“Blessed to Be a Blessing”
Series: “Plans for God’s Good Future”
There are certain stories that I always seem to fall for. Regardless of how busy I may be, when I’m reading a magazine or surfing the Internet, there are just some stories I can’t pass up. Probably the ones that rank at the top of my lists are the “Best Places” stories. You know the ones I’m talking about – “Best places to live…work…study…retire.” Evidently, I’m not by myself, given how many of them get written.
Why is that the case? Why are there so many “Best Places” stories? Might it be that these sorts of stories appeal to that part of us that never is satisfied? In other words, it’s not so much that we’re looking for a new place to live or work or study or retire. We just wonder how the places where we’ve landed stack up with other places. “Could I do better?” “Did I make the right decision?” “Have I chosen wisely, or have I messed up?”
Of course, many of us really didn’t have much of a say-so in the matter. We were either born in a particular place, or we are being brought up in this particular place, or we took the only opportunity that came available at the time so that this is the place where we ended up working. The great illusion that so many of us live under is that we have unlimited options in terms of where we live, work, study, or retire. So many of these matters are in some way predetermined, which is why we tend to wonder at times if they are the “best places” for us.
But lest you think I am being too deterministic, while we don’t always have control over how our lives play out, what we do have control over is our response to these situations. We can either moan and groan about the hand we were dealt or we can do our best to make the most of the situation. That’s a point Jeremiah makes in this text that I read for you this morning.
Jeremiah is nicknamed “the weeping prophet” because of how he ministered at a time in Israel’s history when everything was falling apart for God’s people, and it broke Jeremiah’s heart to see it. If you think things are tough today, imagine what life would be like if some conquering army was setting up a siege outside of Birmingham, depriving us here in Mountain Brook of necessary provisions like food and water. Compared to a threat like that, some of the things that keep us awake at night seem awfully small; do they not? For Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem, the threat came from the Babylonians, who eventually conquered the city and took many of the people back with them to Babylon and a time of exile.
This section of Jeremiah’s prophecy addresses that looming conquest and displacement. While other prophets at that time were preaching messages of a quick exile and a speedy return, Jeremiah was inspired to prepare the people for a much lengthier time away. “Build houses and settle down,” he counseled them. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” And then in a spirit of audacity, Jeremiah added this quite startling word: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Understand that the city about which Jeremiah was speaking was the city of Babylon, the city inhabited by the very people who were to destroy Jerusalem and turn their world upside down. It wasn’t that Jeremiah was crazy about the Babylonians or that he thought them to be a benevolent people. It was more that Jeremiah believed that in some way God was at work through what was arguably their darkest hour and if the people committed themselves to staying faithful to God while in exile, then God would, in time, honor their faith and bless them for their dedication to His Sovereign Purpose. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you…. (B)ecause if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
There is a radically different current at work in this promise. I’m not an expert on electricity by any stretch of the imagination, but I do understand that electrical power runs on the basis of electrical currents. Certain materials conduct those currents better than others, and therefore move the power in a particular and better way. For example, metals move current better than rubber products, which is one of the reasons why in a thunderstorm, an automobile is not a bad place to be. It’s certainly a better place than under a metal shed.
Jeremiah’s point in this passage is that as the people of God, we are conductors of His power in this world. We are the people through whom His blessings flow out to the broader world. If you wonder sometimes why God has put you in a situation that taxes you and tries you, it may well be that God has done so that you might remain hopeful and in that spirit will be a powerful witness to the supremacy of God’s purpose. It is so that you might reach out to others in that place in a way that gives witness to a God who is present and in control of every aspect of this earthly existence.
Come to think about it, isn’t this how Jesus related to his world? Didn’t Jesus take seriously the words of Jeremiah as he sought the peace and prosperity of the entire world, even those parts of the world that most people shied away from? Didn’t Jesus come to a world of flawed, imperfect people, only to reach out to them? Didn’t Jesus embrace the people on the margins – the poor, the sick, the immoral, and the unscrupulous? And not only did he embrace them, did he not die for them?
How does the gospel of John put it? “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” If we believe that, if we truly believe that God so loved the world, Jeremiah is saying that we should love it as well. We should love the world not for what the world values; we should instead love the world for what God might do through us to redeem it.
Like the people of Judah, we can contribute to the welfare of the world in a very special way by virtue of our status of being in, but not of the world. That is to say, that as aliens and exiles, we don’t have to get sucked into the games that people in this world play with one another. We don’t have to get lured into the power games that people play with one another. We can model for the world the blessing of loving God and loving our neighbor. We can show them the value of caring for others and leaving a legacy for those who come behind us. Frankly, I’m not certain that there’s another people better positioned to take the lead in this way of living. And as we do that – as we care, as we serve, as we help, as we love – the world becomes a better place, and the blessing of God flows to us in such rich and fulfilling ways.
Do you see how this view of our relation to the world is much different from the conventional Christian view? The conventional view is that the world is to be avoided. The world is to be maligned. Please understand; I’m not suggesting that we give in to the world. I’m not saying that we should compromise with the world. I’m saying that we should take Jeremiah’s prophecy and Jesus’ example more seriously and in the face of the opportunities God gives us as we live in the world, we should be quick to work for its transformation so that it becomes all that God created it to be.
Can you make that commitment? Can you seek God’s help in seeking the peace and well-being of the place where God has put you? Sadly, some of us are like the businessman I heard about who checked into a hotel late one night. It had been a long day and he decided that he would stop in the lounge for a nightcap. Pretty soon he called the hotel desk clerk and asked, “What time will the lounge be open in the morning?’ The night clerk answered, “9:00 AM and then hung up.” “About an hour later he called again. “What time will the lounge be opened in the morning?” “9:00 AM,” the night clerk patiently answered. He called a third time, and every hour throughout the night with the same question.
At 7:00 AM, the day manager arrived. In his report the night clerk informed the day manager that everything had gone all right, except for this crazy man who kept calling the front desk every hour asking what time the lounge would be open. Right then the phone rang again. The manager picked it up this time. Sure enough, it was the businessman asking what time the lounge would open. The manager said, “Look here! The night clerk tells me that you have been a nuisance all night long asking the same question. I am telling you for the last time, the lounge will be open at 9:00 AM. You can’t get in until then!” To which the businessman said, “Get in? I don’t want to get in; I’m trying to get out!”
I know that you and I may feel the same way sometime. “How did I get myself in this place, and how do I get out?” But might it be that God has you in a place for a purpose, and as difficult as it is, if you are faithful in that place, not only will that place become better, so will you?”
In his book, Facing Life with Christ, author James Reid put it this way: “The way out of life’s frustrations is found not by resenting our limitations, but by accepting them and the place of frustration as the sphere of God’s purpose.”
If this morning you feel that your place in life is like a prison and you’ve been exiled to that place against your will, instead of moaning and groaning, why don’t you try seeking God’s purpose there? After all, He is with you in that very place, and His power can come to you by virtue of your faithfulness to whatever it is He is calling you to do there.
Believe it or not, that place could then very well become the best place to live or work or study or retire. At least for you it can, until Jesus returns and in response to your faithfulness, redeems you and releases you and at last takes you home.