Plans for You
by Jack Wald | November 4th, 2001

Jeremiah 29

I was not a great letter writer in my youth. Several years ago, my mother gave me a stack of letters I had written from summer camps, my year in Germany and so on. It was a small stack but it was great fun to read those letters. The letters are not long. If you sat down to relax and read one of my letters, you’d be finished before you got to the second syllable of relax.

My favorite was one I wrote as an 11 or 12 year old from Boy Scout Camp. For one meal, we had to bring a letter ready to be mailed to our parents in order to get into the mess hall. The text of my letter went like this:
Dear Mom and Dad:
I have to write you this letter in order to get lunch today.
My letters have improved a little bit since then.

Today’s text from Jeremiah involves letter writing. Three years before these letters were exchanged, Babylon had defeated Judah and taken back to Babylon King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the royal court, officers and fighting men of the army, craftsmen and artisans.  This was the first of two Babylonian deportations. In this first deportation, they pillaged the Temple but otherwise left the city unharmed. They left the poor and installed the youngest son of Josiah, Zedekiah, as ruler of Judah which was permitted to continue as a state. In total, about 10,000 Jews were deported to Babylon.

In these three years, letters were exchanged between Jerusalem and Babylon. The first letter in today’s text is written from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. He had heard reports of false prophets deceiving them and wrote to let them know what God was truly saying. The same prophets Jeremiah had battled before this first deportation were now in Babylon and were continuing to proclaim their wishful thinking as if their wishful thinking was the word of God.

This is just an introduction to the text, but I can’t help but break in here and marvel at the persistence of these false prophets. They had battled Jeremiah for years because he was pronouncing judgement on Judah which they insisted would not happen. Pashur, the chief overseer of the Temple in Jerusalem had reacted to Jeremiah’s sermon recorded in Jeremiah 20 by having him beaten and thrown into the stocks. Pashur insisted Judah would not be defeated. Jeremiah said it would, which resulted in his punishment.

Now events have revealed Jeremiah to have spoken truth. Judah was defeated and the intelligentsia of Judah had been taken off to Babylon.. The false prophets who said this would never happen experienced first hand that it did happen when they were taken to Babylon. Pashur and the other false prophets were revealed to be false prophets and yet they continued to present their wishful thinking as God’s word to the exiles.

This is just amazing! I struggled in preparing this sermon because I inserted at this point another sermon on when we ought to believe despite evidence to the contrary and when we ought to be open to changing what we think when evidence contrary to what we believe presents itself. I finally had to cut it all out because it was a distraction. But think about this sometime. Pashur and his cronies were so set on presenting their own good news they were blind to what God was trying to say. Beware of falling into that trap.

As I was saying, the prophets Jeremiah had battled in Jerusalem, he was now battling through letters in Babylon. Pashur and other false prophets were telling the exiles not to get too comfortable because they would soon be back in Judah. They were still telling people what they wanted to hear. Jeremiah wrote a letter telling them to settle down, get very comfortable because they would be living in Babylon for the rest of their lives.

The reaction to Jeremiah’s letter was mixed. Daniel, of whom we read in the book of Daniel in the Bible, received the letter with this reaction:
Daniel 9:1
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—  2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

That is the reaction Jeremiah hoped for and if you read about Daniel, you will see he lived out the message of Jeremiah’s letter.

But not everyone had Daniel’s reaction. Shemaiah, one of the prophets in exile, sent a letter to Zephaniah who had taken the place of Pashur and was overseer of the Temple in Jerusalem. In his letter he told him:
you should put any madman who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.  27 So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you?  28 He has sent this message to us in Babylon: It will be a long time. Therefore build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.’”

This resulted in one more letter, sent to the exiles, a letter condemning Shemaiah
‘This is what the LORD says about Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, even though I did not send him, and has led you to believe a lie,  32 this is what the LORD says: I will surely punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the LORD, because he has preached rebellion against me.’”

That is essentially what happens in this chapter of Jeremiah. But I want us to take a closer look at Jeremiah’s first letter to the exiles and see what that has to say to us.

In this letter is a very frequently quoted passage of Scripture.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

We love that verse. How many people here this morning have ever used that verse as encouragement? How many have ever printed it out and put it up somewhere in your home or office as a reminder to be encouraged? I had it on the wall next to my desk when I was in business.

