October 18, 2019

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“What We Are All Seeking”                                      Jeremiah 29:4-14

Our day is one of increased technology and with that comes increased complexity. I won’t ask how many of you have a DVR and don’t know how to program it, or a computer and have no idea how certain functions work, or have apps on your smart phone that you’ve never figured out how to use. I’d like to ask how many of us worked on our own cars twenty or thirty years ago, but today wouldn’t dream of lifting the hood to attempt a repair. Just considering the amount of information that piles up yearly in new books and the rest that’s shoved onto the internet, we live in an age of enormous complexity. What occurs emotionally to balance our age of complexity, I’ve noticed, is sometimes a fascination with what we might call simpler times.

Do any of you remember the Foxfire books that taught readers how to live like a pioneer and make everything at home? Or think of people who attend Renaissance fairs, or meet to live like Civil War soldiers did and re-enact the battles of that war. The past often seems simpler, if not always easier, and people often nostalgically look back to the passing of those times. And it’s not just older folks who grieve the past; teenagers can grieve the loss of their childhood; young parents can grieve the loss of more carefree days when they were in high school. Individuals grieve other losses: not just losing a loved one, but losing bodily functions through illness, paralysis or strokes; or they mourn a job they lost, or the love of a child—not to mention grieving a divorce.

Nations also mourn their losses. Russia is still a danger to the world today because, it seems, its people mourn the loss of their empire that was the old Soviet Union. In the midst of our losses we ask, with or without verbalizing it, “How do we start over? How do we pick up the pieces, or even find the pieces to pick up, and go on?” As societies and individuals ask this, we all tend to prefer the easy answers.

Adolph Hitler gave post-World War I Germany the flattering answer that they were really the super race and destined to rule the world. Human beings thrill to such answers—answers that are flattering, easy, and above all instantaneous. Social or economic problems could take half a century to create, but we prefer they’re solved in a year or two. A severe personality disorder could be established and reinforced since birth—or before—yet people hope to go to a weekend of therapy, or attend church one Sunday, and have all their problems solved.

In the early sixth century BC the nation of Judah was licking its wounds from its first crushing defeat by Babylon. They don’t know it yet, but ten years later their nation will be thoroughly wiped out. Right now, they think things can’t get any worse. The cream of society gets hauled off as hostages to Babylon. There, away from their homeland, their loved ones, and their holy temple, they listen to anyone who gives them a quick and easy answer to their worst problems.

But the prophet Jeremiah writes them a letter to let them know they’ll be there for seventy years. So, they should settle down, build houses, plant crops, marry, and seek the welfare of the city in which they live. Although they’re aliens in Babylon, they should pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which they now live. Life isn’t ideal there, yet still it’s the place where they must serve God for the time being. Forget the search for easy answers, and instead seek and serve God wherever you are, because God has “plans to give you hope and a future.”

A church that I was once part of had this ministry of faithful praying for their neighborhood. Church members promised regularly to pray for their neighbors—whether they knew them or not. It’s almost exactly what Jeremiah said 2,600 years ago to his people in exile in Babylon: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for [the city], because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7). The Lord also tells his people—a few verses later— “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (29:13).

We Americans tend to think of seeking God with all our heart as doing so with gushy feelings. If the exiles in Babylon thought it was hard for them to believe in the Lord while away from their homeland and their temple, Americans think it’s hard to believe without emotional bubbles sparkling in our heads and hearts and souls.

Sometimes in the Bible the heart has to do with emotions, but most of the time when biblical writers speak of the heart, they are referring to what we think and choose. Seeking God with all our heart means to intentionally choose God, consciously obey God, no matter what we may be feeling. In the Bible faith includes feelings, but it isn’t primarily about our feelings. Faith is the expression of the whole person. Therefore, to seek God with your whole heart means not letting emotions rule your faith. As the martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, if you’re having problems believing, then obey (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 74). If you have trouble believing God, maybe you need to seek God with all your heart and obey yourself into believing. At least that’s how the Bible says to do it.

Today psychologists agree with that insight. I remember the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner stating that people more often act themselves into a way of believing as they believe themselves into a way of acting. He had merely discovered how God created us. If you want to believe, obey. Your feelings will catch up with your obedience later. If your belief sags, obey God and it will revive.

Seek God with your mind and with your actions. Seek God with your will and your emotions. Strive for the welfare of others, the well-being of those who live near you—that is true faith. Walk your block and pray for your neighbors, or look out your window and pray for them, and then be ready to go to them as Christ’s messenger of good news. Invest yourself in God’s concern for others, in the community, in the state, in the nation, and in the world.

Don’t let your faith dwindle into a mere concern for individuals. Take God’s perspective and care about groups of people also. Jeremiah says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (v. 7). Learn about Christ’s various ministries right here in our congregation and participate in at least one of them. Contribute with both your time and your money. Stand for the equality and justice that our Christian faith leads us to support. Struggle for the peace God wants everyone to enjoy.

Jesus commanded: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). Then he promised, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). If you invest yourself in Christ’s church and his work, when the time comes that your faith is shaken, you won’t be able to give up because you’ve got too much invested in the treasures of heaven. You’ve been seeking God with all your heart.

Those Jewish prisoners exiled in Babylon were surprised to learn first through Jeremiah’s promise and then through their experience that their God was with them even though they were far from their homeland and their temple. When they sought God through their obedience, they realized that God met them even beyond the boundaries of their holy land.

You too will be surprised when you seek God with all your heart. When you have given yourself to the service of Christ—body, mind, and spirit—caring for others, serving God’s purposes in this world through word and deed, showing concern for individuals and groups, here and beyond our own culture.

You’ll be surprised when you most need to be surprised. You’ll discover that serving God with your whole heart is never what it seems. It’s always more than we expect.

Yahweh’s word to the Babylonian exiles describes what we are all seeking: “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” (29:7). Jesus promised that at the end of the world God will surprise people when they’re told that their consistent, difficult, or everyday service to others has consequences beyond anything you or they ever dreamed. In their surprise they will ask, “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).

For every Christian—especially those who feel like they’re living in exile—Jeremiah says the way forward is to seek God with all your heart.

Our risen Lord Jesus is alive in this world, seeking us as we seek him, in the lives of people who need the Savior’s love, who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, sick, or in prison. That is, they need Jesus living through us.

To paraphrase Jeremiah for us today: “Seek the peace and prosperity of wherever you are. Pray to the LORD for those people, because if they prosper, you too will prosper.”

And isn’t peace and prosperity what we are all seeking?

All thanks and blessing and glory and honor to our God now and forevermore! Amen.