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Major Truths in the Minor Prophets: Finding Life’s Purpose in Tough Times

June 10, 2007

Jeremiah 29:4-13

Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt that your life was out of control? Have you ever felt that your wit, wisdom, strength, and talent could not bail you out of trouble? The people of Israel felt that way when their captors, the Babylonians, hauled them into bondage.

When we consider letters in the Bible, we usually think of epistles written by the apostles. In our text for today, however, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to people who are in captivity. We might think of it as a letter from home; but he does not write, “We miss you very much. Hope you will be here soon.” He writes to prisoners who were going to be held in captivity at least seventy years. That is a full lifetime. Jeremiah’s words are more like, “You have a life sentence. You are going to be in bondage, captivity, for seventy years before you are set free.” This “letter from home” does not say, “I hope you do well before your parole board.” It does not say, “I can’t wait until you get back here. You will be so glad to see the old place.” Jeremiah’s letter says, “Make the best of your situation. Build houses, plant gardens, marry. Help your children get married. Encourage them to have babies. Do not decrease; increase. Pray for those people who are holding you captive, those people who took you into bondage. If they prosper, you will prosper. If they do well, you will do well.” These captives probably did not want to receive this type of letter because it represents a radical shift in the thinking of the people of Israel.

We can compare two psalms to see how the people reacted to the Exile. Psalm 137, for example, is a psalm of lament. An embittered person refuses to sing the songs of Zion in the strange land of Babylon, saying, “I am going to hang my harp on a willow tree,” a weeping willow I would imagine. “I pray that my tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth so that I can’t sing. I pray that my right hand will be withered so that I cannot play my harp. When my tormenters say, ‘Sing us one of those good ole ethnic songs from down South,’ I’m not going to do it.” This psalmist, who hates being in exile, has a recalcitrant attitude. Many of those in exile must have felt the same. Captors took them against their will, marched them far to the north, and held them in captivity in a strange land. Jeremiah says, “You are not going to see the Holy City again. Even if you could come back, the site would probably break your heart. The temple will lie in ruins. The walls will have collapsed. Jerusalem will be in rubble. You need to thrive where you are and learn to live in your circumstance there. Make the best of the situation because this is your life.”

I can imagine that information was a bitter pill to swallow for these people. It is not what they wanted to hear. In fact, Scripture tells us that some false prophets were saying, “It won’t be long before we will be able to go back home.” Jeremiah assures them, “That is not the case. Those prophets are not speaking the truth. Do not listen to them. This is the Word of the Lord. I have this on good authority.”

In time, many changed their attitude, as reflected in Psalm 139. The psalmist now says, “It does not matter where I go. It does not matter what my circumstances are. God will be with me.” The psalmist asks, “Whither shall I flee from Thy spirit? Where can I go to escape your presence? If I take the wings of the morning and go to the uttermost parts of the earth, even there you are going to be with me. Even if I make my bed in Sheol (the underworld) you are going to be there with me.” This psalm is quite a contrast to Psalm 137, as it illustrates a radical shift in attitude.

Though the Babylonian Exile is one of the worst periods of history for Israel, some quite remarkable results came out of that experience. First, the people of Israel produced a wonderful body of literature, much of the Old Testament. Because those in bondage were afraid they would lose their traditions, memories, and stories, they recorded many details about their life.

You remember that years earlier, people left Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they needed a way to symbolize the presence of God with them. They built a little box, the Ark of the Covenant, out of gopher wood and included inside the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. They also placed inside a bit of the manna they had received as a blessing from God. Four men carried this box, which included some ornamentation on the top that represented the Mercy Seat. Supposedly, God’s invisible presence sat there during their wanderings and even during battles. The Ark symbolized for them a mobile sanctuary. David even put that Ark inside the Tent of the Tabernacle in the city of Jerusalem. Their God now had a special location in the temple called the Holy of Holies. David had envisioned a temple; but King Solomon actually built one that was magnificent. With that placement of the Ark, God went from being a mobile God, moving from place to place, to an immobile God, enshrined in a temple.

The people of Israel once thought that in order to worship God, a person had to travel up the hill to the Temple Mount. During the Babylonian Exile, however, they had to rethink that notion. They were far away from the temple in Jerusalem, which they learn will be destroyed. How can they worship God in this situation? Their new concept – that God can be anywhere – represented a shift in their thinking. Out of that shift came the remarkable development that we know as Synagogue Judaism. Synagogues began appearing everywhere. By the time we come to the New Testament, we see that every town Jesus visited had a synagogue, a place where they could worship God. The first place the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys was the synagogue. What an important change in the tradition of Israel!

