Introduction Part A: OT vs NT
I was going to ask today how many of you have heard people say a certain thing. But I know many of you pretty well by now, so maybe I should ask how many of you have actually said this thing. And the thing is this: “I believe in the New Testament God; the Old Testament God just sounds too angry and vengeful.”
I’m not saying it’s a horrible thing to say. There is a lot more of the wrath of God in the first 39 books of the Bible than in the final 27 books. But the first 39 are a much larger portion of the Bible, and they cover a lot more history—over a thousand years—when compared to the New Testament which covers just a few decades of history. I know that explanation isn’t adequate for some of you, but I hope it at least helps us put the Hebrew Bible in context.
The fact of the matter is that the New Testament does contain a few examples of the wrath of God , and the Old Testament contains countless examples of God’s grace. Times were different and the culture was different and even the language was different, so those stories of grace aren’t always told in ways that 21st century Christians can relate to. But sometimes they are…
- I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth [Job 19:25].
- As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us [Ps. 103:12].
- The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Isa. 61:1-2].
- I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions [Joel 2:28].
That’s just a few instances of amazing grace in the Old Testament. But I’m thinking of a different one today, and the one I’m thinking of can actually be compared to a similar point made in the New Testament. There’s nothing wrong with the way the New Testament puts it, but the Old Testament says it so much better—or a least it says it in a way that we can relate to a whole lot more readily.
A few weeks ago, I used as my text a portion of the beginning of the second chapter of 1 Timothy, which urges that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity . It’s an important one for us today—especially in an election year when some claim that if the wrong person wins, then we have an obligation not to honor them.
Introduction Part B: Jeremiah 29
But did you know that this same idea is found in the Hebrew scriptures? The context is very different, but the message is amazingly similar. So let’s first work on the context.
The Prophet Jeremiah spoke during a time of invasion and exile. Today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible came from a letter Jeremiah wrote to God’s people who’d been carted off to live in exile in Babylon, the city of their conquerors. The most popular prophets seem to have been saying, “It’s against God’s will that we’re here,” and “As long as we don’t coöperate with the enemy, God will rescue us.” But Jeremiah has been saying something all along that Christians these days are told never to tell anyone: All this is happening for a reason. Jeremiah went so far as to say that God’s hand is in what has happened and is happening.
And so today, Jeremiah says not to listen to those who are trying to tell you that this situation cannot be what God wants; who are saying that if God’s people are to remain God’s people, they must reject the life that’s been handed to them against their will; and who are preaching that God’s people must resist and hate the people who are part of their new surroundings.
Jeremiah’s message is very different. In fact, it’s just about the opposite in every way:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what you grow. Fall in love; get married, have babies. Indeed, seek the welfare of the city where you’ve been sent into exile—even pray for it—because your well-being depends on its well-being [Jer. 29:5-7, adapted].
I. Everything happens for a reason… or does it?
One of the most pervasive sayings of the past is, “Everything happens for a reason.” One of the most pervasive sayings of the present is, “Stop saying everything happens for a reason, because it doesn’t.” The United Church of Christ is very much a church of the present, and so most of my colleagues in ministry believe strongly in that latter saying—that we shouldn’t say everything happens for a reason.
And I can understand why. It all goes back to what I said at the start of this sermon: Do we want an Old Testament God or a New Testament God? Do we want to see God’s hand in bad things as well as good, or do we want to see God’s hand only in the things that we can immediately recognize as good?
Well, if you’re not actually asleep right now and were listening to the way I just asked that question, it’s probably clear to you that I don’t always agree with my colleagues. I am no less bothered by the idea that horrible things that happen are somehow part of God’s plan than anyone else is. But I am bothered even more by the notion that things happen for no reason at all, and that there are so many things going on that must be completely outside God’s plan.
Of course the notion that God’s plan includes bad things as well as good things is not strictly an Old Testament concept. If anything, the very theological basis of the New Testament is a horrible thing—the crucifixion—that was part of God’s plan in order to accomplish the best thing in the history of the universe. The language of the Christian scriptures is friendlier to our way of thinking, but the message is the same: God’s will is present in the best that can happen as well as the worst that can happen.
Which is what we see in Jeremiah 29. Those who say that it was against God’s will that God’s people experience defeat and exile, and that they should seethe and simmer and refuse to coöperate in Babylon—these people aren’t talking about Jeremiah’s God, who says, “Live your lives, and work for the good of everybody in your new city.” In other words, when something bad happens, Jeremiah says not only to try to make sense of it, but to have faith that God is still in it. God is not just present in victory and joy, but is also present in sadness and defeat—even that sadness and defeat might somehow be furthering God’s plan.
II. Go Ahead and Live
Another point that Jeremiah’s making here is that life is always worth living. This was actually one of Jesus’ most important messages, too. He said it in many ways, but nowhere more clearly than in the Sermon on the Mount: Which of the birds of the air worries about what it doesn’t have—even at the very moment it’s enjoying God’s providence? And does a beautiful flower in full bloom regret the coming time when its bloom will fade? “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow’s going to bring worries all its own. Today is intended to be lived today.” 
There are many reasons to worry in life. And there are just as many reasons to put off living until this or that worry has been alleviated. The older I get, of course, the more I realize: There’s always going to be something to fret over, and there’s always going to be at least one reason to put life on hold. I need to get my finances in order. I need to “be in a relationship” …or heal a relationship …or even end one. I need to wait till the kids are grown, or out of college. I need to wait till my health improves. I need to wait till I get a job… or get a raise… or retire. There’s always going to be something, some reason to put off living.
