For surely 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 upon 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. –Jeremiah 29:11-13
I’ve been thinking a lot about these verses from Jeremiah. This was the passage Pastor George Johnson gave to me as my Confirmation Verse when I was fourteen years old. I had to memorize it and recite it before the congregation at my Confirmation. I’ve kept it close to my heart over the years—almost 53 years now since I was confirmed—and thought about it often, especially when times were difficult or uncertain.
As you may imagine, these three verses have been particularly dear to me. When I was younger I often thought of them as mine, as if God had given them just to me, personally. But that, of course, is not the case. God did not give them just to me. For that matter, God did not give them just to Jeremiah almost 2700 years ago. These verses were spoken to all the people of Judah during a very, very dark time in a series of dark times.
During the 6th century BCE, Judah had become a political and economic football, caught between Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. No sooner had the Assyrian empire fallen in Babylon’s rebellion than Egypt swept in and took control of Jerusalem. That didn’t last long. Egypt was defeated by Babylon and Jerusalem was part of the spoils. The Babylonians set up Zedekiah as a vassal king, but in 589 BCE, Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonians laid siege to the city. Following two years of extreme deprivation and starvation, the Babylonians broke through the weakened defenses. In 587 BCE, much of Jerusalem was destroyed, including the temple, and the Babylonians started taking captives back to Babylon. The deportation started with the ruling elite—government officials and priests—who were taken so they wouldn’t stir up another rebellion at home and so they could be put to administrative use in Babylon, but it soon expanded to include laborers taken to work as slaves in building Nebuchadnezzar’s great capitol.
This was a time that seemed dark and hopeless to the people of Judah. They felt that God had abandoned them. It was hard to imagine that God had any plans for them beyond their dispersal and destruction. It was nearly impossible to imagine any future at all for their nation, much less a “future with hope.” And this is when God spoke to them through Jeremiah. “Surely I know the plans I have for you…”
It’s interesting that in the verse just before this, God set a limit on Babylon’s time. “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” –Jeremiah 29:10 That 70 year prediction turned out to be just about right. Babylon fell to the Persians and the Medes. The people of Judah came home. The temple was rebuilt. Life got back to normal.
These are trying times for all of us, more trying for some than for others, but not easy for any of us. It is still early days for us in dealing with Covid-19, early days of self-imposed quarantine and isolation, early days of figuring out how and when to get groceries, early days of figuring out how to stay connected and how to be church with only electronic media and phone calls and maybe the US Mail service. It’s too soon to be too optimistic and it’s soul-crushing to be too pessimistic. But it is always the right time to have a clear-eyed trust that God is with us, that God knows and loves us and that God is at work in the midst of all this. “You shall seek me and you shall find me when you search for me with all your heart.” Word of wisdom, word of life.
Eventually, probably after a longer time than any of us would like, this thing will run its course. Life will get back to something closer to normal, although I think we will probably have a new normal with new understandings of a great many things, not the least of which is how precious we are to each other.
In the meantime, stay safe. Wash your hands. Keep good social distance when and if you find a need to go out—but mostly don’t go out. Pray for each other. Pray for the church. Pray for me, please. Pray for the world. Pray for a cure. May God bless and keep you.