God’s Hope in Sierra Leone

Guest: Rev. Jenny Steindam

Jeremiah 29:4-14

As we get started with Advent this morning, I’ll tell you that I really struggled with what direction we should go. There’s a lot of talk among pastors about doing Advent with a bit of a melancholy tone, because we are all still tired and things aren’t normal. And that’s certainly true. But I have the sense that we, Zion, are also tired of talking about how we are tired and things aren’t normal. We do honestly want to move forward, even if it’s not at top speed and even if things aren’t the same as they used to be. Am I reading that correctly? So here’s what Brian and I decided: this Advent, we’re just going to do our best. It won’t be like it was, but it will be as much as we can do right now. 

We’ve had such great conversations this fall about transitions and justice rolling like a river and what the reign of Christ will look like, and I don’t want us to lose that momentum and just melt into a spiritual puddle during Advent. As I said earlier, Advent is about anticipating the birth of the baby Jesus and also about anticipating the return of Christ the King. This year, we are going to lean a little harder on the second one. This Advent we are seeking balance. The holiday season is often the season when we suddenly focus on charity. I suspect that this may be because deep down in our spirits we realize that the disparity between those who have a lot and those who have a little—that disparity is wrong. It is counter to God’s intention for the world for there to be anyone who does not have enough while others have more than they could ever use. I think as followers of Jesus we know this, the Spirit speaks to our consciences. And perhaps we even feel a little healthy guilt over it. So we do charity. We give stuff away and make donations. But rarely in such a way that it actually affects the amount of stuff that we plan to buy for ourselves and our loved ones, nor does it result in long-term change for the people who receive it. But still we feel better and people are encouraged and blessed temporarily. 

Yet we know that God’s intention for the world is not for some people to survive on charity from other people. God’s intention for the world is that we would not be greedy and would not function in systems that are built on greed and reward greed. In a fallen world, in a creation that is still waiting to be restored, charity is necessary. But in the reign of Christ there will be justice.

God’s calling to us, what the prophet Micah says God requires of us is to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. So in this Advent season, I don’t want us to just passively wait for the baby Jesus. I want us to actively anticipate Christ the King by continuing to focus on what God requires of us. Therefore each week during Advent when we focus on the themes hope, peace, joy, and love, I’ll do a little preaching and then we’ll spend some time talking about ministries that are doing the things God requires of us. This Advent, we are going to keep part of our minds attentive to what happens after Advent.

The theme for the first week of Advent is hope, and churches around the world look to the Old Testament prophets this week. I’ve told you how after King Solomon the country of ancient Israel split into a norther kingdom also called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah. The prophets warned both kingdoms that their greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy would destroy them. This is a warning straight from God and sometimes they interpret their national doom as a punishment from God. I also see it as natural consequences of the most extreme kind. The northern kingdom of Israel was wiped out by the nation of Assyria in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was lasted for longer. But in 605 BCE Judah became a vassal state of the nation of Babylon. Judah still functioned rather independently but had to pay tribute. In 597 Judah tried to revolt, but that revolt failed. And in response Babylon captured and deported the leaders of the rebellion along with some of the top influencers in society and essentially held them hostage in Babylon to keep in line the folks who remained Judah. This morning we are going to hear part of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the people who were taken to Babylon. At this point, they’ve been there a decade or less. We’re going to read Jeremiah chapter 29 verses 4 through 14, from the Common English Bible.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.

The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 29:4-14

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God. 

There is so much that we could talk about just in these 10 verses, so I hope that you’ll join us on sermon discussion call tonight. Right now I want to focus on just one verse. Some of you probably have this cross stitched on a pillow or hung on your wall. It’s verse 11. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” These are lovely and wonderful and comforting words and I think it’s right for us to hold on to them, as long as we aren’t taking them too much out of context. 

This verse, like many of the prophecies in the Old Testament is written to a group of people, not to an individual. Which means we need to be careful with applying them individually. The earlier verses make it clear, there are a lot of people who are not going to go home. They’re going to die in Babylon. But that doesn’t mean God’s promise fails. I need to remember that God’s plan is always bigger than me. It includes me, but it also transcends me. It is possible for God to be faithful and true AND for me not to get what I want. 

This is the essence of Christian hope. We trust that God has a plan to restore the world. That despite the chaos we see happening around us, God is still herding things in right direction. Dr. King said, “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We’ll get there. WE may not get there, but somebody will. And it will be because of God. And the fact that somebody gets there matters to us even if we don’t get there. Hope is about so much more than just us. Hope in any situation is our ability to see things as they are, as they truly are, as bad as they truly are, and still trust that God can make something good happen despite the bad and that ultimately God will defeat all injustice. When we orient ourselves that way, we will find lasting joy and have the energy to keep participating in God’s plan to heal the world. 

(The remainder of the message is an extemporaneous presentation by Rev. Jenny Steindam about the ministry of Word Made Flesh in Sierra Leone. Please watch the video above to see all the photos, or listen to the podcast.)

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