A sermon given at the Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Camp Meeting – August 6, 2017.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Well, here we are—our second annual Camp Meeting worship service! They say if you do something once it’s an event, but doing it twice makes it a tradition. This is one tradition of our church that I’m very excited about.
I’m excited about it because it’s actually part of our larger Methodist tradition. When John Wesley began preaching the gospel of grace in 18th century England, there were many in the Church of England who were threatened by this upstart Methodist movement; to the point at which Wesley was banned from preaching in many of the churches. Wesley soon took up the challenge of his friend, George Whitefield, and began to preach outdoors in the fields and market squares. In one famous incident, Wesley was barred from preaching in the church in which he grew up and where his father had been the rector, so he went outside and stood on the one piece of ground he knew that the church leaders could not eject him from—he stood on his father’s grave stone and preached with power. From then on, Methodism became a kind of wilderness, outdoor kind of Christianity—always moving to the frontier and where the people were.
That tradition carried over here to America when the circuit riders took the gospel to remote places in the American wilderness. It was there that the camp meeting tradition was born as people from these remote villages would gather once a year for a week of preaching and worship outdoors. Being here today is an echo of that tradition.
But it’s actually a tradition that goes back even further than our Methodist history. The Bible itself is an outdoor narrative. It begins in a Garden; it involves Abraham taking a long hike; it continues with God coming to dwell with his people in a tent in the desert wilderness. Eventually, God’s people build cities and build a temple—but it doesn’t last long.
In the 6th century BC, invaders came from Babylon and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and took off many of the people into captivity back in Babylon. The prophets told the people that all of this was the result of their sin and idolatry—they had turned their backs on God. A people who had been known for their city and temple were now out of doors again in a foreign land.
Psalm 137 expresses the pain of the exiles, who now have no temple but have to worship outside: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The psalmist ends with a curse on Babylon—one of the most devastating verses in the Bible. “O daughter Babylon, you devastator” rails the psalmist, “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
Exile was no picnic—and it was going to last a long time. The question now for God’s people was all about how to live in a foreign land—should they be bitter and rebellious, or was there an alternative?
That’s the background for this passage from Jeremiah, which is also one of those texts that we often take out of context. You see Jeremiah 29:11 quoted in a lot of places—“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” It’s often used as a quote of confidence—don’t worry, God has a plan for you!
The problem is that this wasn’t written to individuals searching for God’s plan for their lives. The verse comes in the midst of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the exiles. The “you” here is plural—it’s written to the collective family of Judah. They are worshipping outdoors in survival mode, facing 70 years of captivity. Most of them would never see freedom in their lifetime—in fact, that’s what God is telling them. God’s plan for their future would involve their offspring more than themselves. It’s a letter about hunkering down in the meantime and preparing for the long haul.
That’s why I think it’s appropriate for us to read it today gathered here among the trees and outside of our normal building. When we’re inside and in our regular routine, it’s easy for us to forget that, in many ways, we Christians are increasingly becoming exiles ourselves. We live in a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to Christian faith. Christians are seen as being out of step, on the wrong side of history. We are characterized as hateful and judgmental by a culture that wants no limits on morality, sexuality, or political power. The mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church, are in decline. Nearly 4,000 churches close every year in America. Christians in other parts of the world are being persecuted at an alarming rate.
In such a situation it’s easy to pine for the glory days when everybody went to church and the culture was much more civil (actually, those glory days are a myth, but that’s another sermon!) We long for the past, much like those exiles longed for the days when they had a city and a temple. Our situation is not as dire as theirs—not yet, anyway—but the point is that things have changed and continue to change. How are we to live in this new reality? What is God up to? Is there any hope?
Some have tried to answer that question in our own time. I read a book recently by Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and so now is a good time for us to retreat from the culture, hole up in monastic style communities, and wait for things to change. The problem with the retreat idea, however, is that retreat only works if you’re not surrounded! We are immersed and embedded, surrounded by our culture as those exiles were surrounded by Babylonian culture, its gods and its excesses.
But Jeremiah offers an alternative—an alternative that flips the narrative of exile into an opportunity. His advice to the exiles is good advice for us, too.
Notice how the letter begins: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” Right out of the gate, Jeremiah reminds the people that they have been sent there. In many ways it’s their own fault that they are in exile in the first place—their sin and idolatry, their failure to keep God at the center of their lives had caused it. But what if the exile was also part of God’s mission through Abraham? Remember God’s promise to the patriarch: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Now Israel was in exile, but it was also an opportunity to bless the people around them, to influence them through their godly character and conduct, and reveal the one true God in their community.
Indeed, that seems to be Jeremiah’s point. Notice the first instruction to the exiles: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease.” You can hear an echo of Genesis in this instruction—it’s the same instruction given to the first humans, to “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s about growing the family and caring for the land, the garden in which you have been placed.
But there’s also an underlying implication here that this multiplication is also about passing the faith to the next generations. Most of those who read Jeremiah’s letter wouldn’t be leaving Babylon in their lifetimes, but their children and grandchildren would. They needed to equip them to carry on the faith and the mission. Exile was thus a time of preparation, preparing for God’s future for his people.
This is one of the key tasks of the church in exile as well—to raise up a new generation of faithful disciples of Jesus. It’s been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction and given the fact that the fastest growing religion among young people is no religion at all (the “nones”) we have become endangered. But there is still an opportunity here.
I am excited to be part of a church that is taking this seriously. Where many churches have settled for entertaining children, our children’s ministry is equipping them as disciples. Our youth ministry is led by young adults who grew up in our church. We have two young adults who grew up in our youth ministry who are now youth leaders in other churches and another who is going off to study youth ministry. We have another who is going to give her life for missions. That’s multiplication! It’s the sign of a healthy church, not one that is simply pining for the good old days. This fall we’re launching a campaign called “Pray for Me” which is going to encourage the adults of our church to be praying specifically for our young people. We can continue to multiply the next generation.
But it’s not just about young people—multiplication happens at every level. We have discipling relationships going on here that are life-giving. We have adults considering a call to ministry; new leaders stepping up in our Sunday School and in other areas who have been nurtured by others in this church. If a church is not multiplying, it is dying—and we are multiplying!
But that invites us to ask ourselves a key question: in whom am I investing? To whom am I passing on my faith? And that doesn’t just happen in the church building—it happens best in homes, in coffee shops, and in every place. The culture that surrounds us is enjoying its unbridled hedonism, but eventually that leads to despair. We need to be ready to receive the wounded and help them find new life in Christ. It’s not about withdrawing from the culture, but about multiplying and galvanizing people to minister to that culture. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Go and make disciples.” It’s the number one job of the church in exile!
And that leads to the second instruction—“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.” Rather than rail against the surrounding culture and its oppression, or to be rebellious and cantankerous, God encourages the exiles to be salt and light, to love and pray for their enemies and seek to make the place they live more like the kingdom of God.
It is easy for Christians to be cultural critics—indeed, there is much to be critical about—but the call is for God’s people to seek the welfare of those around them, even those who might be hostile to us. Jeremiah’s words are the forerunner to those of Jesus, who told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, to turn the other cheek and do good to those who want to harm you.
When you read the stories of the exile, particularly in the book of Daniel, you see that some of these exiles eventually became important officials in Babylon. When threatened because of their faith, they did not bow down to the Babylonian idols but respectfully declined, even to the point of being sentenced to death. But God preserved them and, as a result, they had even more influence.
Later, it was this sort of behavior that eventually began to shift the attitude of the Roman empire toward Christians—in just four centuries, Christianity went from being a persecuted minority to being the dominant faith of the people in the empire. It wasn’t because of a grand evangelism strategy or great preaching—it was because the early church demonstrated compassion along with conviction, and cared for those who hated them. People began to wonder what made these Christians tick. It was an attractive lifestyle, even though it was costly.
