Salvation Belongs to the Lord

Sermon by Ralph Kelley on December 27, 2020

Jeremiah 29:4-14

If you would, open your Bibles to Jeremiah 29; Jeremiah 29. We’re going to be looking at a text this morning that, a message, that the Lord sent to His people who were in exile in Babylon. And I think it is a text that can be helpful for us this morning. Before we look at that, let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Father God, we ask Your blessing on the reading of Your Word and the preaching of Your Word. Lord, would You speak to us, would You encourage us, would You admonish us. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

Jeremiah chapter 29, beginning in verse 4:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

For thus says the Lord:  When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 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. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Amen. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.

I’ve said it, you’ve said it; we could almost say it in unison:  “I will be so glad when we are out of 2020!” So many people are so glad that 2020 is almost behind us. They are straining to see that first glimpse of 2021. But as we sit here today, I ask you this question – “What’s really going to be different come Friday?” We’re still going to be in a pandemic. Next Sunday as we gather, we’ll still be wearing masks, we’ll still be sitting apart from one another. We live in a country that is deeply divided on all things political. Racism continues to plague our country. People all over the world are being crushed by poverty. And Alabama is still going to be better than your team’s school in football next year! We may want to be done with 2020, but is 2021 going to be better? Do we know that? I’m going to offer you a word of hope – 2021 can be better and will be better if we follow the Lord’s prescription for living lives for His glory and for our good.

I think the text in front of us can be really helpful. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This verse has been used by Christians often as words of encouragement to one another. Unfortunately, this verse is often used out of context. When my sons asked me what my text was going to be this morning, my oldest son, Scott, responded, “Oh, the tried and true graduation text, huh?” And my youngest, Jonathan, said, “Oh, that Christian ‘life verse’ that so many people choose.” And I told them both that my first point of the sermon today was to show people how this verse is often used incorrectly. I hope this morning to put this verse in proper context for you. Not to discourage you, but to really encourage you, that once you truly understand what the Lord is saying in this verse, I think if you’re one who has misunderstood this verse in the past it will actually mean even more to you going forward.

In the real estate world they say, “Location! Location! Location!” is the theme that realtors use when they’re trying to make a good real estate decision. When it comes to properly understanding the Bible, “Context! Context! Context!” – that’s the prism we always need to be thinking through. This verse does not mean that the Lord is going to make everything good for you today and you can count on it. This verse is not a feel good Christian proverb. In fact, the recipients of this letter would have been very, very discouraged to have gotten this letter; it would have broken their hearts. These are God’s people who have been taken into exile by Babylon. This letter is telling them their circumstances are not going to change any time soon. In fact, they’re going to be in captivity their entire lives. The false prophets that we read about here in 8 and 9 are proclaiming that they will be free in short order. They will be going home in a year, two at tops! But the reality, as Jeremiah is telling them, it will be seventy years until their circumstances change.

So what is it that’s so appealing to looking towards 2021? What if a year from now or seventy years from now our circumstances have not changed? If you’re hoping that your circumstances are going to change and that will make you feel better, then I would suggest that you are putting your hope in the wrong place. But just as there’s actually a great word of hope here in verse 11 for those in exile, there is a word of hope to all God’s people, even us this morning. As we focus in on verse 11, I want us to look at four things – God’s plan, God’s peace, God’s provision, and God’s promise.

God’s Plan

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.” If there is ever a time that we needed to be reminded that the Lord has the plan, it is this year. Is it not? As the executive minister of this church, my job is to know the plan and to execute the plan for First Presbyterian Church. This year, the Lord has taught me once again that I am not in charge. The Lord has been breaking down idols in my heart all year long, and I suspect He’s been doing the same in your hearts. Breaking down idols that want me to have the Lord change my circumstances and not look to the Lord for my strength. It’s not wrong to pray for the Lord to take away the virus out of this world. Yet at the same time, it is here – and maybe we should be asking questions about, “How is this virus working for God’s glory and for our good?” God’s people who were in exile were not there by accident, but it was God’s plan for them. What if instead of despising 2020, we embraced it, we leaned into it, and we did some real soul searching about what is God doing in each of us?

Back in April, I shared something with the staff during a staff meeting one day and I want to share it with you now. About 20 years ago, John Piper was diagnosed with cancer and he wrote an article, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” So what I’ve done here is I basically have stolen all of his original thoughts and I’ve dubbed this, “Don’t Waste Your Pandemic.” So listen to what John Piper says:

“You will waste this pandemic if you do not believe God designed it for you. God has a plan with this for you. Lean into it and future out what it is. Two, you will waste this pandemic if you think of it as a curse and not a gift. God loves His people and He does not do evil towards them. He wants you to grow closer to Him through this. Three, you will waste this pandemic if you seek comfort from odds rather than God. God wants to rip away from you your reliance on props. He wants you to be safe in Him and Him alone. You will waste this pandemic if you refuse to think about death. Psalm 90:12 says, ‘Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.’ Numbering your days means thinking about how few there are, and that they are actually going to come to an end. How will we get a heart of wisdom if you refuse to think about this? What a waste if we don’t think about death.

