Posts Tagged ‘sermon’

My plans for you

Saturday, May 6th, 2023


Many of you are familiar with this verse. If you aren’t familiar with it, you just haven’t been paying attention.


For example, you might see it as a Facebook meme.


Or an abbreviated version on the wall of a Christian coffee shop or bookstore.


This version would make a nice refrigerator magnet.


You might see this page in a grown-up coloring book


Here’s an edgier version.


How about one suitable for framing?

My personal favorite includes an image of the prophet himself….


I have nothing against the Muppets, daily companions for ten years or so. But did God really mean for Elmo to deliver his message? Has this message been appropriated and taken out of context? Was it intended to be meaningful to Christians?

There are thoughtful Christians who think not. They firmly believe this is the most misused verse in the Bible. They point to the context of this passage – which we’ll examine in some detail – and suggest that the people and conditions it addresses couldn’t be much further from the circumstances of Christians in the 21st Century. So, the thinking goes, as hopeful as it sounds. the promise isn’t relevant today.

Whatever we may think of this view, it points to a potential problem with Scripture memorization. There’s a strong case to be made for memorizing passages from the Bible, Psalm 119:11 for example – “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” But when we memorize a passage and recall it again and again, does it eventually become detached from its context? Is there a danger of transforming it into nothing more than an encouraging slogan devoid of real substance? I think it’s important to guard against that – we don’t want God’s Word to become a bumper sticker!

Let me illustrate this problem with another, less well-known promise.

“I’ll get you a sewing machine” is a promise I made to someone. But who? You can’t tell. What are the circumstances of this promise? You can’t tell. Am I going to buy a broken-down old machine or a brand new one? Does the recipient have any say in what I buy? What did the promise actually mean? You can’t tell.

My daughter knows the answers to all those questions because I made the promise to her. She had spent a lot of time helping me clear out and reorganize my workshop. To thank her for her hard work, I told her I’d take her to buy a new machine to replace her old one. She’s quite happy with the brand new machine that she picked out. Now that you know its context, you know the promise was made and kept. The promise itself – unlike the sewing machine – has no further meaning or significance; it is no longer binding on me. Is this the case with v.11? Is it a promise made and kept, end of story?

Just like my promise to my daughter, the answer lies in the verse’s context. Some insight into that will enable us to decide whether this too is a promise made and kept, its meaning and significance used up 2600 years ago.

We’ll start by looking at the circumstances of the people who received the promise. We’ll look at this in some detail in order to understand what the promise would have meant to them. Then we can decide if it means anything to us.

It’s said that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location. It’s also said that the three most important things in interpreting a Bible passage are context, context, and context. (1) Look at the surrounding verses. (2) Look at the whole chapter. (3) Look at the book’s historical context and its relationship to the Bible as a whole.

Historically, Israel had a history of disobeying God – when they thought of him at all. The nation of Israel only had three kings before God got fed up with them and split the country in two. The northern portion retained the name Israel and made Samaria its capitol. The southern part, which included Jerusalem, was named Judah and retained Jerusalem as its capitol.

There were interludes of faithfulness in both parts of the divided kingdom, but far fewer in Israel/Samaria. Judah did better, but eventually ran afoul of Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 30:17-18:

… if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

It’s not as though God hadn’t continued to remind the Israelites in both kingdoms of the consequences of disobedience. The coming doom was often prophesied and largely ignored. One of those prophets was Jeremiah who acted as God’s messenger in Judah from about 627 to 582 BC. Much of his message was a reminder that if they didn’t repent, they would be expelled from the Promised Land, just as Moses had warned them. But his prophecy included both their exile to Babylon and – after 70 years – the return to Jerusalem of those who remained (25:11-12):

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD, “and will make it desolate forever.

When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, he took captive the cream of the crop and led them back to Babylon. He installed his own king in Jerusalem to rule over the beaten and impoverished remnant left behind. Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles in Babylon: Jeremiah 29:1,4-14

Our task is to see how readers in the 21st Century AD might best make sense of this scripture written in the 6th Century BC.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about studying the Bible is some advice from a long-forgotten writer: Be attentive to both the primary audience and the secondary audience. Who was the text originally meant for? For example, Paul’s letters were written to churches or individual church leaders. Jeremiah’s letter was written to the exiles in Babylon.

The secondary audience is everybody else. Today it’s us. God ensured the preservation of the Bible for a reason. We should ask, why was this book or passage preserved even as other writings or letters have been lost? Why was Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles preserved? What is its message to contemporary readers at our particular time or place? Interpreting God’s Word requires some understanding of both audiences.

Ignoring the primary audience and purpose pulls the foundation from under the passage. It can lead to misunderstanding and idle speculation about things such as when Jesus will return. Ignoring the secondary audience consigns the Bible to dusty bookshelves. It becomes a thing to be studied by scholars who may not attach any eternal significance to its words. It’s of little real use.

The idea that Scripture is written for two audiences is confirmed in Scripture itself. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

And Romans 15:4:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

My favorite example of the application of Scripture to two different audiences was shown to me by Dr. Marion Soards in a short course at Second Presbyterian Church down in Indy. As you will see, it is particularly appropriate at Christmastime. It starts with a promise made and kept in Isaiah 7:11-16:

“Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

Isaiah’s primary audience was King Ahaz of Judah who was facing a war brought by the kings of Syria and Israel. In v. 14, Isaiah assures Ahaz that he will win, but Ahaz is still frightened, so God promises Ahaz a sign, a child to be born to a virgin. He will be named Immanuel to signify God’s presence in the coming battle. To be a sign to Ahaz, this boy must be born in time to encourage him, that is, before the war even begins.

