I’ve been reading through Jeremiah and Lamentations over the past couple of months. Its been a fascinating and very challenging read. It has however made me very grateful that God did not ask me to be an Old Testament prophet! Parallel to my reading in Jeremiah has been another challenging period for our family. Below I detail three recent disappointments and some of the questions they raise before turning to some reflections from the life of Jeremiah…
Firstly last week was quite difficult as a nasty sickness/stomach bug killed off our hopes of travelling to Devon last weekend. It was to be a restful weekend for Debbie and I while the kids ‘partied’ with Grannie & Gramps for the whole weekend! All of us (except for Jacob) managed to come down with the bug and even Grannie had it too at the start of this week. It also caused havoc for the student ministry as we had to relocate the fortnightly ministry night elsewhere for fear of infecting the group! Suffice to say it was not a highlight and we were left quite disappointed to miss out on some restful time away (especially in Devon). It is hard to understand why these things happen in the way that they do…there were plenty of other weeks which would have had less impact on our family, ministry and plans to get away. While questions remain we realise that we must trust that there was purpose in all of this even if we cannot see it.
Secondly it has been quite a discouraging period for Debbie following the re-emergence of some of the mental health struggles she has had over the past year. The start of this coincided with the one year anniversary of Debbie being in hospital last year which itself has brought back lots of memories for us both. These challenges have served to put hope back ‘in the dock’ and there has been a real sense of our notion of hope being under attack once more. Everything had been on such a positive trajectory and we’d had such a great and generally trouble free summer in Norway. Neither of us want to go back to the places we found ourselves in last year! God willing that will not be the case (and it is not looking likely to be) but it has raised a number of questions. The local NHS mental health teams are providing good support and are working hard to get on top of things. The challenge for us is that it is so easy to place our hope in good health rather than Jesus Himself.
The final discouragement actually comes from our work with the student ministry. After a somewhat drawn-out process which eventually led us back into student work we had an excellent start. At our welcome BBQ in September there was a whole host of new people and there was a real sense of hope and excitement about all that God had in store for us in the coming year. Whilst much of that excitement still remains we are sad to say that many of those new people do not seem to have committed to the group. Working in a somewhat over-crowded market there is much on offer for students to be involved with and many are still deciding what to give their time to. We do however have a fantastic core of existing students who have been a real encouragement and are really engaging with the new ministry structure and format. We give thanks for them but continue to trust God to supply others to join us as we follow Christ together and seek to help and equip one another to be labourers for Christ. We want to do the work that Jesus has prepared for us to do but we are ever so conscious that unless the Jesus goes with us and is building with us we are building in vain (Psalm 127:1).
I want to turn now from the discouragements of our own lives to those that Jeremiah faced. In Jeremiah 28 we find a confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah. At this point during the reign of King Zedekiah Judah is in exile in Babylon. Standing in an empty temple in Jerusalem the prophet Hananiah prophesies that God would rescue them from captivity and restore the nation within two years. All the stolen things, all the people forced into slavery, everything will be restored in two short years. This must have sounded great, it would have been very popular and would have provided much hope. Jeremiah however recognised the prophesy as a lie and told Hananiah that “The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies”(28:15). You see hope that is based on lies is no hope at all – it is a false hope. It is in that context that Jeremiah writes a letter (recorded in chapter 29) in which he reiterates (see chapter 25) that they would spend seventy years in captivity. Maths was never my strongest suit but even I can see that seventy years is substantially different than two years! The message was that they and their children would die in captivity in Babylon. The application of the message was that they should settle down and prepare for a long wait. These words would have surely been a huge discouragement and yet it is amidst this despair that God gives this promise;
“‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile’.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)
The message is clear, God has plans to give His people a ‘hope and a future’ and He promises that if they seek Him they will find Him. God promises that His plans are to prosper them and not to harm them. You see even in the face of the discouragement about their exile and captivity, God was offering them Hope. This was a hope that would not disappoint (Romans 5:5), a hope that would sustain, energise and motivate them in the years ahead. God was still at work; both for their good and for His glory. That didn’t mean it was going to be easy but even amidst this national disaster God had not deserted them and He had promised that He would one day set things right. Two chapters later in Jeremiah 32 God asks Jeremiah to buy a field in the land and put the ‘deed of purchase’ in a clay jar so that it would last a long time. God then promises Jeremiah that “houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (32:15). The field was a tangible reminder that God would make good on His promise to restore them to the land.
We live under the New Covenant. We live in a different place and a different context but the application for us is the same. Paul writes that all the promises of God are “Yes in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20). God says to us that He has a plan to give us a hope and a future’. God is working all things together for our good if we trust Him. Notice that the blessings God promised for His people are intrinsically linked to their relationship with Him (29:12-14). God sets out His promise which He says should lead them to ‘call on Him’ and ‘pray to Him’. If they do, God promises to listen to them. God says that He will be found by them if they seek Him with all of their hearts. Then He would pour out His blessings and bring them back from exile and the same is true for us! God’s promises do apply to us but our responsibility is to seek Him, trust Him and love Him even in the disappointments that life brings our way. Seeking God will not always result in instant solutions but it will help us to realise there is a bigger perspective. God will resolve the disappointments of life in ways that far exceed our short sighted perspective!
Discouragement is defined by Google as “sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfilment of one’s hopes or expectations.” I cannot relate to the discouragements that Jeremiah faced but I do recognise the discouragements that we are currently facing. We don’t know the future, we don’t know how things are going to work out. Yet we know that God is working for our good and for His glory. We know that He has plans for our life to give us a hope and a future. We know God and so we strive to seek Him, to be found by Him and to rest in His presence. There will always be discouragement but God’s plan to give us a hope and a future will always remain. There are plenty of ‘false hopes’ to pin our hope to but in the end the only that will not disappoint is Jesus Himself. Where are you placing your hope?