What does the future have in store? That is a question that most people ask at one time or another. Where is life leading? What will I be doing next year? In five years? In 25 years? It’s a question young people ask. What job will I do? Where will I live? Will I marry and have a family? It’s the question may people find themselves asking in their forties, when some are facing a “mid-life crisis”. Where is my life going to? And many face the same question at retirement. Is this the end of life or a new beginning? What does the future have in store? The question also raises its head in times of crisis, of illness or family problems or accident or change of job or bereavement. At times of change facing an uncertain future can be exciting but it can also be challenging and even terrifying.
The Bible has answers to all of these questions and all of our problems because it is the Word of the God who knows the future, the God who holds the destinies of nations and of every individual in the palm of His hands, the God Who knows us better than we know ourselves.
So we turn to the prophet Jeremiah preaching just after 600 BC to the Jews who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. If anybody has ever faced an uncertain future it was those exiles, in human terms anyway. And the message Jeremiah has for them from God brings both encouragement and challenge. It is a message which is just as relevant to God’s people in every age as they face the changes and uncertainties which are a part of human existence. And the heart of the message even for you and for me is this.
God has a perfect plan for our lives.
Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.
Many people will tell you that the whole of life is just one giant game of change. Other people will say, “You make your own destiny – there is no future except what we make for ourselves.” Others talk of karma, what goes around comes around, you get what you deserve. It’s all up to you. Lots of people believe in Fate, good luck and bad luck, and there is no shortage of ideas around to find out what the future holds – astrology and horoscopes, fortune tellers and Tarot cards and crystal balls, Ouija boards and séances and even witchcraft. All these ways of predicting the future are empty, or at worst positively evil. The Bible tells us that our lives are in God’s hands, and He has a perfect plan for each of our lives. God’s words through Jeremiah to the exiles are just as true for us in our lives today.
Jeremiah 29:11 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 a hope and a future.
The Israelites had every reason to feel discouraged and depressed. They had been defeated and invaded and deported. They were in exile in Babylon. They needed reminding that God’s plans for his chosen people are always ultimately for our best welfare, to help us not to harm us, to prosper us and give us a future and a hope. God’s plan is not for us to be sad all to time, or struggling all the time, or suffering all the time, or even bored all the time! God’s cosmic master-plan is to bless His children, to take care of us and fill our lives with good things. God does this because He loves us! Let’s take a moment to remember just how much God does love us!
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Sometimes in our minds we underestimate how much God loves and set limits on the wonderful things He might do in our lives. So Paul reminds us:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
God’s perfect plan for every Christian is that we should live fulfilled lives, for us to be holy and loving, knowing our Heavenly Father better and better and rejoicing in Christ our Saviour.
And God has a perfect plan for every church too. That we might have sincere unity, spirit-filled worship, powerful witness and continual growth in maturity and service. This is God’s perfect plan for His church the Body and Bride of Christ.
But if there is one very obvious lesson we can learn from the Israelites’ years of exile in Babylon it is this.
God’s perfect plan does not always happen immediately.
The Israelites were going to have to wait quite a while for the blessings God had promised them.
Jeremiah 29:10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.
The Israelites would have to wait seventy years for God’s promise. That whole generation which had sinned so much that God sent judgment on the nation would have to die out. Those decades of exile were their punishment for neglecting and rejecting God. They were exiled to teach them a lesson and bring them back close to God again. Those seventy years were part of God’s discipline on His chosen people, just as the forty years wandering in the wilderness had been. And we have been reminded before from the letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7, 10-11) that sometimes God will discipline Christians too.
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? …. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Sometimes it may seem that God is withholding his blessings from us. In those times it may be right to ask, “Is this an expression of God’s discipline? Is there something I must learn from this experience? Or is there something we as a church together need to learn, before God’s perfect plan can proceed?”
Of course, the hardships we face or painful situations we need to endure are not always an expression of God’s disciple. Sometimes instead God’s perfect plan is waiting for other events to unfold or other people to act. And sometimes God’s blessing or our rescue are held in wait because of factors we cannot even begin to imagine within the immense complexities of God’s cosmic master-plan.