Immanuel, of course, means “God with us”. The boy Immanuel is not God himself accompanying Ahaz; he is a symbol of God’s promise to be with Ahaz and bring the victory to Judah.

This prophecy reappears in the very familiar passage in Matthew 1:20-23:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

In this case, the boy will be named Jesus, which means “savior”. Jesus himself will be the savior. Like Immanuel, he signifies God’ presence with us; but unlike Immanuel, he isn’t a symbol of God’s presence, he is God present with us. As Dr. Soards said, Immanuel was a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – temporary and symbolic – while Jesus was the perfect fulfillment – eternal God himself.

God took the promise made to Ahaz and recycled it. Matthew says as much in vv. 22-23: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.

Incidentally, Bible scholars believe that the young mother-to-be in Isaiah was not a virgin at the time she conceived. Rather she represented purity and pre-figured the Virgin Mary. Again, the prophecy was partially fulfilled the first time and perfectly fulfilled the second time.

Is God recycling Jeremiah 29:4-14 for us today? Or are those well-intentioned critics correct when they say v.11 is a promise made and kept and finished? Although I once agreed with them, I no longer do. There are at least three reasons to believe the critics have missed the point.

First, consider the original audience. They were God’s people, enduring exile in a hostile place. We too are God’s people, enduring our own exile in a hostile world. Peter wrote to fellow Christians in 1 Peter 2:10-11:

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

We are told in many places in the New Testament to make the best of our exile, never forgetting that it is temporary. And like those earlier exiles, God has promised to redeem us and return us to our true home. Remember in v.10, God says I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.

Note the striking similarity to John 14:2-3:

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

And where is that place? It’s Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-4):

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Second, look at the Babylonian exile in the context of the whole Bible. In one sense, the Bible is a story that begins In Eden, a place without sin or death where God could be found, and ends in the new Jerusalem, a place without sin or death where God can be found. In between, God kicked his first chosen people, Adam and Eve, out of the Garden and sent them – and us – to live in a world that is in permanent rebellion against him. That long exile will end when he welcomes all of his chosen people home to the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:22-24):

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.

Third, think about what we know about God’s character as revealed in the whole of Scripture.

Among other things, he is faithful, merciful, and provident, loving all his exiled children and wanting only what he knows is best for them. This is the God who promised Adam and Eve that their offspring would crush the serpent’s head. This is the God who promised Abraham that he would father nations. This is the God who promised to end the Babylonian exile. This is the God who promised to come get us and end our exile.

To be sure, there are some big differences, just as there are differences between the baby Immanuel, and the baby Jesus. When a prophecy gets recycled, it seems to me that it grows in magnitude as well as in perfection. For example, crushing the serpent’s head is one thing, conquering death itself is a whole lot bigger. So here are four quick differences:

First, our own exile didn’t begin with Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem. It began in Eden.

Second our exile spans not just seventy years but the entire history of humanity from God’s creation to his making all things new at the end of history. The Babylonian exile is just a short fragment within this universal exile.

Third, our guarantee is better. We know who will take us by the hand and bring us home – Jesus himself – and he’s given us some idea of how it will happen.

Fourth, our return will not be a step back to the old Jerusalem but a step forward into the new Jerusalem.

I think the conclusion is clear – this letter was written to two audiences, the one Jeremiah knew about, and us today, the audience that only God knew about. I will suggest at least five takeaways from seeing Jeremiah’s letter in its full context.

First, it does indeed give us a memory verse – v.11 – which the Holy Spirit can call to mind when we are grieving or in doubt or scared. Just remember the context! It’s not a bumper sticker!

Second, v.13 promises that You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. There are times when this is the only way we will see him working for our welfare, giving us hope, and preparing a future for us. There are times – this year of COVID is a pretty good example – when that isn’t exactly obvious.

Third, it serves as a reminder that God does keep his promises and that his promise-keeping together with Jesus’ death and resurrection are the only foundation for the hope we have.

Fourth, it reminds us that God’s view of our existence is different from the world’s – and sometimes our own. He takes the long view; he knows that our lives don’t end when we die. The exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote must have had a sense of this. 70 years meant that they were going to die in Babylon and most of their children would too.

But the Israelites were familiar with God’s perspective. They had suffered 400 years in Egypt before there was any movement toward the land God had promised Abraham. And then they endured another 40 years in the wilderness when their faith in God failed. Patient endurance was part of their DNA; it should be part of ours too.

Fifth, v.11 reminds us that, no matter what we’re experiencing, God never, ever wishes us harm. To be sure, we suffer when choices – ours or others’ – produce bad consequences in our lives. We suffer when things like disease or natural disasters bear directly on us or those we love. That brings us to another good memory verse (and its context), Romans 8:28:

… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Great! Who doesn’t want everything that happens to them to be turned into good? But v.29 gives us the context for this promise:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

The good that God has in mind is to bring us to be more and more like Jesus; this isn’t necessarily the same good we might be hoping for. We have to trust that God knows and desires our best good. Even so, when bad seems to be winning out over God’s promised good, we might turn again to the promise, you will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

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