As the story goes (Read Jeremiah 28), the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon where a wannabe prophet named Hananiah claimed their life would be back to normal within two years. The problem is, that’s not what God had in mind.
Instead, (Read Jeremiah 29) God told the prophet Jeremiah to write a letter to the captives and tell them it would be 70 years before relief would come. He instructed God’s people to settle in for the long haul – find work, buy houses, get married and buried there. In other words, “Buckle up, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.”
That’s not what any of us want to hear -especially not with what we’re going through right now. We want God to get rid of this pandemic quickly, so we can get back to doing what we’ve always done. We wanted corona will be a beer again. In his letter, Jeremiah adds these words of encouragement that we can take to heart. Words that will help us cling to hope when those emotions of hopelessness come around.
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." Jeremiah 29:11
How many times have you been faced with a bleak situation and someone tells you, “This must be part of God’s plan”? And how many times have you heard it and wanted to punch them in the throat for saying it... or scream B.S.?
This is not to say there isn’t hope in these words, there are. God’s not going to leave us out to dry. But when God’s plans doesn’t aligned with ours – who gets blamed? God does.
Nobody plans for a life altering pandemic any more than one pencils in their own funeral on a calendar. We plan weddings, vacations, graduations and holiday festivities. But things happen. Couples break up. Hurricanes close airports. And pandemics cancel important events. Are we to believe that this all part of God’s great plan?
It seem out of character for a loving God to have a “plan” that involves wiping out tens of thousands of people with a brutal virus. That’s Old Testament God, the one who killed first born males, and made it rain locus and fire. Maybe God had reasons for a massive flood, but it’s hard to believe it involved my brother in law getting cancer, or for a child to experience trauma and abuse. I once read “If every life event is being directed and controlled by God, then God is really bad at making plans.” (Cory 2016)
I do believe something bigger is going on. Whatever it is we just need to buckle up and be ready wherever we are. Jeremiah says hope is coming, but it’s not always going to come easy. God makes a promise for our welfare, but nowhere does the prophet say it will be comfortable all the time.
Is suffering part of the plan? Is that what God wants from us?
As Israel’s story reminds us, real hope often comes through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering; the hardest part of our faith. Maybe God planned it that way so we could experience life fully, ...with all the highs and lows and everything in between. I can’t pretend to know why there is suffering in our world. But I do know that our greatest strengths are often birthed from our darkest days.
Even when I can’t see it, I believe hope exists, living in the tension between my plans and God’s purpose for me. And I say God’s purpose because to be honest, I don’t see any of this as “a plan” per se. It’s way too messy and unpredictable. I think God has more of a desire and will for us then a plan. A way for everyone to live in the beauty of God’s grace and love.
Chris Blumhofer reminds us, “Whatever God wills and desires to bring into reality, is always beautiful.” Which tells me we need to look at the beauty of what’s happening in our live instead of looking for blame. So perhaps it’s not that we need to escape our suffering, but learn to search for God’s beauty in the midst of whatever it is we are going through.
What does God’s desire and will for us look like?
I think it’s safe to say it is to live in God’s love, and to be the love of God in the world. When we love others like God loves us then we don’t hoard toilet paper. Love is a great equalizer. A kind of virus that affects us all, and does not discriminate. It’s something none of should fear but should all catch.
But just because we have love us doesn’t mean our life will be absent of suffering. Whenever we love deeply, we will also suffer deeply because of that love. No one knows this better than Jesus, the perfect manifestation of God’s love in the world. For him to do God’s will would cost him his life. Yet, ironically, it is what gives us new life, new hope.
I’ll admit that this doesn’t explain why suffering is essential or necessary. But if we look to Jesus as our example, then we know we’re given the assurance that God does not abandon us in our suffering, but instead God’s love remains with us, in the tension, making the experience beautiful.watch the message here
So next time you’re tempted to tell someone who’s experiencing a great loss that this is God’s plan, think about this:
When you render someone’s suffering to a platitude that sounds good in a greeting card, you aren’t lessening their pain, you are merely diminishing the truth that our most fruitful growth comes while persevering through trials, not escaping them.
As Jesus demonstrated, real joy and peace can never be reached while bypassing suffering and death, but only by going right through them. Before the wondrous beauty of the resurrection there was the horrific brutality of the cross. In spite of all the darkness in our lives, we must never lose sight of that light of hope and bright future that shines far beyond the parameters of this life.
God is not winging it or making it up on the fly. The resurrection was not an afterthought, but was intentionally created for us, so that we could have hope in good times and bad. Yes, God is up to something, hard at work making life and love one in the same.
"This was the entire mission of Christ," writes Richard Rohr, “life morphing into love” until they become one with the One who gave us eternal life out of great love for us. To be in and like Christ is God’s purpose for us. Christ is the One through which God revealed the blueprint of all life, where hope and grace and love were already included.
