Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
This year, a friend of mine found out her young daughter has cancer. The doctors say that the form of cancer is highly curable, but it means years of aggressive treatments and long-term hospital stays. The most recent hospital term lasted over 60 days. My friend declared recently that she lives on Planet Cancer. Her old life feels light years away. She doesn’t even remember how it works any more. Every detail of her days and nights contains only blood counts, infusions, and specialists. Even when her kiddo came home after a long hospital stay, she said they still lived on Planet Cancer, and it made things at home weird. They’re not like they were before. Nothing works the same way. How long will it be like this?
For we who have gone through trials, for we who are going through those trials right now, this is a way of life. Maybe you’re not living on Planet Cancer. Maybe it’s Planet Divorce, or Planet Infertility, or Planet Unemployment, or Undiagnosed Illness or Congestive Heart Failure or Digestive Disease or Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Stroke or Developmental Disability or any number of reasons why life feels foreign and broken and confusing. Whatever planet you’re on, it’s not home. Everything about it is wrong. Why are you here? What are you supposed to do? How long will it be like this?
When you’re living in that foreign place, a place where your regular life has been disrupted by pain or sorrow or brokenness, it might be hard to hear a text like this one from Jeremiah. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” That sounds like a great promise, so why am I suffering now? Why would God’s plans for me involve a sojourn on Planet Cancer? If that’s God’s plan for me, then God’s a jerk.
I want you to know that it’s okay to feel that way, and you’re not alone. God can handle your anger and confusion. You’re not the first person beloved by God to get mad at God, and you won’t be the last.
It might help to hear more about this text. I believe that God’s word means something in its original context, to the people who first heard it – and I also believe that God’s word is dynamic and living, taking on a new meaning to we who hear it today. It’s good to try to hear it from as many perspectives as we can so we can try to hear the full, invitational, expansive promise brought to God’s people throughout history and to you, God’s own people gathered here this morning.
As we’ve been reading from the prophets together in worship the past few weeks, we have heard the history of God’s people nearly 2,500 years ago. In these stories, we hear about how prophets have spoken words of warning to God’s people as they tried to figure out where faith meets life for them. Elijah cautioned the people about worshiping false gods, Amos warned them that their religious piety wouldn’t hide their social injustice, and Isaiah promised that light would break into even the most terrible of times. For Jeremiah, those terrible times have fallen. God’s people have been conquered by foreign armies and sent into exile. They have been kicked out of their homes, they live under foreign rule, and worst of all, they cannot worship in the temple. For them, God lived in the temple. They had literally been forced out of God’s presence. They live in Babylon as oppressed refugees. They live on Planet Exile
These people have cried out: how long? How long will we be here? Believing in the faithfulness of their God, some have suggested that they build no homes, plant no fields, start no families – they should only wait for God to redeem them and make things like they once were. God will swoop in any minute now. In the prophet Jeremiah, a different word comes. Make a life for yourself here, on Planet Exile, Jeremiah tells them, because it’s gonna be a while. Don’t listen to those liars who say it won’t last. It’s going to last. This is where you live now. It hurts, and it’s not right, and this is the way things are right now.
But, God says. But not forever. “I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope… I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” God’s promise for the people is the same as it has always been: to give them a future, a home, a life. These promises sometimes go awry, but they never go away. Sometimes human brokenness and the powers of evil or physical illness or death or natural disaster or any number of awful, painful, disruptive things break into our reality, but God promises: I will bring you back. No matter where you go, no matter what happens, I will restore you to what I planned for you, which is a future with hope.
For those who heard Jeremiah’s prophecy in its original time, this meant they were going to have to wait in exile for a while. Jeremiah invited them to see God’s work even in exile, to build a meaningful life for themselves even in an unfamiliar and unwelcome place. There could be goodness even in Babylon, and someday, the people would experience God’s love and providence back in their own land.
For we who hear Jeremiah’s prophecy here and now, it means that we too may sometimes have to wait to see God’s fullest, grandest plans come to fruition. It might take a while for us to see the future God has promised, one where we will know goodness and hope. As with the generations of Israelites who died before they could see the fulfillment of prophecy, so too might some of us only know the restoration of God’s people in the life to come. But God’s promise of hope, of welfare, of being called back – it still stands. God will bring you back from that strange, painful, foreign place. The life you live afterwards won’t look the same, but it will be a future with hope, just as God promises.
Whatever has consumed your life, whatever illness or threat or suffering or pain, God will bring you back. Whatever planet you find yourself living on, God promises to restore your life. God has a plan for you, a plan for goodness and meaning in many different forms, and while it might get hijacked or disrupted or take longer than even God wants, God continues to work to bring you back to a place of wellness and hope. God gives us what we need, even when we find ourselves in exile, even when we suffer, even in the most difficult times. God goes there with you, and God will bring you back. Thanks be to God. Amen.