October 10, 2010 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
You’re a skinny, geeky twelve-year old boy with thick glasses. So you’re glad that someone spins for you a comic book fantasy about being a handsome billionaire playboy who just happens to own a nuclear-fueled suit of armor that makes you the most powerful man on the planet.
Or you’re a shy, plain thirteen year old girl who likes to read. So you’re thrilled that someone has written you a dream story about being a beautiful young high school student with a gorgeous vampire boyfriend who worships the ground you walk on with a love that is so pure he doesn’t even care that he can’t touch you.
Or you’re a poor working stiff whose salary is lower than it was five years ago and whose house is worth a third less than it was three years ago. So you’re perfectly happy to hear radio show hosts and politicians telling you that the recession is over and better times are just around the bend.
Or you’re a sixth century Jewish noble whose country was invaded by a foreign army, whose home was burned to the ground, and who has been carried off in captivity to serve a cruel king in a strange land. So you’re quite pleased to hear prophets and seers announce their dreams and visions of a speedy return home and the restoration of all you’ve lost.
Jeremiah 29:8 says to you, “Do not let [them] deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.” “Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.” He wrote those words in a letter to the first wave of exiles to Babylon. When the Babylonians took over Jerusalem in 597 B.C., they deported the current king, the queen mother, the royal court and other leaders and skilled workers that we see listed in verse 2. Jeremiah wrote words of warning to these captives far away in Mesopotamia.
Verse 3 shows us there is an ongoing diplomatic and client relationship between Judah and Babylon. Zedekiah, Babylon’s appointed Jewish king, is ruling Judah. There is regular communication back and forth between him and king Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. The royal messengers named here, Shaphan and Gemariah, allowed Jeremiah to send his message to the exiles along with political communiqués Zedekiah sent to Babylon.
Jeremiah was allowed to use the political postal system because the letter he sent was essentially favorable to Babylon. It counseled against rebellion. It counseled against any notion that the rule of Nebuchadnezzar would be defeated or that the exiles would come home soon. Their Babylonian rulers welcomed a message that would help keep thoughts of rebellion out of the hearts and minds of their captives.
This is the period in between the two major Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem. After 597 B.C. the city is still intact. Yes, the king and all the leaders had been deported. Yes, Zedekiah the puppet king sat on Judah’s throne. But there was still a home to go home to. The final destruction of Jerusalem and deportation of its people was still ten years away in 587 B.C. For this space of time, those in captivity wanted to hope and dream that they might be rescued, that God would come and help them, that they would go home.
The word from God through Jeremiah threw cold water on all those homey dreams. At the very beginning he tells the exiles in verse 5 to “Build houses and settle down…” They were to make a life there in Babylon. Plant gardens, get married, plan on your sons and daughters getting married. Plan to have children and grandchildren, to raise lots of babies far from home.
What’s even worse for those aching to go home, Jeremiah told them to cooperate with and support their enemies. Work for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, he says in verse 7. Pray for that city in which they were prisoners and strangers. If Babylon prospered, they would prosper. So work and pray for Babylon.
It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. If some foreign power took over our country, how would you and I feel about a religious leader who preached that God wanted us to cooperate with the enemy, to settle down and live with the situation? So there were plenty of other prophets and visionaries who had a different picture to offer the exiles. There were those who were quite happy to dream dreams made to order, the dreams people wanted them to have, whether they were true or not.
You and I are also taken in by the dreams we want others to have for us, whether it’s teenage fantasy or political rhetoric, whether it’s escape into an on-line world of entertainment or our own daydreams and fantasies about that perfect job, that ideal lover, that healthy body, that dream home, that incredible fortune that’s waiting for you just around the next corner of life. We welcome anyone who can make us believe those dreams might actually be true.
This human desire to believe such dreams is what keeps the spam rolling into our e-mail boxes. Somewhere down deep we would all like to believe there really is a rich Arab trader named Omar in Dubai who wants to give us thirty percent if we will only help him distribute 35 million dollars to charity. That was the gist of a real, as much as the word “real” can apply here, spam message I got Friday.
It may be easy to trash the spam and not believe it, but it’s harder to trash other dreams we have about ourselves and our lives. We are like Charles Dickens’ loveable debtor in David Copperfield. Despite constantly losing every penny he has, ending up over and over in debtor’s prison, and bringing his family to destitution, Wilkins Micawber lives by the faith, the dream, that someday soon, “Something will turn up.”
I would invite us this morning to take the hard course. Let Jeremiah throw cold water on our own Micawberish dreams. God wanted those exiles to put their hope and dreams in him, not in “something” that would turn up soon, whether it was a change of heart in Nebuchadnezzar or a rescuing army from Egypt. God asks us too to trust in Him and not in the dreams we want to have.
It took the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. to ultimately dash the false dreams coming from the false prophets. When Nebuchadnezzar’s warriors pulled down the walls of the city and looted and burned and flattened the Temple, it finally became clear their dreams were not true. It sometimes takes a fall for you and I to realize the same thing.
This summer’s blockbuster science fiction movie was “Inception,” a wonderfully filmed story about the ability to enter another person’s dreams. It centers around a character who uses that ability to steal ideas in the ultimate industrial espionage. But then he is hired to attempt “inception.” Instead of stealing an idea, he is to plant one in another man’s mind. The plot takes us through intricate levels of dreams within dreams, making us think about the way ideas, whether true or not, get planted in our own minds.
In “Inception” the trick is not to get stuck after you’ve entered someone else’s dream. What ensures getting back out is a “kick,” a device rigged to knock over your chair or drop your bed as you lie sleeping or dreaming. That feeling of falling will bring you out of whatever dream you are in.
