Pastor Patty Ebner
August 25, 2019
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, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Whether we are familiar with the Bible in general or Jeremiah in particular, the words “For surely I know the plans I have for you” are commonly recognized. I don’t remember when I first heard them but I can’t remember a time when I have not called upon them. Today’s scripture represents the relationship between God and each of us, God’s children. They describe the promises offered by God and the actions we must take in order to claim those promises.
Now, dependent upon our relationship with and concept of God, the opening words impact each of us very differently. If we hear them like those coming from someone whom we have disappointed, we are likely to see a huge finger wagging before our eyes. But if we hear the words from someone whom we trust and someone we know loves us, we can be assured that there is a plan for our lives, that direction is available, that God has not abandoned us, even in times of trouble and in conditions of exile.
And for the people to whom Jeremiah was writing, knowing that God had not abandoned them was of utmost importance. Why? Because they were in exile, under the control of the Babylonians, in a strange land. Not in their homeland. They had been subjected to the news of false prophets concerning God’s plans for them and were disappointed with the outcome. Jeremiah felt called to minister to them, to set the record straight, to help them better understand God’s will for their lives, to offer hope.
Today’s verses take the form of promises from God. They are forward looking statements and framed by an heir of separation from God. And, with the exception of the first promise, each promise is accompanied by a required action:
THEN (not if) WHEN YOU CALL UPON ME and COME and PRAY to me, I will hear you.
WHEN (again, not if) YOU search for me, YOU will find me.
IF YOU seek me with all your heart, I will let YOU find me. I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you AND I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Today, I want to explore three questions:
1-Is there a difference between calling upon God, coming to God and praying to God? Can we do one without doing the other? Are all three actions necessary to make a connection to God? We often call upon God during an emergency. We scream the words, “Oh God!!!” Sometimes our encounter stops right there. It stops because we don’t pursue the connection. We are distracted by thoughts such as “why does God cause such things to happen?” “Why didn’t God intervene and stop this?” Eventually, we write God off because our expectations are not met, because we don’t get our way. In effect, we have called on God but abandoned God at the same time.
But calling upon God in urgent or everyday situations doesn’t have to end there, even when we are afraid or apprehensive. God is not afraid of our questions, bothered by our confusion or put off by our reactions to life’s happenings. God is always waiting for us. We come to God and experience God in a variety of ways: When we present ourselves for worship; when we are baptized or take communion; when we stand in solidarity with the marginalized, when we speak louder than their oppressors by interrupting words meant to demean, to bring harm and destroy; when we prepare ourselves for prayer.
We pray to God when we utter the words: “Our Creator who art in Heaven…” We pray to God when we make a request of God, “’Give us this day our daily bread’…. or ‘Forgive us our Sins as we forgive those who sin against us’.” We pray to God when we give thanks for answered prayer. We pray with our mouths through words, with our hearts by uttering the words placed upon them and as the Rev. Bianca Davis-Lovelace says, we pray with our feet by acting upon the very words we speak through our actions.
It seems that we can, in fact, call upon God and in our fear or judgment, abandon our relationship with God. We can also present ourselves to God without calling upon or praying to God. Similar to walking to a body of water in the blistering sun and not taking a swim or placing a beautiful spread of food on a table only to stand idly by and not partake of the meal. We present ourselves for worship without opening our hearts to the effect of the spoken word, the voices of song, or the presence of God. But praying to God requires us to come to, to call upon, and have a conversation with God.
2-What does our search for God look like? I often hear people say, “It was a sign from God. The telephone rang at the exact moment I asked God to reveal God’s self. A person appeared at the exact moment I asked for help. The moment I prayed, a check arrived in the mail making possible the payment of monthly bills.” And while I don’t dispute these revelations as possible “God sightings,” I don’t rely upon them either. It is too risky. What happens to our faith when an immediate response or the answer we wanted or expected, doesn’t come? Exactly.
Our search for God is an infinite exploration–one that is guided by our faith, defined as complete trust in someone or something; a journey nourished by hope, shaped by our questions and formed by our interactions with God. It is a spiritual road trip interrupted by unexpected twists and turns, by the letting go of old ideas and the introduction of the unexpected.
I offer this story as an example of our spiritual road trip.
Our kitchen is steps away from the den where we play with Murphy and watch TV. Eager to be Murphy’s alpha and favorite Mom, I give him treats whenever possible. When I make my way into the kitchen, he doesn’t really know what I am up to. But when I don’t open the door to the refrigerator and instead reach for the top of the refrigerator where his treats are kept, he has a pretty good idea that something is in this journey for him. Now, he has no idea whether I’ll grab the plain or multi-colored milk bones or the very delicious pill pockets. (He has questions.) His ears perk up immediately in anticipation. (He is curious.) He comes to the front of the den and sits up very straight. (He takes action.) He waits for me to grab some treats and to join him in the den, (he has patience.) He prepares himself to receive some commands from me. I might ask him for a leg or command him to lie down on the floor. I might tell him to stay as I throw the treat so he’ll have to search for it. And if it is a really good treat, I will position him where he can catch the treat in the air as I throw it to him. This is Murphy’s lived experience with me. The give and take between us is our interaction with one another. In Murphy’s world, I am God. And based on Murphy’s personal and lived experience with me, he knows that something very tasty is in store for him. And not only that, it could be something even better than the last treats; it could be the tasty pill pockets. But most importantly, Murphy also knows that he is loved by us, in the good times and bad.
How might each of us be like Murphy in this situation? If you are like me, you are always interested in treats, no matter their description. Like Murphy, I know that God has only my best interest at heart, has much in store for me and has great expectations of me. But unlike Murphy, our ears don’t always perk up when we hear God calling, when God is reaching far beyond the top of the refrigerator and is asking us to do the same. When this happens, fear steps in and tries to take over our thinking, it zaps our willingness to serve and to be God’s hands and feet in this chaotic world. Why? Because we find ourselves in a place of exile and feel abandoned by God. It is this place of exile which brings me to our final question.
3-While it is comforting to know that God will bring us back to our starting points, would God really send us into exile? If you struggle with the concept of a God who would find it necessary to exile us to teach us a lesson, you are not alone. In my estimation, we do a fair job of getting there on our own. There are those who believe that the Israelites were sent into exile by God due to their bad behavior. I reject that theology and believe that the message here is not that we are separate from God during exile but that we are invited to be in a deeper relationship with God when we find ourselves there. The scripture references our “starting points.”
I invite you today to consider your starting point as a spiritual homeland built upon solid ground, where you experience spiritual wholeness and live in right relationship with God. A spiritual homeland where all feel safe with and connected to God, a spiritual homeland where the oppressed are freed, where the afflicted are comforted, and where the voiceless are heard. This is the location to where God will return us. This return is promised in verse 11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
© Copyright. Patty Ebner. 2019. All rights reserved.