Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Give me some context! Part 1

     I listen to a lot of sermons and I hear a lot of verses spoken in church and I often wonder how we come up with the verses that we select to use as references for our everyday life. A lot of them seem to fit the context of our lives, but do we ever really look at the verses around them to make sure we are using it properly? I wanted to dedicate some posts for some misused verses as I come upon them, so let's take a look at one.
Jeremiah 29:11 - For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
      Let me start by saying that I really love this verse. To just read it brings a level of comfort and I'm sure that's why it's used so often. I often hear this used as proof that the bad circumstances in our life can't possibly keep going because "Look at this! God's gonna prosper you, not harm you!" I've heard it used in references to bad financial situations. I've heard it used in situations involving sour relationships between family and friends. The overarching theme is "The circumstances in your life are going to change in the future because God is a God of prosperity for His children."
      I have a some problems with how we use this scripture, and maybe my complaint has to do with how we use scripture in general. I think that we are very flippant in the way that we God's word. There is no reverence in tossing out verses in that way. We twist the bible in an attempt to provide momentary comfort and seek to 'smooth over' the bad circumstances with a quick comment so that we can brush it aside and move on. I think there is so much more to be had in not only this verse, but this section of the bible. 
      Look at what is actually happening in this chapter in Jeremiah. We have Jerusalem being hauled away to Babylon into captivity. This is an entire people group being ripped from their beloved city. They have dealt with a long siege by a much stronger army. Many of those that did not die of starvation from the siege were slaughtered when the city was overtaken. Imagine watching much of your family starve to death, die of disease, or die at the end of a sword. As if that's not enough, now you are taken from your home, your possessions, and everything you've ever known and forced to march to a foreign nation to be integrated into a society that you've never visited. This is a time in history that our western culture simply can't relate to. This doesn't compare to a bounced check or a foreclosed home. This doesn't compare to a broken friendship or even a cancer diagnoses. This is a level of human suffering that most of us have never experienced and probably never will.
     Secondly, look at why Jeremiah is sending the letter. 
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
I suspect that Jeremiah is referring to prophets like Hananiah (Chapter 28) who were saying that this exile would not be much more than a short journey. That in just a little while God would break the yoke of Babylon from Judah's neck and all would be well again. (Coincidentally, that's how 29:11 is used most often today.) The reality was that God had already set the length of the exile. That time would be 70 years. Seventy years! How much comfort does that give you now? "Hey, don't worry about your budget being blown up this month by that car transmission, God's plan is to prosper you.......about 70 years from now." Somehow I don't think we'd use it that way. Maybe we should, it might be better than how I hear it now. 
      I think it all comes down to our very definition of prosperity and harm. In America today we are so humanistic that we tend to only look at prosperity as a financial windfall, or maybe a great project completed. We look at harm as anything that isn't pleasure. If it's doesn't make me happy, it's harmful. As Christians, we need to look at things in a different light. In the eternal, what does prosperity look like? What about harm? I would say it's a difference of living in the glory of God forever, or His wrath forever. It's not something so small as our everyday lives. We don't yet have any comprehension of what prosperity and harm even look like. We can get a glimpse through the Word, and judging by that, it's more wonderful and more terrible than our brains can fathom. 
      Look at chapter 30. I think we can begin to get a handle on what God's perspective is on this.
11 I am with you and will save you,’
    declares the Lord.
‘Though I completely destroy all the nations
    among which I scatter you,
    I will not completely destroy you.
I will discipline you but only in due measure;
    I will not let you go entirely unpunished.’
Wait a second, that's prosperity? Our hopeful future is that the nation won't be completely wiped out? Why all the punishment? Read on, my friend.
12 “This is what the Lord says:
“‘Your wound is incurable,
    your injury beyond healing.
13 There is no one to plead your cause,
    no remedy for your sore,
    no healing for you.
14 All your allies have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you.
I have struck you as an enemy would
    and punished you as would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great
    and your sins so many.
15 Why do you cry out over your wound,
    your pain that has no cure?
Because of your great guilt and many sins
    I have done these things to you.
So you see, there is no cure from this world for our wounds. There is no healing for our hurts. There is no relief from our guilt. No solution for the human condition. With all that in mind, where is the hope that God talks about in 29:11? Here it is:
21 Their leader will be one of their own;
    their ruler will arise from among them.
I will bring him near and he will come close to me—
    for who is he who will devote himself
    to be close to me?’
declares the Lord.
22 “‘So you will be my people,
    and I will be your God.’”
Jesus was that leader. Jesus is that ruler. He came completely devoted to the redemptive mission of God. He made the way to prosperity and shut out the harm for all of eternity for those who follow him. Best of all he made it possible for God to declare again that "You are my people, and I am your God". Is that not awesome? If you go on to read chapter 31, you will read some of the most beautiful words in the whole Bible. Words of the stunning redemption and the New Covenant provided through our great ruler Jesus. 
     I hope this helps to bring some context and depth to an overused and watered down verse. I hope this helps to make the beauty of the Lord Jesus a little more real to you today. Let not your heart be troubled today with the cares of this world. God's plan really is to prosper and not harm. He really does provide a hope and a future. It just might not be something so lowly as a a better job, a bigger house, or a clean bill of health.

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