Terri and I would like to thank you again for the very warm welcome you have extended to our family.
You know, preaching to a new congregation (even one you may have served in the past) can be a little nerve-wracking. There is so much you want to say to your new congregation about what you believe, how you understand ministry, and your visions and dreams for the years ahead – that you hardly know how to get it all in. I have lots to say, and my tendency is to try to say everything in my first few sermons.
It reminds me of a wonderful story about a young preacher who was assigned to a little church way out in the country. The first Sunday, only one person showed up for the morning service – a little old man in bib-overalls. The young preacher said to the man, “Brother, you seem to be the only one to show up this morning. Should I preach, or what?” The little old man replied, “Well sir, I ain’t no preacher, I’m just an old farmer, but if I had a truck-load of hay, and I went to the pasture and only one cow showed up, I’d feed that cow!” Inspired by those words of wisdom, the preacher began to preach like he never had before, he preached everything he had learned or heard and then began making stuff up. Finally after two hours, he finished. He looked to the little old man and said, “Well, brother, what did you think of my first sermon?” The man replied, “Well, sir, I ain’t no preacher, I’m just a little old farmer, but if I had a truck-load of hay and I went to the pasture and only one cow showed up, I wouldn’t dump the whole load!”
I’ll try not to dump the whole load of hay on you this morning – there will be plenty of sermons to come – you’ll just have to come every Sunday to be fed!
In fact, beginning next Sunday, I will begin a nine week sermon series I’m calling “Back to Basics” – a refresher course in the basics of the Christian faith, according to our Wesleyan understanding of the Way of Salvation – from original sin, through the working of God’s grace, to justification by faith, and on to holiness and Christian perfection. I hope you will make it a point to be in worship every Sunday for the next couple of months. And, if there are folks in your family, or neighbors, or friends who have questions about the Christian faith, why not invite them to come with you to worship throughout the series so they can hear how they can have a relationship with God, and experience the new life that Jesus Christ makes possible! Your invitation might change their life and their eternal destiny for ever! So please, invite folks to come with you to worship!
Our scripture text this morning is very familiar to most of us – it is one of my favorite scriptures, and may very well be one of your favorites. It is a word for us that gives us encouragement whenever our lives becomes difficult – and we all have been through moments like that – especially this year.
When trouble comes into our lives, it’s natural that we begin to question whether God is even concerned about our trials and tribulations. We can start to wonder if our God is the cause of our troubles – or even begin to feel that God is out to get us. When the circumstances of our lives turn our world upside down, it is easy for us to lose our faith and become discouraged and feel hopeless. I don’t know what you are going through this morning, maybe you are there right now.
But then we hear those wonderful words, “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,” and our faith is restored. It is a word of hope and encouragement that applies to our lives no matter what may be happening. It is God’s assurance that he not only understands and cares about what we are going through, but that he is already at work leading us to a brighter and more hopeful future. It’s no wonder this verse has become a favorite of so many people.
But how many of us stop to consider the context of those familiar words? As I have been transitioning to become your pastor and have become reacquainted with this congregation and its strengths and it’s challenges, God has kept leading me back to this passage in Jeremiah – not just verse 11, but the larger section out of which that verse is taken – a passage that is addressed to the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon. And as I read over the larger passage, I began to hear from God a word for this congregation – a word of encouragement and hope. Listen to this passage and see if you don’t hear a message from God to us this morning at Tomoka?
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon… 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…
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.
Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord,
and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Did you hear a word from God for us? No? Let me unpack this text a little, and I think it will become clearer.
As I said, in this passage, the prophet Jeremiah is addressing the Jewish people who were living as exiles in Babylon. Just in case you aren’t up on your biblical history, let me refresh your memory: Around 1000 BC, King David united the tribes of Israel – those descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob – and established a Jewish kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital. Later, the Jewish kingdom was split into two, Israel and Judah.
Eventually, the Jewish kingdoms were caught up in the rise of the Babylonian Empire, and by 587 BC, the Jewish kingdoms were overrun by the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, and carted many of the Jews off to live as exiles in Babylon. The Jewish people languished in Babylon for nearly a century before the Persian Empire would defeat the Babylonians, and finally allow the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem.