If we are disciples of Jesus, we cannot allow ourselves to be co-opted by the culture, but we can continue to stay connected. It’s not about withdrawing, but about engaging. Reminds me of what a US paratrooper said to a buddy who was lamenting the fact that they were surrounded by the enemy. Said the trooper, “Remember, we’re paratroopers. We’re supposed to be surrounded!”
God has put us here for a reason. Our mission field is all around us—every direction you turn. The Methodist movement went out into the fields to bring the gospel to a hurting culture. It’s time for us to do that again.
And we do that with a specific message. Notice the third instruction: “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name.” One of the key tasks of the people in exile was to recapture the basics of the faith. If the scholars are right, many of the books of the Old Testament that we read today were written during the time of exile as a way of solidifying what Israel believed about God and about themselves. Exile forced them to go back to the basics and reject the false doctrines and preaching of idolatry and apostasy.
There were those among the exiles, however, who wanted to compromise with the pagan Babylonian faith, to go along to get along. The prophesied a quick exile if the people followed them. But God warned the people against it. God was going to fulfill his promises—they hadn’t changed.
If there is to be a return from exile, the church of Jesus Christ must also get back to basics and root out those teachings that are counter to the gospel. Bad theology and theological pluralism have made the mainline church, including the United Methodist Church, sick unto death. False prophets abound, mocking the gospel and those who preach it. The church in exile must rise up and reclaim its doctrinal heritage and be grounded again in the Word of God. We must reclaim the authority of Scripture, the authority of the ancient creeds, and the classic doctrines of Christianity preached and taught by the church over centuries.
I have committed my life and ministry to that cause. Many in this church have as well. We may not agree on the finer points at times, but the core of faith doesn’t change. We will continue to be a church that is after the truth, for it is ultimately the truth that will set us free!
And if we continue in that way—raising up new generations in faith, multiplying disciples, being salt and light in a culture of darkness, and staying uncompromised in the truth, then we will begin to see where we fit into the plans God has for us and for our world. And that’s the real rub of this important text—it’s not about discovering God’s plan for my life; rather it’s about discovering God’s plan for the whole creation and how I might become part of it!
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call on me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me’ if you seek me with all your heart…I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
The exiles would eventually go back, but they discovered that it wasn’t like the good old days. Things had changed. The church is not going back to the golden age of Christendom. Rather, God is calling us to dig in and prepare for a future with hope.
Out here, among the trees, in an old fashioned Methodist camp meeting, I have great hope. I have hope that this church will be on the forefront of a new movement of faith in our region. I have hope in our young people, that they will catch fire and be the ones to lead that new movement. We’re going to need a whole new generation of church planters, especially here in the West where the Methodist movement has degenerated into what John Wesley most feared—a dead sect with the “form of religion but not the power.” I want to give whatever time I have left to the cause of raising up a revival here in one of the most secular parts of our country. I have hope that it will happen—maybe not in my lifetime, but we can be part of planting the seeds and tending the garden for it to grow.
I have hope that Christians will once again be influencers of this culture. That influence won’t come through political power; not by marrying the church to the Republican or Democratic parties—I have no hope in them. No, real power and influence comes through the sacrificial life of discipleship. It’s that power that brought down the Roman Empire—not the power of swords and rhetoric, but the power of holy love. That hope will come when we seek the welfare of the place in which we live and do everything in our power to make things look more like God’s kingdom. It’s hard work, but it’s hopeful work!
And I have hope because I believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ—that the one who went to the cross and rose again from the dead will redeem us and his creation, making all things new. I believe that gospel has the power to change everything, beginning with you and me. I believe Paul when he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). I have hope because ultimately this is not about you or me or our ability to do anything—I have hope because this is God at work, even in the midst of exile.
Do you have hope? You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. Sometimes it takes getting outdoors to be reminded.