Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1, 4–23
I saw the title of the article in my email inbox, and I hesitated. It didn’t look like the kind of thing that I wanted to click on: “They aren’t coming back.”
Sure enough, I was right. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I wanted to click on. Instead, it was more challenging but truthful news about the state of the church. In this iteration, Rob Dyer writes about the challenges that churches face following the pandemic. Congregation members communicating with their attendance patterns, giving patterns, and participation patterns that even though the church needs them, they aren’t sure that they need the church. One paragraph hit hard: “The super volunteers who used to carry twenty positions in the church are now looking to do just a few things. Our regular attenders are becoming semi-regular. Our fringe folks are fading away. People are not coming back to the church at the same level of engagement. So, what do we do?”
And Dyer’s answer to this question to this is not some magic program for youth and children, or worship formula, or political/theological epiphany that everyone is waiting to hear. Instead, it is a lot of honesty about the fact that a lot of folks are rethinking significant commitments in their lives, including relationships and jobs and churches. Many of our people are dealing with multi-faceted trauma, and many of our churches are struggling to help them name and cope with that trauma. So, as the article headline suggests, “they aren’t coming back.”
A hard word for us to hear at First Baptist, but doesn’t it match our grief? We grieve the loss of in-person community, which might come back but will likely never be exactly the same as it was before the pandemic. We grieve the loss of Wednesday night programming, and the fellowship and discipleship that it brought. We grieve the loss of the kind of numbers that attended First Baptist sixty years ago, or forty years ago, or twenty years ago. Dyer and many others predict a leaner, smaller, but more focused Church ahead, and there are certain losses that we must face with that. And those losses hurt.
It is not unlike the challenge that God’s people faced in today’s Scripture passage. We have once again fast-forwarded a pretty big jump in time since last week. Amos’s warning, from the Southern Kingdom shepherd to the Northern Kingdom elites, went largely unheeded. The Northern Kingdom fell first, to the Assyrian Empire. Then Amos’s native Southern Kingdom fell within a couple of hundred years, to the Babylonian Empire. As a part of their nation-building agenda, the Babylonians exiled many of the best and brightest from the Land of God’s Promise into the heart of Babylon. They were removed from the only land that they knew, from their practice of worship in the Temple, from their homes and communities and relationships, and set down into a new and foreign and terrifying place. Like Dyer’s description of despair today, the people then lived through a season of multi-faceted trauma. They found themselves huddling together in this new place, asking that same question, “So what do we do?”
Enter the prophets. The chapter prior to the one I read, Chapter 28, tells the story of one of the prophets with a message to the people: Hananiah. He delivered a message that the people were longing to hear: “Don’t worry. This Exile won’t last long. Just hunker down and bunker in and hold out a while longer. The Babylonians will send you back to what is comfortable and known and “home” within two years. All you need to do is hold out and everything will go back to normal.” And while the passage doesn’t record their response, I can imagine it, can’t you? A heavy sigh of relief that life will be back to the way they want it pretty soon. If they can just hang on, resist the Babylonian overlords, steel themselves to the discomfort of the moment, and hold out a while, everything will be back to exactly what it was two years earlier….
His message feels to me a little bit like that one guy in the horror movie: False Hope Guy. You know, right after everyone has been running for their lives, and the music has been frantic, but they find a place to hide. There’s one guy always tells the others what they want to hear: “It’s fine! We’re all going to be OK.” Right before the shark jumps out of the water and bites his head off. Hananiah is that guy. The guy that says everything is going to be fine and “don’t worry about a thing” is actually showing how clueless and out of touch he really is. And, true to form, by the end of the chapter, Hananiah has died, and the terror of the Babylonian Exile has only just begun.
But Hananiah’s out-of-touch, “Pollyanna” message of false hope is not the only prophetic voice that we hear. As they carry Hananiah’s body out, here comes Jeremiah! Now, remember that this is pretty far into the book. For 28 chapters, Jeremiah has been telling the people where they have gone wrong. Much like Amos, the message of Jeremiah has been pretty harsh, a judgment of the people who have forsaken their covenant with God and failed to live up to their end of the bargain. The whole book, no one likes it when Jeremiah shows up. He is always gloom and doom, never a kind word to say, and always complaining to and about the people.
If we were to continue our horror movie tropes, Jeremiah would be like that one Goth Girl. You know the one. The girl that dresses in black clothes and hair and make-up, and doesn’t have any friends, and is always complaining all the time, and whenever she walks in the room everyone rolls their eyes and pretends they are talking to someone else. That’s Jeremiah. But what do we find out about Goth Girl in every horror movie? She has the grit and tenacity, and also happens to be an expert in predatory shark behavior, and if anyone is going to get them out of this mess, it’ll be her. That’s Jeremiah, too. If anyone is going to get the people of God out of this mess, it is him.