In the ancient book of Lamentations, it’s written, "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning" (Lam. 3:21-23).
When everything is dark, and life seems hopeless or fearful, we can look to Christ and find salvation in God’s love which sustains us. We may not know when hope will come or how? But we can turn our eyes to the Cross of Christ and know what it looks like.
As the Christ, Jesus lived into love by submitting his will to do God’s will. His purpose was to show us the way to live into love faithfully and fearlessly; in times of certainty and uncertainty, through joy and through suffering, in life and in death. In Christ we come to see and realize that “love is who we are and who we are still becoming” (Rohr).
If God has a plan for us, I think it’s for love and life to become one with God. Love is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega and everything in between. So buckle up and settle in. Life is going to be bumpy. And that you can plan on.
Bible: Jeremiah 29:10-14 (New Revised Standard Version).
Blumhofer, Chris. relevantmagazine.com. December 10, 2010. (accessed October 13, 2016).
Cory, Benjamin. patheos.com. May 24, 2016. (accessed October 13, 2016).
DeMuth, Mary. www.marydemuth.com . Sept 10, 2015. (accessed Oct 13, 2016).
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And. (Cincinnati: Franciscan, 2013 ) p. 128.
Today I’d like to begin with a question that I often like to ask people. If you could possess just one of Jesus’ miraculous powers, which one would you chose?
To heal the sick, cast out demons, make the lame walk or the blind to see? While it would be more profitable to possess the ability to change water into wine, I’d settle with having his patients and compassion. Yes, it’s not a miracle per se unless you're quarantined with teenagers during a pandemic.
I once asked this question to a group of ministers, and I was surprised no one chose resurrecting the dead. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Maybe no one wanted to initiate a zombie apocalypse. Or they just assumed God owns this power outright?
As we begin the fourth week of Lent and continue our series on Hope and Resurrection, I have selected one particular bible story that point us towards God’s power over life…and death. It comes from long ago, long before the Easter miracle, back when God led a faithful prophet named Ezekiel into a vast, desert wasteland.
Read: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Imagine for a moment the Spirit of God carrying you to a place where the land is withered and the air is dead. There are no trees, no shrubs, no signs of water or life anywhere, except for a life that once was. All around you are piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones upon bones, as if giants had fed on smaller humans and tossed the remnants to the ground like a bunch of chewed up hot wings. If that’s not weird enough, God tells you to prophecy over the bones. Convince them to take a deep breath and get up because God’s going to do something really cool, and they won’t want to miss it.
It’s one thing to talk to the dead. But commanding them to rise up is a whole other thing. It’s clear Ezekiel has never seen Night of the Living Dead, or any Rob Zombie movie, because like any prophet worth his salt, Ezekiel does what God asks his to do.
He begins to preach. And preach he does. As the words pour out of his mouth, the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned as they once were. And the breath of God sweeps over them and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
The author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale – a story of God’s promise to breath life back into the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon. After all those years imprisoned in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
But here’s the thing, God hears their cries, just as God hears ours. In one grace filled breath their hope returns, and so will ours. Just as God resurrects the life of his people, so too does God resurrect our lives even when the odds of that happening are stacked against us. As we progress through this pandemic, we will be faced with new and difficult challenges. We too will have to find a way to put life back together again. Especially when we feel as lifeless as a pile of old bones.
As daunting and overwhelming as life might seem right now, must not lose hope. But be on guard because it’s in these moments doubt, depression, fear and anxiety sneak in and drag us away to a dry wilderness of hopelessness and despair. Just as God didn’t give up on Israel, God does not give up on you or me. I recently read a pneumonic for the word faith that I think is worth sharing. It goes like this: Feeling Afraid I Trust Him. Ezekiel trusted God. Even when all the things that he loved the most were taken from him, he still believed the bones could rise again.
In the season of Lent, we are called into the wilderness not to wither and die, but to lean on God, to inhale the very breath of God deep into our soul. Wherever you are right now, faithful or faithless, God is asking you “Can these bones live?” In other words, do you believe God can restore us back together again? Our hope lies in the answer.
If I am to believe Jesus then I believe God’s promise of restoration is real. This life, with all its unknowns, pain, and suffering, is not the end of the story. God hears our cries and comes to us, to breath new life in us.
If I believe in the incarnation, the very breath of God becoming flesh and bone in the man Jesus, then I can believe in his resurrection, and the new life that comes through him because of it.
If you believe that God’s promise is real, that these bones can live again, then you will find your hope – hope that will grow your faith and bring you closer to the very heartbeat of God’s love for you. But if you believe these bones will live, then you must ask yourself, what am I going do with my bones today? Will I raise the dead? Make the blind see and the deaf hear?
