WELCOME to this post with a bit of content from our morning worship service for this First Sunday of Advent. Full service details are in the Bulletin, here on the website. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Amen.
(Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14) J G White
Strangers in a Strange Land: It’s October of 2010. I find myself in the high Andes of South America. Walking the market streets of El Alto, Bolivia, I pass the vendors selling hats, a whole street selling hats. Then another few blocks of fruits and vegetables, outdoors. Then all the meat sellers in a row, with what are to me mystery meats, out in the cool sunshine of a spring day down there. Some must be cow’s stomach, or something like that. Then, the witches market, with the ever popular dried Llama fetuses for sale. And on it goes in the city.
I don’t want to buy much. Just as well, I think to myself. I don’t know a word of Spanish, not even the numbers to haggle over a price. I’m a stranger in a strange land. Yet, I was there on tour with pastors, visiting Baptist Churches and ministries and experiencing Christian work.
Some of you have been far more a ‘stranger in a strange land’ than this. And you got some cultural intelligence for your experience.
Then again, right at home, we have times when things change for us, and we feel strange, or the world around us grows strange. Sound familiar? Two years ago now, in 2019, were any of you guessing how our habits would have changed since then? We are in a bit of a strange land now, right here at home, in this pandemic season.
The scripture stories of Jesus’ nativity are filled with strangers in a strange land. Magi from the far East. Angelic messengers from who knows what heavenly realm. Even Joseph and Mary have to go to a different town at the time of the birth, not to mention when they had to flee south into Egypt to save their child from execution.
Plus, we see Jesus as a stranger among us – since He is God the Creator joining creation.
But we are not into those stories yet. We start back among the prophets. Today, five hundred and some years before Jesus, Jeremiah is writing letters. Letters for his people who had been conquered by the Babylonian empire, and hauled off into Babylon. Jeremiah earlier had been obedient to remain celebate and not marry or have children, as a warning about the conquest that was about to happen. But now, now his godly message is to settle down in the foreign land where they are really prisoners. Marry, have children, farm the land, take care of things. This is your ‘new normal,’ he tells the Hebrews, on behalf of God.
These tales of the exile of the Jews get me thinking of how we enter strange times in our lives, when we don’t feel quite at home anymore. And we are not sure what to do with ourselves. It happens. Maybe we have all been getting a bit of that strange feeling over the past couple years.
Let me draw out six things for us in this twenty-first month of a pandemic, this strange land we live in now. First, let’s live here, in ‘Covidland.’ We are learning to do this already, of course. It is no longer just a matter of waiting it out. We have to live it now. I dislike the phrase, but we live in our ‘new normal.’ As Jeremiah preached it, so we do today: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; …multiply there, and do not decrease.
At first, like, back in August of 2020, we were hiding and waiting. Waiting for the pandemic to end. We put a lot of life on hold – we had to. Remember the first lockdown? We missed out on Good Friday and Easter, among other things. We only had recordings or something to read at home for Sunday mornings. Some of you said things like: ‘Oh, when we do finally all get back together, we are really going to celebrate. We will do Palm Sunday and Easter and Anniversary all at once!’ Was not that simple. It’s been a soft start, never yet getting back to BC – before COVID. We are in this for the long haul, like Jeremiah’s people in Babylon of old. Settle in – this is your new normal.
Second thing: bless the new situation, the place where we live. What was in Jeremiah’s letter of God to the Jews in exile? 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. I think it is true that our well-being is not in trying to get to life as it was in 2019. We will be well when we bless the new ways we need to follow. We make beautiful masks, bothersome as they are. We greet people with joy without touching them. We even meet people online and over the phone instead of in person.
And we disciples of Jesus are here to bless our community, oppressed by COVID-19 as it is. Some congregations have recently felt the need to stop all midweek things that require proof of vaccination. So that no one feels left out, we suppose? But, as my wise step-daughter asked, ‘do they just quit ministering to everyone because they can’t include some people?’ She implies an answer: no!
We must do all we can to bless as many people as possible, even with the limits of these days, and even when the rules and how to follow them don’t make sense to us. Seek the welfare of Covidland.
Another thing: don’t be led astray by lying voices. What happened back in Jeremiah’s day, when so many Hebrews got taken to a foreign land? Many religious prophets said they would soon be free. Such as Hananiah, who prophesied: “Thus says the Lord: …I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” No. Jeremiah’s word was the exile would be long. Like, seventy years! 8 …Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, Jeremiah preached, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream…
This is a very divisive time. So many voices – about COVID-19 issues, among all the other things. So many disagreements. So much hostility. Everyone with ‘their truth,’ correcting someone else. Not always easy, eh? How not to be led astray: there’s the challenge. I think some gentleness is in order – in how we disagree with others, in how we share something we think is very important, in how we decide to believe and follow one path or another, in how we let someone else be different and go their way.
