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.
A school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city’s hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child’s name and room number and talked briefly with the child’s regular class teacher. “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now,” the regular teacher said, “and I’d be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn’t fall too far behind.”
The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, “I’ve been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs.” When she left she felt she hadn’t accomplished much.
But the next day, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. “No, no,” said the nurse. “You don’t know what I mean. We’ve been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.”
Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
This little boy, after seeing the love of a stranger who went to teach him about nouns and adverbs, received something which changed his life … hope. Hope for life. This hope for life, which is the theme of our Life Sunday, was not the type of hope which is made on the grounds of uncertainty. He wasn’t lying there in that hospital bed hoping for a sunny day. He wasn’t lying there in that hospital bed hoping that the nurse would bring him a bowl of ice cream. This little boy needed a different type of hope … he needed a sure and certain hope, he needed hope for life.
The people Jeremiah is writing to in our Old Testament lesson are in the same desperate need of hope for life. You see, these people who Jeremiah is writing too have been forcefully removed from their home. They burned too many bridges with God by not obeying His commands and so now their homes, their possessions, and they themselves have been burned. Living in a foreign land, these Israelite people are in desperate need of some hope. Not a wavering type of hope that they may or may not get to go home one day or that it may or may not snow tomorrow, but what they want, what they need is a sure and certain type of hope.
And that is just was Jeremiah gives them, he gives them a sure and certain hope in a promise, a promise of life, a promise of a life to come in the future. He gives them this promise of life yet to come in a very popular verse, a verse we can’t help but love. He says “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” (29:11). This is a great verse, an awesome verse. I have it on this wall hanging in my office. This verse is on coffee cups, t-shirts, bracelets, bumper stickers, and is even found on some people’s body. As popular as this verse is, as reassuring as this verse can be for you and me, as hopeful as it can be for you and me … it also one of the most misquoted passages of the whole Bible.
Usually when people use this passage, it is used to uplift themselves, it is used to give oneself hope in the midst of a tragedy or in the midst of an unexpected change. People look to this passage for hope when one loses a job or they find something else hard happening in their life and they want, they need a way out. People look to this passage for hope and when they do they want a sure and certain type hope. But when people turn to this passage for hope and think like this … “God has a plan for me and He is going to make everything okay and He will eventually bless me and make me prosper.” If that is how this passage is taken, if that is how you take this passage … then it is being taken wrongly and you are giving yourself a false sense of hope. You are giving yourself a wavering type of hope.
This morning we are observing Life Sunday. Life is precious. Life is a gift, a precious gift given by God and life is highly valued by God and should be by us as well. It doesn’t matter if the life we are talking about is a newly conceived baby who can do nothing but have hope in a wonderful life yet to come as he or she develops in mommy’s womb. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about someone who has been born with downs syndrome, a genetic disease, or something else. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about an elderly person who no longer responds to anything or remembers anything … life is precious. As long as God gives life and continues to give a person life, that person should be able to live their life in the sure and certain hope that God is with them.
But what is life, what is this precious life which God has blessed us with if it is without some kind of hope? What is this life which God has blessed us with if it is a life built on a wavering type of hope?
The director of a medical clinic was told of a terminally ill young man who came in for his usual treatment. A new doctor who was on duty said to him casually and cruelly, “You know, don’t you, that you won’t live out the year?”
As the young man left, he stopped by the director’s desk and wept. “That man took away my hope,” he blurted out.
“I guess he did,” replied the director. “Maybe it’s time to find a new one.”
Commenting on this incident, Lewis Smedes, a Christian author wrote, “Is there a hope when hope is taken away? Is there hope when the situation is hopeless? That question leads us to Christian hope, for in the Bible, hope is no longer a passion for the possible. It becomes a passion for the promise.”
You see, our Old Testament reading is a letter which Jeremiah is writing to a group of peopled called the Israelites who are exiled in a foreign city called Babylon. They have been kicked out of their land, their homes are gone, family members possibly killed, and God’s house has been destroyed. All their hope has been taken away. In the living conditions they are currently find themselves in, they are struggling to find something to be hopeful for in their life.
The point of this letter is to tell the people of God what it is that God wants them to hear. But here’s the thing, right before this most popular verse of prosperity and hope … God reassures the Israelites that He has not abandoned them, but because of their sin, because of their disobedience to Him, they are going to live in this exiled land for seventy years and that when those years are complete … God will then re-visit His people, fulfill the promise He made to them, and bring them back home to Jerusalem, to their homeland. Back in Jerusalem, back in their homeland … that is when God will bless His people and it is then when they will seek Him out. As Jeremiah says, the blessings they will receive then will be physical, but more than that … their blessings will be spiritual.
Jeremiah this morning promises the Israelites who are forcibly living in captivity in Babylon as well as you and me hope, a type of hope that is not a hopeless kind of a hope nor a wavering type of hope but instead a hope that is built on the sure and certain promise of God’s word. “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” (29:11).
For the Israelites in captivity, this promise of God was fulfilled at just the time He said it would happen. The Israelites were able to go back home, back to Jerusalem and re-build the temple of God. They were able to go back home and live in peace and prosper for a time.
But what about you and me? In this time of great uncertainty in which we live … could you and I use a little bit of hope? We most definitely could use some hope, but we don’t need that unwavering kind hope that some think of when they see this passage. No, we need a sure and certain hope. We need a hope which will actually get us through the day, through our problems, and sustain us. And friends, we have such a hope, we have such a hope for life which is far better than anything we could imagine.
Remember that boy I told the story about when the sermon began … well that boy is you, that boy is me. You and I have been burned greatly by our sins and because of the sins we have committed, we are in great deal of pain and agony and in need of relief. But instead of a teacher coming in to talk to you and me about nouns and adverbs, the great teacher, our Savior Jesus Christ comes in and tells you about what He has done for you. Jesus tells you about being brutally beaten, about being rejected by those closest to him and by his Heavenly Father, he tells you about being raised up on a wooden cross to die, but he also tells you about rising from the dead so that those who believe in him have the sure and certain promise that their sins are forgiven and they have the promise of an eternal life in heaven. Jesus tells you all of this not to bore you, but to let you know that you, that your life, that life of all people is precious to him. All life, the life of the unborn, the diseased, the challenged, the elderly, and everyone in between is precious to Jesus and worth everything he went through to save it.
“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” (29:11). Through the selfless sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Jesus, you will prosper. You may not prosper in this life in terms of how the world views prospering, but because of what Jesus has done and because of your faith in him … you have a sure and certain hope, a hope for life, a hope for life eternal and a glorious future with the Lord of all life. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, the giver and sustainer of all hope and life, now and forever. Amen.