by Michael UseyJeremiah 29. 1, 4-7, 10-14
An earworm–that’s what you call the song you get stuck in your head. And it’s never one of my favorites, like a Rainbow Kitten Surprise riff or a Bach concerto. All week long I couldn’t get Olivia Rodrigo’s song Brutal out of my head. No, it’s always something heinous like “It’s a small world after all,” or YMCA. We also get little bad messages stuck in our heads too, like “You’ll never amount to anything” or “Look out for #1” or “I need a drink.”
What if our offstage directions, the voice whispering inside my head, might be God? Once upon a time people memorized Bible verses, little digestible messages from the scriptures to shape us, define who we are, how we interact with the world. Sometimes I ask people, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Lots of people default to John 3:16, because they like it or don’t know another one (and they forget the key next verse, 3:17) More clever Bible people come up with Jeremiah 29:11: “‘I know the plans I have for you,'” says the LORD, “‘plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'”
Now I love that verse too–but what does it really mean? After the worst catastrophe in the entire history of God’s people, the holy city Jerusalem reduced to rubble by the vile Nebuchadnezzar, the people barely existing after a forced march into exile to Babylon, feeling pretty sure God had abandoned them forever, Jeremiah wrote a letter, which must have taken weeks to arrive. Everything in the Bible is slow like that–it may be that we only know God in a kind of slowness. In The Lord of the Rings, there are treelike creatures who speak Entish, “a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”
Jeremiah is thinking about a very long time, not some plan God has for today or for this July or the next five years of my life. He explicitly measures the time required for God’s plan as 70 years–which would mean that no adult reading his letter would actually be alive once the plan came to fruition. I’d imagine his readers had to slow down and ponder that.
People today like the verse, “I know the plans I have for you”–because they like the idea that “God has a plan for my life.” But is this really the case? I don’t speak for God, but I think not. God cares. God is intensely personal. But the Bible just doesn’t say a word about God having a blueprint, a script, a “plan” for my life, how I will grow up, whom or if I will marry, how things will unfold, even when and how I will die. In a way, such a “plan” might be comforting; but then we’d really be pawns on God’s chessboard, being moved about with no responsibility. The assumption is God’s “plan” will be a sunny one–for me. But what about when someone does something horrible? Aren’t you then forced to say that God plans to lace your life with misery now and then?
We embrace the wish for “God’s plan for my life” because we are fearful or somewhat insecure. We don’t like to think of life unfolding haphazardly. We like to think God has earthly happiness mapped out for us. But what if God is actually calling us to suffer for Christ? What if what God yearns for from us is sacrifice? God says “Follow me,” and we go–not knowing where we might be led– and that is the beauty of the following, with no awareness of any plan. God woos us, shapes us, and joins hands with us in an adventure that will wind up who knows where, but the journey is all good since we are near God.
Further eroding this “individual life plan” misinterpretation comes by looking at the plural pronoun. If we read Jeremiah 29:11 carefully, we notice that God’s “plans for good” are not for Jeremiah or any other individual, including me or you. The word “you”–in “the plans I have for you”–is plural. In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.” The future, the hope God gives “y’all” is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation. God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to one man or woman or just to you or me, but to the entire nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history. God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals. Our current misreading is so American, isn’t it? One autonomous individual, hoping God has a plan for me. So American–and so sad, so lonely.
Israel is not our nation, and Israel isn’t just any random nation. Israel was the nation God chose because God wanted to use Israel to save the world. When it appeared Israel was crumbling and probably would cease to exist, God declared that God wasn’t through with Israel yet; God’s promises to use Israel were not broken. After 70 years, God brought them home.
So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? Modern Israel? Doubtful. Not the United States; America just isn’t on the Hebrew Bible radar screen. Could it be the Church? Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use us for good? Not in the first readers’ minds. This was a promise to Jews in captivity in Babylon. Even if this verse doesn’t directly apply to us, it still gives us a front seat on how God dealt with Israel’s misdeeds and the ever-revising divine plan.
That being said, God is not yet through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, will not lose their role for the sake of the world. God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me. I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.” I do not lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all. I need y’all.
