How to be Happy in Babylon
March 30, 2008
One summer many years ago, when we were still living in Chicago, our family vacation took us to the Deep South. Near the end of the trip as we were driving home, our route led through Knoxville onto I-75 heading north toward Lexington and Cincinnati. We weren’t in any hurry, and soon it was past lunch time. Sounds floated from the back seat indicating that an imminent stop would be well advised. We exited in a little town called Corbin, Kentucky, looking for a fast food restaurant.
As we drove along, I spotted a sign that said, “Visit the original Kentucky Fried Chicken.” We discovered that it was a combination restaurant and museum. In the 1930s Harland Sanders bought a restaurant and built a motel next to it. The number one recipe in the restaurant was the best fried chicken in the state of Kentucky.
By 1956 he was successful but not well-known. He was 66 years old, the time when most men retire. Calamity struck-I-75 was being built, and would bypass the town of Corbin, KY, meaning nobody would stop at the motel or eat at his restaurant. If he was going to survive, he had to do something else. So he sold his restaurant and the motel and went into the chicken spice business, supplying restaurants in several states. Out of that little business came the idea to start a restaurant that would serve nothing but fried chicken cooked with his trademark 11 herbs and spices. He decided to call his first restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken. The rest is history.
A sign on the wall of the museum contains his credo. It is called “The Hard Way.”
It is comparatively easy to prosper by trickery, the violation of confidence, oppression of the weak, sharp practices, cutting corners, all those methods we are so prone to palliate and condone as business shrewdness. It is difficult to prosper by the keeping of promises, the deliverance of value and goods and services and denouncing the so-called shrewdness with sound merit and good ethics. The easy way is efficacious and speedy, the hard way arduous and long. But as the clock ticks away, the easy way becomes harder, and the hard way becomes easier. As the calendar records the years, it becomes increasingly evident that the easy way rests upon a hazardous foundation of shifting sands, whereas the hard way builds solidly a foundation of confidence that cannot be swept away. Thus we builded.
Eventually the name was changed from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. Today there are 11,000 KFC restaurants around the world, including China. I mention that last fact because when we were in Beijing two years ago, we saw KFC signs everywhere. When we visited Josh and Leah in Nanchang in February, we saw a KFC restaurant next to the Wal-Mart across from the plaza at the center of the city. And all of it was started by a man who decided that he was not going to go the easy way.
In all of life there are these two ways-the easy way and the hard way. That’s what life itself is all about-which way will I go? Here is an irony to ponder. The easy road looks easy but once you get on it, it turns into the hard road. And the hard road looks hard but once you do the hard thing in life, it turns out to be the easy thing. The easy road is deceptive. It is the way of destruction, poverty, starvation and desperation. It is the way to wasted days, wasted weeks, wasted months, and wasted years. The hard road which appears to be so difficult is ultimately the road of blessing, fulfillment, and lasting spiritual growth. It is the road that leads you to the top. The easy road takes you down to the bottom. The only road that goes to the top is the hard road. It is tough, but it is the only one that goes where you want to go with your life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told about two houses–one built on the sand and the other on solid rock (Matthew 7:24-27). When a storm came, it destroyed the first house, but the second one lasted because it was built on a firm foundation. Jesus said that the “rock” was hearing His words and then putting them into practice.
The easy way-building on the sand.
The hard way-building on the rock.
Jesus said the man who built on the sand was a fool, but the man who built on the rock was wise, leaving us to ponder one all-important question.
Am I wise or am I a fool?
70 Years-No Way!
Let me apply this to our present text. God is speaking to the Jews who were in captivity. They had been forcibly taken from their homes in Jerusalem and marched hundreds of miles to faraway Babylon. It had happened to them because for years-no, for generations!-they and their ancestors had disregarded the Lord. They took his blessings for granted, they turned to idolatry, and they shrugged off his repeated warnings. But at last the day came when the Lord Almighty raised up a man named Nebuchadnezzar as his instrument of judgment against his own people. Ponder that for a moment.
