“For surely, I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, plans to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me.”
This is the promise of the Holy Spirit. And it could be, there’s something pulsing inside this promise that makes us know it’s the truth. It’s like a lullaby your grandma used to sing to you when you were just a baby, then all these years later you heard it again and you knew it like it was etched into the deep part of your soul.
Jeremiah’s asking the people to imagine the day when God will come through. She will gather us from all the far corners of the exile, and the LORD our God will bring us home. He will restore our fortunes and deliver this future with hope.
One day the bending arc will unfurl into justice, and the wolf will lie down with the lamb. Prisons will be demolished because we won’t need them anymore. Weapons will be repurposed because we’ll have given up on war. Everyone will have enough to eat. No one will be afraid. We’ll be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, until our own hearts are moved by forgiveness! This is what we can imagine, or maybe it’s what we can remember, this is the shining Hallelujah of one day—
Only thing is, this is not that day.
The scripture Judy read comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah. What happened was the kingdom of Judah was invaded by Babylon at the beginning of the sixth century. Now the people of Judah have been taken into captivity, deported to a country that’s not their own. Jerusalem has been conquered; in the coming years, the Temple will get destroyed.
Jeremiah sent a letter to a group of officials who had been powerful in Jerusalem, but now they’re refugees like everybody else. And even though Jeremiah brings them the word of the LORD, I’m sorry to tell you, there’s a problem.
Sometime earlier, another prophet Hananiah claimed to be bringing the word of Yahweh to the people, and Hananiah told them: The exile is coming, but it will only last two years. After two years, God will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar, everybody will come back home. Everything will go back to normal! And the people listened to him and believed him. And the problem is, the prophecy was not true.
The word of the LORD spoke to Jeremiah: You have to correct this! So Jeremiah sent a letter to the people breaking the news and breaking their hearts. As it turns out, the crisis is not going to last two years. It’s going to last seventy! Some of you might not be alive when it ends. Things’ll never go back to normal.
Now hold on, says Jeremiah, God is still speaking: I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a future with hope. One day God will bring us home, and we’re not wrong to want that. We’re not wrong to turn our hearts toward that day.
It’s just, in the meantime, God is calling you to be here. Jeremiah explains: What God wants is for you to stop living out of suitcases and move out of the hotel. Begin building houses and furnishing them. Plant gardens and eat from them. Expect your children to marry the locals; expect your grandchildren to be half Babylonian.
And you can imagine how all this sounds to the people: I mean, you can’t expect us to live here —in this place! God, you can’t expect us to live!
But oh yes she does.
God is asking the people to move through their days bearing a bothness in their soul: On one side, they’re yearning for the dream of one day —for that song they can imagine, or remember, or what’s the difference. On one side, they have to go ahead and live here. And you know the people were asking the LORD: How exactly are we supposed to do this?
It could be that we already know. Everybody in this room made the choice to come to church today because there’s something in your soul and in mine that is lunging toward life… At the same time, I’m pretty sure. Everybody here is carrying a deep layer of homesickness. Right now, if you turned to somebody you’re sitting near, and you asked them to name one person they are missing, I’m pretty sure they could give you a name just like that. We’re all waiting to meet up with the people we love.
Maybe this is what it is to be human. We’re all longing for one day; we’re all trying to live right here. We know this about ourselves; we know the bothness we carry in our own souls.
So here’s what I’m wondering— can you imagine what it would do to our world if we recognized this bothness in each other?
Consider the families who were scrambling to get on the planes leaving Afghanistan. Some of them left their extended families behind. They left their pets! It could seem like our lives couldn’t be more different from theirs, but don’t fall for that. We have this in common: We know what it is to be yearning for home while making do in the meantime. Empathy is the currency of peacemaking, and we might have more of it than we realize.
Consider the people who are getting processed into prison today. All they want is to go home, and that might be decades away, but now God is calling them to live here! Consider the children moving into foster families or older people moving into assisted living. Maybe the new family is kind. Maybe the facility is well-appointed, but anybody can see. It’s not home. We get this.
I recently read the book by Valarie Kaur called See No Stranger. I’d describe it as one part memoir and one part a how-to manual for revolution. Kaur is a member of the Sikh religion. Her work is rooted in a decision that professes: You are a part of me I don’t yet know. A stranger is a part of me I don’t yet know. The person on a rampage of terror is a part of me I don’t yet know. Now this is a teaching we can learn from our Sikh sisters and brothers, and it’s also something we learn from Jesus.
As Kaur explains, this work begins by choosing to wonder about somebody else. It’s as though when our brains ignite our curiosity, they ask our defensive impulses to stand down. We become less afraid of people the more we choose to wonder about them.
Now this book ebbs and flows around several extraordinary events of reconciliation. Kaur tells stories of unthinkable forgiveness that will bring you to tears and renew your hope in humankind. But the scene that’s been haunting me is not one of these.
One day Kaur was sitting alone in a Mexican restaurant when she overheard the guys at the next table; they were using a derogatory term for someone from the Middle East. If a lot of us heard this, we might cringe and try to ignore it. We might get up and leave. Valarie Kaur chose to confront them. Her uncle was murdered in a hate crime after September Eleventh, and before he was killed, the murderer was using the same language these men were using.
Kaur approaches them to explain this. She learns their names. They ask her questions about the Sikh religion; they even watch a video she pulled up on Facebook. When she tells them that she sees herself as their sister; it ignites the beginning of a breakthrough.
Eventually, four of the men get up to leave, all except Steve. That’s when Steve launches into a racist tirade about immigrants. Kaur mentions that she believes every person is a human being, and Steve answers: I sure don’t think so! When he finally gets up, Kaur is left at the table frozen in anger and hurt. What just happened!
This is not the kind of story we use to celebrate peacemaking, but that’s a shame, because I’m telling you: This is exactly what peacemaking looks like most of the time.
Kaur went home and replayed the conversation in her mind, and wouldn’t you know, she began to wonder about Steve. She felt her own grief, the bothness she carried in her own soul, and imagine if Steve was carrying this too— he clearly was afraid. Noticing this made her access compassion for him.
Now I can’t tell you what happened to Steve. Who knows whether his heart was moved by her —probably not. Except maybe it was, right? I mean you do have to wonder…
When the people heard the letter from Jeremiah, it broke their hearts. It’s not two years, it’s seventy years, and we’re going to have to live here, and this isn’t even home! Unless… What if everyone is carrying the same homesickness?
Remember the song our grandma sang. Imagine the promise! One day the Holy Spirit will gather us up, and our fortunes will be restored, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and guns will be museum relics. Violence will be healed, racism will be overcome, no one will be afraid… This is the promise etched in the deep part of our soul.
In the meantime, we’ll wonder about each other’s hopes and honor each other’s longing. In the meantime, we’ll go over and talk to the guys at the Mexican restaurant. We’ll listen to the cruelty until we hear the fear, until we find the compassion. We’ll build houses and plant gardens, we’ll begin the hard work of forgiving. We’ll set the table. We’ll get ready for the baby.
In this mean world, in this meantime, we will live, and the LORD will come.
May it be so.