In this passage, Jeremiah is speaking to the Jews at their lowest point as they lived in exile. You can imagine how devastated and discouraged they must have been – struggling to come to terms with the calamity that had befallen their nation.
As the chosen people of God, theirs was a rich and glorious history. God had acted in miraculous ways to lead his people, showing favor on Abraham and the patriarchs, liberating them from captivity in Egypt through Moses, and guiding them through a wilderness to establish a Jewish nation in the land God had Promised them. God had blessed them through David to establish a kingdom that followed God’s Law, and built a temple where God could be worshiped. Theirs was this glorious history that they were very proud of. And then came this great calamity.
The Jews had lost just about everything. Their Promised Land that God had given them was now occupied by a pagan army. Their precious temple was in ruins – along with their beloved religious practices of priests and sacrifices. They were aliens living in a foreign land, pining for the good old days when they were prosperous and successful – when they felt God’s blessing and favor on their community of faith.
The author of Psalm 137 expresses their despondency poignantly, when he writes: “Our captors asked us for songs… saying ‘sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” They felt abandoned and hopeless, and wondered if God even cared. And who could blame them?
At first glance, like last weeks text about Jacob dreaming of a ladder to heaven, this scripture may also seem like an odd text for us to reflect on this morning – this second Sunday of my ministry here. What connection could there possibly be between the fate of the Jewish people living in exile 2500 years ago, and us here at Tomoka UMC this morning? More than you might imagine:
Over the past few months, as I have prepared to come to be your pastor, I have tried to learn as much as I could about what has happened in this congregation during the decade I have been absent from Tomoka. In doing so, I was reminded what I already knew – that, like the Jewish people, this church has a rich heritage. I know, and I share, the deep pride you have in this congregation – a church that has served the Ormond community for nearly half a century. Tomoka has a rich history of vital, multigenerational ministry that has touched many lives. It is clear that you have a great deal of love for this church and the beloved fellowship we all have shared down through the years.
But, as I have had conversations with some of you, I have sensed that, while there is strong faith and a loving spirit here, there is also in the congregation a spirit of discouragement – an awareness that Tomoka UMC is not as healthy and vital as it once was – that our best days are behind us. The congregation has shrunk in size, is aging, and has fewer families with children. But on a brighter note, thanks to your faithful giving throughout this pandemic, we are in a pretty good place financially. But (like so many congregations today) we will likely experience financial challenges in the years to come.
As I have been reacquainting myself with you all, I can tell there is clearly a desire to see Tomoka be revived to its former glory, but there seems to be a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what we must do in order to bring those days back. Am I right? I may be reading this wrong, but I don’t think so.
And here is our parallel with the Jewish people in our text. They also were dealing with a spirit of discouragement as they looked back to the good-old-days. They were struggling to make sense of their new circumstances as they tried to adjust to what it means to be God’s people in a foreign land. They pined for what they had lost, and dared not dream of a new and bright future. The Jewish people were in exile, and in many ways, so is Tomoka!
But then, Jeremiah comes along and assures them and us that God has not forgotten us. And not only that, that our God is a God of new beginnings!
God has planned for his people a new future – a future with hope!
The past was indeed glorious, and the present may be a struggle – but God has promised us a new future – a hopeful future. And in this text God gives us instructions on how we can live into this new future.
And so this morning, I want to propose that we as a congregation devote ourselves to following this blueprint for living in to God’s future we find in this text: What are those steps? There are three:
The first thing God tells us to do, if we are to know this hopeful future, is to be intentional about praying for and seeking the welfare of our community.
God says, 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. The Jews were so busy lamenting their fate that they forgot that God had called them to be a light to the nations.
God had planted them in the heart of a pagan land – to be a witness for him to the Babylonians – what better place could there possibly be to “be light,” than in the midst of darkness. In the section of the text we didn’t read, God tells them that they are to marry and have families and give their children in marriage, because they aren’t going home any time soon. Instead of pining for the past, they were to live for Him in the present and be a witness to their pagan neighbors.