If that seem impossible, remember it was Jesus who said, the person who believes will not only do what he did but even greater things.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath is also the word for spirit. God’s spirit is breathed into you for a purpose, not just so we can have life, but so we can live life abundantly, fearlessly, graciously – as one united people. Jesus gave us his final breath, the very Spirit of God, so that we could proclaim the truth of God’s love for all things. Like him, we are to take that Spirit and be the miracle God wants us to be.
With a single breath, we can heal the sick with compassion and care. We can feed thousands of people by sharing our resources with one another. We can forgive sins and bless people no matter what. With God’s breath, we can resurrect the dead by being resurrection people.
God is calling us to prophecy to others by being people who show compassion and seek those who have been pushed out to the fringes and love them back into society. This is what Jesus' miracles were all about… returning people back to God where we all belong. This is what resurrection looks like. This is how our dry bones come back together, how we as a community and as a human race come back stronger and healthier than ever before.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague God’s creation, let us not lose the hope that God calls us out to the wilderness, just like Jesus was called out from the grave, to bring new life to those whose spirits are withered and dead.
And so I ask you, “Can these bones live?” If so, then let them know.
Let us pray: God of life, just as you have breathed us into being, so too does your breath push us out into the world to prophecy and proclaim the good news of Jesus the Christ, whose resurrection is the proof of you greatness and glory. Let us turn our eyes upon him, who taught us to pray saying:
God reckoned Abraham as righteous. That’s to say Abraham walked right with God. And God was satisfied. So, it seems to me that God has an appetite for righteousness. Are you righteous? How do we know? What does righteousness look like?
Does it mean being obedient to God’s law? If you know Abraham’s story, then you know he was obedient when God told him to leave home and go acquire land in the great unknown. However, it wouldn’t be for another few hundred years that God would give the law to Moses while he was leading Abraham’s descendants through the wilderness.
Maybe it means being perfectly good all the time? Never ceasing to do the right thing. Abraham was a good and just person, so much so God sends Melchizedek to blesses Abraham. But to be honest, Abraham was far from perfect. He was human like you and me. Although, there were a few times when his mistakes almost put God’s covenant in jeopardy.
There were also times when Abraham questioned and challenged God whose promise seemed a bit too good to be true. Although he was no saint, God reckoned Abraham righteous. Why? Simply because Abraham trusted what God said and lived his life accordingly.
No matter how messy his life got or how impossible things seemed be, Abraham held onto the hope of God’s word. And as such, God didn’t let him down.
There are many different ways we hold on to hope. My kids hope to pass a test. My friend hopes to get a job. And I hope more people will support our ministry. But as I have learned in life, whenever I put my hope in material things or in people, I expect to be disappointed because whether it’s intentional or unintentional, these things will let us down. Just as there will always be finite disappointment, we also have infinite hope in the One who will never let us down.
Read Romans 4:18-22
"Hoping against hope, Abraham believed.” This tells me that our righteousness is tied to what we believe. And not just any belief either. I can believe my kids when they say they did their homework, but it doesn’t mean they did it. I can believe my wife when she says she’s ready to go, but it doesn’t mean I won’t still be waiting another half hour to leave. I can believe my eyes see words on a page, but to believe that those words mean something to the way I live my life takes having faith in those words. Abraham believed the words God said to him, and his faith was made stronger because of it. This is true for us as well.
This does not to say Abraham never doubted, or never tried to take matters into his own hands. But when it mattered, Abraham faithfully trusts in God’s covenant promise, he believed and his faith grew and strengthened. Because of his faith, Abraham could step out of his comfort zone, to take great risks, and do what God has called him to do. And so can we. If we believe that God’s promises are real and trustworthy, then we have all that we need to do all that God needs us to do. Righteousness is tied to God’s righteous word…where we can put our hope.
With the looming threat of climate change, the current state of world politics, or a schizophrenic economy it’s easy for people feel hopeless. This sense of hopelessness, along with all the hypocrisy and division found in our religious communities, have pushed people to lose faith or stop believing all together.
If you’re feeling like this, you’re not alone. The Bible is filled with people who felt hopeless: Job, Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, and Elijah - all of these biblical heroes went through a crisis of faith. Imagine being a disciple and witnessing Jesus’ death. How does one recover one’s faith after the rug is pulled out from underneath all you believed in? They trusted that God’s word is true. The resurrection would be their proof.
In all their fears, doubts, and anxieties the steadfast love of God remained. God's love came to be with us in the flesh, to strengthen our hope and faith us no matter where we are in our journey.
Read Romans 4:23-5:2
Kintsugi is a perfect metaphor for Lent. It reminds us that we are broken vessels. While some of us might believe we are damaged beyond repair, God doesn’t see us that way. God sees our worth. Like a Kintsugi artist, God is the potter and Christ is the gold that bonds us back together. In the end, we are made new – worth more to God because of our golden scars. Hope and resurrection.
