Sermon for 10-13-19
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
How many of you have ever lived in a temporary home? The kind of place that’s just a stepping stone until you can get somewhere else. It’s not a forever home. It’s just a roof over your head. You say, “it’ll do for now.” I have. In one calendar year, I had five different mailing addresses. That year was marked by boxes. Empty walls. The bare essentials. Nothing more than what I needed to get by. It was a lonely year. I knew in each of those addresses that I would soon be moving on. There was no reason to get comfortable.
A friend recently sought my advice on what kind of edible plants would do well in her yard. She shared that while her family has lived in the house for a while, they’ve never really made it their own. They thought it was a good starter home. They always thought they would move to a bigger house someday. They never really got comfortable. But they’re realizing that it’s a pretty good house to raise their family in. When I asked how long they have been living there, I was surprised to hear it had been nearly a decade. That’s a long time in a “temporary” home!
But how many of you have lived in a house without actually making it your home? How many times have you heard of people making renovations to their home to get it ready to sell, and then wish they didn’t have to sell it after all? Luckily for my friend, they are choosing to find life again in their home. They’re fixing it up, planting a garden, raising a family, making peace with the neighbors, really beginning to live their best lives right where they are.
I love learning about the Israelites. Their relationship with God is much like my own. And probably yours too. The knowledge of God is always there, but at times they forget to live for Him. They believe in God, but don’t fully trust Him with their lives. They veer off course. They don’t enter the land they were promised and end up in the desert for forty years. They build a golden calf. They grumble about the manna that God provides. But God is always with them. He always woos them back. As He does with us.
Now Josiah was king of Judah and restored the covenant after finding the lost scrolls. 2 Kings 23:25 says that “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did.” He had inherited a fractured kingdom. But under his reign, there was peace in the land. After his death, of course, new kings ruled. Those kings did evil in the sight of the Lord, and Israel followed their lead. They turned away from God again. The prophet Jeremiah is here to tell the people of the consequences for turning from God. It doesn’t look good.
There was a two-year siege on Jerusalem – famine, arson, destruction, terrible acts of war – and then Nebuchadnezzar carried them off. They were not exiled to the wilderness, like the Israelites had been in Moses’ day. That was a hard life to live, but they were alone out there. No, this generation was exiled directly into the hands of their enemies. Jeremiah prophesied that they would be there for 70 years. That’s a lifetime! They were probably scared, hopeless. They felt defeated. They were defeated! But God did promise His people that they would be restored to the Promised Land, and He always keeps His promises. What’s an Israelite to do? He could just bide his time. Living low. Hoping he lives to the end of 70 years to get back to the Promised Land. Or maybe, he gives up. He abandons God, because he feels like God abandoned him. He continues in the evil ways of the king who got him there. He places blame on others and absolves all responsibility. He makes no effort to take charge of his life. OR, another option, he could live into the fullness of his life. He could seek God right where he is, in exile among his enemies.
I heard an interview with Doug Bopst on the Rise Together podcast a couple weeks ago. His story captured me. He started using drugs at age 14 to escape the reality of his life. At 20, he was pulled over because of a busted head light and was arrested for possession and intent to sell. The judge sentenced him with five years in prison and a felony drug charge. He was required to complete 200 hours of community service and numerous drug classes. But he says, “The worst moment of my life, when I thought my life was over, was the beginning of my life.” He met his future cellmate on his first day. He said to Doug, “You’re going to work out with me.” As someone who had been scrawny throughout childhood, Doug scoffed. But he knew he would be there for five years. He had a choice to make. He could sit around for five years. Thinking about all the ways he messed up his life, blaming the people who led him to this place, or he could do something. Just like the choice the Israelites had to make.
