Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7, 11-14
June 12, 2011
You’ve heard the expression before: Expect the Unexpected. Life isn’t always what it seems. Things don’t always happen the way we think they will. Think of the young couple that plans in excitement for their first baby, only to welcome quintuplets into the world. Or the guy who spends a few dollars on a lottery ticket and ends up getting a return in their investment a few million times over. It seems that the second you plan out something, from how the course of your day will go to what career path you take, something happens that changes everything.
This is no less true in our walk of faith, is it? Just ask the people Jeremiah was writing to in our scripture today. He wrote them at one of the more pivotal moments in their history – their exile to Babylon. God’s people, a strong and proud nation, had harbored great kings like David and Solomon and enjoyed a prosperous existence. Their temple was one of the finest architectural works of its time. They were respected and feared by other nations. All of that changed in 597 BC, when the great Babylonian empire descended on Jerusalem and destroyed it. And they destroyed much more than bricks and mortar. They destroyed the pride and religious identity that God’s people had possessed for centuries. Most of them were carted off to live in Babylon as captives. Living in a foreign land, they were people without both a physical and spiritual home.
This disaster was not entirely unexpected, at least according to the prophet Jeremiah. For years, Jeremiah had spoken harsh words of judgement against Judah, predicting its unfaithfulness would lead to future disaster. They thought they were invincible, the people did; they thought there was no chance that any foreign power could ever breach their walls and destroy their city and their spirit. They were wrong.
And you would thing a man in Jeremiah’s position, given all his previous warnings that had fallen on deaf ears, you’d think he’d respond to the fall of Jerusalem with a resounding, “I told you so!” Vindication, right? Not really. See, that’s the rub of being a prophet: you don’t get to say what you want to say, or what the people want you to say. You have to say what God wants you to say.
And what God wanted him to say in this time of exile, well, it wasn’t at all what the people were expecting. Not even close! In a land they did not know, as they ached and longed to return to Jerusalem, Jeremiah told the people of God to “build houses…plant gardens…take wives for your sons and multiply…” In other words: make this strange and foreign land their permanent home, because they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It would behoove us to ask the same question that those Hebrews undoubtedly asked: why would Jeremiah say such a thing?? Why in the world would God want God’s people to live among those Babylonians in a foreign land? Doesn’t their existence as a nation and as God’s people depend on living freely in their own place? Apparently not - and this must have been a bitter pill for the Hebrews to swallow. For some reason - obviously beyond their understanding - this was now the place for God’s people. And that’s not what they expected in the least.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s the real beauty in all of this – something they certainly couldn’t have understood at the moment, but something they would come to understand much later. That Jeremiah’s words, in spite of it’s radical message, was still a testament to the ongoing, never-ending reality of God’s love for God’s people – and of God’s commitment to their long-term viability despite what they were going through. Just like that well-known verse says:
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.
I remember years ago, reading this verse for the first time and how it resonated with me in a way few verses do. I think it was because of some things that were going on in my life at the time; and how comforting it was knowing that even as things around me were spinning out of control, even when I couldn’t see a rhyme or reason to anything, even then – especially then – God had plans. And it wasn’t my job to necessarily know what those plans were. It was my job to trust in the God who made them.
You know, it’s kind of interesting, this word Jeremiah uses here; a word that’s usually translated as “welfare” or “prosper.” The actual Hebrew is shalom, typically rendered elsewhere in the Bible as “peace.” God has plans for our peace. That changes things a little bit, doesn’t it? It’s not that God was assuring the people of great success or wealth or anything like that. God was simply promising them a calm and reassurance that comes when we stop making plans while God is trying to make them for us. Even as those Hebrews resided in Babylon, thousands of miles away from home, they were learning new ways to expect the unexpected when it came to their relationship with God.
Makes us wonder how unexpected it was on that day long ago when Jesus’ disciples gathered together without him. Jesus had told them everything would be okay, but they had no idea what he meant by that. And how could they? It’s doubtful any of them had a clue that God’s spirit would come to them as tongues of fire on their heads, and in the ability to suddenly speak foreign languages. They had no clue how Jesus would sustain them in his absence. But God had a plan.
Which is why we, the church, can come to this table and take part in what we know as the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Because if there’s ever an example of expecting the unexpected when it comes to matters of faith, it is this. We may never know what it’s like to be held captive in a foreign land, but we do know what it means to be in a strange land spiritually; to live and work in a world that is fundamentally different from who we are and what we believe as people of God. We may never have to know what’s it’s like to rely on God while the world around us literally crumbles and burns at our feet, but we do know what it’s like to put our trust and faith in God, even when we don’t know exactly where that trust and faith will lead us. Even when we don’t have a plan.
And that’s why the Lord’s Supper is such a foundational part of our lives. Here, we encounter a glimpse, just a peek, of the reconciliation that is present in this simple but profound meal. Today, thousands of years later, we too participate in this meal and are renewed in our life, both individually and as the collective people of God. And it is here, at this place, where we truly understand what it means to expect the unexpected.
Let me give you an example. My most memorable communion experience happened when I was in the 9th grade, with 35 other high schoolers from my church at a Montreat youth conference one summer. For the first part of the week, though, we acted like anything but a church youth group. I can’t even remember what started it, but almost from the moment we pulled out of the church parking lot, our group was divided into two distinct factions. You were either on one side or the other; there was no middle ground. The anger and tension ran deep, and we spent the next few days on pins and needles as it seemed just a matter of time before everything would blow up into a huge nasty mess.
Luckily it never came to that. Our youth pastor, thank goodness, saw what was happening, saw how it was tearing us apart. And so at our Wednesday night devotions, our pastor did something quite unexpected. With great sensitivity and a lot of love, he told us what he has witnessed that week - a youth group split down the middle, warring with each other, many hurt feelings on both sides. He went on to say that, as the body of Christ, we were letting our anger and hostility get in the way of God’s healing presence. With our heads hung low, every one of us knew that he was exactly right.
And that’s when he reached behind him and brought out a small tray with a plate of Wonder Bread, a gallon of grape juice and some small plastic cups. He recounted the story of the first Last Supper, and all the turmoil that was going on there, all the division that was present, just like it was with us. And he told us how, through all of that, Jesus and his disciples found something most unexpected – the transforming presence of God. As the bread and juice were passed around our group, it was as if a wave of emotion rushed the Holy Spirit into our room. We weren’t speaking in tongues, and there weren’t flickers of flame over our heads. But there were tears of healing streaming down our cheeks; there were words of apology shared; there were hugs given out quite generously. Our own little Pentecost!
Let me tell you what I believe about the Lord’s Supper. I believe that in some wonderful way, in a way we won’t ever be able to fully understand, God’s presence is made known to us in this simple meal. I believe that, in the spirit of the Lord’s Supper, there is always the possibility for reconciliation between people – even people reconciling things within themselves. I believe that, like those Hebrew people long ago, you and I can still live and exist in a “strange and foreign land;” a land which is our temporary home. And we can live there, always aware of the fact that one day we will be united with God and experience the full meaning of “shalom.” And we are reminded of that future hope, as well as what God can do in the present, every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup.
And I believe that every time we come to the table, we should be prepared to expect the unexpected. That’s the thing about God’s plans, y’all. Rarely are they what you think they are. And you know, there’s something incredibly liberating and thrilling about that! Thanks be to God! AMEN.