In his book A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” Hemingway’s suicide is a real reminder that life is hard. And it’s impossible to get through without suffering a few cracks along the way. Sadly, too many people give up on life simply because they feel hopeless. The Israelites suffer the same while wandering through an actual wilderness.
Read Numbers 21:4-9.
After Moses led the people out of Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Day after day they trampled around the grassy plains...not really sure where God was leading them. When they got thirsty, God gave them water. When they were hungry God gave them food. In spite of all that they were given, they still grumbled. In Egypt they feasted on fresh fruits and vegetables. But out here they at the same thing – manna, which literally translates as “what is this.”
It’s not too difficult then to understand how they felt like God was marching them to their death. They can't take much more. The uncertainty and fear of scarcity is too much for them. They begin to crack. They’d rather go back to being slaves than to suffer in this kind of freedom.
To be fair, slavery was all they knew. For hundreds of years they worked for the Pharaohs – making bricks in the hot sun...seven days a week, 365 days a year, brick after brick they worked. If they did not meet their quota, they were severely beaten. Eventually they were so broken that they cried out to the God of their ancestors who rescued them from their pain and suffering. So why would they want to go back to that place? Perhaps it’s easier to face the devil you know than to trust the unknown.
Think about those people who fight progress with thoughts of nostalgia because deep down inside they don’t really have hope. Maybe you’re one such person. Maybe you don’t believe that God’s means what God says, which requires trusting in the unknown. We’re no different than the Israelites. When life doesn’t go exactly as we want, we too begin to crack. And God gets an earful. Because that’s how we treat the one who gives and gives and gives. But Israel’s story reminds us that even God has a breaking point. When the complaining gets to be too much, God sends a pack of poisonous snakes to shut them up.
The people beg Moses to ask God for mercy. Moses gives in. And so does God, who offers an unusual antidote. Build a bronze snake and lift high on a pole. Anyone who looks at it will be cured and even the dead will come back to life. The people faithfully obey, and all is well for the time being. There will be more complaints and grumblings, but for now it's a happy ending filled with hope and resurrection.
Read Mark 1:9-13
Just as it was with the Israelites, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus out to the wilderness – not to be rescued but to be tempted. Why would God do that to him? Or anyone? Why does God send us out where there’s poisonous snakes and wild animals?
When I read the stories about Jesus’ time in the wilderness I can’t help but think that maybe he needed to face temptations in order to overcome his human nature, his ego. Maybe it is the only way he could fully embrace his divine? If that’s the case then maybe God allows us to be tempted so that we will be able to discover our own divine self. Maybe God sends us to places that will break us apart, so we can get rid of the things that are holding us back from truly becoming who God made us to be: beloved, beautiful works of art.
Mark doesn’t tell us the temptations Jesus faced, but his were no different than our own today. Temptation is temptation. But the hope we can cling to is that when Jesus went out among the wild animals he was not alone. There were angels who waited on him. What this tells me is that the wilderness is a scary place that will try to break us – the threat of attack is real. Yet God has a way of protecting and providing for us.
Like the bronze snake, Jesus will be lifted up. And all who fix their eyes upon him will be restored. Just as God saved the Israelites, so too does God save us. In Christ, we hold onto the hope that God’s promise is real – that not even death can keep us from living in God’s glory. Suffice it to say, we are given this Lenten season to look at our own cracks and complaints, and lift them up to the cross of Christ. Nailed to the cross is our hope. The golden bond of God’s love piecing us back together. In Christ, we are made new, and more valuable than before.
How wonderful it is then that our Lenten journey ends on Good Friday, where pain and love mingle together like broken ceramic and gold. What is created is Easter, the promise of God’s love and grace in its fullness and glory.
Hemingway was right to point out that the path to redemption is coated in pain and suffering. Being broken is an unavoidable part of living in this wilderness. But in Christ, God has made us something more beautiful, and more valuable. Our golden scars become a new story with a new history. The goal is not to hide our scars or pretend that our broken places never existed. But to wear them proudly knowing each scar is a testimony of God at work in our lives.
As you find yourself wandering or lost, not sure where to go or where you are headed, fix your eyes upon the cross. It’s not a magical symbol or icon, but a visible reminder of the hope we have knowing that even through death God rescues and saves us in the most spectacular way. Amen.
Let us pray, God of the living and of the resurrected, during this season of Lent, bring us closer to you. Prepare our hearts and homes for silence and solitude so that we may discover your grace in it’s entirety. Strengthen us with your Holy Spirit to fast from the things that threaten our well-being, and help us to feast on all that is good. When we feel the fear of failure tempting us away, let us never lose site of the cross of Christ so we can always walk in his ways.
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word, Lenten Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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