The kick for the Jewish people in the sixth century was the fall of Jerusalem. Verse 4 has God Himself address the letter “to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” God kicked them out of their false dreams. God still continues to kick you and me out of those false dreams that hold us captive. He lets us fall in all kinds of ways so that we will turn to Him for true hope and dreams.
God has a true dream for us. He had one for those Jews exiled in Babylon. In verse 10 God says, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back…” “Seventy years” is not an exact number. The best guess is that it’s a round figure for the 67 years from Babylon first taking over Judah in 605 B.C. until the Persians let some Jews go home in 538 B.C.
However it’s calculated, the symbolic significance for ancient Jews was clear. The expected lifespan in their time was as Psalm 90 verse 10 says, “three score and ten.” Seventy years was the length of a human life. Jeremiah was telling them that none of you are yourselves going home. Settle down, plant a garden, pray for this country because you will live out your whole life here. Your hope and promise is that your children, or your grandchildren, will go home.
God did not abandon them in Babylon. Verse 11 is a precious promise that we often rip out of context. God told them, “‘For 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.’” The thing is, the Lord made that promise to exiles, exiles who were kicked out of all their false dreams, all their dreams of going home. These were people who would live and die in a foreign country, far from what they wanted and dreamed of most.
The hope and promise given those men and women and youth who would grow up and pass away far from home was a true dream, a dream not of their own land or homes or people, but of knowing and loving and being with God. Verses 12 and 13 are the wonderful promise that when we’ve been kicked out of all those false dreams, God still has something beautiful and good for us. “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
God ruins the dreams so that He can give us the reality of His own self. He ruins the dreams so that our hearts won’t be divided, split between Him and some fantasy that we can be happy and fulfilled by the things of this world. We find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts. That’s the promise. That’s God’s inception, the idea He wanted to plant and grow in Jewish minds and in our minds.
It worked there in Babylon. The exile changed and transformed the Jewish people spiritually. Away from the Temple, they had to seek God where He could be found. They had to learn that forgiveness and redemption were more the gifts of repentance and faith than of burnt offerings and sacrifices. In Babylon the practice that would become the synagogue and then the church was started. Men and women got together to read and listen to the Scriptures explained and taught. They discovered that their faith in God was not tied to one country, that God was God of the whole world, not just of a little kingdom along the east edge of the Mediterranean. When Jerusalem fell, those people fell out of their dreams and into the reality of the vastness and glory of God.
When our dreams fail and fall, you and I are being invited to fall into that same reality of God’s glory and goodness. The greatest dream God ever planted in this world is the true dream that God did what He promised in verse 12. He came to us. In Jesus Christ, God came into this world so that anyone who seeks Him with a whole heart will be able to find Him and know Him and be loved by Him.
When I lose the fantasy that I am deep down actually a good person and I fall into the reality of all my sins, my greed and my anger and my pride and all the rest, then I am also ready to fall down at the Cross of Jesus and find His grace and forgiveness.
When the vision of success and wealth and comfort collapses, and I plunge into the cold reality of need and worry and fear, then God has prepared me to find the Savior who said, “Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest.”
And even when my deepest dream of simply being loved and liked by people all around me falls down into the abyss of the hurts and hatred I both give and receive, the Lord of love is setting me up to fall into His arms and know His love.
Whatever the false dreams are, God wants to save us from them. He asks us not to listen to those dreams that we want the prophets and preachers and politicians to have. His dreams for us are neither our fantasies nor our fears. They are neither our terrifying nightmares nor are they our delightful daydreams. They are the true and solid promise of a hope and a future in and with Him.
In the meantime, we’re given these threescore and ten, or maybe four score, or so, as the psalmist said. We’ve got a life to live out here in this world that is in many, many ways Babylon for us. We are not meant to be fully and completely at home here, but we are meant to settle down, to plant gardens, and to pray for those around us.
Our hope and our future is the promise of our Lord’s return. As our lesson from II Timothy 2 said, “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” Jesus is coming back and will raise us all up into a life and a future that is beyond anything we can dream up for ourselves.
Yet even that hope of Jesus coming back can become a false dream, like the exiles false dream that their return to Jerusalem would happen soon, in their own lifetimes. Every once in a while, when some event happens in the Middle East, or when there’s a spate of earthquakes, or just when the world seems particularly dark, someone says to me like a friend did in the locker room on Thursday, “Pastor, this has got to be it, right? All the signs are there. Jesus is coming soon, right?”
I pray for it. I hope for it. I dream of it. With all of you, I look for that great and glorious day we sang about last week. Yet it’s not an idea I plant in my own mind. It’s not a dream just around the corner, something that will turn up just because I believe it. It’s God’s dream, God’s vision, God’s promise, and He will bring it in His own time.
In the meantime, we each have seventy years more or less to seek God with all our hearts. We need to go to school and learn all we can about His world and about ourselves. We need to build friendships and plant love and peace around us. If He wills it, we need to get married and have children and raise them to seek God. And we need to pray for this world, pray for its presidents and premiers and kings and queens, because it’s still true that as this land we live in prospers so do we. So does the message of Jesus Christ.
May you and I fall out of all our false dreams and fall into the inception of God’s dream and hope and future for us. It’s a future that does not merely take us out of this life but includes our lives here and now in God’s good plan for us. It’s here and now, just as it was there and then in Babylonian exile, that God meant and means to prosper His people, to prosper you. May that promise be the dream planted in you and me today. May we prosper not in foolish dreams, but in His love, and in His grace, and in His peace.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj