A Future and a Hope

Text:   (Jeremiah 29:1,4-11) 

Dear friends,

If you think about the past, the present and the future, which is the time-frame you find to be the main focus of your attention?   Where do you live, think, act, operate?  Of course the obvious answer is that you operate in all three dimensions, don’t you?   Although I think the process of maturing and aging tends to have some effect on the way we approach this. 

When you are at school, you can ‘t wait to get older, get a drivers’ licence, drink in public, earn money, and visit Paris.  All that is ahead of you.  You don’t have much of a past, but the future looks quite long.  When you get a bit older, and most of those things have been achieved, you still look forward – to your kids achieving all those milestones and more, and perhaps to being free of some of the responsibilities you once looked forward to.  And then when you get older still, you start to reflect a bit more on the past, and wonder whether you could have made better choices at times.  I used to think that older people were sort of stuck in the past, but the older I get, the more I seem to think of the future.  The future is a lot shorter than it was, so it’s a bit more urgent! and I am fast approaching the time where nearly everything I buy has a life-time warranty. 

But there are some things we all have in common.  Whenever you act in any way at all, you are operating in the present.  Everything from getting up in the morning, reading the newspaper, eating lunch, doing homework, having a glass of wine or catching a plane – it’s all in the moment, a now thing.

At the same time, whatever you do is affected in some way by your past.  Your upbringing and family life, your experience in the church, your teachers and pastors, all had an effect on you, and helped to shape the way you are today.  The past is very important to us. When you pick up the newspaper you are reviewing the past.  When you ask your kids how was school today, you are asking about earlier today.  All our conversations, all our study, even our faith, is strongly connected to the past – Jesus died on a cross for us, and that happened in the past.

If we look in the other direction, we can see the many ways in which our present is connected to the future.  All our planning, our budgeting, our preparation for a career, or a new career, all our study is directed to the future.  Every promise lives in the future.  Every plan, every good intention, every dream.  If I wanted to mess with your heads, I might suggest that there is no such thing as the present.  As soon as you think about the moment, it has passed, and has become part of our recent past.  Where’s the present?  Whoops!  There it goes, now the past.

There are times when this comes to the front of our minds.  As you get towards the end of high school, you need to be planning what you are going to do with the rest of your life.  It’s a bit of a turning point when the past, including whatever study you have managed to squeeze into your social life, leads or pushes you towards an unknown future, that can be quite exciting, but also vaguely unsettling.

There are other turning points, or crossroads, like marriage and children, changing jobs, the death of loved ones and maybe retirement or being asked to take a new leadership role, that inevitably push us back onto our foundations from the past and forward into a new thing in the future.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we are reminded of a particularly appalling experience that Israel had, which gave rise to the letter from Jeremiah, referred to in the text.  SLIDE – Past and Memory  It involves a move from the past to the future.  They were big on the past, which was when God had chosen them as his own special people.  They knew the stories of their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David and all the rest – the forging of a special covenant, which gave them a pretty special place in the world.  Their memories were important to them, although memory can play tricks and so some of that had got distorted over time.  I’m sure that doesn’t happen to you, but it did to them.

SLIDE – Geography They had by this time been pretty well settled in what they referred to as the promised land, and they assumed they had a mortgage on it.  They had been a fairly insignificant nation, if the truth is known, apart from a fairly brief period when David was on the throne, and to a lesser extent, Solomon.  For that short time they were a ranking nation, but it didn’t last.  They were flanked by the superpowers of the day – Egypt to the south and the Mesopotamian nations to the north – Assyria, Babylon and later Persia.  SLIDE – 721BC  The northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off into captivity in 721 by Assyria, but they were wicked in various ways that we of course are not.  And that was a long time ago, we prefer not to remember that.

SLIDE – 597BC  But now a new present had caught up with them.  In 597 BC (remember the BC dates go backwards), Babylon was the new superpower of the region.  Jerusalem was besieged and conquered, and the whole of the ruling class, including the royal family, were taken off in chains to Babylon.

They could hardly beli8eve this had happened and assumed God would put it right.  After all, God can hardly have his favourite people under the thumb of a foreign power!  Prophets among the captives in Babylon were making proclamations along these lines.  Actually it was nothing more than wishful thinking, and when Jeremiah heard of these prophets he wrote a letter with a different kind of message:

to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile – this is not just an accident of history, but part of God’s plan for reshaping his people… settle down, you are going to be there for a while.  Build a new life for yourselves, have families, and pray for the city you have landed in, because your welfare depends on its welfare.  You are there for longer than you think.  Ooh, that would have sounded harsh in their ears.  They needed to be back in Judah, where they were rulers, where the Temple stood, where their future lay, according to everything they had ever been taught.  Well, not everything is as it seems.

SLIDE – 587BC  Ten years later, a new king was on the throne of Judah, a clown by the name of Zedekiah, who thought it was smart to thumb the nose at Babylon, and refused to pay the usual taxes.  Nebuchrezzar marched on Jerusalem, and destroyed the city, along with its Temple, and dragged the rest of the population off to Babylon to join their previous rulers.  Some of those who saw this coming, sneaked off to Egypt, where they were granted asylum. 

SLIDE – Future and Hope  Where was their future now, where was their hope?

SLIDE – Crown What had happened to God’s promise that a king of David’s line would always sit on the throne?  This was the promise that had always sustained them, and perhaps made them a little arrogant.

SLIDE – Temple What would happen to genuine worship of God, now that the Temple had been destroyed? 

SLIDE – God  Where was God in all this?  How was God going to manage without a Temple, without a chosen people, and without a land?

SLIDE – summary  This is a strange way to forge a new future, isn’t it.  The land in ruins, the Temple destroyed,   the people in captivity to a foreign power with foreign gods and foreign food!  And no hope for the future.  But then comes this promise of God, which we all need to hear:  I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Indeed things are not as they seem.  I am working on it, says God.  God is not in the past, which is where they, and we, too, often look for him, as if he is a relic of history, someone who had relevance of a kind then, but is now slightly out of fashion.  God was indeed in the past, when the past was the present, but that’s not where he is now.  God is with us, as he was with Israel, in the present moment, guiding us, and helping us shape and reshape our lives here on this earth where he has graciously placed us.

And even more important to note, God is also in the future, where he waits for us to find our way.  He has plans for us, and not to trip us up, or test our worthiness, but to support us and encourage us, and empower us for a life worth living.  This is where our hope lies.

God has plans for us.  That doesn’t mean that God has mapped out every step of our journey, but rather that he has good intentions for us and has taken the trouble to plan for our welfare.  He plans because he loves us.  He also plans because that’s how you get things done.  Planning is smart, because planning keeps your focus on the future, which is ultimately where God is.

We all plan various aspects of our lives, don’t we?  Families plan, businesses plan, churches plan, governments even plan.  In this respect we are imitators of God.  Without planning we tend to get stuck in the past or the present, instead of using those resources to guide us into God’s future.  Planning allows us to focus on the needs of others, otherwise we tend to just muddle along looking after ourselves, mainly.  God is delighted that St Petri is planning to share the hope we have been given, and I am sure you will want to be part of that process too.

Note also that the welfare of God’s people is firmly connected to the welfare of this world.  Yes, this fallen world, this world full of distractions and temptations, and forces of not-so-good, where all manner of bad things can happen, and often do.  But this world is where God’s people live and grow in faith and love.  The Barossa is a likely enough setting for God’s activity, I guess, but this also applies to Christians who live in places like Sydney, BrisVegas or even Canberra!

We pray for the city, and the town and the vineyards, wherever God has placed us, because God cares about these places of human habitation.  God cares about the people among whom we live.  And if God cares about them, so do his children, so do we.  God cares enough for us to plan for us, to die on a cross for us, and to engage with us in the shaping of our destinies.  This is always the ultimate cause of our hope for the future, and it is a hope we offer to all who need it.  That is what we need to plan for, as God plans for it.  Life is not just a matter of milling about until someone else thinks of something, but rather of getting on board with God’s plans for the welfare of our communities.  That calls out the best in us, shapes us as imitators of God, empowers us to make a difference, indeed makes us bearers of hope.

God give you every good thing that you need for this exciting journey into the future.

Graham R. Harms