A different kind of hope

Jeremiah 29

The Vicar was passing the allotments when one in particular caught his eye. The cabbages were the size of basket balls, the garlic looked more like leeks and it was surrounded by an abundance of beautiful flowers. The Vicar had been on the Diocesan Evangelism course, so he said to the old man tending the plants: ‘God has really blessed you with this allotment.’ ‘Aye, said the old man ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself’.

Harvest is the result of commitment. The produce that we enjoy today and which fills our church is the result of long hard work, and stability in one place. Year after year the farmer ploughs, sows, sprays and reaps. There are drains to keep up, hedges to trim, machinery to maintain and barns to repair. The fields around us are the result of generation upon generation doing their bit to improve the land. From the Neolithic farmers who first cleared the forest, to today’s agribusiness, there is a long line of workers who have invested in a place, so that their labours will bear fruit the next year.

But what happens if that stability is taken away? If the family farm is lost? What happens in any of our lives if we had plans and they didn’t turn out the way we hoped? What if you were building a future and something came along and wrecked it? If in the blink of an eye a car accident changes the course of your life forever?

This is the question faced by Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. As it says in verse 1: ‘The letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the people in exile in Babylon’. As we’ve heard in our sermon series over the past few weeks, the Babylonians invaded Judah and eventually captured Jerusalem, deporting most of the people. Some had already been taken into captivity – over the course of sixteen years several thousand people were led into exile, eight hundred miles away in modern-day Iraq, where they scratched a living.

How did they respond? How would we respond?

One possibility is to try and get back to where you were. Life before the big change was better, so perhaps the logical thing to do is to try and go back to how it used to be? I knew a woman who moved out of her village, spent a few years elsewhere, never settled in, and eventually moved back where she’d come from. Sometimes that makes sense.

Often though we can’t turn the clock back. That’s true for life-changing injuries and bereavement… There are different stages to life, and sometimes you just cannot retrace your steps –for instance the experience of a mature student is very different to that of an undergrad.

And would you actually want to turn the clock back? When I look back on my grammar school days I remember it with great fondness, I’ve got so many happy memories. Which is weird because I hated a lot of it. Double maths and bottom set rugby – who’d want to go back to that? Rose tinted spectacles are a real phenomenon: scientists have found that our brains actually make memories better over time. Which I guess is something to be grateful for, but it can trick us into idealising the past. So Jeremiah says to the exiles, don’t listen to the prophets who promise things that can never happen. Face the situation as it is now.

That needs strength and hope. Another possible reaction would be to give up. And sometimes one does meet those for whom life has lost its savour. It was once good, something went wrong, it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, and now they just survive. That hopelessness is deeply tragic because God is a God of hope. In his eyes no-one is cast aside on the scrapheap of life. However late in the day, there is still hope. And so Jeremiah commands the exiles to increase, not decrease. Be hopeful.

The third possible reaction might be to adapt, and blend in to the new situation. Here we are in Babylon, we might as well make the most of it. Face it, we’re not going back to Israel, so let’s forget it and move on. The God we worshipped there judged us, perhaps we’ll get more luck with the gods of Babylon.

No doubt some did feel like that, and that’s what seems to have happened to the lost tribes of Israel – they were assimilated into the peoples around them. Forgetting, moving on and adapting may seem like a robust realistic strategy, but if it’s not grounded in God it’s lacking in long term hope.

What God calls us to is a trusting hope. A hope that has faith in his plan, a hope that believes in the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform situations. A hope that accepts the path ahead may be long and sometimes hard, but treads it knowing that God can see the destination. A hope that walks by faith not sight.

In v.10: ‘Thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s 70 years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.’ The exiles will return, after 70 long years. So yes, do adapt, do commit to Babylon. As verses 5-7 say, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry, have children and grandchildren. But don’t lose sight that your true home is somewhere else. Be in this world but not of it. Put down roots – but be prepared to pull them up.

‘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.’ Wonderful words. Powerful enough when standing by themselves, written on a bookmark, but all the more amazing when you consider the context. You may be a long way away, far from home. Maybe you wish life worked out differently. But God knows the plan he has for you.

Perhaps his plan is different from what you imagined. How often do we hold a church meeting and ask God to bless our agenda and the plans we have? Lord, bless the things we’d like to do in your name. How much more should we be open to let go of our ideas and ask God to reveal to us His plans! Lord guide us into your will, show us how you will glorify your name.

For God’s hope invites us into a surprising reality. God’s hope often goes further and deeper than we could have imagined. God’s hope invited Jeremiah’s listeners to make their home in exile. To build community amongst those you thought of as the enemy – with the implication that you find peace through forgiveness. God’s hope invited them to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived and be blessed with it – even though that city was Babylon. To commit to life around them, even while remembering that they belonged elsewhere.

It involved commitment, trust, patience, sacrifice and not a little letting go of cherished dreams and a rose-tinted past. But it was the way to a hopeful future.

I wonder how might we apply this in our own situation? Firstly, it suggests that God calls us to get stuck in; to create connections with the communities around us. They are part of God’s gift to us and we should seek their welfare, just as the ancient Jews sought blessings for Babylon. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to those around, that his people might be a sign of God’s love. We cannot do this in isolation but are called to belong. And I think on the whole our churches are good at this, although we do need to be aware of how our communities are constantly evolving and new things happening.

Secondly, it is good to look for our vocation where we are. We often think of vocation as going somewhere else to do God’s work – I think we’re unduly influenced by that image of the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. But when they did that they were called into a new stability.

For most of us, most of the time our vocation is to serve God where we are. We are called to be the people he wants us to be in our villages, workplaces, families and networks. We do not need to up sticks in order to serve God – often it is just a matter of becoming aware of the opportunities he sends us daily.

Thirdly, there is here a challenge to commitment. Our society is in danger of losing sight of the truth that perseverance through difficulty usually yields much greater results. I see so many CVs where people have stayed in a job less than 2 or 3 years. Perhaps it is possible to bring cosmetic change in such a time, but deep-rooted transformation needs quality relationships and commitment. It is the same in many areas of life. I’m not saying short term projects aren’t worth it – they often are. But you get so much more from a long term commitment.

Finally, let us praise a God who brings hope and transformation. A God who calls us to a join him on a journey which is both realistic and hopeful. A journey of loving trust with a God who knows the plans he has for us. Amen.