I am not sure we fully appreciate the value of communication in these days. We live very near the old American Pony Express route. For a year and a half in the mid nineteenth century, until the telegraph service finally crossed the continent, riders carried the mail on fast horses from station to station from Colorado and points east to California. That was an expensive and often dangerous undertaking all for the sake of mail service.
We live a little over ten miles from the little town where snowshoe Thompson lived. In the same era as the Pony Express Thompson carried mail on 10 foot skis across the high Sierras from Mormon station to Placerville California.
Of course, most of us in America receive far more mail than we would like. Much of it is what we call junk mail. But letters from important people or people we love are still precious. I love the story of Kathy Keller, Tim Keller's wife, receiving several letters from C.S. Lewis when she wrote him as a 12 year old girl. They were actually written within weeks of Lewis’ death.
But no letter would be as valuable to any of us as direct communication from God. That is what we have in the 29th chapter of Jeremiah. Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles who had been carried off to Babylon. And in that letter he gives them and us direct communication from God himself. This is not unlike the letters from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor at the beginning of The Revelation.
Many of us are familiar with Jeremiah 29:11.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
I recently heard someone say that our putting this verse on t-shirts and greeting cards, and applying it directly to our lives is a misuse of scripture. The person said you could only apply this to your life if you were in fact one of the Israelites exiled to Babylon in the 6th century before Christ. I believe that is a mistake. We have this letter in Scripture because God speaks to us from it. And this letter reveals important things about the character of God, and how he deals in our lives today.
First God declares in this passage that He has plans for you. I need to be honest here. I am not very good at making plans. I am always cynical about my ability to know what will happen in the future. But I understand that meaning in life comes from purpose. And God gives us assurance here that He has a plan. God assures the Israelites in exile that they are not simply in the hands of blind fate. And even though it may look to us like God does not know what He is doing, He knows. This brings to my mind His promise in Romans 8:28.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
This verse does not say everything will be good in our lives. That was certainly not true for the children of Israel under judgment. But God was assuring the people that He was going to work even this evil, even this hardship, for good in their lives.
The Children of Israel were deported to Babylon because they had rejected God. But God still had plans for them. Someone recently asked me if I believed in the perfect and permissive will of God. He told me he had not done something that he was convinced was the will of God. And he felt he could no longer have God's best for his life.
I said I didn't think that was a good or biblical way of looking at the will of God. I would rather say the will of God is dynamic. He has a specific will for you no matter what happened in your past. A good example of this is found in 1John 1:9.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
So, suppose I sin. That is completely out of the will of God, is it not? Now, what is God's will for me? God's specific will for me is to confess that sin to Him. You have already strayed in significant ways from the will of God. But He still has a specific will for your life. His will may not be easy. But it is perfect for you.
It was very difficult for the people of Israel to see any good in their captivity in Babylon. And it is sometimes impossible for us to see good in our immediate situation in life. But God is saying to them and to us, “I know.” You and I cannot know what the future holds. But God knows; and we can trust Him.
In Jeremiah 29:11 the NIV says God has plans to “prosper” us. The ESV says plans for our “welfare.” The Hebrew word here is Shalom. The foundation of the word shalom is peace. But it is used in the Old Testament for a much broader concept than simply the absence of war. It refers back to the time of prosperity particularly under the reign of David and Solomon. Of course God's peace begins with a right relationship with God. God is saying His plans for you begin with your getting right with Him. And Shalom has to refer more to spiritual welfare then it does material prosperity.
And God says His plans are not to harm you. Now here the Hebrew word for harm is the word for evil. It is the same word that is used in the garden of Eden for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God's purpose in His judgment of the children of Israel was not their final destruction, but repentance.
The blessing of God is primarily relational. God's nature and his purpose for us is wound up in His infinite love. God desires a relationship with you. The very next verses in Jeremiah 29 read,
“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
In this letter God and Jeremiah tell the people to settle down where they are and live in Hope. There is a theology that is often being applied in our day which simply says wouldn't it be wonderful if the Lord would come back today and this world would burn. But God is saying, “Don't give up. Keep on serving Me. You have hope.” This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15:58 which God has often used to encourage my soul.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
I am in an unusual place in life. I have terminal cancer. And I need to say, nothing in my life has helped me get a grip on the future as much as my cancer. I am able to see significance in every moment of my life.
I see relationships in a new light as my time on this Earth is shortened. That is not to say that I am always kind or patient with people. I am certainly tempted not to be kind. But I hunger to love them with Christ's love. And I pray for God to do things in their lives that I could never accomplish.
Prayer itself has become much more important to me. My cancer brings me to Exodus 33 where Moses cried out to see the glory of God. And I am convinced that God will use my prayers to touch the lives of those around me.
And I still need to minister. I need to pour myself into God's purpose. I am thankful that He allows, has even called me to write. And I think it is important to see that whatever ministry God calls you to will make life more meaningful.
All of these things relate to the future. Those of us who believe in Jesus have eternal life. And life beyond this life will be a continuation, even an expansion of the purpose and fellowship that He lavishes on us on Earth. That hope makes everything more meaningful now and forever.