Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Waiting

Text used – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

  • 5 years. 5 whole years of your life. The average person spends 5 years of their life … waiting. Waiting in lines, to be more specific. And roughly 6 mos. of that 5 years is specifically waiting at traffic lights.[1] → more fun “waiting” facts[2]
    • Spend nearly 20 months of our lives waiting for our partner and/or children
    • Spend almost 7 whole years just waiting around for things like
      • Food being cooked
      • Technology
      • Boiling kettles or brewing coffee pots
      • Being on hold
    • Things that we tend to do while we’re waiting
      • Silently curse (maybe sometimes not-so-silently)
      • Lots on our phones/devices
        • Scroll through social media
        • Shop
        • Play a game
      • Spend time with loved ones (friends, family)
    • Silly, right? And yet, also a little sobering, maybe. I mean, sure, a lot of the waiting that we do is trivial waiting.
      • Think of children waiting for Christmas now
        • Excited waiting
        • Seemingly-endless waiting
        • Waiting that can be helped along and measured by fun, colorful paper chains or chocolate-filled Advent calendars
      • Even some of our less-fun waiting, though it may not feel trivial in the moment (especially if you’re waiting at a stoplight when you’re already running late), really is trivial when we look back on it. But on the other hand, there’s also the harder waiting.
        • Waiting for medical results
        • Waiting for critical appointments
          • Medical
          • Legal
          • Interviews
        • Waiting to hear from people we’re worried about
        • Waiting for a looming date – e.g.: a funeral
        • Often, these more difficult times of waiting can feel lonely and interminable – like we are bearing the weight of the unknown all by ourselves. Even if there are others waiting with us – physically beside us or joining us in our vigil waiting from afar – there seems to be something intensely isolating about waiting.
    • It cannot be denied that, whether we like it or not, waiting is a part of our lives. Always has been. Always will be. No way around it. And here in the season of Advent, we are reminded that even our faith comes with a built-in waiting component.
      • (like we talked about last week) Advent = season of waiting for the coming Messiah
        • Waiting to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ on Christmas Eve
        • Also waiting for the return of Jesus to bring God’s Kingdom to earth
      • Scripture reading for today = beautiful and poignant reminder that we are, in fact, not alone in our waiting
        • Reminds us God is with us in the waiting
        • Reminds us that God can even bring blessings in the midst of the waiting
  • Context for Jeremiah → Once again, we find ourselves in the greater historical context of the Babylonian exile – around the late 7th to early/mid-6th BCE.[3]
    • Makes Jeremiah a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah
      • Major difference btwn. Jeremiah and Isaiah = Isaiah was taken with the contingent of captured Israelites to Babylon while Jeremiah was left in the city of Jerusalem
    • Life for Jeremiah after the exiles were taken away
      • Even after the majority of the Babylonian army has taken the captives back to Babylon, they leave a remnant behind to rule Jerusalem → So even though Jeremiah and the others were still in their homes, they weren’t free.
      • Growing anti-Babylonian sentiments that boiled over into violence, political intrigue, and danger
        • Growing faction of people wanted to flee to Egypt → In fact, it was a pro-Egyptian rebellion that spurred the Babylonians to destroy the Temple nearly a decade after the initial invasion and that contingent of Israelites had been taken to live as captives in Babylon. So unlike the people that had been taken captive and whisked off to Babylon, the remnant that were left in Jerusalem had to wake up every day confronted by the violence and devastation of their holiest place – of God’s own house. Imagine how heartbreaking that must have been! And yet despite that swift and horrific retaliation, there was still a large group of the population left in Jerusalem who believed their only refuge lay in allying themselves with Egypt
        • Babylonian-appointed governor, Gedaliah, counseled the people to stay in Jerusalem → Gedaliah is murdered by a political rival → fearful of yet more Babylonian retaliation (because the leader they had appointed had been killed), the remaining leadership fled Jerusalem and settled in Egypt → And when they fled, they took the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch, with them. So Jeremiah finds himself in a different kind of exile. Like Isaiah, he has been forced from his home. Like Isaiah, he has words of reproach and a call to repentance for the people that are also far from their homeland. But whereas Isaiah’s word was spoken for the people who had been forcibly removed to Babylon, Jeremiah’s word was spoken for the people that had willingly fled the land and the promise that God had given them.
          • First ⅔ covers Jeremiah’s time in Jerusalem
          • Last ⅓ covers Jeremiah’s own exile in Egypt
          • Scholar about Jeremiah: Jeremiah’s laments provide a glimpse into the inner struggle of those figures who were called by God to an often demanding and, indeed, terrible task. … But not other book so vividly portrays that inner anguish created by a burden imposed that cannot be laid down. … As much as anything, therefore, the overall presentation of the prophet, which centers in his frequent conflicts with false prophets, with kings, with the religious and political leaders of the community, and finally with his God, provides important material for understanding and interpreting the prophetic role in the [First Testament].[4]
  • So let’s dig into what we read in Jeremiah today.