The Jews were physically removed to a community where they were the foreigners. Now, our congregation hasn’t moved, but in the past half-century our community and our society has changed dramatically, so much so that we may feel like foreigners in our own city. The Ormond Beach of the 1970s gave birth to a strong and vital church. However, that Ormond is no more – and isn’t coming back! The city has changed – and we have to change with it. I believe God is saying to us – don’t sit around lamenting that times have changed and don’t isolate yourself from the community around you, but instead intentionally engage the community, as foreign as it may seem to us. As God said to the Jews living in Exile, “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.” Tomoka Church will begin to prosper once more – if we focus our attention on those in our community outside our walls – if we care for them, more than we care for ourselves. Live for God in the present, and be His witness! Be God’s light shining in the darkness of the community around you.
Our congregation already is doing this in many ways: This church has long supported ministries to help those beyond our church, such as Halifax Urban Ministries, Family Renew Community, Palmetto House, the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, and Faith – among others. That’s amazing! But we can do more. We must make it a point to – not just support ministries financially, but to get to know the diverse people in our community – our neighbors who may be different from us, to pray for them, and to seek their welfare. Why? Because it is in serving and engaging our community that God will bless our church with revival.
One thing that means is that whatever Tomoka UMC will look like in the future, it won’t look like the past. When this church was founded by Sadie Bleekman and the folks at First Ormond in 1979, it flourished because it served the community as it was in 1979. When the church blossomed in the late nineties and early two thousands, it grew and prospered because it served the Ormond community as it existed in those decades. Now it is 2021. The only way this (or any church) can be effective and have a hopeful future is to serve the community – as it exists today!.
As God’s word puts it plainly, “Seek the welfare of the city… because in its welfare you will find your welfare.” So, my hope and prayer is that this congregation will be a congregation that wants to serve our City. That’s the first thing.
The second thing we must do in order to have a future with hope is to be a praying church. If we want to have a future with hope, the only way to discern the direction God wants to lead us – is through prayer.
In the text we hear God say, When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.”
Prayer is the key to everything we do as Christians and as a church. I know that this is a praying church. I’m glad for that, because nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without prayer. And, it’s going to take a lot of prayer to discern the direction God would have us move in the future. To bring revitalization and growth to our congregation, we will need to be following God’s leading. And the only way to know God’s will is through prayer. I will be praying fervently to hear God’s direction for our church, and I am asking you to be in prayer, as well – because with prayer, all things are possible!
Which leads me to the final thing I believe God is saying to us this morning: We must learn to trust God with our future. We have to claim God’s promise that the best days of this congregation are NOT in the past – With God’s leading, the best days of Tomoka UMC are in the future – a bright future, but a future that will not look like the past, nor the present. We must change!
When the Jews were finally able to return to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish their faith-practices, they discovered that their experiences in Exile had changed them. The old religious practices that had served them well in earlier times no longer served them well. They realized that, to serve God in a new day, they would need to reform the Jewish religion so it fit them to meet the future. As Jesus would later say, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)
As we trust God to lead us into a new future, we will need to change some ways we “do Church” in order to become effective again. The challenge for our congregation in the months ahead will be to discern what we must reform in our church’s life and ministries to accommodate the “new wine” God wants to pour into us!
In our text, God pledges to the Jews, what he had pledged to Jacob and to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, longing for their Promised Land: “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place… I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord…”
Friends, God does not make promises He doesn’t keep! As we move forward, we must trust God with our future, we must claim His promise, and we must live into it wherever God leads us.
When challenging times come in our lives or in the life of a church, often we have trouble trusting God. We fret and flail around and allow discouragement to overwhelm us. Instead of relying on God to take the lead toward the hopeful future he has planned, we try to chart our own course, and then wonder why we fail.
The Book of Proverbs sums up well what I believe God is telling this congregation as we move into the future:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
The secret to our success as a congregation can be summed up with these words: We need to learn to trust God more. Only when we allow God to direct our paths as a congregation can we experience the future God wants for us. In short, we must have faith that God is in control and let him lead.
That, my friends, is what I believe God is saying to us as a congregation today. It is how I plan to lead us as we vision a new future for Tomoka UMC, a future filled with hope – because God has promised us – no less!