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Sermon - January 11, 2015

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC)                                                           Sermon # 1196

January 11, 2015                                                                                            Jeremiah 29:1-14

Dr. Ed Pettus

(This sermon is not verbatim but the "pre-manuscript" as I am now preaching only with an outline.)

“A Letter to Exiles”

One of the problems that the church has had to face in this country probably began in the 1960’s in what was called the sexual revolution and all that came about in that era, it has progressively, from the view of many people, gone downhill as far as our claim to be a Christian nation.  At least from the perspective reflected in the culture, in government, in education, medicine, these, and more, have moved into a place where these sectors barely reflect anything of the Christian faith and practice.  In that movement away from Christianity we have seen radical departures from what we once knew or at least assumed was a Christian narrative that permeated our country.  I remember the book by William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas called Resident Aliens and their little anecdote to mark the fall of Christendom in America.  What happened was that on a Sunday in Greenville SC in 1963 the movie theater opened for business.  The Church no longer had sole propriety on Sunday.  The Sabbath was no longer a national Sabbath.  They were of course citing an example of how the national attitude toward Sunday had changed and today it is strange for us to see anything that is actually closed on Sunday.  Chick-fil-a and Hobby Lobby might be the only two businesses left where you can’t get a chicken sandwich and a craft item.  The culture has changed so much since the sixties that a there is now no concern at all for Sabbath keeping as a society or as a nation.  It is no longer a part of the cultural fabric as it once was prior to the sixties. 

What I want to talk about today is the church’s problem of no longer having this atmosphere or consciousness as a nation of the Judeo-Christian tradition and foundation.  We no longer have the kind of influence we once had so that we find ourselves as the Church in America in an unusual place.  How do we respond when we have become resident aliens in our own land?  In one sense we might call ourselves exiles.  We have not been taken from our homes or out of our country, but our country, we might say, has been taken from us.  Therefore we live in a culture and nation that is more secular and even anti-Christian, growing more and more to reflect humanism or other ideologies, even other faith traditions more than Christianity.  And if that is the case for us, if we are facing an exile, if we are becoming aliens as Christians among the people of this country, how do we respond to that?  What are we to do? 

The Church has been struggling with that question for a long time.  The Church has been searching for answers to find its way in the culture.  Churches have emphasized things like evangelism.  I remember when evangelism was so highly emphasized in the PCUSA and that is a good thing, we do need to learn to share the story of Jesus Christ and the gospel.  Others sought to become seeker churches and that gave rise to some mega church movements, but the problem with that as I see it is the church is the gathering of believers, it is the place of worship.  Now we welcome anyone to come and hope that our worship will help move them in the right direction with Christ, but our main purpose here on Sunday morning is to praise God and give thanks and worship.  So our worship is not geared to the non-believer, and to really think about it is not really even geared to the believer, but it is geared toward God alone (but that is another sermon).  The Church has been searching for its place.  Even in the sixties and seventies the church still had a voice in culture to a great extent, but it was fading.  The Church used to be the social gathering place and the source of many aspects of American life. 

At one time we were a church that knew its place in culture, that we start schools and build hospitals and influence politics and touch education, and then find that hospitals today are sometimes dropping totally any name associated with a denomination or schools that are backing away from church affiliation and public schools are growing as secular as they possibly can. 

 

            What if we are a people in exile?  We are certainly not being persecuted, at least, not close to the extent of those in North Korea or China or Iraq or other parts of the world.  We are not in danger of jail time by gathering for worship this morning.  But we are in a unique position in the history of our country.  So, one of the places we might consider finding answers to our question of exile, if we are in some type of exile, is Jeremiah.  We are not like the Jews in Jeremiah’s day who were displaced from their home.  They had been removed from their land.  It is not like we have been driven out of our homes or nation, but we have been displaced culturally and socially. 

 

In Jeremiah 29 we fine a letter that the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the exiles, “These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:1). 

If we consider exiles then, driven out of their homeland and living in Babylon, and they were forced to live in a foreign land among foreign people who did not share their beliefs or traditions or scripture or worship or God.  And Jeremiah tells them, here is what the Lord wants you to in your current situation, in your exile.

 

We begin in verse 4 - “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 

 

Note first of all who sent Israel into exile.  It was God!   The Lord is the one who sent them into exile because they refused to obey God, they refused to follow his commands, and they refused to honor his name.  Now, if those are reasons for exile and we consider ourselves in a type of exile then we must at least entertain the possibilities of why we are experiencing our situation today.  Why are we growing more alienated in our own culture?  Is there a judgment on the church or is it a judgment on the nation or is it a judgment at all?  But we need to think about that – to consider that as a possibility.

 

Look at verse 5,

5 “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their 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.” 

 

Live here; live were you are.  Make the best of the situation.  Build homes, build families, don’t decrease in your numbers.  Someone handed me a book a few months ago and wanted to know my thoughts on it.  I read part of a book and skimmed some of it.  The book was primarily about the end times and the subtitle suggested that we should flee America.  I’m not sure how he warrants that according to scripture but I suspect it takes great leaps of faith.  But what strikes me about that idea compared to Jeremiah 29 is that God does not call people to flee Babylon and I seriously doubt God would call for a mass exodus from America.  God would more likely call us to continue to make our lives here, reaching out to people and proclaiming the gospel – to make disciples and teach them everything Jesus taught, that is, to fulfill the Great Commission.  What if we take Jeremiah 29 as a letter to the church today?   Make a life where you are, build houses, make families.

 

Then in verse 7 we read,

 

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. 

 

We are called on to seek the peace, seek the good, seek the welfare of the city.  Now there have been a lot of strategies to make America a better place.  There is a huge movement in a part of the Christian world to get Christians into political positions.  The conversation is about getting America back to God.  This strategy is to get involved in the political process, to get Christians in office and in places of power so that we can seek the welfare of the city.  And this is all good because we believe that the best way to live is to hold fast to Christian values, to live by the book, and so this is one strategy to seek out the welfare of the city.

 

Jesus seems to take a strategy that dealt with people one on one.  Love God and neighbor.  Love one another.  Love your enemies.  Jesus deals with people more than he deals with systems political or otherwise.  Now, granted, Jesus did not live in a time or place of democracies like the United States.  But there were some similarities in his time like taxes!  When he was asked about paying taxes Matthew tells this story:

Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away” (Matt. 22:17-22).

Jesus’ strategy seems to more in line with living in peace with the government whatever it might be at least insofar as that government does not try to force us to disobey God.  Another strategy might be to simply deal with people by making disciples and we seek the welfare of the city by bringing more people into the kingdom of God.  Less on the politics, more on relationships. 

 

Jeremiah’s letter might indicate a strategy that just says be good citizens.  Live where you are, seek the welfare of the city, do not be deceived, and hope in God. 

 

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your 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 to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

 

This is as powerful today as it was then.  We see and hear so many false teachings today.  There are false teachings among Christians as well as in the world outside of Christianity.  Just look at the political culture it seems to be one side telling the other that they are all false teachers.  Republicans believe that about Democrats and vice versa.  Each is vying for their views on how to run a country or state or community.  This is why it is so important for us to know the Bible and good doctrine that comes out of the Bible.  Knowing the truth is the only way we can discern that which is false.  What we say is that the best way to run a nation is to do so by God’s book, God’s commandments, recognizing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  And so we seek the welfare of the city whether we are seeking to be active in politics or just seeking to be good citizens and in either case we are seeking to share the gospel message.  We seek the welfare of the city by seeking to be faithful to God and building good relationships and living in righteousness and in love and hope and faith.  We are seeking to be a light in the darkness.  And there are many people trying to tell us that our way is false and their way is true.  There are teachings out there that are close to biblical truth, but they are lies.  One of the classic examples is when you see someone in a TV show that says in the story line, “money is the root of all evil.”  Lots of good Christian people might nod their heads in agreement thinking that is what the Bible says.  But it is not what the Bible says.  The Bible says the love of money is the root of kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).  And what that is really saying is that anything we love more than God is a root of evil.  Love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  We love family and friends and country and things, but nothing above and before God. 

There are false teachers in the world and in our nation.  Many of the advertisements we see are false teachings.  One of my favorites on TV several years ago was the Sprite commercial that told us we should obey our thirst.  Does the Bible ever say we should obey our thirst?  No.  In fact all our senses are suspect when it comes to determining truth.  That is why we do not act on teachings like “if it feels good do it”.  Our senses will fool us.  We cannot believe everything we see or hear or smell or feel…we obey God alone.  We walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  So, Jeremiah tells them and us, do not listen to their dreams and do not let them deceive you.

 

We do not know what our future holds as far as this letter to Israel, but God told them that he would visit them in seventy years.

 

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 

 

Now, people pluck this famous verse out, verse 11, I have plans for you.  People use this verse out of its context thinking that it is a individual plan for each of us, a personal plan that we have to hit or miss.  But that is not what this verse is about.  This plan is for an entire community, for the people of God.  I have plans for my people, to bring them home.  That plan is in a bigger picture as well.  I am going to bring you home in the person of Jesus Christ, the long awaited Messiah is coming to take on all our sin, all that alienates us will be destroyed, all that causes exile.  Jesus is going to bring us home, right now in the kingdom of God we are home in Jesus Christ.  We also have a future and a hope in Jesus in things like the promise of John 14 that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us.

 

 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (1-3).

 

Our hope is we will have another homecoming. 

I don’t know what the country is going to look like in ten or twenty or fifty years.  It seems that we are quickly moving further away from the Christian way, further into exile, further into secularization.  But there is a plan and a hope for God’s people.  The biggest hope is that God will do these things…

 

12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

 

It is God’s doing, not our doing.  There a lot of things God calls us to do but ultimately God will fulfill God’s promise and purpose for us.  We could brainstorm for the next hour all the things we might recall of what God tells us to do.  In the big picture God has a plan and a future and a hope for us.  We do not know what the future holds for our nation.  We do not know if Jesus will come back in our generation.  If he does not return soon we do not know how our nation will be for future generations.  Jeremiah calls our attention to a plan for exiles who, like us, lived among people who do not share our values or our faith.  We are called to:

 

Live faithfully where we are.

Seek the welfare of the city.

Do not be deceived.

For God has promises to keep. 

 

We look to God’s future restoration of all things in the promised Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.