Five, you will waste this pandemic if you think beating this virus means staying alive rather than treasuring Christ. Christ should be all that we are treasuring at this time. You will waste this pandemic if you spend too much time reading and speculating about the virus and not enough time reading about the Lord. It’s not wrong to know about the virus. Ignorance is not a virtue, but to know more and more about the virus and less and less about the Lord is symptomatic of unbelief. Seven, you will waste this pandemic if you grieve as those with no hope. There is certainly a grief at death, but grief of a Christian is different. It’s permeated with hope. Eight, you will waste this pandemic if you treat sin as casually as before. Are your besetting sins as attractive as they were before the pandemic? If so, you’re wasting the pandemic. This virus should direct us to destroy the appetite for sin – pride, greed, lust, hatred, unforgiveness, impatience, laziness, procrastination. All these are the adversaries we should be attacking right now. Finally, you will waste this pandemic if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ. Christians are never anywhere by divine accident. There are reasons for why we wind up where we do. Consider what Jesus said about painful, unplanned circumstances. ‘They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for My name’s sake. This will be an opportunity to bear witness.’ This pandemic gives us a wonderful opportunity to witness to others about this salvation that is found in Christ and Christ alone.”

So my question is, “Are you missing God’s plan for your life by wasting the pandemic? Are you so desperate for your circumstances to change you’re missing the better plan? Just as God told His people in exile, He had a plan for them. He has a plan for you. It may not look anything like your plan, but it is a far better plan. The Lord is sovereign over everything, including this virus and your life. That’s the first thing. The first thing is that we see God’s plan.

God’s Peace

The second thing is, we’re going to look at God’s peace. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The word, “welfare,” here is often translated, “peace.” It’s the one Hebrew word all of us know, right? “Shalom.” In the midst of a lifetime in exile, these Israelites that God’s speaking to, He says He wants them to find peace. When we look back ten years from now, I doubt that we’re going to look back to 2020 as the year of peace. In fact, I’m certain that we won’t think of it that way. Yet there is every reason the exiled in Babylon and we can call this a time of peace. The peace that’s being considered here is peace between God and His people. Jeremiah knew God was at war with His covenant people because of their sin. This exile was a foreshadowing of the eternal judgment of those who reject the reign of God. Jeremiah in this verse foresees a great day of salvation when God would save His people and bring them shalom, bring them peace. This shalom is not the end of political strife or social injustice. It’s not getting life back to normal as we know it. It’s much, much more. Shalom is a holistic concept that’s laid out for us – a condition in which people enjoyed complete and permanent wellbeing.

As Jeremiah looks forward to the One who will bring shalom, we look back to the One who brought peace. We’ve just celebrated the incarnation over the last month. And if you will permit me to go to Luke 2 one more time this month – what did the angels declare? “And suddenly, there was with the angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace among those with whom He is pleased!’” We celebrate Christmas because we celebrate the peace that it brings – God and sinners reconciled; reconciled by Jesus Christ and Christ alone. We cannot understand all the full ramifications of this peace unless we are fully convinced of what our relationship is to our Creator in sin. Scripture describes this relationship as an all-out war. Contrary to many popular ideas about God and humanity, the Lord’s attitude towards fallen men and women who are outside of Christ is not one of kind benevolence of even neutral toleration. To be sure, our God is kind to some degree, even to His enemies, but His disposition towards sinners who won’t repent is hostility and hatred. His bow is aimed at sinners and He will release the arrows, the full fury of His wrath against people who remain opposed to Him.

The people in exile’s biggest need was not to get back home. Their biggest need was to repent of their sins and to be made right with God. That is when they could enjoy real peace. Our biggest need is not for the pandemic to go away and the end of all the friction in our society to stop. Our biggest need is to repent of our sin and to be made right with God. Placing our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning to Him alone for forgiveness, this is where peace is found. If you’re trusting that a change in your circumstances will bring you peace, you’re never going to be satisfied. Peace is found only in Jesus Christ.

God’s Provision

The plan of God. The peace of God. Now, the provision of God. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” It’s quite comforting to know that God doesn’t just make a plan and offer peace, but He’s actually the One who provides the way to peace. God’s people being in exile for seventy years certainly would grow weary if they had to try to find a way to get out of exile and back home. Part of God’s plan for peace for His people is that He will be the provider. Look at verse 10 again with me. “For thus says the Lord:  When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” It’s clear that the Lord is the One who will get them home. They don’t have to do it themselves.

