10/13/2019: FLOURISHING IN THE “NEW NORMAL”
Jeremiah 29: 1-7
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 13, 2013
I predict that this church is not only going to survive, but will flourish in the days and years to come. Here is the reason for my optimism:
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.
Jeremiah 29: 7
One would think that the contemporary application of that statement would be obvious, but not necessarily! The call of God in this text is to seek the welfare of the larger community, and that takes determination and courage.
Let me set the context of this passage so that we can be reminded how contemporary it really is. Jeremiah is writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon who have been herded along a 900-mile caravan trail from Jerusalem to Babylon after their holy city is left in ruins by the Babylonian army. This was their “Trail of Tears.” As they approach the city of Babylon they are marched as spoils of war through the Ishtar Gate, considered one of the seven wonders of the world at the time, and dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. They are marched along Procession Way, a street lined with statues of the various gods and goddesses.
If that is not impressive enough, in the center of the city are two other awe-inspiring wonders. One is the Temple of Marduk, in the center of which is a ziggurat which itself is considered one of the wonders of the world. A ziggurat is similar to a pyramid, but instead of a tomb, it is considered the home of the god. In this case, it is the home of the god Marduk. It towers over the city, and it is considered by the Babylonians to be the foundation of heaven and earth. This would become the model for the tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis.
But there is one more wonder of Babylon that strikes these Jewish exiles. There, as part of the king’s palace, Nebuchadnezzar has built what has been called “the hanging gardens of Babylon.” He built it to please his wife, who missed the greenery of her childhood home. It must have been stunning for them to see in that desert land a cool and verdant place of flowers and trees, watered by hidden machinery that brought water up from the Euphrates River and kept the trees and plants healthy in all seasons.
Compared to rural Jerusalem, Babylon was an urban, technological, and artistic paradise. But for the exiles from Jerusalem it only brought them misery. Their hearts did not beat with wonderment when they passed through the famous Gate of Ishtar, and they never bowed in adoration before the ziggurat of Marduk. They saw no beauty in the hanging gardens. Such splendor sickened them. These people, who had been taught from childhood that there is only one God, turned in disgust at the multiplicity of statues representing the gods of that culture.
These exiles from Jerusalem were herded into a ghetto-like section of Babylon, and there they lived, waiting for the moment they could return to Jerusalem. The priests who were with them assured them that this crisis would end soon, that they would be freed to return home, and that they need not settle in for the long haul. Their God would rescue them quickly!
That was when they received the letter from Jeremiah, the gist of which said, “God will not rescue you quickly. This is the new normal. Get used to it.” Get used to what? Used to the reality that yours is not the only game in town. Your God is not the only God recognized in that city. You are living among people who don’t look like you, talk like you, dress like you, or worship like you. Then this prophet, never one to try to please people or win a popularity contest, let loose with one of the most shocking statements of his career—Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles…: 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.
This had to be one of the most jaw-dropping letters they had ever read. He was telling them that their situation now was different. They were now living in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, and they needed to do what was best for the whole community, including the very people they despised. Jeremiah was saying that they were to work for the wellbeing of the very people who had destroyed their city of Jerusalem! It was stunning to them to think that God would love these Gentiles enough to want what is good for them.
Clearly this message has contemporary meaning in every age. Let us think together about its application. Seek the welfare of the city…. Not just the welfare of one neighborhood, one race, one political party, one ideology, but the welfare of the whole. Clearly, there are those in high public office who need to hear the message that with the honor of being elected to high position comes the responsibility of seeking the welfare of the whole.
But there is very little power that we have to influence that. There is a great deal of power, however, in how we encounter what we can call the new normal today. Every church I know has to deal with the issue of the new normal. The old normal meant 300 in worship on Sunday morning and 50 in Church School. It meant a youth group with 20 young people and full pews on Sunday morning.
In the old normal, everyone in town was a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Nearly everyone went to church or synagogue on a given day of worship. There are hosts of people who feel like exiles from that Jerusalem, exiles from a time when churchgoing was popular, stores were closed on Sundays, and sports were never played on Sunday morning.
Today, only 52% of Sturbridge residents identify with any religion at all! And of that 52%, nearly 40% self-identify as Catholic. If you want to know about those who self-identify as Protestant, it is only 5.4%. In the year 2000, just two decades ago, the percentage of Protestants in Sturbridge was over 50%! That was the old normal; this is the new normal. That was Jerusalem; this is Babylon.
I invite you to hear this word of God from Jeremiah given centuries ago as a word for today. We are called to seek the welfare of the whole! On this weekend, just one week from calling a new pastor, let us remind ourselves of this church’s wonderful heritage of seeking the welfare of the whole city. How do we flourish in this new normal?
Have you noticed that everything Jeremiah advised them to do was positive? Look at the strong positive verbs: build, plant, multiply, work, and pray. These positive verbs could very well be the theme for this congregation: build community, plant seeds of faith, multiply your usefulness, work for things that bring wholeness, and pray without ceasing.
If you are waiting for the old normal before you are willing to commit, I invite you to hear what humorist Art Buchwald advised: “Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.”
This is the time we all have, and we know that the new normal, with all its challenges, is a great time to be a part of this church. Build, plant, multiply, work, and pray—you will flourish, and you will have one heavenly time doing it!