February 9, 2008
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What do you do when you don’t like the circumstances of your life and it seems as if those circumstances aren’t going to change anytime soon?
When I asked that question to a group of friends, a man looked up and said, “I hope you can give us some help because I’ve been wrestling with that issue for the last 30 years.” The most unusual thing is the man gives all signs of being outwardly successful and reasonably happy with his life. He is respected by his peers and highly regarded by all who know him. In the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, he is a very good man. He later confided that for 30 years he has wondered if he made the right career choice. When he was younger he thought seriously about entering the ministry, and in some degree that thought has never left his mind. And he wonders, “Did I somehow make a mistake all those years ago?”
Then my mind wandered to a conversation Marlene and I had with two single women missionaries. We sat and talked one day for quite a while. They said they had a hard question for me to answer. It had to do with singleness and their desire for marriage and was it wrong for them to pray for godly husbands? As we talked, I was struck by how outwardly happy their seemed. They truly feel called to their work, they love the people they serve, and they get along well with their colleagues. More than that, they seemed confident and competent and friendly and even joyful. But there are lingering, nagging questions. Deep inside, they both want to be married. Some of their family members have urged them to return to the States because how will they ever find husbands where they are? Others have argued in the reverse. “Surely there must be some men from that country who want to marry American girls?” Add to that the sense that time is rushing on and many of their friends are married and having babies. They don’t feel called to singleness. They aren’t miserable—or at least they gave no evidence of it. But deep inside they want to be married. And so they struggle deeply with conflicting desires and with true confusion over how they should pray. Should they keep praying for a husband? Or stop praying that way? And how do you explain things to curious family and friends?
Turning on a Dime
Examples like these could be multiplied. Just today I read of a noted minister—a younger man—who a few days ago suffered a devastating stroke. Life has a way of turning on a dime. You go to bed thinking all is well; by the morning you are fighting for your life. Or we can think of the many divorced people who fill our pews. No one goes into marriage—certainly not Christians—expecting to be divorced. But look around next Sunday and ponder the faces you see. Our churches are filled with divorced people because our culture has changed its views on divorce, the old stigmas having largely died away. I have had divorced people tell me that as much as they love the church, they don’t feel at home there because most churches cater to families. We focus so much attention on young couples with children that we sometimes don’t even see the singles in our midst, especially those who have been divorced. Their pain is great, and so is their loneliness and their sense of loss and the sense of guilt that comes from a failed marriage.
Against that backdrop we consider again the question I posed at the start of this sermon. What do you do when you don’t like the circumstances of your life and it seems as if those circumstances aren’t going to change anytime soon?
There are many answers to that question, but one stands out as being of supreme importance. When you deal with bad circumstances that don’t seem likely to change any time soon (if ever), there are many things you might do, but there is one thing you must do. You must go back and find out where God is in the midst of all your frustration.
Good Theology Can Save Your Life
Good theology can save us when nothing else will help. This principle is becoming more and more important to me. Good theology can save your life. We all know that good theology can save your soul, but in the time of trouble, if you know the truth and if you remember the truth, what you know and remember can save you from despair. During an interview on a radio station in Dallas, we took a call from a woman who was going through a hard time in her marriage, with her health, and with some family relationships. As I listened, I realized she was a Christian who felt overwhelmed. I knew I couldn’t solve her problems in two minutes. So I told her that she needed to go back to the first principles and remind herself of those things she knew to be true. “Good theology can save your life,” I told her. At that point the host broke in and said, “But you’re a pastor. You have to say that.” “I said it because it’s true,” I replied. What you know can save you when life tumbles in. What things are we talking about? Here’s a short list:
God is good.
God is faithful.
God knows what is best.
He is quick to forgive.
He will never leave me.
His mercy endures forever.
He makes no mistakes.
God has a purpose.
He is working out his plan for me.
God still loves me.
The Holy Spirit indwells me.
Jesus is alive today.
He will return someday.
Before a worship service one Sunday, I chatted with a friend I hadn’t seen for many months. He and his wife had been through a series of incredibly difficult experiences for several years. Although he had no idea what I would be preaching on, he grabbed my hand and said, “Tell the people that God is faithful. Tell them those three words: God is faithful.” Then he added, “I haven’t always been faithful, but God has been faithful to me.” That’s what good theology does. It saves you from despair when hard times come. It literally saves your life.
With that we come to our text. If you know Jeremiah 29 at all, you probably know it because of one particular verse. It is a verse that has given hope and comfort to many people. It has been sung, memorized, quoted, repeated in prayer, and often it has been cross-stitched and hung in the kitchen so it won’t be forgotten. I am referring of course to Jeremiah 29:11.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
This sermon is not about that promise, as wonderful as it is. But I mention it because most people know this verse—and only this verse—and they know very little about the background of Jeremiah 29. But when you know something about this chapter, you discover some profound insights into how God deals with his children, especially when they find themselves in difficult circumstances that don’t seem likely to change any time soon. Since that reality applies to all of us some of the time, and to some of us all the time, we should take a close look at what God is saying.
Way Back in 597 BC
In order to do that, we need a little background.