Believer in Christ, I’m here to tell you the same is true for you. Some of you are weary. Some of you are at your wits end. Some of you are on the brink of despair. Some of you are trying hard to please God with your works. I have good news for you today. The God who has a plan of peace and who provided for the exiles, He has a plan of peace and He provides for you also. Quit trying to win God’s favor. Quit trying to prove yourself to God. It’s time for you to rest in the provision of Jesus. If God loved you enough to make a plan of peace for you, don’t you know that He will provide all that is necessary to get you all the way home? For too many of us, we think God is angry with us because of our continued sin. And we’re right that God hates our sin, but God loves His people. He did not save you from your sin for the purpose of you living a life of misery and self-pity and doubt. You’re the children of the King! You have all the rights and privileges to God as His own Son, Jesus. For Christ has made us new. You don’t have to beg for scraps of God’s love under His table. He invites you to pull up a chair and join Him at His feast.

One of the most critical roles of a father is he is called to be the provider. God as Father is revealed throughout Scripture. We see in today’s passage, for example, the Lord is going to provide a way home for His people. In the New Testament, we see a fuller picture of God as Father. Jesus, for example, frequently referred to the God of Israel as His Father. Certainly it’s true that there is a way in which God is uniquely the Father of Jesus, yet Jesus’ reference to God as Father goes beyond His unique relationship to God. Our Savior, after all, is the One who tells us to address God as our Father when we pray. God stands in a fatherly relation with His people. More specifically, the first person of the Trinity who is fully God, He is our Father. Importantly that the sovereign God of the universe is Father not to all people but only to those who trust in Jesus. The One who made all things takes us as His dearly beloved children in Christ; He provides all we need in Jesus. There’s no better news than that! He is our provider.

God’s Promise

The plan of God. The peace of God. The provision of God. Finally, let’s look at the promise of God. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” When God’s people were taken into exile, how jarring that must have been. They went from living in their beloved hometown and now they’re transported against their will to a place they did not want to go and they did not know. Where could they possibly turn for any comfort and hope? Well, they could turn to the same place we can turn to today in these uncertain times that we’re living in, these times we never would have imagined we would have had a year ago. We can turn to the promises of God. Verse 11 leaves no wiggle room to wonder if God is going to act. He’s going to act for His glory and for the good of His people. This verse is a promise from God. God makes us all sorts of promises that we can live with in this life so that we can have a life of assurance, a life of shalom. Listen to just a handful of these promises.

God promises His goodness. “The Lord is good to all. He has compassion on all He has made” – Psalm 145:9. First Chronicles 16:34, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! His love endures forever!” Psalm 100:5, we used it as our call to worship today – “For the Lord is good, and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.” Lamentations 3:22, 23 – “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness!” We just sang this. Lamentations, by the way, was written by Jeremiah to the people in exile. This is His promise of His goodness. The Lord promises to be with us. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Philippians 4, we read, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts.” The Lord promises us salvation. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” First John 1, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

You see, all the promises of God are “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus Christ. We never need to wonder if God is going to keep His Word. Therefore both the exiles and we, we can find ourselves sometimes wondering what’s going on with our lives and sometimes we feel like we’re lost at sea. We’re not sure what’s going on. But we always can find a safe port in the promises of God. I encourage you to take time even today to read through the promises of God that are found in His Word and remind yourself that you’re not on your own, but the Lord is at hand and He will keep you. The Lord was never going to forsake His people in exile and He’s never going to forsake you.

Now certainly the exiles never would have written a plan for their lives where they would go to Babylon for seventy years. And we certainly never would have planned for this year to run the way it has gone. All of this is a reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God makes His people more like Jesus often in a way that is painful and unpleasant in the short run so that we may be perfectly made to spend all eternity with our Lord and Savior.

Let me just end with this. Some twenty years ago I had a friend named Bob, and Bob is a retired PCA pastor and he is an avid gardener. Bob had a large garden in his backyard and along with the garden he had a large compost pile. One hot, fall day, Bob was working with the compost and the most unusual thing happened. A pocket of methane gas caught fire and it shot a fireball several yards down his property line. Bob took a look where the fireball had run its course and it was right down the split rail fence that he shared with his neighbor – his neighbor that used that fence to prop his award winning roses! Bob was horrified looking at the blackened roses, charred by the fireball, so he went and got his neighbor and came and said, “I need to show you something.” And his neighbor observed it and after a few minutes he smiled at Bob and said, “Let’s see how things look come this spring.” Well the spring came and the roses came in, but they didn’t just come in. They came in best they had ever come in! The torching of the roses actually became a refining of them. They were not burnt up and tossed away; they were being made better.

The people in exile and we today are being refined so that we may be presented all the better to our Redeemer. Let us pray.

Father God, we thank You for this look at Your Word. Lord, we pray that You would show Yourself faithful to us even today, that we would be reminded that You have a plan of peace and that You will provide. We know this because You always keep Your promises. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

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