No one ever plans to go to jail. But that’s where Doug found himself. He joined his cellmate for the work outs. That escape he was seeking as a teenager through drugs, he found through physical exercise. He found life in jail. He found purpose. He couldn’t do a push up the first day, but by the end of his five years, he was able to do 10 push-ups and run a mile. He knew he wouldn’t be in jail forever, but he didn’t sit there waiting for his time to be up. He changed his life because he chose life. He learned about personal accountability and showed up for the daily work outs. As Doug found new life, he began encouraging others to look at the reality of their lives and do something about it. He says, “You can tell a story that the stuck that you feel is the stuck that you think you deserve and that’s just how your life is going to be, that it’s not going to be any better than this. But that story is a lie that you are choosing to believe, and by believing that, you are going to stay stuck in that place unless you flip the script, take control of the narrative and take control of your life.” The Israelites were stuck in Babylon. They were going to be stuck for 70 years. But God instructs them to take control of their lives. (By the way, Doug is now a fitness coach, author, and a Christian.)
We read in Jeremiah that God doesn’t want his people to just bide their time. He wants them to bloom! He wants them to build houses and get comfortable! Put pictures on the walls! Unpack those boxes! Don’t wait around for 70 years, but choose life today. He says to plant gardens and eat from them. Don’t just depend on others for daily bread. God wants them to plan for life! Plot it out! Spend some time in the dirt! Enjoy God’s creation! He wants the Israelites to love, to marry, to have children. And God wants us to live a joyful life.
Just like the Israelites, we are in a temporary home. This land is not forever. We have a Promised Land too. Jesus is preparing a place for us. We know that we’ll eventually get there, but God doesn’t want us to wait around for it. He wants us to live. He wants us to live for Him! Rachel Hollis always says, “Hope is not a strategy.” There is so much truth in that little phrase! We can’t hope our dreams into reality. Dreams come true by intentional goal-setting and hard work. Likewise, we have eternal hope in Jesus, but we have to actually do something with it or we will never grow! We have to study God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, and Trust God, even when we don’t understand.
My absolute favorite part of gardening is germination. I watch dirt in seed trays for a few days, a week, or two, watering patiently every day, and then suddenly, I see something sprout in one cell, then another, and then in multiples! It’s a great surprise every time! That seedling is so tiny at first, but it grows. It makes my heart glad. The part that I struggle with is transplanting those baby plants. I have watched them sprout, watered them, and then eventually I have to put them out in the garden. But would this plant do better with morning sun or afternoon sun? Maybe it should be in the shade of another plant or in full sun all day. What will the weather be like when it reaches maturity in a few months? Does it need some companion plants to ward off pests? How much space does it need? Really, I’m over-thinking it, and therein lies my problem. Thank God I am not the Gardener of my own life!
Proverbs 16:9 says “In his heart a man (or woman) plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” My dream as a child was to save the earth. I loved to play outside. I loved animals. If you had asked me what I wanted be when I grow up, I never would have imagined the following answers: a stay at home mom, a farmer, a business owner, a baker, a community organizer. But God transplanted me to a humble home with some acreage. He put the yearning in my heart to stay home with my children. When we took that leap of faith, I filled my days with homesteading projects. I had no idea what I was doing! A baby’s food allergy turned into an adventure in raising goats. Goat cheese needed bread to be spread on, which turned me into a baker. I used the gifts and resources that God provided to raise funds for my cousin. Which started my business. Which led to a partnership with my neighbor and friend to bring our local farm goodies to the community, and in doing so, bring the community together. What a journey! But I’m not even grown up yet! I’m still learning every day. I’m still trying every day to be a better version of the person God created! He’s not done with me yet. And He’s not done with you either.
We had a cross stitch sampler hanging in my childhood kitchen that read, “Bloom where you are planted.” I always thought it odd since we were so far from where my parents grew up. We weren’t planted there from the start. Our family had been transplanted, and it wasn’t always easy living so far from family. I have been planted and transplanted throughout my life. Haven’t we all? Whether physically or through life’s circumstances?
Our Israelites were exiled to a tough spot. They knew it wouldn’t be forever, but it wouldn’t be easy. We will also be transplanted to hard times. James, Peter, and Paul all assure us of that. They all instruct us to expect suffering. But I love that James makes it clear that God is not the one testing us. How many times have we heard someone say, “God is really testing me right now”? No, verse 13 states, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone.” We are tempted by evil, by our weaknesses, we covet, and then when succumb, we sin. Flip the script! In those days of temptation, instead of looking for what God is “trying to teach me,” I say, “Get behind me Satan!” And let me tell you, I did that a lot this week! With chest congestion, Dustin’s delays with work threatening to keep him away, and a screaming child this morning, I turned my heart to God. I sang. I read my Bible. I prayed. And I asked for prayer. We know from Romans 8:28 that all things work for the good of those who love Him. When we’ve been transplanted, God is always with us, giving instruction. We just have to slow down and do some digging in that place.
