the One. What kind of a plan was that?!
On the cross, in agony yet forgiving others, he did not look like the Promised One. Calling out in thirst, he did not look like the Savior of the world. Dying, he didn’t look like one who had conquered death. What kind of a plan could that be?
This Jesus, whose birth we await; this teacher and healer, whose words remind us of whose we are; this crucified one, whose death sets us free from death; this is God’s plan for us. This Jesus is God’s plan to bring us back from our exiles of self-centeredness, greed, apathy, hopelessness. This is God’s plan: God has plans for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future and a hope.
God calls us home. God has given his Son for us. When we follow him, our plans will be his plans, and his hope our hope. In our world, there will still be pain. Let us be the salve. In our world, there will still be sorrow. Let us be present with those who sorrow. In our world, there will still be poverty, injustice, sickness and death. Let us open our hearts and hands in care for those in need.
May the Christ who comes at Christmastime, be in your hearts all year long. May the love of God enliven all of your plans and hopes, as you bring joy to others. And may the Spirit’s fire light up your spirit, that you may have hope.