God raised up a pagan to judge his own chosen people.
Now they are in Babylon and they hate it. Not only is it a foreign land, their captors humiliate them at every turn, mocking their faith by saying, “Sing us a song of Zion” (Psalm 137:3). Not surprisingly some of the Jews wanted to find a shortcut in the path of God’s judgment.
Seventy years? No way! That’s too long, too harsh, totally unfair.
Seventy years? If you’re 50 when it starts, you’ll be dead when it’s over.
Seventy years? God wouldn’t do that to us.
Seventy years? That’s the hard way.
Yet God had ordained the hard way to be his way, and therefore his way was the best way even though it meant that his people would endure suffering, loss, separation from their homeland, disappointment and 70 years of frustration. The question here is not, “Shall we go to Babylon for 70 years?” because Nebuchadnezzar had performed what God had ordained. The option of not going was not open. This wasn’t a case of the people having a choice. And therefore it wasn’t even a case of the Jews asking, “Will we go along with God’s plan?” because they were going along with it whether they liked it or not. The question ultimately becomes something like this. “Will I recognize God’s hand at work in what has happened to me and will I trust that my Heavenly Father has a good purpose in what seems grievous to me?” This question devolves down into something very practical, which is simply “Will I respond properly or will I complain and rebel in my heart?”
I. The Warning
“Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ’Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the LORD;” (Jeremiah 29:8-9).
There will always be some people around that you shouldn’t listen to. In this particular case there was a prophet named Hananiah who soon after the Jews were deported to Babylon made a bold prediction. According to Jeremiah 28, he publicly declared that within two years the king and his officials would return from Babylon, along with all the gold the Babylonians had looted, along with all the Jews who had gone into captivity. He claimed to be speaking in the name of the Lord himself. Pretty cheeky stuff.
You can imagine that his message was very popular with certain people, especially the families of those left behind in Jerusalem. Eventually the word spread to the exiles that a prophet had said they were coming home soon. “Forget all this business about 70 years. You’re going to be coming home in 2 years!” Do that math. That’s only 24 months. Talk about good news-this was it.
Seventy years is a long time no matter how you count it.
70 years = 25,500 days = 613, 200 hours = 36,792,000 minutes = 2,207,520,000 seconds.
Or think of it another way. Seventy years ago most of us weren’t even born. Seventy years ago World War II had not yet started. Seventy years ago most people got their news by radio. Seventy years ago a gallon of gas cost 10 cents, which isn’t much but back then the average annual wage was $1730. Seventy years ago the hot new invention was something called the “ball point pen.”
Seventy years is a long time to be somewhere you don’t want to be. And if you were in that “somewhere” or if your loved ones were there, you would be glad to hear the news that they were coming home in two years-not seventy years.
That was the seductive appeal of Hananiah. He was like the popular “prosperity preachers” who make lavish promises of health and wealth if only you will “sow a seed of faith” by sending them some money. If you take care of them, God will take care of you.
A new car? It’s yours.
Cured of cancer? It’s on the way.
A better job? You can have it.
Name it, claim it, believe it, receive it. All very seductive, especially when the message is baptized in a pool of misapplied Bible verses.
Note carefully the last phrase of verse 9- “the dreams you encourage them to have.” Eugene Peterson offers this paraphrase: “Don’t pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you.” The false prophets and the prosperity preachers are with us because we want them with us. They prosper because we have itching ears, eager for someone to pander to our desires and to tell us that everything is going to be okay. There is always a bull market for preachers with big promises.
But in the end it is the truth-tellers who will prevail. In May 1940 Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to lead the fight in the war against Nazi Germany. In his first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, he uttered these justly-famous words:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.
Then he added this:
You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terrors – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
It would take five more years, but his words at last would come true. The ultimate defeat of the Third Reich brought to an end one of the darkest chapters of human history. It was a long, hard road indeed.
