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March 15, 2020

Planning in Faith

Preacher:
Passage: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Service Type:

Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm.” (Jeremiah 29:11) This passage, especially that particular verse, ranks up with John 3:16 as one of the most-quoted Bible passages. It’s shows up in high school graduation mementos alongside copies of Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go. It ends up in Hallmark cards. Perhaps with this pandemic some are even sharing that scripture on Facebook as we speak. It's a beautiful verse, a reassurance that God does have plan, a plan for our betterment and welfare. It's comforting as we stare into the unknown of life beyond high school... or life after the funeral service... life in retirement… life amid a worldwide disease. “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare.” And there’s truth there. But I think this Hallmark card reading of Jeremiah misses the whole truth our Bible offers us. Let’s go deeper.

If you read the rest of Jeremiah’s book, you realize he was super unpopular. There were two main kinds of people in ancient Judaism in Jeremiah’s day. One of the few things they had in common, however, was hating Jeremiah. On the one hand, you had those of God’s people who sold out their faith and adopted the habits of the world around them. Rather than trust in God’s help when enemies invaded, they trusted only in alliances with wicked neighboring kingdoms. Rather than trust God would provide their needs, they stole, lied, abused the poor, murdered, and worse in order to get ahead. They worshipped idols and false gods, hoping a shotgun approach to spirituality might get more results than relying on the Lord alone. Further, verse 1 today shows this particular chapter of scripture was a letter sent from Jeremiah to Jewish people held captive in Babylon. You have to imagine that—living as a conquered people, far from home in the capital of the empire that just enslaved you—it’d be tempting for believers to give up, take on Babylonian customs, forget about the Lord of Israel, and just do their best to fit in.

On the other hand, there were prideful hardliners among God’s people, who assumed because they believed the right things that life would always be easy for them. Jeremiah 29:8-9 again read, “Do not let the prophets and the 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.” These false prophets told people things they wanted to hear but which God did not say. As Babylon invaded their kingdom, the false prophets said the Lord would defeat the Babylonians for them, so don’t listen to Jeremiah’s talk about repenting from sin. After Babylon conquered God’s people, the false prophets still said the exile would be over quickly, so don’t listen to Jeremiah’s advice about planning for a long stay here. They assume, just because the Lord loves his people and promises to look after them, that life will always be easy and work out exactly as they want it every time. Both these false-promisers and those giver-uppers hated Jeremiah.

I think as Christians today, we face a comparable dilemma. On the one hand, there are signs of panic in our city and in our country. People were buying so many items in bulk, far more than they could ever use in months, that our town’s Meijer had to put a 5-item limit on purchases of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and the like this past week. People are sharing every little rumor they hear about coronavirus. Sometimes it’s good information from a trustworthy source like the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, or our Michigan state government. Other times it’s a Facebook picture with a cute slogan that sounds good but actually does nothing and was just made up by a random stranger. Panic like that… is a serious danger facing American society right now. It’s smart to have an emergency supply of food to cover you for a week or two. We had that when I was a kid in California, in case of earthquake. That’s a smart to have year-round. What is panic… is hoarding far more than you’ll ever need. It’s smart to look for information on how to protect your health and avoid infecting others. It’s panic to get that information from sources that aren’t reliable or verifiable. Panic… does nobody any good, and we as Christians must rise above the world in that regard. Faith should prevent panic.

But on the other hand, some Christians are not taking the dangers of coronavirus seriously. What I have been reading—from public health officials and our own denomination’s higher ups—is that the goal is to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic. This idea in essence says it’s inevitable a certain percentage of our population will get infected at this point. But good public health practices—like washing your hands, not touching your face, staying home if you feel unwell—will slow down the rate of infection enough so that doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical supplies are not overwhelmed or exhausted, which in turn can greatly lower mortality rates. Yet I see some televangelists selling fake cures to this disease. I’ve seen others, like Jerry Falwell Jr., saying coronavirus is merely a conspiracy to shame the president and refusing to take basic safety precautions, ignoring the very real and tragically growing death toll. I’ve seen some Christians—even folks in our own town—joking about coronavirus, assuming all public health precautions are as crazy as the toilet paper shortages. People will die from this. It is serious.

So what did God do for Jeremiah when he was in his dilemma, with half the people selling out and giving up… and the other half trusting false promises that God would let them skip the hard work of repentance and exile? God’s answer is a threading of the needle, a paradox that satisfies the needs of both but does so through faith seeking wisdom. First, we hear: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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. 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.” That’s God’s way of saying: “People, settle in for the long haul. You are not getting an easy out of this, not yet. Make long-term plans for survival, consider how you will endure in the future despite the unpleasant situation, i.e. build gardens to feed yourselves and look after your families. Most of all, seek the welfare of the city where you live.” Many of Jeremiah’s hearers wanted Babylon destroyed: they hated the place that conquered them. God is saying that, as believers, we need to be concerned for those beyond our church, need to follow the laws and guidelines of wherever we live unless it contradicts our faith. So do not sell out your faith to Babylon. But also know you’ll be here a while, so follow the rules, make plans to live here a long time, and be good neighbors to the locals.