- The year is 597 BC and Nebuchadnezzar has led the army of Babylon to the gates of Jerusalem. There the Babylonians made quick word of the army of Judah, capturing the city and capturing wicked king Jehoiakim who was bound in bronze shackles and taken to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar also looted the temple built by Solomon, taking from it articles of silver and gold.
- Johoiakim was replaced by Jehoiachin who reigned only three months. Nebuchadnezzar had him brought to Babylon also along with more articles from the temple.
- Approximately 10,000 people were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in this deportation. 2 Kings 24 says he took the artisans, the craftsmen, the royal officials, and all the leading men of the land. Only the poorest people were left behind.
- Meanwhile a man named Zedekiah became king in Jerusalem. He was a puppet king put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar. He reigned eleven more years, until Nebuchadnezzar decided to deal with the Jews once and for all. In 588 BC he set up a siege against Jerusalem that lasted two years while a famine spread through the city. It finally fell in 586 B.C. This time he totally destroyed everything.He tore down the city walls.
He burned the temple.
He burned every other important building.
He left the city in ruins.
He took whatever he wanted and destroyed everything else.
He captured Zedekiah, killed his sons before his eyes, poked out his eyes, and then marched him in bronze shackles to Babylon.
He took another large group of captives to Babylon.
- The Babylonians were not nice people. They were the most powerful nation on earth, and their army was ruthless. After conquering a city, they would sometimes put a pile of skulls in the city plaza as a warning to anyone not to rebel against them.
- There were actually three deportations from Jerusalem to Babylon. The first happened in 605 B.C. That’s when Daniel and his friends were deported. The second happened in 597 B.C. That’s the background of Jeremiah 29. The third and final one happened in 586 B.C. when the city was turned into a wasteland.
When God Says, “Enough!”
There is one other part in all of this that we need to consider. Why did it happen? We can say it simply. It happened because the people of Judah turned away from the Lord.
They ignored his Word.
They forgot his promises.
They worshiped idols.
They took lightly their holy calling.
They willingly followed after evil.
They took advantage of the poor and the weak.
They trafficked in violence.
They acted if God wasn’t paying any attention to them.
And that was their ultimate mistake. For generations the people had turned away from the Lord. To make matters worse, they learned nothing from the sad experience of the northern ten tribes (called Israel) when they were taken away by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Though it could be argued that the northern tribes went further into idolatry, Judah’s sin was greater because the people saw what happened to Israel and they forgot God anyway.
God sent them prophets whom they ignored and sometimes killed.
God gave them good kings, and when they had good kings, they followed the Lord.
And when they had bad kings, they turned back to their evil ways.
Finally the time came when God said, “Enough!”
That’s when he raised up Nebuchadnezzar as an instrument of judgment against his own people. That pagan king unwittingly served God’s purposes by attacking Jerusalem, destroying the temple, ransacking the city, and taking thousands of Jews into captivity.
All of that lies behind Jeremiah 29–a pivotal chapter in our quest to understand how God deals with his people. We can summarize the background this way:
God called his people to holiness.
They ignored his call and went their own way.
God warned them over and over again of coming judgment.
He sent prophet after prophet but the people paid no heed.
God raised up Nebuchadnezzar who attacked Jerusalem and destroyed it.
A great many Jews ended up in Babylon in captivity for 70 years.
By the Waters of Babylon
It is now 597 B.C. and a large group of Jews is in Babylon. It is impossible for us to fully understand how they felt about what had happened to them. They were in Babylon.
To them it was the center of evil.
They hated everything the Babylonians stood for.
They hated them for their cruelty.
They hated them for their violence.
They hated them for their idolatry.
They hated them for attacking the city of God.
And eleven years later, they would hate them even more for destroying the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth.
They hated being so far from home.
And because God had said 70 years, the Jews in exile knew that most of them would never see their homeland again.
Psalm 137:1-3 adds that they were so miserable in Babylon that they hung their harps on a willow tree and refused to sing the songs of Zion:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
It was like those old Western movies where the bad guys capture someone and then shoot at his feet, trying to make him dance. Thus did the Babylonians humiliate the exiles day and night.
The captivity of the Jews raises enormous theological questions. Where was God in all of this? How could he let the bad guys take the good guys into captivity? How could he have allowed the temple in Jerusalem–his earthly dwelling place–to be destroyed? And most of all, how could he use the Babylonians to punish the Jews when the Babylonians were ten times worse–no, make that 100 times worse–than the Jews.
There is a book in the Old Testament devoted entirely to those questions. It’s called Habakkuk. What do you do when God doesn’t seem to come through for you? Or when he doesn’t live up to your expectations?
The answer to all of this is simple. The real problem is not God not living up to our expectations. It’s us not living up to his expectations. When that happens, judgment is not far away.
I pause here to mention something I’ve learned the hard way. The worst wounds are self-inflicted. Rarely will anyone hurt us as bad as we hurt ourselves. There is no pain like the pain of
Making a stupid mistake,
Saying something we shouldn’t have said,
Hurting those we love the most,
Breaking their trust,
Violating our conscience,
Repeatedly doing wrong,
Saying “I’m sorry” and then doing it again,
Promising to do better and doing worse,
Failing to live up to our own standards,
Disappointing those who depended on us.