How good of God not to make us go it alone, but to give us good company in the life of faith. This doesn’t make God’s plan less personal, but actually more personal. If you are part of a family or a team, it isn’t less personal that you are one among the others. There is more love and meaningful sharing. You don’t have to bear life alone. Part of God’s plan is that “It is not good for you to be alone” (Gen 2:18); God gives us fellowship, the dizzying privilege of being part of something bigger than just me and my life.
I have learned this about my own life. When I look back at my life, I see the ways I’ve been part of something larger than me, even at times I didn’t realize I was part of something larger. My plan was to marry Kim Hill, my Baylor sweetheart, until she discovered she was lesbian (and dating me prolly had something to do with that discovery). And it worked out so much better: I met and somehow convinced the amazing Ann Penner to marry me, and it seems like she and I were made in a lab for each other. My plan was to finish my PhD at Emory so that I could both pastor and teach, until I ran into a professor who didn’t want his PhDs serving a church, so I had to finish my doctorate elsewhere. My plan was to move on from College Park Church after a dozen years, but both my family and I fell deeply in love with this church and this city. My plan was to become emotionally closer to Ann’s family, to grow old together, connected as we all are by a deep Christian faith, but then two of my brothers-in-law divorced Ann’s sisters, and then the family’s Christian faith swerved to the far right. This change of plans has happened to others too.
James Abbot McNeil Whistler, the famous painter, wanted to be a career soldier, but he failed at West Point because he flunked chemistry. Whistler said, “If silicon had been a gas, I should have become a major-general.” Organic chemistry has been a change of plans for more than a few aspiring doctors. But now we have Whistler’s paintings.
Phillip Brooks, a famous American preacher, wanted to be a teacher but failed miserably in the classroom. But now we have his masterful sermons and his Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Sir Walter Scot wanted most to be a poet, but failed as a poet, then turned to adventure novels—which have become classics.
We could go on and on. Flannery O’Connor’s lupus required a forced return to the south to live with her mother. She was sure it would be the end of her work as a writer, but in fact her greatest work was ahead. Jimmy Carter’s presidency ended in a bitter and decisive defeat after his first term, but look at the magnificence of his life as a former President of the United States.
Novelist Walker Percy trained to be a doctor. While an intern in a New York hospital, he contracted tuberculosis while working on a TB ward. He spent two years in a sanatorium where he read and read, his enforced convalescence becoming his path to a career as a writer, philosopher, and novelist.
Many of you in the congregation could give ample testimony of how detours have turned into destinations. You had your heart set on a particular college, but the admissions office said no, so you went to your second choice, which turned out to be a great place for you. You dreamed of being a major league pitcher, but never figured out how to throw a curved ball. You wanted to be a dancer, but a weak knee became an injured knee and your plans were changed. But look how God has used your altered life! God is a jazz improviser. I do not want to be glib. The alteration of plans may have been a devastating and humiliating defeat—the losses real and irrecoverable. But God uses our defeats, our losses too. God is the ultimate Improviser, who takes our altered lives and alters them toward our highest good.
To students of the Bible, we pastors plead and cajole: “Context, context, context!” Browse through all of Jeremiah, and then read all of chapter 29 closely. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian juggernaut has conquered Jerusalem, reducing the city to rubble, marching the few survivors off to live hundreds of miles away in exile. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God advises the people to settle down, to take the long-term view; God will not sweep down in the next 70 minutes to rescue the people. They have not 70 minutes or 70 days, but 70 years to wait before God acts decisively to redeem the people of Israel.
“‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD, ‘plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'” In 70 years, that is. The beauty of it all begins now, but the consummation, the fulfillment, will be when I’m not around any longer. I love that. I’m part of something bigger than myself, something that stretches far beyond my lifetime. That takes the pressure off. It’s not all up to me. I’m a small but significant part of the grand adventure that is God’s plan. We call that grace. And grace is what gives us hope, which is dogged enough to cope with unrealized dreams.
