(A sermon for Sunday, January 4, 2008, based on Jeremiah 29:1-14)
In the vastly underappreciated 1984 movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, the hero of the story utters these words: “No matter where you go, there you are.”
I wanted to begin this sermon with that deep thought because I am about to compare the situation of the people of the early 21st century C.E. First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald with the situation of the people of sixth century B.C.E. Judah and I don’t want you to misunderstand. After all, the people of Judah to whom Jeremiah sent the letter that is included in today’s text were in exile in Babylon, some 600 miles from their homeland. While the setting of this passage and Jeremiah’s letter is some six years prior to the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.E. it was also some four years after an invasion of Judah by the Babylonians that resulted in the exile of many citizens of Judah, particularly those from among the political, religious, and economic leadership of the nation.
The judgment of the great prophets of the Old Testament was that the people had sinned against God so habitually and for so long that God had used the Babylonians to judge them—and God was not finished with that process yet. Jeremiah sent his letter to the exiles in the midst of a situation that was going to get much worse before it got any better, and it was going to be a long, long time before it got any better—seventy years, which, whether taken literally or symbolically, is a long time.
Let me say it clearly: we are not in the same kind of state in which the people of exiled Judah and about to be destroyed Jerusalem found themselves. We are not in exile and we are not facing destruction. Indeed, my judgment based on this first month spent with you is that First Baptist Church is a very strong church that faces a very positive future—so long as we turn our attention to and keep our attention on the main things: glorifying God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture, to name the big ones.
But no matter where you go, there you are, and we are, as is the case with any church, where we are and we are where we are largely as a result of where we have gone, or, in other words, as a result of the choices we have made and that people around us have made. Judah was in exile mainly because of wrong choices that had been made. On the other hand, there were people—many people, probably—in Judah who were caught up in what was going on with no real understanding of how it all happened. And, I suspect, there were people who could have pleaded innocent to any and all blame, but I frankly think that such a stance should always be taken, at least by adults, with great hesitation.
What Jeremiah was trying to say in his letter to those exiles and what I’m trying to say to you is this: we Christians need to be realistic, by which I mean we need to face and deal with reality, by which I mean that we have to live in how things are rather than how we would like them to be. It was tempting for the people of Jeremiah’s time to listen to the prophets, both in Jerusalem and among the exiles in Babylon, who were saying that the power of Babylon was about to be broken and that the exile was almost over so the exiles could start getting ready to go home in oh, maybe two years. Jeremiah, whom events proved to be the real prophet, said that while he wished with all his heart that was so he knew in that same heart that it wasn’t. And so he wrote his letter in which he instructed the exiles with words that not one of them would have wanted to hear:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters: find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage…. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (vv. 5-7).
In other words, Jeremiah told them that they needed to embrace where they were.
I would say the same thing to all of us who make up the church family here at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald: let’s embrace where we are. We are where we are, we are who we are, we are the product of the choices that we have made, and we are all in this together. Moreover—and this is very important—God is with us in it; we are still caught up in the plan of Almighty God who loves us and who gave his Son for us. God is with us right here and right now and God will bless and use us right here and right now.
“Don’t look back,” the great baseball philosopher Satchel Paige said, “because someone might be gaining on you.” If we keep looking back at what has gone on before what we’re looking back at might finally catch up with us.
Oh, it does some good to look back if in looking back we can find gratitude for the good that we have experienced and if we can learn from the bad that we have been through but if we are not careful what will happen is that we will expend too much energy blaming others or even blaming ourselves, although in my experience I have seen that the people who blame others the most usually carry much of the blame themselves and that the people who blame themselves the most tend to carry the least blame themselves. The people in the Exile could have thrown lots of blame around and much of it would have stuck. A church family can always look back and can always lay blame, too. But I ask you to remember that the past is the past and that all we can do is to live under God in the present and move with great hope toward the future that God has for us.
In Walter Wangerin’s fable The Book of the Dun Cow, which is set in a chicken coop, Chauntecleer the rooster is trying to ascertain who has been eating the hens’ eggs. He suspects John the Weasel because he has done that before. Chauntecleer says, “I know what you have done in the past, John…. I know what you are capable of doing.” To which John the Weasel replies, “Past is past. Past is not present. Did is not do. Was is not is” [Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 19].
What powerful words: “Past is not present. Did is not do. Was is not is.”
No matter where you go, there you are. Did is not do. Was is not is. We are where we are. We are even there by the grace of God. And by the grace of God we will live in the present rather than the past, in the “do” rather than in the “did,” and in the “is” rather than in the “was.” We will embrace where we are and we will live in it. That’s the realistic way to live; that’s the Christian way to live; that’s God’s way to live.
Having embraced where we are, what else do we need to do? We do what Jeremiah told the exiles to do.
First, we trust in the plan that God has for us. Through Jeremiah, God said to the exiles, “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” (v. 11). It is so easy for us to give in to the limits of our own faith or our own imagination; instead, we need to throw ourselves open to whatever God has in store for us. What is that? I don’t know. But I do know that we can and should be awash in hope; I do know that our imagination is not as big as God’s imagination; I do know that in faithfully seeking to find and to follow God’s plan we are in fact finding and following God’s plan. And I know that God has plans to prosper us and not to harm us.
Second, we seek God with all our hearts. God said to the exiles, “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. I will be found by you…and will bring you back...” (vv. 12-14a). As Walter Brueggemann said, “Yahweh wills a people utterly devoted. And when there is such an utterly devoted people, life is made newly possible” [Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 259]. To seek the Lord with all our hearts is to seek the Lord with all that we are, all that we have, all that we do—it is to seek the Lord with our entire being. I want to call us today to seek the Lord with all our heart. It is necessary if in our individual lives and in our life as the Body of Christ we are to move into God’s great future—into the good that God has ready for us.
Will you join me today? Will you embrace the present? Will you move toward God’s plan for our future? And will you seek the Lord God with every fiber and every aspect of your being?