Plans to prosper you and not to harm you
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon just after 598 BC. It was personally delivered by two of his friends, Elasah and Gemariah. Jeremiah’s words are full of vision and of common sense. You don’t get that combination very often. Visionaries often lack common sense and common sense people are usually not visionaries. The background of the letter was that Jews in exile were being incited by lesser prophets to rebel against their exile and its conditions so that they could get back home. Hatred had led to riots and two of the most prominent rabble rousers, Zedekiah and Ahab had been burned alive by the king of Babylon. Jeremiah, a pacifist by nature, urged calmer considerations. But this letter was important for a greater reason. Jews thought that they could only worship God truly in Jerusalem. Here Jeremiah moves beyond that concept of God to the universal understanding of God that we take for granted today.
Jeremiah gave the opposite advice and counsel that the Jewish exiles had been receiving from their ministers and pastors. Firstly, he urged them to marry and have children and continue and grow the Jewish people. Secondly, he advised them to live at peace and actively seek the prosperity of Babylon and its people. In other words, they were to trade and use their skills. This was not easy for them to accept. They hated their exile and had lost everything. Passive acceptance of their fate was not in their instincts. Jeremiah even asked the Jews to pray to the Lord for the success of Babylon and its people. Next, he warned against the deceptions of false teachers and diviners. These were such that the people themselves went to and encouraged to tell the future. Jeremiah’s stern rebuke was 'They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them', declares the Lord. Some of this sounds familiar to us all these years hence. Christians and Christianity can be described as internal exiles in Britain today. We live in an environment which is alien to our living faith in which other gods are worshipped. If we stand up to be counted, we will suffer for it. Our Church has its share of mistaken leaders with their own ideas who do not speak for God or for Jesus Christ. Other Christians leaders think we Christians are too passive and need to assert our presence in order to be taken more seriously. We continuously pray for our nation’s people and its leaders whether or not they are Christian. Indeed, some are actively hostile to Christianity - but we pray for them just the same. And - our society is riddled with spiritualist mediums and clairvoyants, fortune tellers and fake healers, a lot of whom are making good money out of their deceptions.
So Jeremiah would say to us the same things this new year. Carry on with life and living, enjoy your children and theirs, continue with Christian faith and witness. Contribute to society, work hard and be respectful of others and pray for everyone. The fact that time and culture are today against Christianity is something to bear with dignity and with hope. It is no reason to give up our own Faith. Nor should we become like all around us, nor hate those who have damaged and endangered the Church.
But Jeremiah was able to offer the Jews in exile a definite date for their return. 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place'. We do not have that kind of certainty. God has not revealed to Christians when our internal exile will end and Christianity will again be placed at the heart and centre of our nation’s life and values. But Jeremiah wrote with further assurances. 'I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'. We can take these words of God to our own hearts at the beginning of this new year. The trials and struggles of life can discourage our faith. We can be burdened and we can be cast down. We can doubt God’s love and concern for us and even doubt God’s existence. We may feel that only a few of our prayers are answered against the many requests we have made. We may feel odd in this society now, alone among our circle of friends for being a Christian. And we may wonder how the Church is going to survive in years to come. We can take Jeremiah’s encouraging prophetic words to our comfort and inspiration. Listen. I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jesus Himself said 'I will be with you always' - no matter what happens - till the end of your days. Even if the present fills us with apprehension - when we look back - we see the stacked up evidence of God’s faithfulness to us.
Jeremiah’s positive message was about God’s guarantee of provision of the necessities of life and more. But he added 'Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart'. It was a personal relationship of prayer and worship that was the final proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenanted people. They would have active successful prayer lives in which God would not be a stranger to them. Things would happen. God would be actively present involved and discernible in the faith community. Let us be encouraged too so that we may seek the Lord with all our heart, not nominally, not in a shallow way, not part-time, not incidentally and not as our last priority. God is too great to respond to our half-heartedness. We are sensitive to how people treat us - whether they show us respect or not - have time for us or not - bother about us or not - remember us or not. How much more is God alive to our sleepiness, laziness and lack of commitment. No matter what is going on around us we can always and everywhere be practising Christians. Whether you are on your knees in despair or full of life’s enjoyment - you can be a Christian. Paul in prison in Ephesus was a Christian - and speaking with the academics in Athens he was a Christian and in the company of King Agrippa and Queen Bernice he was a Christian. Your Christianity is unassailable - your fortress and your castle - your haven and your defence. But it is more than that - it is your opportunity and your mission and your calling and your vision. 'You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world'. You are the caring hands of Jesus for those around you. You are their peace and comfort. There is nothing in the Christian challenge that can be defeated. It never has been and never will. To be a Christian in any age in any time in any circumstance - is special and untouchable. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you are at the heart of your faith and calling and future.
Christianity however is not confined in its blessings to this human life only. Jeremiah’s words can be taken further in the light of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. God’s plans to prosper you and not to harm you refer to eternal possibility and eternal providence also. Indeed, some may think that Jeremiah’s words have not been fulfilled in their lives and that they wait in hope of their fulfilment in the next life. In the reading from Revelation, we share a vision of that place and time beyond this earthly journey. 'There is a river whose water is clear as crystal'. Remember what this would mean to a middle east person used to struggling to find water at all, and if he or she did, it might be muddy and dirty and full of impurities. John’s model of heaven is of a great city and that is surprising. We think of natural beauty in landscapes and in the peacefulness of the summer countryside. John thinks in terms of physical structures, magnificence - a kind of luxury spa. There are trees of life giving at once twelve crops of fruit every month - a vision of overabundance and of plenty. The leaves of the trees, he says, are for the healing of the nations. What does that mean? It is an image taken from the medicines of the ancient world. Leaves of plants and trees were used to combat illness and infection. You will remember rubbing your hand with a docken leaf to stop the pain of a nettle sting. The nations need healing from the wounds of battle and strife. It is a vision of peace and rehabilitation. That means something to us as we see pictures of desperately injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan. In the very presence of God there is no judgement or condemnation and each person sees Jesus face to face. Sometimes people are asked who they’d most like to invite to dinner. Many would like to invite Jesus. That is just human wish fulfilment. But the desire to see and meet Jesus is a natural one for those who follow Him, serve Him, believe in Him and witness to Him as they live their days on earth. It will happen. John’s vision of heaven is of a city space so clean and beautiful and so full of natural light that nothing else is needed. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. For Christians Jeremiah’s words include the reality of heaven and of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ our living Lord. May that be our hope and vision, our strength and inspiration, our comfort and our sustaining truth at the beginning of this new year.
'He will keep me till the river, Rolls its waters at my feet; Then He’ll bear me safely over, Made by grace for glory meet. Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story, Of the Christ Who died for me, Sing it with the saints in glory, Gathered by the crystal sea'.