Remember the story of the Exodus. God heard the cries of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt. So he arranged for Moses to be born as a Jew but be brought up in in Pharaoh’s house. But it was 40 years before Moses realised the sufferings of God’s people, and another 40 years of preparation in the wilderness before God called Moses from the burning bush. That was almost a century of suffering in slavery before God’s chosen deliverer was ready to lead the Exodus. And it would be another 1400 years before God’s perfect timing sent Jesus. “Just at the right time, while we were powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6)
So it was that in God’s perfect timing, Israel’s return from exile was inseparably intertwined with God’s purposes in the destiny of the vast empire of the Babylonians. If we can’t see how God’s perfect plan is working out in our own lives right now, maybe there are other factors in the lives of people and nations around us which would explain the timing of the things God is doing in our lives and in our church. Sometimes God’s perfect plan is waiting for other things going in the world. But alternatively, sometimes God’s perfect plan is waiting for us! Because we can be open to God’s blessing, but sometimes we can be closed to it! As we can see very clearly from the experience of the exiles,
God’s perfect plan waits for our wholehearted obedience and prayer.
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 upon 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.”
God had made wonderful promises to Israel. God is faithful and He always keeps His promises. But the Israelites had been sent into exile as punishment for their idolatry and immorality and lack of faith. God was not going to set them free and bring them back to Jerusalem until they had learned their lessons and put their trust in God again. God’s blessings were waiting for the Israelites to pray, and pray wholeheartedly and single-mindedly.
So often through history God’s perfect plans for His children have had to wait because they were not ready to receive the great blessings He had planned for them. Don’t get the wrong idea. I am not saying that we can ever earn or deserve God’s blessings by faith or by obedience or even by praying and seeking God with all our hearts. All God’s blessings to us are the free gifts of His grace. The point is that prayer and seeking God are the channels through which God’s ocean of love can flood into our lives and into our church. Prayer is the tap which allows the grace to flow. Often if God’s blessings don’t seem to be coming to us, the problem lies within ourselves. Instead of seeking God wholeheartedly, we are only half-hearted in our prayer or our faith or our worship or our witness. If so, then we are the losers – because God’s perfect plan will only unfold in the lives of those who are wholeheartedly seeking Him.
The New Testament brings us the same challenge. Hear these words from James 4:6-10
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
James was writing to Christians who thought they were doing fine, but they weren’t. Instead they were proud and complacent and self-satisfied. They knew nothing about the passionate hungering and thirsting after God which the Psalmist talked about and which Jeremiah is demanding. Those early Christians had lost their first love. They were no longer seeking God wholeheartedly. So James gives them what is at the same time an encouragement and a challenge to repentance, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
God has a perfect plan for each of his lives and for every church. But that perfect plan does not always happen immediately. Sometimes God wants to teach us something first. Sometimes His plan is waiting for other events or other people. But sometimes the blessings God is longing to pour out on His children or on His church are waiting for our wholehearted obedience and prayer. Sometimes waiting for us to turn to God in repentance and faith.
I remember watching a video of a factory assembly line. I can’t remember whether it was bottles of fizzy drink or jars of jam. But at the very end of the line the conveyor belt got clogged up and these jars or bottles got stuck and started to pile up on top of each other higher and higher, because nobody was there taking them away. I sometimes wonder if something like that is happening in heaven right now with all the blessings God is just waiting to pour into our lives but the very last stage is missing. We aren’t praying. We are not seeking God with all our hearts. Watchman Nee wrote, “The children of God are taken up with far too small things, whereas their prayer is intended for the release of heaven’s mighty acts. The church should be heaven’s outlet, the channel of release for heaven’s power. Many things have accumulated in heaven because God has not yet found His outlet on earth: the church has not yet prayed!”
God’s perfect plan may just be waiting for us to be ready to receive it. If we don’t pray, nothing is going to happen! “Many things have accumulated in heaven because … the church has not yet prayed!”
Jeremiah 29:11 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. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.