Why You Shouldn’t Listen to False Prophets
If we could go back to Jerusalem in the year 595 BC or thereabouts, we would understand better why a man like Hananiah was so popular. The city had been defeated, the government overthrown and deported, and thousands of citizens had been deported. A puppet king now sits on the throne. In a few years the Babylonians would return and finish the job, razing the temple, destroying the walls, killing some and deporting others, leaving the once proud city a wasteland. If we had been living in that “gray zone” between invasions, knowing that it was just a matter of time until the Babylonians would come back, we too would be easy prey for anyone promising us a quick end to our troubles.
There was only one problem with Hananiah’s message. It didn’t come from God.
He never said it.
Hananiah just made it up.
There is no greater sin than to falsely claim to speak for God. For a prophet, that was an offense punishable by death. Because God takes his word seriously, he pays careful attention when someone says, “The Lord told me to say this.” Don’t ever do that. It’s better to say, “This is my personal opinion” or “This is what I hope will happen” or even “This is my personal prediction.” You can be wrong about that, and it won’t necessarily get you into trouble. But when you claim to be speaking for God, you had better be 100% certain. Jeremiah 28:15-17 gives us the end of Hananiah’s story. This is what Jeremiah says to him:
Listen, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore, this is what the LORD says: “I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.” In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.
This is the reason why you should not listen to false prophets. Their predictions fail, and they end up dead. God makes sure that those who falsely claim to speak for him are brought down. Admittedly, the end is not always as swift or sudden as what happened to Hananiah. Sometimes the good die young and the bad guys prosper, leading to angst among the godly, glee among the ungodly, and to the chastened faith of Psalm 73. In those moments it is good to remember the words of James Russell Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,-
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
II. The Promise
“This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place’” (Jeremiah 29:10).
Notice how specific this promise is … .
It has a limit-70 years.
It has a location-Babylon.
It depends on God’s personal involvement-I will come to you.
It flows from God’s grace-Fulfill my gracious promise.
It results in deliverance-I will bring you back.
It ends where they began-To this place.
This is as specific and clear as a promise from God can get. The only question left is whether or not the exiles will fight against God’s plan or whether they will embrace it by making the best of their situation. Years ago I remember reading that “where there are no alternatives, there are no problems.” The exiles had no alternatives. They lacked the military power to rebel against Babylon, and they had no leverage to buy their way out of captivity. God’s message to them is, “Face up to reality. You are in Babylon for 70 years whether you like it or not. Listening to the false prophets will only make you unhappy, but it will not lead to your freedom. They do not speak for me and their words cannot be trusted. But remember my words. When seventy years are completed, I will keep my word and you will return home to Jerusalem.”
We can lay out God’s message this way:
1) I have nt forgotten you.
2) I will bring you back home.
3) But not on your timetable.
4) 70 years will pass.
5) Many will grow old and die in Babylon.
6) But when my purposes are completed, I will bring you home.
God’s purposes and ours are rarely the same. Or to say it more accurately, we tend to look at life through the prism of our own tiny field of vision-what we want, what we think is best, what makes sense to us, what will make us happy, what we want for our children, and so on. These things are not always bad, indeed sometimes they are noble impulses, but by definition even our noblest impulses pale when weighed against the plan of God that spans the ages, that covers the universe, that started long before we were born and will come to completion in God’s time somewhere in the future.
This fact struck me as I pondered this phrase in verse 10: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon.” That must mean that God has purposes in mind that go beyond the Jewish exiles.
1) The exiles were there as a punishment from God for generations of idolatry.
2) But they were there also for their own spiritual growth.
3) They needed to be there.
4) But the Babylonians needed them whether they knew it or not.
5) The seventy years were meant by God as a gift of grace, a mark of his kindness to the fierce, proud, idol-worshiping Babylonians.
6) God sent the exiles to them to bear witness for him in that pagan land.
7) Which is exactly what Daniel and his friends did.
8) Thus the Babylonians are unwittingly serving God’s purposes, and the exiles were serving God in a way they had not imagined.
