I Give You a Future with Hope

Jeremiah 29:10-14; Isaiah 65:17-25

Final in the series “A Future with Hope”

Do you believe God has a plan for your life?

The Sunday school answer that comes to us reflexively is, “Yes,” and we follow it with a quote of Jeremiah 29:11:  “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.”

Sometimes when we hear someone talk about “God’s plan,” it can almost sound manipulative, as when someone tries to get you to do something (or stop doing something) because they keep insisting it’s God’s plan for your life. For instance, a youth leader who warns the students not to use TikTok, telling them it will interfere with God’s plan for their lives. Or like the girl who walked up to a certain boy and said to him, “I know it is God’s plan for you to marry me, because you match all the things I expect in a husband.”

Maybe the way we use the phrase “God’s plan” can be detrimental to us or to others. It’s one thing to say that it was “all part of God’s plan” not to get the job you wanted, but it’s far more hurtful to say to someone who lost a loved one tragic accident or to an act of violence, “You know, it’s all part of God’s plan.”

When we think about God’s plan, we often drift toward meaning that there is something very specific that is supposed to be, like that girl who believed she was supposed to marry a man of a certain height, with specific traits, and a certain career. Or the person who is convinced he should be a firefighter or a teacher or another specific job because God told him so. But that view of God’s plan can lead us to become discouraged and think there may not be a plan for them if they’ve been wandering or exploring, or when they have a change in their life or their abilities and can no longer do what they used to be able to do. It can be a particular challenge, for example, when one retires from a career and wonders what is next. Or when a person is no longer as able to do the things they used to do and feels that they have nothing left to contribute.

When I was a 20-something adult discerning a call to pastoral ministry, I wrote to all 13 United Methodist schools across the country. As I sifted through all of information about programs and opportunities available, I slowly narrowed the list to four schools. Then I felt stuck. I couldn’t discern a clear choice, and so I prayed, reread material, talked to seminary staff or alums, prayed more. And still, no sense of clarity. I thought there was exactly one choice that was in God’s plan, and that I needed to choose that one to be faithful to God.

So I did something “biblical.” Remembering the story from 2 Kings 19 when King Hezekiah of Judah took a letter from the Assyrian king and laid it before God in the Temple seeking guidance, I took the letters and catalogs from the four schools to the altar of my home church, laid them out and prayed for God to show me which one to pick. I waited for a while that day and when a sense of clarity did not arrive, I gathered up my things and returned home to wait.

It was sometime later that awoke from a dream with a phrase in my mind: “Wherever you go, I am already there.” The answer didn’t fit or make sense in my understanding that God had a “plan” in mind that I was to discover and follow step-by-step through life. I had expected the name of a school; what God offered me was reassurance that, no matter what choice I made, God would be with me, because God was in all those places.

Maybe the word “plan” should be changed to help us think differently. I believe God has a purpose for our lives, no matter what our age or stage in life. That purpose unfolds as we live each day in God’s grace and grow in God’s love daily. And it involves our careers, family lives, friendships, and choices we make. In creation, we were each made in God’s image and likeness, which means we are God’s representatives in the world. It also means that each and every person at every age and ability is worthy of love, respect, and dignity. As we live into this reality, we fulfill part of God’s purpose for us.

A friend of mine from seminary knows his purpose is to serve others. He originally thought that meant he should be a pastor in a local church – that was God’s plan for him. Though he was ordained, he never felt that pastoral ministry resonated with him. So, he went back to school and completed a degree and licensure as a counselor. Now he feels fully alive, that this is where he needs to be. He’s still serving God’s people, just in another setting.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to his Jewish colleagues who were in exile in Babylon, he wrote to people who were displaced and disillusioned. Their sense of identity and faith in God were shaken to the core. He wrote a message of reassurance: “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” (Jer 29:10-11). Though they had been devastated, God still had a purpose for their wellbeing; God had in mind a future with hope.

When the people returned to Jerusalem, things did not go as they hoped. Life did not return to “normal,” to the “way it used to be.” Time had passed. The world around them had changed, and they had changed. Many of the people remained disillusioned. The prophet Isaiah wrote to these people and painted a vision for God’s purpose yet to come.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I am creating.”

Isaiah 65:17-18

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I am creating” (Isaiah 65:17-18). What a picture of a future with hope: pure joy without weeping or distress. A time when every child born lives a full lifetime, when 100-year-olds are considered teenagers. A day when natural enemies live together in peace, when there is no more violence or destruction in God’s world.

God’s ultimate purpose is to redeem all creation and a people to dwell with God in this new heaven and new earth. It is for people to be so shaped by the love of God in Christ that there is no room for gossip, dissension, hate, violence, or injustice.

Throughout this series, we’ve been thinking about God’s future with hope for our lives and for our church. Along the way, we have been confronted with the reality that the world around us has changed. The neighbors around our homes and our church have changed. The demographics of our community have changed. Attitudes toward religion and participation in church have shifted, and people in general are less interested in engaging with church. If you are in a civic group or service organization, you have already experienced this truth and know that your organization has been struggling. What is God’s plan for us amid this?

