September 8, 2018 sermon
When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12-14)
Last week, we talked about how, during times of change, we can find hope in our changeless God. Parts of today’s message will sound familiar — not because I like to repeat myself, though my family might tell you that I do, but because I want to re-emphasize it in the context of this week’s lesson.
But first, prepare yourselves for blunt. I don’t do beating-around-the-bush very well, and sometimes my style puts people off. Annette lives in constant and legitimate fear that she’s going to have to tell people when we’re out that she’s not really with me.
Part of what an interim pastor is called to do is to help diagnose unhealthy situations in the church to which he has been called. We need to understand where the church is in order to know how to lead it to where God wants it to be. And understanding where the church is calls for a look at how it got here.
Perhaps you have watched with fear as worrisome things you didn’t understand unfolded in recent months and even years within this church.
Maybe you have watched good friends leave here and wondered if they’d ever come back.
Maybe you have wondered if you’d ever stop saying goodbye to the people you love within this fellowship.
Maybe you’ve even wondered why God wouldn’t do something to stop the hemorrhaging.
Maybe you have asked yourself if the patient might just bleed to death.
The people of Judah during the time of the prophet Jeremiah had some similar questions. They, too, were seeing the things they had known and loved change around them. They, too, were concerned about what the future might hold. They searched for hope amidst changing times.
Sometimes hope is hard to find. Sometimes finding hope requires us to look with a new set of eyes on what seemed hopeless before.
Sometimes in order to find hope we must adjust our understanding and expectation of what it looks like.
And sometimes we will only find hope after we submit to a painful season of pruning.
But the message of the cross is fundamentally a message of hope. It is a proclamation that love wins, no matter how bleak things may seem. It is the declaration that God’s redemptive plan for mankind did not succeed DESPITE a man’s betrayal or IN SPITE OF mankind’s unfaithfulness.
No, mankind’s failures were always PART of God’s plan for reconciliation.
Only as we truly recognize how unworthy we are can we recognize how very completely WORTHY is Jesus Christ.
Only as we recognize the terrible impact of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat from the prohibited Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil can we see the incredible grace of God demonstrated on a hill called Calvary.
The Romans planted a cross there and hung from it the sinless Son of God. That wooden cross was an instrument of death.
But God made it the new Tree of Life. Its fruit is salvation for fallen man, reconciliation for we who were once lost in our sins. Here was an eternal hope, offered in the midst of what the world saw as utter defeat.
More than 600 years earlier, God’s chosen people in the nation of Judah thought they had been utterly defeated, too. They were being hauled away into exile in Babylon, and the holy city of Jerusalem was falling.
They, too, were looking for hope, and there were false prophets among them who were eager to give them false hope.
Turn with me to Jeremiah 28, and hear what the false prophet Hananiah was saying – and then we’ll hear God’s surprising response.
Now in the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet, who was from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. ‘Within two years I am going to bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. ‘I am also going to bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles of Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” (Jer. 28:1-4)
By this time in the history of the long-since divided nation of Israel, the northern kingdom had been utterly ransacked. In the year 722 BC, the people of the northern kingdom had been hauled away into captivity by Shalmaneser, the king of Assyria, which occupied an area that now includes portions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Through the grace of God, the southern kingdom of Judah was able to stand for 136 years longer before finally falling to King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.
But the last 25 years or so of Judah’s existence as an independent nation were a terrifying time of famines, sieges, starvation, deportations, separation and betrayal.
The tiny nation was caught between a war of world powers as Egypt and Babylon struggled to dominate the region.
Judean kings were deposed, and puppets of foreign masters were put in their place. Prominent families were taken away into captivity in Babylon. Daniel arrived with one of those groups in about 605 BC.
So Hananiah prophesied in the context of these events. Nebuchadnezzar had carried away all of the holy and valuable things of the temple in Jerusalem, and he had taken with him most of Judah’s ruling class and societal leaders.
This was a time of hopelessness for those who were left behind. In fact, one group that we read about later would soon decide that the safest thing would be to flee to Egypt, the land from which their forefathers had escaped slavery just a few hundred years before.
In short, things looked bleak. Very bleak. And the people were eager to hear a good word wherever they could get it. Hananiah was eager to oblige.