On hearing this, other might assume that God is abandoning them in exile, since God’s saying to settle in. So God immediately follows up by saying, “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.” The Hallmark quote we love so much means what it says: God has our future in hand. In the end, we know we’ll be okay. But God gives that promise only after he tells his people to make plans, take precautions, be considerate neighbors, do what’s right for your city, because things will be difficult for a while first. Put together, these two sections are saying: “Do not expect exile to be easy. It will be hard and take hard work. But do not despair, and do not lose hope. For I will never abandon you. I promise I always love you. So get ready, but have faith.

So what do these words say to us Christians today, as we face needless panic on one hand… and dangerous indifference on the other. Our calling is the same as Jeremiah’s. As Christians, we need to know this coronavirus pandemic will not be easy. It will be hard, and it will take hard work. But we also have hope, even amid difficulty and pain, because we know God does not abandon us, that God is with us in our grief, that God promises to wipe away every tear from the eye in the glad reunion of the life to come. Our church has been reading the book of James lately, and one of James’ lessons is that wisdom… is where faith meets daily living, where you hold onto hope in the Lord… even as you get to work for today. Wisdom is Noah trusting God will deliver him from the flood… but still putting hammer to nail in building the ark. Wisdom is Joshua knowing the battle of Jericho will be won by the Lord alone… but still carrying a sword off war. Wisdom is Joseph of technicolor dreamcoat fame hearing from God that a famine is coming… and so storing up food ahead of time. Preparing and taking steps to be safe does not mean you don’t have faith.[1] It means you have wisdom. Faith simply means you know that, in the end, God is with you, that God loves you, that God will guide you, strengthen you, encourage you. Faith doesn’t mean life is easy or perfect: even Christ our Lord was called the man of sorrows. But faith does mean we always have hope, even in the darkest night. But Godly wisdom says it’s not a bad idea to pack a candle for that dark night.

So as this coronavirus pandemic continues for the foreseeable future… hold onto faith and have hope that God has not forgotten you. When you are tempted to panic, to run about buying up toilet paper like the world is ending… remember that God is with you, so do not be afraid. But out of that same faith, put wisdom into practice. Take reasonable steps to be safe and healthy. Listen to medical and public health experts. Encourage others to be safe as well.

I’ll end with a bit of history, by looking to how great Christians in the past responded to times like this. Martin Luther, the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, lived during perhaps the worst pandemic in history: the bubonic plague, which killed well over a third of medieval Europe and persisted for hundreds of years. In one letter, Luther talks similarly about the plague to how I’m talking about coronavirus. In Luther’s day, some Christians totally panicked, abandoning families, jobs, and Christian compassion for the poor… to instead run away. Luther condemns such fearful panic and reminds his readers we have obligations to look out for each other and care for each other. But other Christians, he writes, “[sin by being] much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.[2] Martin Luther’s advice, in short, was: trust in God’s protection, but do everything reasonable to protect yourself and others from disease. And in his trademark humor, Luther concludes his advice: “If you are of a different opinion, may God enlighten you. Amen.

So may we Christians today be enlightened by Luther’s advice. May we heed the guidance of Jeremiah. Hold onto hope, for God knows the plans for us, plans to care for and build us up. But also… seek the welfare of the city we live in. Make plans for living as good neighbors, take precautions, follow civic guidelines unless they contradict our faith. We believers are called to keep the long-view of salvation and God’s love in sight… while at the same time working in the short run for the health, safety, and well-being of our city, our nation, and our world. It is tempting to panic these days. It’s tempting to laugh off concerns. But as Christians, do neither. Have hopeful faith. But make it a wise faith that takes precautions. May Christ be with us, this day and all the days ahead. Amen.

 


[1] I am reminded of a common sermon joke as well. A man’s house lies in the path of an oncoming flood. As neighbors prepare to evacuate, they invite him to join their cars in driving to safety. The man replies, “No, God will save me.” The waters keep rising, and soon it’s no longer possible to drive. A small fishing boat goes past the man’s house, and the boat’s captain invites the man to join him in sailing to safety. The man replies, “No, God will save me.” The waters keep rising, and soon the man must camp out on his roof as the lower levels of his home flood. A helicopter flies overhead, and the pilot invites the man to take this last chance at escaping the flood. The man replies, “No, God will save me.” Finally, the man drowns in a flood. Standing before God in heaven, the man asks, “God, I trusted you. Why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “I tried to save you! First I sent the cars, then the boat, and finally the helicopter. But you kept pushing away my rescue attempts!” The lesson of the joke is that God does work through miracles, yes, but God also works through ordinary people helping each other and taking basic safety precautions.

[2] The full text of Martin Luther’s letter can be found here, hosted by the Reporter (the official newspaper of the Missouri Synod Luther Church), shared with permission by Fortress Press. Please note that Luther lived centuries before the invention of epidemiology (i.e. the medical/scientific study of how diseases spread), so while his advice provides an interesting historical perspective to help inform our modern spiritual response, please do not take his ideas as the final word or as exactly how you should respond. Again, the best advice for how to respond wisely to this pandemic comes from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, World Health Organization, and Michigan’s state-level coronavirus response team.

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