We read that verse and dream of the business doing well. Or we read it and dream of having a family. Or we read it and dream about the job or promotion we are trying to get. We read it and dream of making it to Europe. We read it and dream of what we wish for being fulfilled.

But be careful about reading Scripture out of context and making it say what you want it to say. Listen to that same verse in context.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Did you hear that verse bracketed by “When seventy years are completed” and “Then you will call upon me”? This is a wonderful promise but not what the exiles were hoping for. What was it that the exiles in Babylon were dreaming about? These words came to Jews living in exile in Babylon who had only one thing on their mind, to return to Judah. And they wanted to do that now, not later. But these words of comfort and assurance came in the context of the reality that their dream would not be realized for seventy years.

Do you realize that it is very likely that none of the people who heard Jeremiah’s letter being read ever lived to see those plans work out? Life expectancy in those days was forty to fifty with some who lived to be seventy or eighty. This means that those who heard Jeremiah’s letter being read would live and die in Babylon. Their children would live most of their lives in Babylon and either die there or be taken back to Judah in the last years of their lives. By and large, it would be their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would make the trip back to Judah.

This is the context of the good news of Jeremiah’s words we like to quote.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

We quote those words expecting to see God’s good plans worked out this year or next year. Certainly we expect to see those words worked out within our lifetime. These are dangerous expectations because it seems to me as I read the Scriptures that time after time, God’s promises were fulfilled long after they were promised. God keeps his promises, but in his time, not ours.

Live your life in expectation that God will fulfill his promises, but don’t base your faith on them being fulfilled in your lifetime. We long for God to bring revival to this land and to the world. Many of us believe this is imminent. God will bring revival, but he will do it in his time. Pray that you will be fortunate enough to be present when his time arrives.

So what did this mean for the exiles in Babylon? Did this mean that for seventy years God had no good plan for the exiles? I think many of the exiles might have taken it that way. But Jeremiah’s letter contained some advice for them that would allow them to experience God’s good plan for them, not in seventy years, but within their own lifetime. They would not be returning to Judah, but there were other good plans, blessings, God had in mind for them.

Let’s take a look at God’s word Jeremiah gave to the exiles.
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  7 Also, 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.”

God did have a plan for the exiles. He had a plan that would prosper them and not harm them, a plan to give them hope and a future. His instructions to them would lead to blessing in their lives and those instructions are wonderful, timeless instructions that apply to us when we live in a country that is not our own.

None of us are in Morocco because Morocco defeated our country and deported us here. But some have come to work in the embassy of our home country. Some have married men of this country. Some came here to study or to teach. Some are here to start businesses. Some are here to seek ways to help care for the people of Morocco, individually or organizationally with organizations like US AID or Peace Corps or some NGO.

Most of us will not live the rest of our lives in Morocco. Some of us will do that and die in this country. But whether we are in Morocco for two years or the rest of our lives, these words Jeremiah spoke to the exiles can help us, as they were meant to help the exiles, experience the good plans God has for us.

I want to break these instructions given to the exiles into four parts.

First: “Build houses and settle down;

Jeremiah was telling the exiles: Don’t settle for temporary shelter, longing to go back to Judah. Trade in your tent for a paneled or roofed house. Make it comfortable. Make it a place where the family can gather and celebrate special events.  Building a house takes time, hard work and money. If you are only going to live in a land for one or two years, why spend the money, time and energy to build a nice house? Jeremiah’s word to the exiles was that they would be there long enough to justify the expenditure of time, effort and money to build a permanent house.

When you move to a new country, make where you live a home. Put pictures on the wall. Repaint the rooms a color you will like. Make where you live your home, not just an apartment or villa where you live.

Unpack your boxes. Don’t leave them in a corner or in a closet.

Plant flowers and trees in your garden. If you don’t have a garden, make a balcony or window sill a little green area.

Don’t spend your two years or five or ten years dreaming of where you used to live. Make where you live a place you will remember in the future.

The reason this is important is that God wants you to live in the now, not longing for the past. God wants to bless you now and use you now and if you live with suitcases unpacked, you will never be able to do that.