That’s the ragged edge of pain that keeps us awake at night, that makes us toss and turn, that’s the Gulf Stream of guilt that overwhelms us with sorrow and makes us feel like we’ve blown everything.
I know of no pain greater than the pain of looking at the ruins of what might have been and knowing that you are responsible for the wreckage. And that’s precisely how the Jews felt in Babylon.
They had become a laughingstock among the nations, just as the prophets had predicted.
It is against this agonizing backdrop that we come at last to Jeremiah 29. The only other thing you need to know is that this is a letter. This chapter contains a letter that Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to encourage the dejected exiles in Babylon. His letter turns out to be a personal message from God to his people. And what a message it is.
With that in mind, I want to make one point and only one. God takes responsibility for sending them to Babylon. That’s huge. You can’t overstate its importance. Everything God is going to say depends on grasping that one central truth.
Why were they judged? Because of their sin.
Who captured them and took them away? The Babylonians.
Who sent them to Babylon? God did.
The Babylonians thought they were doing it all by themselves. After all, as pagans they weren’t consciously trying to do God’s work for him. Yet in Jeremiah 25:8, God calls Nebuchadnezzar “my servant.” Wow! That’s mind-blowing because at that moment, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t even believe in the God of the Bible. He worshiped his own gods. But God says, “It doesn’t matter. He’s my servant.”
“I Don’t Hate You”
And look what God says in Jeremiah 29:4. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” Did you get that? “Whom I have sent into exile.” The NIV says, “To all those I carried into exile.”
There is a warning – and a ray of hope – in these words.
God will not be mocked. If you sin, you will be punished. And God will take personal responsibility to do it. He may even use your enemies as his instrument to bring you down. That’s the warning.
God does not forget his children even when they sin. That’s the good news. The Jews had been taught from birth that God dwells in the temple in Jerusalem. If you want to find God, they said, go to the temple and worship him there. Now they were hundreds of miles from home, in a pagan land, separated from their own past, knowing most of them would never return to Jerusalem, and even if they did, the temple was no more.
And into that despair God speaks a word of hope.
I was with you in Jerusalem.
I sent you into exile.
I am with you now.
God says to his hurting children, “I have not left you, not for a moment. I said I would punish you, and I did. But I have not forsaken my own people, and I never will.”
Strange as it may seem, the Jews ultimately were in Babylon because that’s where they needed to be. Their rebellion was so deep that they had to be removed from Judah in order for that sin to be broken. Only radical surgery could remove the cancer of idolatry.
We might say that their exile to Babylon, terrible as it seemed, was really a severe mercy from the Lord. There was no other way to get their attention. In Jeremiah 24:6-7 God offers a wonderful promise to his dejected children.
My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
It’s as if God is saying, “You think I hate you, but I don’t. I have a wonderful plan for you, and that wonderful plan begins in Babylon.”
It didn’t seem so wonderful at that moment, but it was. It is better to be in the will of God in Babylon than to be out of the will of God in Jerusalem.
At last we return to the question I asked at the beginning. What do you do when you don’t like the circumstances of your life and it seems as if those circumstances aren’t going to change anytime soon? The answer is that God doesn’t look at your circumstances the same way you do. You don’t like where you are, and you wish you were somewhere else doing something else. And you may be in a bad place in part because of your own foolish choices.
And God says, “You are where you are because I put you there.” That’s huge!
That’s the whole point of the story.
You Are Where You Are Because of God!
Here’s a portion of an email I received that illustrates this truth:
I am an 81 year old woman who has been a pastor’s wife and Christian school teacher and thru the years have heard many wonderful sermons and Bible exposition. But the point you made about the fact that God has you (and me) where He wants us at EVERY MOMENT opened my eyes. Maybe I had just thought that “generally” all things worked together… (perhaps some things could have been omitted….?)
Probably that is the reason why, even though I said I believed God’s Word, I kept on being a “worrier”. You know the “what if” syndrome.
This past week I have deliberately stopped in the middle of a problem time and said, “I am right where God wants me. He is in control and will use this incident somehow.”
I trust I can continue this attitude and keep the enemy at bay.
Thanks SO much. God spoke right to me!
You are where you are right now because God wants you there. If he wanted you somewhere else, you’d be somewhere else. And even if it is a painful place, it is better to be there and to know God is with you than to live in luxury without the Lord.
I told you earlier that God theology can save you. If you are in Babylon right now, what you desperately need is some good theology. You need a reason to have hope for the future. I remind you of the man who grabbed my hand before the worship service, gripped it hard, and said, “Tell them God is faithful.” In light of this passage, his second comment carries a lot of weight. “I haven’t always been faithful, but God has been faithful to me.” We could all say that, couldn’t we?
Be encouraged, child of God. If you feel trapped, you’re not. God wants you to discover that you can worship him even in Babylon.
That’s only the beginning of Jeremiah 29. We’ll discover much more in the next message.