Maybe he thought he could get God moving on the rescue of His people by making his prediction of deliverance. Maybe he just thought he could gain a better status in his crumbling society by giving people hope, even if it was a false hope.
Understand this: I don’t think either of those things. I’m not here to tell you that you can have your best life now or that if you name your blessing, God will allow you to claim it.
I’m also not going to try to sugar-coat things for you so you’ll treat me better. Treat me how you will, but I will be honest with you, and you can be sure that I will not tell you something is from God when it is not.
That didn’t work out so well for Hananiah and the other false prophets in Scripture, and I can take their lesson.
So what was the truth?
The truth was that the people of Judah were in for a long, hard slog.
The truth was that the deportations had only just begun.
The truth was that all but a remnant of the Jews would find themselves in a strange land by 586 BC.
The truth was that some of those who were carried out of Israel into Babylon would not live to return.
The truth was that God had a plan that He intended to carry out, and He would use the evils of the world to accomplish it.
He had used Shalmaneser to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and he would use Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
In 586, the temple the king’s house and every great house were burned to the ground. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down. The king’s sons were killed in his sight, and then his eyes were gouged out, and he and all but a small remnant of Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon.
Are you feeling encouraged yet? Well, neither were they.
God wasn’t working on a short-term plan for prosperity for the people of Israel, and He’s not doing that with us, either.
I have to be honest about something: I looked out at all the empty seats in the fellowship hall last week and I was discouraged. And I am trying not to get too caught up in the possibility that things could very well get worse before they get better.
But God has a plan.
He had a plan for his chosen people of Israel, too. But first He needed them to recognize that He had them right where He wanted them, even in Babylon.
Imagine how the leaders of Jerusalem must have reacted when they received a letter from Jeremiah in Jerusalem.
These were the priests, the prophets and the elders, so they would have been especially upset by the evil, pagan society in which they had been planted. They surely had been praying for deliverance, for a change in their circumstances.
So let’s see how God responded to those prayers, through Jeremiah. Turn over to Jeremiah 29:4.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. ‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord. (Jer. 29:4-9)
Settle in. Live. Work. Pray for the people who are persecuting you. Don’t be led astray by people offering easy solutions. Persevere and have joy in this time of trouble.
You can be sure this was not the message they wanted to receive.
And maybe it’s not the message you want to hear today. But I believe it is exactly the message God has for each of us during this hard season at Liberty Spring Christian Church.
Settle in. Live. Work. Pray for those who have hurt you. Don’t expect easy solutions. Persevere and have joy, even in the hard times.
I have seen some of the members of this body doing exactly these things in recent weeks, and I am encouraged by it. The folks who came together to clean my office and then the others who came together to clean the sanctuary set a great example of this kind of perseverance, and I truly appreciate that example.
But looking back at this passage, one of the interesting things to me is the history behind it.
Start with the fact that there were kings in Israel. When God brought His chosen people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, He desired that they would be different than all the other cultures around them.
Among the differences was that they were to look to God as their King. But the people wanted to be like the other nations.
The prophet Samuel had warned them that the king they desired would be a terrible thing, that he would enslave the people, that he would take their property, that he would allow their sons to be killed in wars and that he would enrich himself from their labor.
Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam 8:19-20)
The people were willing to sacrifice their relationship with the perfectly just king, God, so that they could be like the rest of the world. The result was just what Samuel had warned.
God wanted His people to live in unity, but that unity didn’t last long. There were three kings in the unified kingdom of Israel — Saul, David and Solomon. And even when they were the kings, “unity” would not have been a great way to describe the way the 12 tribes co-existed.
But after Solomon died, the nation split, with two tribes — Judah and Benjamin — comprising the nation of Judah and the other 10 comprising the nation of Israel, and there was rarely peace between those two nations and certainly there was no unity.
God wanted His people to live according to His Word. Listen to what He said to Joshua before the people of Israel crossed over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land:
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” (Joshua 1:8)
But then, in 2 Kings, we read of Judean priest Hilkiah FINDING the Book of the Law during temple repairs that had been ordered by King Josiah.
Clearly, if they had lost the Book of the law, then the people had not kept God’s command to meditate on it. It would have been hard to keep God’s commands if they hadn’t even read them.