Psychologists use the expression “thrown situations” to describe circumstances that people find themselves in that are beyond their control. Literally, a person feels as if someone has thrown him or her into a very difficult circumstance, one that is undesirable. The people of Israel felt the same way during the Babylonian captivity. We must be careful here because they actually had many opportunities to avoid exile. The prophetic voice throughout centuries had told them to mend their ways or their behavior would result in dire consequences. They had periodic moments of repentance in which they renewed the covenant; but then they returned to rebellious ways, turning away from God and toward idolatry. In many ways, the Exile represented punishment for their years of rebellion.

Many of our problems are self-inflicted. We often create our own troubles. Think about troubles associated with addictions, finances, and relationships. We are somewhat like Jimmy Buffet singing, “Wasted away in Margaritaville, searchin’ for a lost shaker of salt.” A progression occurs in that song. Buffet first sings, “Some people claim there’s a woman to blame” for his bad condition. Then he decides that no, it is not a woman’s fault; it is nobody’s fault. At the end of the song, he concludes, “And, I know it’s my own…fault.” We find that we cause many of our thorny circumstances. The truth is that once trapped in this complicated situation, we feel as if we have been thrown, dragged, marched into a position in which we have very little control. It is not where we thought we would be, certainly not where we thought we would spend the rest of our life. It is a long way from the comforts and joys of home.

The experience for those involved with the Babylonian Exile represented a profound grief. All the exiles must have felt this way. You know the remarkable story about three of those exiles: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to worship an idol Nebuchadnezzar preferred. Guards literally threw these three into a fiery furnace. All the exiles felt as if they, too, had been thrown into a kind of fire, an uncomfortable situation, a place they certainly did not want to be. We understand how that feels. This experience of grief is something that every single one of us will eventually encounter. We will suffer the loss of a marriage, a job, a loved one, or a place. We are in situations in which we have been thrown, situations that may be partly our fault, but situations in which we now must have a shift in our attitude.

Yesterday, we held a funeral for Luna Davenport, who was eighty-seven years old. He and Martha were married sixty-six years. Like so many deaths, Luna’s passing perhaps came as a kind of gentle blessing. It is certainly not what the family wanted; but when a person goes through as much illness as Luna did, death comes as a blessing. He was a wonderful man, a man of integrity, a man of faith. I do not believe I ever heard him complain about anything. He brought a lot of joy and a spirit of contentment to many.

Yesterday, following the committal service at Greenlawn, I did something I often do after a funeral there. I went to visit our son’s grave a few moments. Standing by Erik’s tombstone, I took two messages on my cell phone, messages from two women telling me about a young twenty-four-year-old man who was killed in an automobile accident very early Saturday morning. They asked me if I would go by to see the family. I left Erik’s grave and visited them, a wonderful family I have known well.

Death sometimes comes as a gentle blessing, but sometimes it just slaps us in the face. Walking into that home reminded me again that death might come as a harsh intruder, breaking into our life and disrupting everything. Many stunned friends filled that house. Most hardly knew what to say. The family asked if I would meet with them privately, and we had a lengthy conversation in another room. In the course of that conversation, both the mother and the sister expressed the same thought, “Our lives will never be the same again.” That is true. Their lives will never again be the same. The father looked at me and said, “Kirk, of course you know that.” I do know that. Clare and I both know that very well. We, too, have been thrown, dragged, banished into a dreadful exile, along with many other parents who have lost a child.

At some point when the shock and the numbness associated with death subside a bit, this family, as do others, will begin to experience the intensification of their pain. When that happens, they will learn to change the dead-end question “Why?” to “What do I do now?” Once people can ask that question, they will learn it is necessary to plant a garden, plan weddings for other children, and look forward to grandchildren. They must pray for peace, peace for themselves and peace for others.

Jeremiah says that in the midst of all of this suffering, something remarkable is true: God has a plan. Let me hasten to say that I do not believe for a moment that God planned the death of a twenty-four-year-old man. Romans 8:28 says, “All things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” I have tried to understand the meaning of that verse. Does God plan bad things to happen to us so that He can do something good with them? I do not believe that. If we believe that God is with us in every circumstance – which is what the people in exile decided – then God can begin to use the bad things that happen for good. That is His plan. Is it Plan B, Plan C, D, E, or F? No, it is Plan G – God’s plan, not ours. We would not orchestrate events to occur in that way. Some might say, “If I were in charge, I would not run the universe like that.” Thank goodness, I am not in charge. Neither are you. The Divine Creator is in charge. He has a plan.

