Sermon delivered October 14, 2007, by
Rev. Dr. Eugene C. Buie, Jr.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
If you have lived any time at all on this earth, you have experienced suffering at one time of another. One thing we know about suffering and pain, no matter how small or how great it may seem to others, pain can be all consuming for the one who is suffering. So, when hardship and suffering come upon us, it can seem strange to say, "Bless what there is for being." In other words, even if hardship and suffering are all there is, bless it for being there….realizing, in fact, there is always something else for which to be thankful…if we just look for it.
Their homes and businesses were destroyed. They were being held captive in a foreign land. Nevertheless, God said to the Jews in Babylon, "build houses," for you will be here long enough to need shelter; "plant gardens," because you will be here long enough to harvest what you plant; and "take wives," for you will be here long enough to have children. "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray on its behalf." Bless what there is, "for in its welfare, you will find your welfare."
The question is, when the circumstances of life are grim and seem utterly hopeless, can our "faith in the Lord" be strong and sustain us? Can you trust in and rely on God to see you through the darkness? It may be, that darkness is all there is, before the dawn of another day and a promise for tomorrow. Why is it, we must ask ourselves, why is it we rarely consider the endorsement of God's favor when life is good, taking credit ourselves for our good fortune? Yet, when life is at its worst, we are tempted to think God has abandoned us…..that God doesn't care what happens to us.
Babylon had invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and leveled every building, including the Temple of Solomon. The invaders were not content to just knock down buildings and dwellings, but they also plowed the stones into the earth. The Jews who survived were carried away, exiled into the distant nation of Babylon. They never expected to see their homeland again. But God sent word, saying, (read Jeremiah 29:10-15).
There is an object lesson here for us, if we have the good sense to acknowledge it. Biblical history tells us that YAHWEH God revealed the divine Self and freed the descendents of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought them out and gave them the land of Canaan that was situated at the hub of the Middle Eastern world. Nations to the north and south of Canaan had to pass through this land for trade and conquest. Here, the nation of Israel was to be a light unto the nations, to make known the One True God, who was unknown in the pagan world.
In order for them to accomplish this divinely appointed task, YAHWEH God promised to protect them from the pagan nations whose strength far surpassed their own. But the Israelites were not faithful to YAHWEH and broke their covenant, foolishly forsaking YAHWEH for pagan gods that were no gods at all. What was more decisive, no longer trusting and relying on God to protect them, they put their faith in politics and human alliances that ultimately failed. Does that sound familiar?
Consequently, after sending many prophets with words of warning, YAHWEH "gave them up" to their unfaithfulness. Yes, the Sovereign of heaven and earth is willing to allow his people to make their own choices. It is part of our freedom that we treasure even today. But also, we are held responsible for our choices, and the consequences are often suffering and pain. Nevertheless, God promised as well not to abandon the people He claimed as His own, no matter how rebellious they were. Rather, YAHWEH would redeem them when the time was right….in his own time.
If you have not encountered YAHWEH God in this context, then you do not yet know Him. Of all the words written in the First Testament, there are few verses that reveal to us the person of the Living God better than these:
"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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me," says the LORD, "and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places from which I sent you into exile." (Jeremiah 29:11-14, NRSV)
What enormous comfort these words can be to each of us, when the undesirable circumstances of life come crashing down upon our heads. Oh, usually we are personally responsible for much of the pain and suffering that touches our lives, even though we look for someone or something else to blame for our misfortune. But also, because we live in a world where everyone is connected to everyone else in one way or another, we can be caught up in the misfortunes of others.
Your condo burns down with all of your belongings, because your neighbor carelessly dropped a cigarette on the bed. Your child is seriously injured, because a drunk driver lost control of his truck and ran into the school bus. You and your whole family are hospitalized with food poisoning from carelessly processed hamburger meat. The examples can be legion.
If we are not suffering because of something we have or have not done, we can be suffering because of what someone else has or has not done. And then, there are those misfortunes that come upon us for no apparent reason at all. If we consider such human suffering as divine punishment, we can often decry it as unfair and undeserved, as did the biblical Job. However, if human suffering is not punishment but a legacy of simply being human, a consequence of the fallen nature of us all individually and corporately, then perhaps we can appreciate it when the Sovereign of the universe says, "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."
In spite of the consequences we bring upon ourselves, God has a plan to give us a future with hope. With YAHWEH God, it is always about the future. Human history is moving toward a consummation, and for those who live by faith, that movement is driven by hope….and love.
In our lesson this morning from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus meets ten lepers near the boundary between Galilee and Samaria. Forget the normal sermonizing you have heard about giving thanks. Why are these men lepers in the first place? Did they deserve this disease that rots human flesh? Was it because of something they or their parents did that they should suffer not only physically but also emotionally as social outcasts? A Pharisee would answer, "Yes." Are they being punished for their sins, whether known or unknown? A Temple priest would answer, "Yes." Does any of this matter to Jesus? No! When they saw Jesus, they cried out in hope, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Here was the expression of a desperate hope….that Jesus would have mercy, heal them, and give to them a future. With leprosy, they had no future…no life… they were essentially the walking dead. "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."
When Jesus saw them, he was not concerned with the how or the why of their leprosy. He was moved by their hope of salvation. He simply said, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." That was the custom for someone cured of leprosy. A priest must certify that they were cured or cleansed. And as they went, they were made clean.
Hope combined with faith results in love's blessing of wholeness. In this case, it was a miraculous cure. That one person out of ten turned back, praising God and thanking Jesus….or that this person was a Samaritan….is another aspect of this story; a kind of footnote. What did this person learn that the others did not? It was that his faith had made him well. To say anything more about the ungrateful nine is to speculate.
What is important is the relationship that formed between Jesus and the one who returned to give thanks and praise. If we bless what there is, whatever the set of circumstances, be it exile or be it disease or be it the suffering that goes with simply being human….if we bless what there is, we interject into that suffering the grace of God, bringing us God's gift of a future with hope. And this, my friends, is the promise God makes to all who choose to live by faith.
So, the next time life becomes bitter and suffering fills your days, bless what there is for being, and thank God that through Christ Jesus you have been freed for a future with hope. Amen.