Drew has returned from his vacation in New York City and is happy to be back in Texas! Here is his sermon for October 13th, 2013. The text for this sermon was Jeremiah 29:1-7. May it be a reminder that wherever you go, there you are, and there is work to be done.
Seek the Welfare of the City Where You Are
When the Jerusalemites in exile in Babylon first opened the letter that Jeremiah had sent them, they probably expected it to say, “I told you so.” Jeremiah had been telling them for years to stop pursuing other gods and start pursuing righteousness, and they had not listened. And now they were here. The Babylonians had rounded up the courts, the artisans, the King, even the queen mother, and by force marched them down to Babylon. Just as Jeremiah predicted. “I told you so” would not have been out of order.
But instead, Jeremiah doesn’t gloat or celebrate over their sudden change in circumstances. He has something different to say. And what he has to say is a little bit surprising. Well, the first part is not. “Get comfortable, you’re going to be here for a while.” Jeremiah was clear that the exile would not be brief. But the second part is unusual. “Seek the welfare of the city where you live.” This is unusual because at that point in history your God and your land were inexplicably tied. To seek the welfare of a foreign city would be seeking the welfare of foreign people and their foreign Gods. The experience of exile causes a significant change in the way people conceived of God. God was no longer God of the land of Israel, but God of the people of Israel.
For the exiles in Babylon, this is particularly good news. Life had taken a very unexpected turn for them. Things had not exactly worked as they had planned. If you had interviewed them back in Jerusalem, asking them, “Where do you think you will be in 5 years, not a single one of them would have said, ‘In exile in a foreign city where I don’t know anyone or speak the language or have a job or eat their food.’”
Exile is the single most formative experience of the Old Testament. More than anything since the Exodus, it shaped the worldview of the people of Israel. And I think that exile is still a formative experience in our lives. I think all of us have experienced exile in some way or another. All of us have found ourselves a long way from home, with no way to get back. Think about it for a minute. When have you found yourself living in exile? Are you living in exile now?
Maybe you worked in another city for years before you could return home. Maybe you moved a long time ago and haven’t been back to the place that raised you. Maybe you’re like the exiles, and life happened, and you didn’t end up where you thought you’d be. You or your spouse had a job that went too well or too poorly. Something happened, an illness, a child or parent with special needs, and all of a sudden you look around and say, “Well, this isn’t where I thought I was going to end up. That’s not at all what I planned.” Or maybe everything went exactly according to plan, but it turned out completely different from what you expected.
It’s a common experience, and for that experience Jeremiah has some uncommon wisdom. See, usually when we realize that things aren’t going according to plan, we weep and we moan and lament our misfortune. We try to figure out what went wrong. We see if we can retrace our steps, somehow maybe get ourselves back on track. Or we give up; if this didn’t work out, nothing will, and so we don’t bother too much with trying anymore.
But the Book of Jeremiah tells us something different. Jeremiah tells us that instead of giving up, we should be digging in. Jeremiah tells the people to build houses, plant gardens, take wives for their sons, give your daughters in marriage, and above all seek the welfare of the place where you are. In other words, wherever God sends you, however you get there, find a way to be a part of God’s work in that place.
Think about Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt, imprisoned, but then found himself in the perfect position to do God’s work. Because of his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams and his new position as royal steward, he was able to protect the people of that land from the famine that would devastate their neighbors. Or Paul, who while awaiting his execution in Rome, spent his time spreading the word of Christ and writing letters that we still read to this day.
Wherever we go, we are called to seek the welfare of the city where we are, to be a part of God’s work in that place. Because as Jeremiah tells us, in its welfare we will find our welfare.
When I was fourteen, I got home from a Boy Scouting trip and my Dad asked me, “Drew, how would you like to move to Texas?” I said, “No thanks,” he said “too bad.” Now I didn’t know a thing about Texas. I thought I was going to be moving into a John Wayne movie. You remember those old Snoopy cartoons where Snoopy’s cousin wore a sombrero and slept in a hammock hanging off a cactus, I thought that was gonna be my life now.
When we got there, I was absolutely miserable, I missed Memphis, I missed my friends, my school, my church. I remember I was telling my Dad how miserable I was, and he said, “I read in a magazine that it takes a teenager 6-12 months to adjust to a new place. You’ll be fine in 6-12 months.” I did not find that very consoling. But he was right. Slowly, I built my house there, I planted gardens, developed friendships. I got involved in my school, in a church, I started building my life, trying to be a part of the community where I was, trying to make it a better place. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My school turned out to be the perfect environment for me. It’s where I found my faith, where I found my wife, where I found myself called by God. And it’s because I finally stopped moping around and started putting myself into the places where I was, investing in the city where I was.
When we stop worrying about getting ourselves back on the right track, and start putting our trust in God, we can do more for our community and for ourselves than we thought possible. The power of Christ is found in community. Just as Christ gave his life to lift us up and was exalted by God, when we give of ourselves to lift each other up, we ourselves are lifted up.
Life does not always come out the way we planned. And even when it does, our plans don’t always turn out the way we expect them to. But God is with us, even when we think we are as far from God as we could be. And God works through us even in the strangest of circumstances. So put your trust in God and seek the welfare of the place where you are, even if it is a long way from where you think you should be. Because it is in blessing the people around you that you will find your blessings.