If we expect a recipe with a few easy and specific steps, we’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not what God has for us. Rather, God intends for us to fulfill God’s purpose for us as a church. What is that purpose? We are to be a community of people in authentic relationship with Christ and one another, growing in grace and truth, serving and empowering others, and inviting all into relationship with Jesus and with us.

We are to be a community of people in authentic relationship with Christ and one another, growing in grace and truth, serving and empowering others, and inviting all into relationship with Jesus and with us.

During the pandemic, we all learned the importance of digital ministry. We were already equipped to stream worship online, and we grew in that ability. We found more people connecting with us in this way than we had worshiping in person in a very long time, if not ever. We experimented with ways to engage worshipers, so they became more than passive viewers. Now that we are back in person, we still have many people connecting with us. Before the pandemic, most churches saw an intentional digital ministry that involved more than just live streaming as a far-off opportunity; now we understand it is here to stay, and churches have both the challenge and opportunity to develop an online ministry that helps people grow in relationship with God and each other, and invites others to join in. This will require some changes in the ways we prepare and produce services, classes, and other events. St. Andrew’s is in a unique position to move in this direction.

God’s future with hope also calls for us to reach our neighbors in the community by finding ways to meet them where they are, get to know them, and listen to their needs as well as the gifts and strengths they bring. It is no longer enough, if it ever was, to think that our sign out front tells them we are here and that they are welcome. Even our website and social media pages are not enough. Engaging our neighbors and inviting them into relationship with us and through us, with Christ takes all of us. We are all part of this – it cannot be left to one committee or to our staff to reconnect us with our neighbors.

Engaging our neighbors and inviting them into relationship with us and through with Christ takes all of us.

These are just a couple of key opportunities to live into God’s future with hope. Does this mean that change might come? The reality is, whether or not we want it or recognize it, change is already upon us. The community has changed around us; there are many more who have never experienced church or have a negative view of church than ever before. Time passes, and our congregation ages. People who were here 20 years ago are no longer able to participate, and in 5, 10, 20 years, some who participate today will no longer be able to. We can try to resist change, but it will still come, whether we are ready for it or not. It’s natural and normal to fear change, but we must be careful that we don’t let fear tear us apart. God has brought us together for this time, and whatever is next, God is with us now and already present in the future.

Today is our opportunity to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives and our congregation in 2022 and beyond. As we move into the future with hope, we need to recommit ourselves to staying in love with God through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines, such as Bible study, prayer, worship, meditation, receiving Communion, and sharing life in small groups. We need to recommit ourselves to building authentic relationships with one another and mutually supporting one another, getting to know one another better – not just our old friends, but making new ones. That will help us build trust with one another, with leaders, and with pastors. I admit that too often, I have been task-focused rather than taking time to build authentic relationships with some of you, and for that I apologize and ask your forgiveness as I strive to do better. We need to move beyond isolating ourselves in tribes of people who think or look alike. We must guard our hearts against the vitriol of our divided society and politics so it does not lead us to tear each other down through gossip, dissension, and mean-spirited behavior; instead, we need to be gracious and building each other up in the loving spirit of Christ. We also need to recommit ourselves – each of us – to welcoming everyone with openness and acceptance. It does no good for ten people are welcoming if one or two are unkind. When we can grow in these areas, we will be well-positioned to move into God’s future with hope – together.

Today we have opportunities to reflect on how God might be calling us to participate in the life of the church – through our prayers, our presence in worship and other events, our spiritual and financial gifts, our service to God and neighbor, and our witness for Jesus Christ to the world. One practical way to participate is through our financial giving. Today you have an estimate of giving card for 2022. This is your opportunity to prayerfully respond to God’s blessings in your life and to participate by giving resources to God through St. Andrew’s to carry out present and future ministry. There are two sides to complete, which help us update our contact information for you. This is truly an estimate of giving, so if you find in 2022 that your circumstances change, just contact our office to update your estimate. When you return this completed, our Finance Committee, Church Council, and staff can responsibly plan for God’s work through St. Andrew’s in 2022. I invite you to take a moment and fill out the card now. At the end of the service, you simply drop your card in one of our offering plates. If you aren’t ready today, take the card home and return it next week or by mail.

This congregation is a gift, to us and to the world, for more reasons than we can count. But perhaps the greatest blessing of all is that this church is a place of homecoming and hope, a place we come together to hear the good news, again and again, that even in the midst of crisis, God says to us, “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” (Jer 29:10-11). Are you ready to join God In this future with hope? May It be so. Amen.

Prayer

God of love and generosity, for the gifts you have dispersed into the world, we give you thanks: the people, the money, the hope, and the life. For all that has been gathered here from that dispersal, the people, the money, the hope, and the life, we give you thanks. Give us the strength to be separated, the courage to be commissioned, the generosity to give, and the wisdom to send ourselves and our money where you would have them go. Send your Spirit on us and in us, wherever we are, O God, and on this of envisioning our giving for 2022, for we have gathered ourselves and these offerings in the name of our Good Shepherd, the One who lives in exile with us, the One who leads us home: In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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