And that’s why Jeremiah 29 is so crucial. Facing reality is always the first step in spiritual renewal. We cannot get better as long as we live in the dream world of what used to be or what might have been or even what might be tomorrow. Our only option is to live in the present and to do our best right now, right where we are, serving God and loving others in Jesus’ name. Sometimes we may find ourselves in Babylon-a place we don’t like and where our circumstances are unlikely to change anytime soon. This is where we discover what we truly believe.
John Hanneman helps us see what this means in practical terms:
You are thinking, this isn’t the marriage, the job, the life I as supposed to live. God says, it doesn’t matter. Live as though your life, your marriage, your job were the ones you were supposed to have…because they are! You may feel like an exile, but you are living the life God planned for you. It might not be your plan, but it is his.
If You Are Looking for Jesus
I began this sermon by talking about the easy way and the hard way. Here’s a point I have saved until the end of the sermon. If you are looking for Jesus, you won’t find him on the easy road. His way is the way of pain, suffering, rejection, difficulty, loneliness and death. I know this is true because that’s where we all found him a week ago when he died a bloody, agonizing death on a Roman cross, outside the city walls, rejected by the very people he came to save. His death was the ultimate “hard road.” The easy way would have been to avoid death at all costs, to make a deal with the devil, to follow his human instincts in Gethsemane. But he did the hard thing-the hardest thing any man has ever done-and because he did that hard thing, the doors of heaven now swing open for you and me.
Jesus is on the hard road of obedience, submission, suffering, pain, rejection and misunderstanding. If you’re looking for the Son of God, go to the cross and you will find him there. And that same Jesus, now risen from the dead, beckons to us and says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
It is not an easy way to live.
Twist of Fate
This week I read a striking quote from John Piper: “The universe exists so that we may live in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is more precious than life.” That statement deserves more probing that I can give it right now so let me merely offer one illustration. On Friday night I watched the Dateline NBC special called Twist of Fate. It’s about a terrible accident that happened in April 2006. Here’s some background taken from a news article:
Whitney Cerak had been one of nine people in a van returning to Taylor University after a school function. The van had been hit head-on by a tractor trailer whose driver had fallen asleep while driving on I-69 in Indiana.
Five people had been killed, including her classmate, Laura Van Ryn.
Cerak, who grew up in the little Michigan town of Gaylord, suffered multiple broken bones and a severe head injury, and she has no memory of the wreck or the five weeks that followed, when she was hospitalized.
During that time, she was mistaken for Van Ryn. And Van Ryn was buried as her.
It was a tragedy that defies description. As I watched the show, I was struck by the incredible faith of both families as they dealt with the reality of one daughter they thought was dead who turned out to be alive, and one daughter they thought was alive who turned out to be dead. It is hard to get your hands around something like that. And yet this is what came through. Not just their faith but a deep confidence in God. They repeatedly affirmed that God knows what he is doing, that he has a purpose, and that he is altogether good. They gave strong testimony to God’s sustaining grace notwithstanding the fact that no one can make sense of something like this. We all wonder how we would respond if all that we held dear was taken from us. Few of us will ever go through anything like what happened to the Cereks and the Van Ryns. I was deeply moved by the final blog entry written by Laura’s sister Lisa:
Our final encouragement to all is this: do not hang on to the things of this world too tightly. Life here is but a vapor and there is an eternity ahead. As you remember the Van Ryn and Cerak families, let us encourage you to look to your neighbors as well. God calls us to love.
These two families are living proof of what John Piper meant when he said, “The universe exists so that we may live in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is more precious than life.” That truth does not answer all our questions, but it does provide the framework for an answer that will prove true and strong in the worst moments of life. When tragedy strikes, when life caves in, when your plans are dashed on the jagged rocks of reality, when you find yourself in a place you never wanted to be, that’s when you discover what you really believe. And more importantly, that’s when the world discovers what you believe.
Either God is enough or he isn’t.
Either Jesus is more precious than life or he isn’t.
But the truth comes out, always. And in those moments, when you rest your weary soul on the God of the universe, when you cry out to Jesus and discover that he really is there after all, that hard road turns out to be the best road, the only way that matters.