It is not easy

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Together we have explored several aspects of living the life of a disciple and spiritual leader over the last few weeks.  To varying degrees I believe those of you sharing this journey of faith as the congregation of the Abundant Harvest are committed: to being “all in,” with following Jesus your number one priority, and to Praying first and often.  You know that while you seek to becoming more and more like Christ, it is God that ultimately qualifies you; You are dedicated to becoming closer to God and each other with joy-filled persistence just as God persistently pursues us; and you are open to accepting that this godliness thing is filled with mystery.

With all those aspects of discipleship in place, with daily experiences of deepening faith and connection with God and each other, we might expect that everything will be smooth sailing from now on.

You already know that isn’t the case.  You regularly face health issues, job pressures, exhaustion, one more piece of that home improvement project that wasn’t expected, the challenges of parenting, the loss of someone you love, the fears associated with the selection of political leaders around the world, financial struggles, and the list goes on.

Sometimes it seems the closer we get to God the more seems to go wrong.  Sometimes we might even begin to question if we have what it takes for this discipleship thing or if it is worth the effort.

The world is working hard against the kingdom of God, against those counter-cultural decisions and relationships Christ calls us to make.  Our lives may feel as if we are in the middle of Hurricane Matthew.

These situations can leave us feeling we are in a strange, uncomfortable place with no control.   Circumstances might have us thinking, “I want it the way it was.”

That is the situation in which those receiving the letter from Jeremiah we read this morning find themselves.  They are exiles from Jerusalem now forced to live in Babylon – a land filled with people they dislike and distrust, who they view as the lowest of the low.  These new neighbors have dragged them from the known into the unknown, from freedom into captivity, and the exiles are feeling powerless.  They can’t wait for things to go back the way they were.

To make it worse, their Temple in Jerusalem has been sacked.  The place they believed that God’s presence was permanent, is not as it was.  Their religious leaders are gone or trying to figure it all out as well.  Their faith is shaken and they feel abandoned.  They want to go back.

Opposing voices begin to surface with opinions of what they should do now.  Some say the exile is only temporary, just God’s test for the people which will be over soon, others feel God has abandoned Jerusalem and as a consequence has left them as well.  Many are positioned to fight to go back.

Into this situation comes a word from God.  It comes through Jeremiah who may not be the exiles’ favorite person, after all he somehow managed not to be dragged off to this terrible place.  He is however, known to bring God’s word to the people and he is where they believe God is at home.  Jeremiah was the one to accurately told them the destruction of Jerusalem and their captivity would happen.  When Jeremiah brings a word from God, experience teaches them it is valid.

In this time and place he brings a word of hope and specific plan of how God wants the exiles to live in their situation.  A word and plan for the exiles and a word and plan for the situations or places we don’t want to be.

Anger toward Jeremiah and God was probably among the emotions the exiles experienced.  How could God be asking us to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf.”

They were prepared to fight to go back the way it was, to have God safely in the Temple, and known leaders and structure guiding them.  They wanted nothing to do with those who had brought the radical changes in their lives.

I am not sure we are much different.  When those situations emerge in our lives which push us into times of discomfort, confusion, change, self-reflection, unwanted relationships I think our first instinct is to fight to go back, to put God back in the four walls we understand, to back away from our calling to reach out to those who need to know about God’s love in new ways.

The great news Jeremiah brings is: God is with you wherever you are, in whatever situation you find yourself.  The not so great news is you are going to be in that situation for longer than you hoped, and the “are you kidding” news is you need to work for the good of the place in which you dwell now, and pray for those who you experience as enemies.

God’s instruction to the exiles is to see the possibilities in what they perceive to be a less than ideal situations, to focus on a future where they find themselves, even if that means doing things that benefit those who don’t look like them, who don’t think like them, who don’t worship like them.  Not an easy assignment.

As we move to the second reading this morning,  the Apostle Paul finds himself in prison, his crime boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, of encouraging others to follow this radically new way of relating to God and one another.  Sharing this faith that doesn’t fit the understanding and expectations of the religious community of his day.

Those in power, politically and religiously, feel threatened by this grace-filled, equalizing faith and respond in ways designed to protect what they know, their power and authority, their way of relating to each other.  Their efforts focused on stopping the movement they see growing which, for them, turns everything upside down.

Paul witnesses to the fact that while they can imprison him, place him in chains, it doesn’t stop the word of God.  “It can’t be chained” he tells Timothy, who will continue the ministry Paul started beyond Paul’s lifetime.

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

He tells Timothy, and through Timothy, generations of Christ’s followers, that times get tough, things don’t feel like home, we are forced to deal with difficult people, sometimes tragic circumstances, often there are forces looking to keep us quiet, those who try to discredit us.  But we have the power to endure, Paul notes.

Power to keep going for the sake of those looking for a sign of God, of Hope, in our lives.

Power to focus on the simple truth that in Christ Jesus is a future and there are no problems here and now that can take that future away if we keep on sharing God’s grace with all persons through the faithful way we live.

Even when we fall short, God remains faithful to us, always ready to help us through.

Paul knows that humans have a tendency to get caught up in the smallest things.  To challenge each other on our differences rather than to look for the one thing that unites us.

14 Remind them of this, [he says] and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

As we explored last week, we are connected to God and to one another through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a love filled, equalizing, push us out of our limited understanding, challenging connection.

Because we are one in Christ, one with one another and with God, the harm done to one of us impacts all of us at the soul level, often in ways of which we are not conscious.  Christ’s death and resurrection reveal to us the power of God to overcome all human conditions, even death.

That means we can hold onto hope, even when our differences are decades old, and our behavior toward one another is nothing like Christ, and we are embarrassed to be known more for being in conflict than for the good we do.[1]

We can be bold to speak the truth about the fact that God loves every aspect and person who is part of God’s creation.  We can celebrate the truth that Christ came that the world might be saved – not just us, not just them, but all of us.

We can be truth bearers who refuse to join the battles or to focus on the tough times we are experiencing.  We can be those truth bearers who encircle all with the love and light of Jesus Christ so that all can know that love and be free.

God is with us no matter what we are experiencing or how long we experience it.  God is not contained in those situations in which we are comfortable.  God is faithful in all things.  If we seek the good of others, if we endure the challenges with hope and peace in our hearts and in our actions, if we stay faithful, God will not only bring us through, but our future includes reigning with God.

If we focus on what is good for all in a shared future, not just what is good for us or meets our favorite memory of what was, we will follow God’s call on our life and, through that, all will benefit, even those we have yet to meet.

If we claim the challenges, see the potential in the uncomfortable, refuse to wrangle over words, we see God’s focus in new ways and places and it becomes our focus.  With that focus others will come to know the living God whom we love and serve.

It is not easy.  It is where God calls us.

[1] The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2016 Linda Lee

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