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29th August 2021

The Wrong Place

Passage: Jeremiah 29;4-14

Less than two years ago, I remember thinking how lucky my generation had been. Because, unlike our parents and grandparents we had not had to live through a World War. Nor, living in the UK, had we had to live through a massive natural disaster, such as an earthquake. Life was not all roses, but we had been blessed with a comparatively secure existence…. so far. Less than two months later the whole world was under threat from Covid.
We are not the first people to have been shifted suddenly from a situation in which we felt safe into a place that is frightening. Nor are we the first to have hoped for a swift exit from this dark place, only to find ourselves still there eighteen months later, with no clear date of release. What do you do when you feel that you are in the wrong place- the place you never wanted or planned to be; and the place from which you cannot escape?
Christian writers have been comparing our situation now with the situation of the Jewish people when they were in exile six hundred years or so BC. These people had been dragged out of their homes and taken to live in foreign countries. They were in places where they did not speak the language; did not understand the culture; had no “rights” as citizens and were at the mercy of their enemies. And for them, it was not just about physical and mental survival; there was also a theological element- where was God? They believed that they were God’s chosen people; God was on their side; God had given them their land and God would keep that land safe for them. But it had not happened. “So, what do we do now?” they asked.
The first time I saw this letter from the prophet Jeremiah, I could not believe what I was reading. It is completely out of character for a prophet of the exile. Most of what the prophets wrote (in our Old Testament) agreed that yes, their people were in a bad place. They spoke of “living in darkness,” “bound in chains,” “languishing in prisons,” “stranded in desert wastes.” Sometimes they suggested this was all the people’s own fault- they had disobeyed God and must take the punishment. Or they declared it all the enemy’s fault- they had dared to invade the Holy land and God would punish them in his own good time. But all their people could do was wait and pray; pray to be forgiven for their own sins; pray for God’s wrath to punish the sins of the enemy. Now, here is Jeremiah taking a totally different line: “Stay where you are. Settle down and create homes. Make friends with the people around you. Pray for the peace and wellbeing of that society.” What the…….?
But then, in the film, Stepmom, when Julia Roberts hears that her teenage stepdaughter is having a bad time with a boy at school, Julia points out that when you are in a bad place, you have two options: one, you can sit and cry; or two, you can do something about it. Sit and cry? Do something? I guess this is what Jeremiah is saying: you do not have to sit in the dark and cry. You can do something. I guess this is what we would call common sense. And most of us have tried to adopt this strategy through the pandemic: make the best of things; strengthen our relationships; get to know our neighbours; learn how to zoom; take up jogging. Jeremiah is saying what our own social gurus say: don’t sit in a heap, hating yourself and everyone around you. See what you can do to make your lives better right here, right now because you may be here for a long time. &&&&&&&&&&&
OK, that is great, and it is sound advice. But Jeremiah, as a prophet of the Lord, needed to offer more than common sense. His people had a faith. They needed to know where God was in all of this. Common sense is about us: being strong and positive enough to do the best we can in a bad place. But these people had been taught to hope in God for their strength. They had been told to place their lives in God’s hands. And when you have trusted God, you find yourself disappointed when you end up in a bad place. Because this is not what God is supposed to be about. God is meant to put things right. If things are going badly wrong, you start to ask yourself either what have I done wrong to deserve this, or what have other people done wrong to cause so much suffering or is there really any kind of God at all who cares enough? And what I want to discover right now is what Jeremiah is saying about God in this oh-so-sensible piece of advice to people who feel they are in the wrong place. I need something more than “try and make the best of things.”
So, I looked at the letter again and I’ll share with you what it said to me. First, right at the start of their story as God’s chosen people, Abraham was told that his descendants would be people of God for the world. They would bless the world. But somewhere along the way, this mission statement had been lost and Jeremiah’s people believed that God was their own exclusive God. This letter, then, is offering them the chance to be what God had intended them to be- his people for the world. Rather than shoring up the walls of their own private territory, they could now mix with people of other nations; do good for them and with them. God is not an exclusive God and when religion creates closed communities or is even thought to be a purely personal, private thing, it is not a true faith and will not bring us closer to God. God’s plan was for his people to be his blessing to the world, and they can be that blessing no matter where they are. Have not we all heard how people of faith brought God’s blessing even when trapped themselves in slums and ghettos; prisons and concentration camps?
Developing this idea further, we find the precept “if {the place where you are} prospers, you will prosper.” God gave life for sharing. We are all in this together. It has taken another two and a half thousand years for us to start grasping the concept that until the whole world is safe, peaceful and prosperous, no one person can rely on being safe, peaceful and prosperous. God did not ordain the rich man to be in his castle and the poor man at his gate. If the world is to become the kingdom of God, then every single person in it must determine to make it so, no matter where they are, whether in home or business, profession or hobby, lifestyle or politics. We are in this together.
So, going even further- Jeremiah says pray for the place where you are and for the people you are with. We don’t find it too difficult, do we, to pray for people whose needs and tragedies touch our hearts. We must have been praying fervently this week for the people of Afghanistan stranded in a dangerous country. But it is a lot more difficult to pray for the people who are causing the pain; those who are resorting to violence; those in our own lives whom we find frustrating and alarming. But if God is not exclusive; if God calls every single person in the world to create his kingdom, then even those we cannot like or respect or forgive might yet become part of God’s plan. It sounds impossible but remember, in the exile, it was the foreign Emperors “the enemy” who finally got the Jewish people back home and rebuilt the nation. Pray for the place where you are and for the people you are with, no matter how threatening or abhorrent they seem to you. Pray for them as children of God for, as Jesus said, all things are possible with God.
Having got this far, I could see that there was a lot more to God than Jeremiah’s people realised and probably more than I realised too. We are looking at a God whose love and power are global, universal, infinite. And we are also looking at a God whose love for each individual person will never run dry and whose power in our lives has potential for more than we can begin to imagine. Being advised to extend our faith, our hope our love might sound both alarming and exhausting right now but what we are also being advised is that God will never give up on us and that there will never be a time or a place in our own lives when we are beyond God’s reach and God’s grace.
Maybe then, to sum up, we are being asked to make friends with the God-in-the-pandemic. Because this God is not imprisoning us but setting us free to get to know him and to be blessed by him. “I have plans for your good, not for evil,” he promises. “I will bring you out of captivity; the spiritual captivity into which you may been dragged, as well as the physical and mental. Seek me with all your heart and I shall be there. “
So maybe we are not “in the wrong place” after all because God can turn even the wrong places into the places of rich and abundant blessing. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen.