Letter to Exiles
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Last week Jason began our Easter Sermon series “More People to Love.” As he began, he mentioned (at least in the first service), that I brought this phrase with me from Tucson where I was a pastor before coming here. He said that I’ve been trying to embed this phrase into our DNA, or as he said, I’ve tried to indoctrinate you with. I confess, it’s true. I am. I’m not sure how well it’s worked, but I am trying. It caught on with a few people when we moved from one worship service to two.
I’d like to tell you where that phrase came from. Somewhere in 2012, I received an email with those words in it, and only those words in it (if I am remembering correctly). They came from another pastor at our church. We had been growing quite rapidly and we needed to begin to make some predictions about where all of this was trending and how to accommodate the people. So the nerd in me, took a hard look at some of our attendance data and I created graphs and projections for the next few years. I typed it up and sent it to the staff and elders. Frankly, I was mainly seeing all of the growth as more challenge than blessing. I was the pastor over connections, so to a point, it made sense. The growth increased my workload.
Then came the email: more people to love. That’s all it said. It changed things for me. And I confess, I’d like it to change things for you.
This morning, I’m going to preach a short sermon and then we are going to do something a little different. Jason and I are going to be up here and Ben is going to interview us about some of the long-range planning that the elders have been consumed in over the last 7 months.
Pastor-elders are called to shepherd the flock of God day-to-day and week-in week-out, but they are also called to look ahead, to listen to God, to pray, to dream, and lead. That’s what you should want your elders to do. And we’d love to talk to you about some plans. Or I should say, begin to talk about it. This is just a way to start the conversation.
But that’s not for 15 more minutes. For now, I’d like to preach from Jeremiah 29.
Follow along with me as I read a verse that many of you are likely familiar with, namely, Jeremiah 29:11. It is one of the most precious promises in the entire Bible (page 752). I’ll read it, then pray, then we’ll talk about this verse and the verses around it.
11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Last week, Jason used the image of a puddle jumper airplane in Alaska. In our sermon series we’ll fly over beautiful scenery and then strategically land in a few lakes across the Bible to see something up close. We’ve already looked at Genesis and now we’re landing again in the book of Jeremiah.
In the opening chapter God says to Jeremiah,
9 “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
What’s interesting about this is that both destruction and the rebuilding will be part of Jeremiah’s ministry. God has anointed Jeremiah in such a way that his prophetic ministry would be both an instrument to tear down and to rebuild.
However, in the first 28 chapters, with only a few small exceptions, God is tearing down. Destruction, famine, sword—these occur chapter, after chapter, after chapter.
Until you come to Chapter 29. Here, finally!, after a thunderstorm of God’s wrath, the dark clouds begin to part, and a ray of hope shines through. God instructions Jeremiah to write a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles that have been carried away to Babylon, who have been carried away because of their sin.
This letter has four parts to it. And induction and then God makes three statements. I’m going to read each part, then make a few comments after each. Then I’ll make a few closing observations and we’ll be done.
Letter introduction, vv. 1-3
Let’s read the opening to the letter.
1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
He goes on in vv. 2-3 with lots of names that are unfamiliar to you. Several of them were unfamiliar to me. It will take us way from the main point if I talk about all of them. But I want you to see this. In v. 1 God uses Jeremiah to write a letter. And whom does he write it to? He writes “to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”
Some context. In three major waves of deportation, Babylon, who was the superpower of the world, came in and crushed Jerusalem. All three deportations happened a few years before or after 600 BC (just using round numbers). At the head of this exile, was King Nebuchadnezzar.
It was devastating. Mothers lost sons. Husbands lost wives. Children lost parents. Everyone lost their homes, their land, their possessions. And the people of God lost the Temple. You can see the devastation hinted at in the phrase, “the surviving elders . . .” Not all survived.
But it is into this context, this very, very dark context, that God speaks to his people. Let’s look at what he says. He says three main things.
For Thus Says the LORD, Part 1, vv. 4-7
Let’s read vv. 4-7.
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: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But 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 find your welfare.
First, notice who did the sending. Was it King Nebuchadnezzar? Well, yes. But in v. 4 God says he was behind the exile. He was the one who “sent.” This is what Jason spoke about last week, when he talked about “grace with an edge.” After Genesis 3, God guarded the way back to the tree of life so that people would not eat of the tree of life and then live forever apart from God. Grace with an edge. It felt harsh, but it was for their good. Here, the people of God became so dysfunctional that after warning and warning and pleading and pleading, he finally closed down their worship and sent them away. Exile is a rehab clinic—a very expensive one.
But here in rehab, while they are seething in anger about Babylon, God tells them to love. When the want to build a tent so that they can be part-timers, God says to lay a foundation with rebar and concrete. When the want to temporarily suspend weddings and having children, God says, have grandkids.
In short: put down roots; be model citizens; love this wicked city Babylon; show them my greatness by the way you love them.
The language of v. 7 is, what I’ll call “all-in” language. It says pray for Babylon. You can’t fake prayer—ordinarily. You might be able to build a house but you can’t pray for the blessings of a city while secretly you want it to burn.
This messaged would have been very hard to swallow. It’s not naturally what you would want to hear. That’s why there were false prophets telling people what they wanted to here.
For Thus Says the LORD, Part 2, vv. 8-9
Let’s read v. 8-9.
8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
Since we have recently spent time in 1 and 2 Peter, I don’t feel the need to say much about the false prophets here. Those letters had much to say about false teachers. But I will add one thing.
Jeremiah 29:1-14 is sandwiched by two instances of false prophets being judged for their lies. In Chapter 28 a guy named Hananiah says, “No, in two years we’ll be out of Babylon. God will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar” (paraphrase of v. 3).
You know what Jeremiah says in return? “Amen! May the Lord do so . . . but I don’t think so” (paraphrase of vv. 5-9). So Hananiah takes the wooden yoke-bars from Jeremiah, which Jeremiah had been using as a prop, and Hananiah smashes them. And says, “Just like that, buddy; that’s what God is going to do to Babylon” (vv. 10-11). Hebrew version of the mic drop.
Jeremiah just walks away. Later God tells Jeremiah to go to Hananiah and say, “You know those wooden yoke-bars? Yeah, now they’ll be made of iron. And you’re going to die for speaking in the name of when I didn’t put words in your mouth” (vv. 13, 17). And not the exactly same thing, but something similar happens in the end of Chapter 29. There is a sandwich.
And it’s into this context, where God was saying something unlikely, unexpected, counterintuitive, into a context where false prophets told people what they wanted to here, that we get the great promises in vv. 10-14.
For Thus Says the LORD, Part 3, vv. 10-14
Let’s read vv. 10-14.
10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Think about the social context where you hear someone way, “No, trust me. I know what I’m doing.” When do you hear this? You here it when you are driving in your car and the driver seems lost but insists he’s not. Or this from a business leader who launched a product seems to be flopping and yet she says, “Trust me; this is gonna work.”
I mention this not because God is lost or that his mission has flopped. I mention it because the people of God are tempted to think that it has. They are tempted to think, God doesn’t know what he is doing. We’re lost. We’re doomed. Let’s pack up and leave. Let’s not love people. Let’s quit doing the things God wants us to do.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a wonderful promise. The “I” in this verse is emphatic in the Hebrew. “I, I myself know the plans I have for you and they are good plans.”
And in vv. 12-14, we see that God will initiate and decisively cause his people to be in a beautiful relationship with him. They will seek him and find him. They will pray and he will hear. They’ve been scattered but he will gather them. He loves them.
Let me make one final comment and then we’ll transition. While this passage is not to “us” directly—I’m not in Babylon in 550 BC and neither are you—yet this passage still speaks to us in patters and in promises.
Here’s what I mean starting with patterns. This letter is a letter from God to exiles. Did you know the New Testament calls Christians “exiles” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Even though we are not in Babylon, we’re in “Babylon.” And we’ll be in “Babylon” until the New Heavens and the New Earth and the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21). So in the meantime, what ought we do to? God wants us to keep our distinct identity as Christians, but at the same time, he wants us to seek the welfare of our city. The Lord wants us, not to retreat, but to engaged. This passage speaks to us in a pattern.
And there is a promise. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, we read, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus].” That is to say, when God sends the Messiah Jesus Christ, and this Jesus dies for the sins of anyone who would ever come to God through him in repentance and faith, and then every single good thing that God has ever promised for his people becomes true for every single Christian.
God does have a plan. He does have a future for you. And he does have a plan and a future for our church. It may be very, very hard. It may be counterintuitive. It may seem unnatural. But God has a plan to bless.
And if you don’t know Jesus, these great promises of God could be true for you as well.
As I mentioned at the start we are going to have a time to talk about some goals for Community in the coming years. As I said at the start, it is the responsibility of pastors-elders to be caring for the day-to-day needs of the church. But it is also our responsibility to be looking ahead and planning for the future. And we feel like there are some very concrete things that God wants to grow in.
We want to start talking about them more often. I was thinking about it like this. If I really felt that God wanted my wife and me to do something, it would be strange, even foolish, to not talk about it with here. Let’s say, I thought God was calling us to be missionaries. It would be strange to not tell her that. To ask what she thinks. To just go buy a bunch of books on missions and start praying and fasting. And she’d ask, “Honey, why aren’t you eating?” “Oh, no reason.” That would be strange.
So, this morning, we are going start that conversation. Let me pray and Jason and Ben can come forward. Let’s pray . . .
Five-Year Goals for Community Evangelical Free Church
- Plant a church.
- Pursue a “new” facility.
- Increase racial diversity.
- Connect and disciple newcomers.
- Care for our Lawnton community.
- Stay streamlined, program-light.
- Expand evangelism ministry.
Questions to be answered:
If I own a business the last thing I want is competition nearby. Why would we then have a goal of planting another evangelical free church?
The first goal and the second goal seem contradictory. Why if you want to plant churches would you pursue a “new” facility to in which to grow? Why not one or the other?
Why would being more and more diverse be a part of loving more and more people? They seem to be mutually exclusive concepts.
Goals Four and Seven
What’s the vision for expanding evangelism and connecting and discipling newcomers?
How do you envision us better caring for our Lawnton community?
What’s wrong with programs, or what does it mean to be streamlined and program-light?