Three SCOTUS decisions this week will change the plans of many, and has left others wondering if America has turned decisively towards facism. In the first, they ruled 6-3 that if a state uses taxpayer money to pay for students attending nonreligious private schools, it must also use taxpayer funds to pay for attendance at religious schools. So the court opened the door further for those seeking taxpayer funding for religious schools. To me, this is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
Also ruled Thursday that law-abiding Americans have a right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense, issuing a watershed constitutional ruling against firearm restrictions as the nation reels from a spate of 275 mass shootings since January. This will allow millions to carry handguns with virtually no restriction. So to our citizens we say, we will protect you in the womb, but then you’re on your own.
Then on Friday in a historic and far-reaching decision, SCOTUS officially reversed Roe v. Wade on Friday, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century, no longer exists, leaving the question of abortion’s legaltiy to the states. They have sown maximum chaos and regressed women’s rights 50 years, cracking the door to banning same-sex marriage and contraception. “Leave it to the states” was also the pro-slavery argument in the 1800s, and the pro-segregation argument in the 1900s. This will become a new decision point for where to send your daughter to college. You don’t want them to die from an ectopic pregnancy? Then maybe skip campus visits to Vanderbilt and Baylor. The unintended consequences will be many and far-reaching.
One of baptist Christians most deeply held beliefs is religious liberty, that each person (made in God’s image) is free to make moral decisions in keeping with their own convictions. But the crucial corollary of religious liberty is that no one else should restrict other people’s options. For many Jews for example, a fetus is not yet a person. We aren’t alive after we take our last breath, and we aren’t alive before we take our first breath. The belief that the fetus is a full person is a fundamentalist Christian notion. When personhood begins is the single most contentious point of abortion. This is fine for them to believe, but they shouldn’t legislate it on the rest of us. I tell you, nothing makes atheism more attractive than fundamentalist Christianity.
I have lost sleep over what words to say today. I promise to continue the struggle with you. We lost these key battles, but the fight continues. All of us present this morning will continue to listen, to empathize, to care for, and love the girls, women, and people with uteri here. Know that, if you’re here this morning, hurting, angry, and rageful, so many of us are too. We see you; we will show up. With us and God, you will never stand alone. Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime, therefore we are saved by hope.”
So just to be clear: this verse is often quoted during a difficult season in life as an individual promise t
hat God has a specific plan and will bring us through it. Many read this verse and think that if we trust God, then not only will we be brought through it, and that God has a predetermined plan for my life. In other words, we read it like the prosperity Gospel. If we follow God then we’ll have a good life, the money we want, a nice house, and plenty of vacations. The problem is that this verse is a specific promise to specific people, Israel. The promise is for deliverance by ending the Babylonian exile. During this time there were false prophets that were claiming that God was going to release God’s people soon. If we read the surrounding verses in Jeremiah 29, we see God denounce the false prophets, tell them they are going to have to wait (70 years) and tell them while they are there to seek peace and prosperity.
That’s why this verse belongs in our summer series of common Bible verses taken out of context. This verse is meant to encourage that, despite things not going the way the Israelites wanted, God is still at work in their lives. The Israelites are told to trust God, even though things probably aren’t making much sense to them. That’s faith: believing now, what will only make sense in hindsight.
And so we hope in God’s good future, nothing as small as a neat little pattern of life that I enjoy for myself. And while we wait, what do we do in the meantime? Jeremiah told them, and so he tells us: Build houses, plant gardens, marry. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you. And pray to the Lord. Ah, yes, this really is God’s plan for me, and you, all of us, y’all. A home, a garden, love, seeking good for the place where you find yourself. And always hope, beyond the horizon. God still has plans, big plans. This kind of faith involves a re-thinking of our picture of God. God is not a God who predetermines everything, but who improvises amid the contingencies of life and within our human freedom to work for the highest good. Our God is a planning-it-over kind of God.
If you want to make God laugh, the saying goes, tell Her your plans. “But this is what I had all planned,” we say to Her. “I know, Hon”, she says (who would have thought God a sassy southern waitress?). “I understand why you’d want such plans”, She adds, “I’d want those things for you too.” “So what happened?, we ask. “Life happened. It has a way of changing our plans, She says. “What are we going to do now?” we ask. She answers, “Let me work with you on that, but first let me get your coffee. White or black?” “Lots of cream and sugar”, we say. “To heck with the diet.” “And how about that pastry over there?” we ask, pointing to the counter. “Sure Hon”, she says and heads for the streusel.