Now, as a side note, I have to ask this, or I’ll lose my pastor card: Do YOU know where YOUR Bible is? How can you expect to know God’s Word if you don’t even read it?
The people of Israel had failed miserably at keeping the covenant they had made with God to worship Him only.
But God had a plan.
He had wanted their faithfulness. He had wanted their obedience. He had wanted them to worship Him with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might. But they wanted to be like the world.
What God said then is what God says now.
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)
They did not. And I think if we are to be honest with ourselves and with God today, we have not either.
But God has a plan.
One incredible thing I learned as I was studying for this message is what happened after the Persian kings allowed the Hebrew people to return to Jerusalem. Many of you probably know that the temple and then the city’s walls were rebuilt under Zerububel, Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Bible doesn’t say much about what took place afterward, but extra-biblical historical accounts do say something about it.
For a time, brief though it was, Israel operated as the theocracy God had intended. The people were zealous for God’s Word. They drove unbelievers from their midst. They refused to intermarry with the pagans who had occupied the land in their absence.
God had brought them to a place where the only thing they had left was to lean on Him. God had taken away all the blessings they had once enjoyed — freedom and peace in a land flowing with milk and honey, and He had taught them that He was in control.
And for a brief time, they turned back to Him. But by the time of the prophet Malachi, they had again become cold in their affections for Him, and God then responded with 400 years of silence.
That silence was finally broken one night by the angels’ glorious announcement to a group of shepherds that a savior had been born and laid in a manger in Bethlehem.
But I want to return to the time of Jeremiah for a moment to wrap up this message and to reveal why we began with the words of Esther’s uncle, who told her “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Remember the people I mentioned who were ready to run away to Egypt for protection against the invaders from Babylon? God warned them through Jeremiah not to go to Egypt, but they refused to listen.
God had desired that they be taken into captivity in Babylon, where they might repent and turn to Him, but they followed their own counsel.
And in Jeremiah, Chapter 44, we see what it would cost them:
‘And I will take away the remnant of Judah who have set their mind on entering the land of Egypt to reside there, and they will all meet their end in the land of Egypt; they will fall by the sword and meet their end by famine. Both small and great will die by the sword and famine; and they will become a curse, an object of horror, an imprecation and a reproach. And I will punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine and with pestilence. So there will be no refugees or survivors for the remnant of Judah who have entered the land of Egypt to reside there and then to return to the land of Judah, to which they are longing to return and live; for none will return except a few refugees.’” (Jer 44:12-14)
God had a plan, and His plan was to bring His people to repentance. Then he could offer them welfare and not calamity, to give them a future and a hope, ultimately in His Son, who would be born in that manger.
But those who left and went to Egypt, those who chose not to participate in the long, hard slog in Babylon, those who disobeyed Him and sought after their own counsel — they would never see His plan come to fruition.
Look, I recognize that this hasn’t been an especially encouraging message this week. I know that we all want to believe the exciting part of Jeremiah, Chapter 29 that most of us have heard before:
‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’ (Jer. 29:11-14)
But we don’t get to Jeremiah 29:11 until we pass Jeremiah 29:10:
“For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.”
Seventy years in exile had to take place before the promises of Jeremiah 29:11 could take place. And those who left for Egypt would never experience those promises at all.
Brothers and sisters, God had sent the people of Judah to Babylon for a reason. And I believe God has you here for a reason, too.
I pray that it will not take 70 years for God to restore the welfare of Liberty Spring Christian Church. But He has put me here for a reason, too. And I will not pack my bags and head to Egypt or anywhere else to try to avoid the hard work that is ahead of us.
I pray that each of you will remain with me here, doing the hard work, submitting to God and to one another in obedience and humility, recognizing that God may very well have put you here for such a time as this.
You can leave this place. You can find another church with a full parking lot, a church with music that suits you better, a church with a polished praise band and lights and slick publications and lots of people sitting in dark spaces where they never have to get to know one another, much less learn to get along and work together.
And if it is God’s plan that Liberty Spring Christian Church be delivered from this time of exile, relief will arise from another place. But where will you be then?
I believe that I am here for a reason. I believe that each of you is here for a reason. So let us resolve together to seek God and search for Him with all our hearts. Let us resolve to put aside the things that separate us from one another and, therefore separate us from God.
His promise is clear:
“‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.”