Well, 2020 and 2021 have bought many unplanned changes and interruptions to our world. In fact, right now in New Zealand we have been put into another sudden and very strict lockdown, and I know there are many nations around the world also still living with some kind of restrictions. Normality still seems so very far off. It has had me thinking again about the Israelites and the many times they journeyed through a "lockdown" season.
After a few hundred years of oppression and slavery and about 40 more years of wandering in the desert, God called a man named Joshua to lead the Israelites into their own land. A land promised to them long ago. A land flowing with milk and honey. Tribe by tribe they entered, conquered and settled in their land.
A few years on and the Israelites insisited on being led by earthly kings, some of which loved God and obeyed his commands and many others who forgot God and lead the people into idolatry and disobedience. The Israelites kept going back to their rebellious ways so God allowed them to be overthrown and exiled. Deported from their land of promise to a place called Babylon.
Exiled to Babylon
Far from the comfort of their home. Far from the promise. Far from their purpose. They found themselves in Babylon: a place of loss, hopelessness, regret, frustration, disappointment, grief. The very name Babylon means “confusion”.
Ever felt like you were living in Babylon? Not where you want to be. Not where you should be. Feeling lost and broken.
It is in this context that God tells the prophet Jeremiah to write a letter to the Exiles. We find these words in the letter:
This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NLT)
This is a promise that was given to the Israelites during the Babylonian exile but that doesn’t mean that it is not relevant for you and I now. Because every promise in God's Word gives us a picture of who God is to you and I today. It shows us His proven character that we too can rely on in our own Babylon.
God wanted tell them:
1. It may not look like it but I have a plan.
It doesn’t take long when you look around the world at the moment to come up with multiple scenarios where you might stop and ask, “God, where were you in that moment? How could you let that happen?"
In these verses God was saying to His people, "I know it doesn’t look like it, and I know it’s hard to understand but I have a plan!"
“For I know the plans I have for you – declares the Lord”.
We may not know the answers to our circumstances but what we do know is that God has a plan. And if there is one thing I have learnt about God’s plans it’s that they are not my plans. They look very different to my plans.
Have you ever played that game where you draw a picture and then sit back to back with a partner? One person has to describe to the other what the picture looks like while they follow the instructions in an attempt to complete a matching picture? But it never quite works out that way does it? Most often you end up with something that looks nothing like the original drawing. Because it’s hard to work out what they are trying to say. It's hard to fully grasp the picture they are seeing without looking at it too. It’s not until they reveal it and you see it with your own eyes that it all makes sense.
I get the sense that often that’s how our lives end up feeling. Like God’s got the plan, He sees the full picture, and He is trying to tell us, instruct us, and guide us so that we can follow his plans. But it's hard. It’s hard to understand what it's supposed to look like, it's hard to see what He sees from our limited perspective. It’s often not until we get to a stage in our journey when God flips over His canvas (we might call it hindsight) and we get to see how it played out. We get a glimpse of what He could see all along.
2. My plan is the best plan for you.
Now imagine for a moment what the Israelite people may have felt when they heard Jeremiah's words in chapter 29:28 when he said: “The exile will be long…”
I mean, talk about a sucker-punch to the gut! The last thing you want to hear when you are going through exile is that it’s going to be long. “Oh by the way, I know this is the last place you want to be right now but settle in cos you are in for a long ride” He even told them to plant gardens and build houses!
In fact in verse 10 God tells them that the exile will last 70 years. 70 years!!!! That is longer than their ansestors wandered the wilderness. It wouldn't have taken long for them to do the math and work out that some of them would die there. Some of their children would also die there. Can you see how it may have been hard for them to see that even if God did have a plan, it didn’t seem to be a very good one?
But God wanted them to know that his plan was for their good. It was a plan with hope, for a future and it was a plan with a purpose.
Did you know that God can use anything to bring about the result He is looking for? Even if it involves our own mistakes and rebellion, just like the Israelites. God used the 40 years of wilderness wanderings to shape his people into a new nation, and He was doing the very same thing here in exile. In the same way that God can use a wilderness to birth a nation and to establish identity, He can use an exile to restore a promise and reshape a people.
I wonder if while you are living in Babylon, God might want to do some re-shaping in you? Could He use this season as an opportunity to re-establish who you are?
What He did in their exile, He can do in yours.
3. I am never far from you.
Not long ago, we signed our 11 year old, Judah, up for an Athletics Training Academy at a nearby athletics stadium. He was the youngest in a group of about 50 athletes, all of whom had attended before and had friends there. Judah had already expressed that he was nervous about being there alone, knowing no one. He looked like a little lost baby deer. It was hard to leave him there and leave him to it. My husband, Steve drove past the stadium on his way home that day so he made a stop, snuck into the stadium, stood at a distance, and watched Judah. He watched him have a go, he watched him try new things, he watched him fail and then get up and try again. Judah didn’t know he was there, but he was near and he was watching.
In the same way, you might not know it, but God is near you and He is watching.
Did you know that when God gives us a purpose He also promises His Presence? He doesn’t send us out the door, saying “Good luck, all the best, I hope it goes ok”. He actually stays near and He watches.
Verse 12 says: In those days when you pray, I will listen.If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. Jeremiah 29: 12-14 (NLT)
He is saying, when you need me, I’m not far away. I am easily found. I am right here. I have been watching you all this time.
4. I can turn this around.
God wanted to remind his people that this too will end and when it does I will bring you home. He wanted them to know: “I am a God who is in the restoration business – and it’s not just my business – it is my primary goal here. I can and will turn this thing around".
Can I remind you that a plan deferred is not a promise derailed. It is simply an opportunity for the plan to be perfected. Even when it looks hopeless, God can turn this around. Even when it seems like there is no way out, God can turn this around. Even when I am where I am because of my own mistakes, God can turn this around.
For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,”says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)