Paul knew that God had a plan. He wrote a letter to the Philippians from prison. In it, he talked about finding joy and peace that is beyond human understanding. He talked about being content in whatever state he found himself. He knew he was not alone. Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the furnace; then he looked into the fire and saw a fourth man with the appearance of the Son of God. It is an Old Testament way of saying that the Divine Presence was in the fire with those Hebrew children. God was with those exiles. Psalm 139 affirms that.

God’s presence is with the Davenports. God’s presence is with a family grieving the death of their son. When you have a tough time, remember that God has a plan. Part of that plan is that He is going to be with you. He will not abandon you. His promise is, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” In the midst of difficulties, tough times, God has a plan for you.

How do you discover His plan? Do you ask me, “Dr. Kirk, can you please explain God’s plan for me in the midst of this?” I will tell you, “Listen, I am in the trenches, just like you are. I have been in the very same ditch.” You discover the plan, not through questions to friends, but through prayer. Jeremiah 29:13 continues with, “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart. You will call upon me, and I will answer you.” In order to discover God’s plan, you must hit your knees. It is not so much a matter of your talking. Just humble yourself before God. Ask Him quietly to show you the plan. He is not going to show everything to you at once. He will just show you the next step, helping you get through one day at the time. If you want to know His plan for you, you must ask Him through prayer. The way we advance in these tough times is on our knees.

Friday night, I had supper with a man I admire very much, a Prisoner of War during World War II. He was shot down over Germany in November 1944. On this particular mission, he was a copilot of a B-17 when forced to make a very interesting jump. He had learned from the Royal Air Force that positioning himself in a spread eagle formation would help stabilize him in a jump from the plane. The Royal Air Force forgot to tell him to extend both arms and both legs at the same time. After he jumped, he stuck out one arm and went into a spin. Finally, he straightened out and decided to try the other arm. He started spinning in the other direction. After straightening out from that, he was back-oriented, looking at the sky. He thought he must be running out of time and pulled the cord of his chute. Before he could look to see if it had opened, he actually hit the ground and made a perfect landing. He fell about 19,000 feet before his chute opened.

Within an hour of hitting the ground and rolling up his chute, the German military captured him. One of the soldiers pulled a switchblade knife on him and demanded his parachute. He refused to give it to the soldier, but of course, did so during his processing at Stalag Luftwaffe 1, a war camp that housed many captured aviators. This man talked about how the Germans treated him, at times placing him on a starvation diet or on a diet of rutabagas. As the war ended, word came through secret avenues that the Germans intended to exterminate those in that prisoner of war camp. The prisoners’ high-ranking American colonel, who was also a prisoner held there, told the Germans that he would not let his men leave the prison camp. He knew that if his men left the prison, German officials could claim the men were trying to escape, thus providing them with an excuse to kill the prisoners. The colonel’s statement was enough of a threat to the German officers. They did not want charges of war crimes brought against them. The last two weeks of this man’s imprisonment, during which time the Russians had control of the camp, were particularly difficult. Following an evacuation, he returned home.

I specifically asked him about the part that his faith played during his imprisonment. He spoke of the importance of worship during that experience, saying that he prayed during his jump from the plane and fall from the sky. His prayer was one of gratitude. He told me of worship services inside this camp. A chaplain from New Zealand that meant so much to him brought a message based on Scripture that had practical application for his life in that moment. He admitted, “Kirk, I am not a very pious man, but I can tell you this. I knew that God was with me.”

You want the same assurance. You want the same promise that God is with you, whatever your difficult time. You want the same promise that God has a plan to do you good and not harm, to give you hope and a future. If you will call on God, He will answer you. If you seek Him with all your heart, you will find Him and discover His plan for your life.

I know that many of you are going through difficult times. It is just part of our lot in life. It happens to every single one of us. Please remember that God has a plan that will surpass any other plan. His plan promises to be better than anything you can imagine. Please remember that God is with you; but if you are going to know Him and discover His plan, you must pray. The way you will advance through your difficulty is through the life of prayer.

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? If not, I invite you to make that decision today. Accept Christ Jesus and acknowledge him as the Lord of your life. Perhaps you have a decision regarding church membership. It may be that some here have other decisions to make. If that is the case, we invite you to respond as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “Speak to My Heart, Lord Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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