And there is a lot to be said for learning, better and better, to know the voice of our Master. What are we told? ‘The sheep know His voice.’ There is so much to learn about our Master’s voice. Picture the scene, down south, about sixty years ago. It’s Sunday dinner in a family home, after the service in their local Southern Baptist Church. Adults around the table talk of the message the Pastor gave, including grand plans direct from the Lord for their church. Then the matriarch, wise grandmother, speaks. She is a real icon of faith and tradition in the family and the Church. But she quietly says, “I don’t know why God never speaks to me like that.” Decades later, her grandson, Dallas Willard, wrote his book, ‘Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God.’
Keep up that conversation, and don’t be led astray.
Speaking of the voice of Christ, God spoke through Jeremiah in the sixth century BCE a now beloved verse: 29:11 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. Now, for us, there is a divine plan, a good plan.
How many of you have seen this verse on a mug, or a wall plaque, or a cross-stitched pillow? Just remember that, in this bit of Hebrew scripture, the ‘you’ is plural. Like the southerners say, ‘Y’all.’ God knows the plans God has for ya’ll. Even ‘all y’all,’ as they sometimes say. Not me and you: plans for us.
I believe God has a wonderful plan for our lives, together. Even on this cusp of 2022. And plans for a future with hope sounds very good when we are all in this pandemic boat together.
Yet, keep things in perspective: this pandemic is not that bad for us. Here’s my fifth point: we are not in exile. We may feel we are strangers in a strange land, but we have it pretty easy, we in these pews, compared with most people on the planet. We are certainly not as displaced as Jeremiah’s people.
Yes, we have a pandemic lightly touching us. It is a healthcare crisis. At least we have health care. A friend just got diagnosed with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It took just a few weeks of testing. In two days he gets his first chemotherapy needle. He’s lucky. We talked about this the other day. What if he lived in Sudan – after a political coup last month and a drought emergency now? Or in Ethiopia – having a civil war today? Or Afghanistan, where fourteen million people face hunger daily. What do you suppose their healthcare is like?
We have it easy here: even in a global pandemic, even with the price of everything going up, even with… well, whatever our other serious complaints are.
We are not in exile. Even as Christians in Canada now, we’re not in exile, not in some modern day pagan Babylon. Sometimes believers think we have lost so much, and are so oppressed now. We do not have it that bad! It is more likely that we are Babylon, we are the rich oppressors of others on the planet, we Canadians who are Christian.
Now, my sixth and final point: for believers, seeking and finding God is the greatest goal and prize. From Jeremiah’s letter, speaking for the LORD: 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart…
Here’s another decorative quotation I’ve seen on people’s walls: ‘Wise Men still seek Him.’ There is always seeking to be done. All the practices and habits of religion seem to say this. We don’t ‘arrive.’ We don’t ‘make it’ and then rest on our spiritual laurels. I think of the apostle Paul who spoke of running the race of faith so as to win it (1 Cor 9:24), and in another place: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)
What the will of God for us is now is new, eh, in this pandemic time. Not to mention other things about our circumstances. We have never been here before. True. I have never even been fifty-one years old before – neither have you been your age. Our guide, the Spirit, can lead us on. All is known to the Holy One we trust.
So here we start the story of Jesus all over again, with Advent: four Sundays before Christmas. Once again looking for inspiration to seek and find the Saviour. To grow in our fellowship, our obedience, our sacrifice, our joy with Jesus. I know I have further to go. Do you?
Just yesterday I got a phone message from an acquaintance from out of town. A fellow I knew in my youth, just a few years older than me. I called him back. He asked about baptism, as he has had such a renewal of his faith! He asked if, maybe… perhaps, it could even happen in December. Of course it can! We have plans for a baptism here already on December 12th. At any age and stage of life, progress with Jesus happens, and should be celebrated.
Dear stranger, in this strange land: remember, in Christ, you are also a citizen of the heavens, the Kindom. So you are at home already, even in these unusual times. As we long for Jesus, let us rest in Him. We heed the call to go to Bethlehem again. And we ask afresh for God to come to us abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel. Amen.
The Serenity Prayer
by Reinhold Neibuhr
God, give me grace
to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make
all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy
in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.