And perhaps Israel in Babylonian exile had the greatest excuse of all: “We need to wait until we can return home before we get on with our lives.” Who among us wouldn’t think the same thing? And this view, I think, effects our attitude towards others in dire straits. When we see men and women and children—entire families—on the move or in refugee camps, I think we feel for them. But I also think we must be discounting the lives they’re living, or we’d be more passionate about doing something about the problem. Their lives are less than our lives, because they’re not where they ought to be, because they’re on the move, because everything must be on hold.
But is that what Jeremiah would say? Or Jesus? If God has granted life, then that life is worth living meaningfully. And if it’s worth their trouble to live it, then it’s worth us caring about it. We can never be so far removed from where we think we ought to be that life is no longer worthwhile. And in today’s world of television and internet and mobile smart phones, no one is so far removed from us that we cannot care.
III. The Welfare of the City
That’s one current events message we can find in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. And another is one I hinted at earlier: Seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, for its well-being and yours are inextricably connected. One of the reasons the Babylonian exile remains of utmost importance to both Christians and Jews is how God’s people forged an identity in a faraway land where they were different from their neighbors. They developed new understandings of what they’d believed all along. They learned what to emphasize and (probably) what was unimportant. They even collected and edited and wrote down their holy stories—many of which had just existed as part of the oral tradition. They began to appreciate—perhaps for the first time—all the ways they were different.
But through Jeremiah, God told them that, even if they weren’t to blend in, they were still supposed to be good neighbors. That woman next door who doesn’t dress like you? Pray for her well-being. That guy across the street who worships a different god? His prosperity will help you prosper. The family with the vegetable stand in the market who don’t speak your language? Do business with them—the better off they are, the stronger your own children will be.
The writer of 1 Timothy told us to pray for leaders, even if we disagree with them, because an orderly world is a world in which people can be provided for and in which the gospel can be advanced. Just as in Babylon, praying for the welfare of the city helped God’s people prosper even as they were forging a unique identity that helped preserve God’s word for centuries after the exile ended.
When Christians teach that we must hate leaders we disagree with and fight them at every turn, we aren’t standing on very firm biblical ground. A distinct identity for God’s people does not mean that God’s people have to be opposed to the well-being of their neighbors or the orderliness of the world in which we find ourselves. Whether or not revolution is ever justified is a whole ‘nother sermon. What is not justified, however, is equating a political movement with the gospel, or any human leader as a necessary component of our salvation. We already have a Messiah. We dare not place our hope in any other.
Conclusion: ‘It Might Be Hope’
Speaking of which, hope is perhaps Jeremiah 29’s greatest gift to us. For in the 11th verse God says to Israel, For surely I know the plans I have for you—plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. And remember the context: Israel’s fate is uncertain; they’re in exile; they’re being told by many not to accept this fate, and to rage against the Babylonian machine. But Jeremiah is sharing with them a different message: God is neither ignorant of what’s happening to you nor powerless to prevent it.
Indeed, God tells Israel, what’s happening to you is all according to plan. Live the life you’ve been handed. Make the best of it. Love your neighbors—even the neighbors that you thought of as the enemy. Prosper and grow. There will be a time to return to the Land, but that time is not this time. When you return you will be different people than you are now. You’ll know more, you’ll accept more, you’ll better understand what makes you different. And you’ll have a new understanding of what Zion is.
None of this was natural to Israel, because it’s not human nature to embrace difficult change. If we want to see their first reaction, all we have to do is look at a very familiar psalm. Or at least we’re familiar with the first part of it:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. And on the willows there we hung up our harps when our captors demanded music of us, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion! But how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
That’s the first part of Psalm 137. Its ending is the ugliest and most vengeful thing in the entire Bible. For my own sake, I won’t quote it directly, but its basic message is a blessing upon anyone who takes their anger out on the children of Babylon.
This psalm is a prayer to God—it starts out more beautifully than it ends, but both the beautiful beginning and the ugly ending are answered by the God it was addressed to. And the answer was No.
To the claim that the Lord’s songs could be sung in exile, God said, “No, you can sing my songs in Babylon!” And the songs were sung, and the faith grew, and hope did not die. And as to that last part, the expression of the need for vengeance was just that: An expression, a confession to God that there was inconsolable hatred in the hearts of those who prayed this prayer. And to that, God said loudly and clearly, No. You may not wish ill either upon your conquerors or their children. But you must wish them well. And when you pray to me for their well-being, I’ll hear those prayers, and to those I will answer Yes.
People of God—whether they’re found in the earlier parts of the Bible, or the parts at the end—are people of love and hope. Hatred and despair are not who we are, even when we find ourselves in desperate situations, or when we’re dealing with people we’re told are our enemies. It wasn’t the way of Jeremiah, nor is it the way of Jesus. I don’t know whether we can all believe that there’s a reason for everything. But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it’s enough to believe that whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey, God created the path we’re on, the Christ who has already walked it also has our back, and we are accompanied each step of the way by the inner presence of God’s Spirit.
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.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
- See especially Acts 5:1-11, in which Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the spot for lying to the church in order to withhold some of the profits from a piece of property they sold.
- 1 Timothy 2 isn’t the only place where this is found in the N.T. It’s also found in Romans 13:1-7, Hebrews 13:17 & 1 Peter 2:13-17. It could also argue that Jesus was making this same point in Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 22 when he said to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
- Matthew 6:25-34.