Jeremiah told the exiles to: Build houses and settle down. He also told them to: plant gardens and eat what they produce.

I would expect things were quite different for the exiles in Babylon. There were new flavors, new tastes, new ways of growing things. Jeremiah told the exiles to learn the culture of Babylon and take it in. Essentially he told them to learn Babylonian recipes and begin to enjoy them. Enter into the rhythms of this new land.

Living on American peanut butter and brownies is not how we enter into the culture of the land. If you have never eaten a tagine from a common dish, make sure you do that. The culture of Morocco is different than the culture of the land from which you came, but different is not bad. Enjoy the richness of this culture. Get to know the people of this culture.

If you don’t embrace this culture and hold on to the culture of your home country, how can God bless this land through you? How can God’s plan for you in this land be worked out if you resist this land and its culture?

6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.

There are those who say they will not have children because the world is not a safe place to have children. They think they are being kind to the children they choose not to have. Perhaps the exiles were thinking they ought to hold off on weddings until they returned to Judah. Jeremiah wanted them to know that God’s plan for their good would reveal itself as they lived now and not in the future.

I know it is kind of hard to have sons and daughters and find wives and husbands for your sons and daughters all in a two or three year period. But I think the wisdom for us here is to live in the now with hope for the future. God’s blessings are not limited. God will not run out of blessings. God had plans for the good of the exiles during the seventy years as well as plans for the return to Judah at the end of seventy years.

We too need to live in the now with hope for the future.

7 Also, 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.”

Become a part of Babylon. Enter into its life. Work to make Babylon a prosperous land. Don’t dwell on bitterness that they took you away from Judah. Embrace your new home.

When we come to Morocco, we need to pray for this country and work to improve the quality of life of those who live here. We need to be able to rejoice when Morocco takes steps forward and grieve when it takes steps backwards.

We need to have genuine love for Morocco and Moroccans. If you don’t have that love, pray for God to give it to you. How can you seek the prosperity of Morocco if your heart is not in it?

Again I ask the question: Why is all of this so important? And again, the answer is that God wants to use you now, in this land to which he has brought you. If you hang back and refuse to commit to living in this land, how will God be able to use you?

There is a British brother and sister who have lived in Morocco for fifteen years. In those fifteen years, they have learned little, if any, French or Arabic. In their home, the TV is on from morning to night and it is always tuned to the same station: Sky News from Britain. When Annie and I stayed there, we would turn off the TV so we could read. When we left the room and came back, the TV was on again.

This couple live with one toe in Morocco and nine toes in England or is that two toes in Morocco and eighteen in England. When God calls you to a land (it doesn’t matter if an embassy or organization or marriage brought you here – I will defend the thesis that you have still been called by God to be here). When God calls you to a land, he wants you to step into that land and be his voice and arms. To do that, you have to settle down and really live in that land. You have to embrace the culture and people. You have to learn what it is like to be a Moroccan in this society. If you don’t do that, God will be limited in his ability to use you and bless you.

There are a number of people in the Bible who lived this way. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and ended up as a slave in Egypt. You know the story. Joseph was able to experience God’s good plan because he did not dwell on the bitterness of his past but lived in the present. He settled down, married, embraced Egyptian culture and worked for the good of Egypt. He became so much an Egyptian his brothers did not recognize him.

A young girl of Israel was taken by force by a band from Aram and she ended up as a slave of the commander of the army, Naaman. What did she do? Did she dwell on the bitterness of her circumstances and seek to revenge herself on the people of Aram? No. When Naaman needed medical help, she suggested he go to Elijah who could help him with his leprosy.

In more recent history, women captured by Vikings in their raids on the British Isles brought along with them their Christian faith and the result was that Christianity took root among these raiders and transformed them into peaceful farmers.

How about you? How long will you be in Morocco? Even if you will be here for just a couple years, you can make your time in Morocco much richer and experience God’s blessing if you enter into the life and rhythm of the land.

I want you to step out of church today with new eyes. Begin to look at this land and the people of this land as people God wants to bless through you. If you have been holding yourself back, put all ten toes, not just one or two into this country.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

God has plans for you in your time here in Morocco. Don’t limit what God can do through you by holding back from embracing this land and it’s people.