God’s last command to the exiles is to seek peace and prosperity, to pray for it. Live your life with intention for the furtherance of His kingdom, and that begins by drawing near to Him in prayer and devotion. We live in a fallen world with enemies all around. Paul urges the Romans to offer their bodies as living sacrifices. He says not to be conformed by the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. There are so many places we never could have dreamed to be transplanted. So many less than desirable circumstances – a tiny house, a crappy job, infirmed, homebound, grieving, broke, homeless, suffering from anxiety or depression, broken families, disputes with neighbors, imprisoned, in the hands of our enemies, cast off from society – places we would never expect, or hope, to find ourselves. But these circumstances haven’t just happened to us. God is for us, and these situations are happening for us. Flip the script! God is constantly molding us, shaping us, growing us into His creation. Which oftentimes takes forms we couldn’t have imagined. We have to strive to always find life in the seasons we are in.
There is such a thing as garden therapy. It is used in prisons, hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, and backyards around the world. According to a UF EDIS document, horticulture therapy has been proven to stimulate memory, decrease cortisol levels, increase attention span and focus, increase confidence and self-worth, promote creativity, provide exercise, lower blood pressure, and other benefits! I have witnessed the effects of garden therapy first hand. It’s how my garden went from two beds to six, to ten, etc. When we do slow down and watch the flowers bloom, instead of just grumbling about our situation, like the manna, we can see how God is working in our lives. We can see the beauty from the dirt. As a seed sprouts, it has to push through the soil. It is working against gravity. It is small and weak, but pushing to the surface creates resilience. Trials create perseverance. When our faith perseveres, we mature, and we are molded into who God created us to be. It’s no wonder God instructs his people to plant gardens!
Let’s look at the men with leprosy, just for a moment before we go. Based on Levitical law, they were exiles. They were required to live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, cast their face downward, and if someone did approach, they were to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” These men are no longer members of society. They were separated from their families, their friends, and, based on religious practices of their day, they were alienated from God. So these ten, when they see Jesus, remain at a distance as required, and call out for mercy. We can assume nine were Jewish. They didn’t question Jesus when he told them to present themselves to the priests, which tells us they knew the law (lowercase L). This was toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, so they had likely heard of his miraculous healings. When Jesus said go, they obeyed because of what they had heard and they were cleansed of their disease. Maybe they spoke amongst one another as they left of what they would do after they presented themselves before the priests. Maybe they worried of what the people would say when they returned to society. We don’t know why they didn’t thank Jesus. We only know that they moved along, decently and in order, to follow Jesus’ directions.
But the Samaritan! Maybe he didn’t think Jesus’ love could heal him, a foreigner. Maybe, unlike the others, he didn’t realize the strictness of the law, that he was supposed to immediately go to the priests before he approached anyone. He had been in a lonely place in exile and was overcome with joy at his meeting with Jesus. He responded to the pouring out of the Spirit on his body. He returns to thank Jesus, because he was being transplanted from his bondage to freedom. He is ready to live life again! Jesus responds by saying “Rise, your faith has made you well.” He was already healed physically, but as he came to believe in Christ as his Savior, his spirit was saved.
God is a good Gardener. He knows exactly how much sun we need. How we might survive a drought. What plants to surround us with for support. I ask of you. Where are you living. Are you in a temporary home with boxes all around waiting to be unpacked? Were you transplanted to this place, physically, spiritually, or emotionally, and don’t know how to live with purpose in the space you’ve found yourself? Remember, we all start as tiny baby plants. But eventually we get to break free of the constraints of those seedling packs. Trust in God, the perfect Gardener, to transplant you for your best life. Live for Him and He will set you free. He wants you to bloom into the person He created you to be. Jeremiah continues with a familiar verse, “For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” God is for you. That is reason to pursue life in all life’s seasons.