Or more to the point, it is God. Jeremiah’s strength happens to be his crystal clear focus on what God is up to. When everyone else is distracted by the tragedy and chaos that surrounds them, Jeremiah is locked laser-sharp onto God’s presence in their midst. Which, by the way, has been the point of this whole series. I don’t know if you have been paying attention to the titles of these sermons, but they have all connected to the theme “Maintaining Our Focus.” On the building. On the people. But that isn’t really what these Biblical figures have been teaching us. The lesson that we have learned from Solomon, and Amos, and now Jeremiah, is that we have to maintain our focus…on God. The more theologically accurate sermon titles would have been “Maintaining Our Focus on God, as it Relates to the Practice of Caring for the Building.” Or the people. Whatever. That makes for a much more theologically accurate statement…and a horrible sermon title. Jenny would have killed me if I sent her those titles.
But the point of the series is when these voices maintain their focus on God, and not on what the people around them want them to say, that’s when God’s work is done. Hananiah tells the people that everything will be OK. “Two years, tops.” But Jeremiah, who is paying attention to God and not the public opinion polls says, “Oh no. You aren’t going back. God won’t bring God’s people back to the Promised Land again for 70 years. Three and a half generations. You’ll be dead. Your children will be dead. Their children might well be dead. But God will bring the people home.”
And that is the true power of the message of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s famous line—printed on a million coffee mugs and graduation cards—comes from this passage: “God says ‘I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” I have yet to see a coffee mug yet with verse 10 printed on it, about 70 years of captivity first, but isn’t that the power of this message? That even though significant challenges await, God is present and at work, even when it looks like God has left you. Jeremiah encourages the people not just to hide out and hunker down, living a life of suspicion and resentment and anger.
Notice what he says instead: “embrace your new life. Plant gardens. Build houses. Marry off your children, even if they fall in love with Babylonians. Pray for and care for the community in which you now live. Don’t see this new life as tragic and empty and terrifying, but see God at work in it, through it.” Scholar Corrine Carvalho points out that Esther and Mordecai took this advice. These Biblical heroes were from this same timeframe of the Exile, perhaps familiar with Jeremiah and his message. Carvalho suggests that Esther and Mordecai are named after Ishtar and Marduk, who are Babylonian gods. They found ways to embrace their new life and their new culture, and didn’t live in fear of the Babylonians. But when it mattered, they took a stand for their people. Why? Because they had the same laser focus on God that Jeremiah did. They all knew that God remained at work in the world around them, without crumpling in fear of that world at every turn.
Jeremiah’s message to the exiles in that strange and foreign land might well be to us, too, in this strange and foreign land in which we find ourselves. Tod Bolsinger is a modern-day Jeremiah, who preaches this message. Like Dyer, he suggests that the big-C Church isn’t going to be what it was in many of our childhoods, and that that trend had been true long before the pandemic. But like Jeremiah, Bolsinger’s message is not one of hopelessness, but of God’s plan to prosper us! Listen to his call to churches:
To live up to their name, local churches must be continually moving out, extending themselves into the world, being the missional, witnessing community we were called into being to be: the manifestation of God’s going into the world, crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God. In short, churches need to keep adventuring or they will die.
Churches need to keep adventuring. Isn’t that the heart of Jeremiah’s message? Embrace the world that God is remaking in your midst. Don’t bunker down in fear of it. The Two-Way thought that Jeremiah 29 could be summed up with a simple phrase: “Bloom where you are planted.” God has planted us for this time. In this place. In this context and set of circumstances. And do you think that God doesn’t have a plan to prosper us? What if we looked at all of this as an opportunity? An adventure of God’s making? What if God is calling us to see this new world, in which we have been plopped, and instead of hunkering down in fear, embrace the opportunity of it all?
That’s what we got to celebrate last Sunday with our covenant churches of ReShape. At the virtual celebration, we joined with churches from Kansas City, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, all over the country, who have all chosen to engage in the adventurous work of ReShape this last year. And we got to hear their stories…just like Bolsinger’s quote, there was a lot of “crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God.” There was a lot of adventuring.
And we got to share our story, as well! We got to tell them about the work that God has done in our midst, and is still doing. All of those churches had a spirit of adventure to what God was up to, not huddling in fear for what had happened to them. According to Bolsinger, these are the churches that will not die, but survive, and thrive in the days ahead.
I used to love the old song from CCM artist Steven Curtis Chapman, titled The Great Adventure. If the chorus was true in 1992, it sure is today…
Saddle up your horses, we’ve got a trail to blaze
Through the wild blue yonder of God’s amazing grace
Let’s follow our leader into the glorious unknown
This is a life like no other…this is the great adventure.
May it be so.