    • Today’s passage (part of that first ⅔ when Jeremiah’s still in Jerusalem) = interesting section from the book of Jer that’s written as a series of letters back and forth between Jerusalem and Babylon → clear in 1st verse of today’s passage: The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.[5]
    • Reading picks up again in v. 4 w/God’s word for the Babylonian exiles → not a word of condemnation and rebuke but a word of hope, a promise of God’s continued presence and even blessing in the waiting – text: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.[6] → I think this is a really interesting directive from God that covers both the welfare of the people and the welfare of the city in which they’ve been exiled.
      • First and foremost, God directs the people to not just survive but to thrive in the midst of their waiting
        • Get settled in: build houses, cultivate gardens, get married, have children, help your children to find spouses so that the generations may continue
        • Clear directive (text): Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. – Heb. “dwindle away” has connotations of getting smaller in number but also in effectiveness[7] → So basically, through Jeremiah, God is encouraging the people to remain strong not just in their numbers but also in their particular identity as God’s people and in their faith.
      • God also includes instructions on the welfare of the city that they’ve been exiled in: Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. → This is such an interesting, particular little turn of phrase.
        • Heb. “promote” = seek, ask, inquire, care for[8] → There’s a distinctly active and positive element to this word. It’s a word that encompasses dedication and a concerted effort.
        • Heb. “welfare” = unexpectedly familiar word: shalom → We often translate “shalom” as peace, but it goes much deeper than that. It also includes ideas of welfare and prosperity, not in terms of excessive wealth and overabundance, but in having enough.[9] And God is speaking these words – this directive for peace and welfare and prosperity – for the city … of the captives?
          • More insight from late Rev. Dr. Patrick Miller (prolific OT scholar and former professor at both Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and Princeton Theological Seminary): Those who live in Babylon can find their possibilities for life only as Babylon is a viable place to live, secure and at peace. So seeking the peace and welfare of Babylon is not simply altruistic; it is a safeguard on the possibility of the deportees’ finding their own well-being in a difficult situation.[10] → So even there, in the exiles’ painful and difficult waiting, God is there among them, encouraging them into spaces of both finding blessedness and being a blessing.
    • Moves to short section of warning against false prophets
    • Finishes with section reassuring the people of God’s presence and promise in the midst of their waiting – text: The LORD proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the LORD, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the LORD.[11]
      • Cannot read this passage without addressing the declarations about how God brought the people to this difficult and distressing place of exile – text (from last verse): I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the LORD. → I know that this follows the line of the popular theology of “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it,” but I also find that to be a bit of warped theology.
        • Implies that God brings bad things to us – that God wishes us ill → How do we square that with what we pray every Sunday (maybe even every day): “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”? Do we just say that sometimes God abides by that petition but sometimes God feels like flinging mud in our path?
        • Dr. Miller gives some much-needed insight here: The saving work of God is what God has “planned” and purposed. That is the whole point of these verses. What is happening is fully the Lord’s doing and is quite intentional, purposed ahead of time. … At the same time, it is equally true that what happens is very much shaped and affected by human acts, human decision, human words. … What God intends to do is significantly affected by what human beings do. … None of that may be quite logical, but it is that peculiar biblical claim about human freedom and divine will, or, if you will, divine freedom and human will. They are conjoined. … God’s will and freedom do not run rampant over human words and deeds – good or bad – nor does human intentionality so control what happens that God is unable to effect the divine purposes. What “happens” occurs within that tension. So we count on God to be God and pray to God in order to bring that about.[12]
      • And truly, we hear those prayers in the midst of the waiting, and we hear God’s reassuring response: “I will come and fulfill my gracious promise” … “I know the plans I have in mind for you … plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” … “When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me” … “I will be present for you, declares the Lord.” It’s all comforting. It’s all a glimmer of hope even in the most oppressive, isolating periods of waiting.
        • Recognizes the difficulty of that waiting
        • Extends that hope even in the face of that waiting
        • Sentiment encompassed in poem “Wait” by Galway Kinnell [READ POEM]. Truly, God is with us in our waiting. Amen.

[1] https://www.thefactsite.com/how-much-time-people-spend-doing-stuff/.

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7362505/Survey-reveals-spend-hours-lives-waiting-food-cook-partner-ready.html.

[3] Patrick D. Miller. “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 555-563.

[4] Miller, 563.

[5] Jer 29:1.

[6] Jer 29:5-7.

[7] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/jeremiah-291-4-14/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Miller, 792.

[11] Jer 29:10-14.

[12] Miller 796.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s