"Standing Firm"
Sermon Preached
by Gregory Knox Jones

October 10, 2010
Jeremiah 29:1-2, 4-9


Why does life seldom unfold as we imagine?  Unexpected events intrude to alter the future we envision.  The economy crashes and our job is in jeopardy.  Loved ones die before their time or linger for years with dementia.  Accidents happen.  Nations descend into war.  Illness strikes.

We hope that life will include sailing tranquil waters toward a golden sunset, but sooner or later we learn that life also demands surviving turbulent seas.  How do we make the most of life when we find ourselves in troubled waters?

Some people flounder because they cannot get past the "Why?" question.  Why did this have to happen?  Why did this happen to me?

People prone to blaming themselves for their problems imagine that they have done something to deserve their misfortune.  Some quickly jump to the conclusion that God is punishing them for an earlier misdeed and they cannot get past the guilt.

People prone to blaming others for their problems spend their time searching for the guilty party.  Once they land on a suspect, they focus their energy on telling others who is to blame for the calamity.

Regardless of why the disaster struck, we want to be delivered from our misery as quickly as possible.  On Law and Order, CSI and the other television crime shows, the villains are menacing for awhile, but by the end of the hour they are out of business.  Similarly, we expect our problems to drag us down for a short period but, in no time at all, we expect the problem to be resolved so that we can get back to the good life.

In today's passage, the prophet Jeremiah wants people of faith to understand that not all problems are resolved on a short timeline, yet life does not need to be trouble free to be rewarding. Wellbeing is possible even in the midst of hardship, dislocation and shattered dreams.

In 597 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Israel and deported the government leaders, the priests, the elders, the artisans and the skilled laborers.  Most were forcibly removed from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, but he sent prophetic oracles in the form of letters to those now living in exile.

Part of his message was for the people to cover their ears to the false prophets among them who were promising a short exile and an early return to their homeland.  Like political candidates who tell the voters what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear, these pseudo prophets boasted of an overly optimistic timetable.  They declared that their sojourn in the foreign land would be over in no time at all.  The Hebrew exiles wanted to believe that their ordeal would be brief so they were eager to latch onto the rosy predictions.  However, Jeremiah's oracle warned them not to listen to those touting a quick turnaround.

The truth was not pretty, but as the mouthpiece of God, Jeremiah was compelled to deliver it.  He counseled those in exile to stand firm in their faith because their sojourn in the foreign land would be lengthy.

Following World War II, Winston Churchill was attending a dinner where a man stood up and spoke to those gathered, "At the Battle of the Bulge, the British soldiers proved that they were braver than the German soldiers.  That was the difference between victory and defeat."  But, Churchill rose and said, "Not so.  The German soldiers were equally as brave as the British soldiers, but the British soldiers were brave for five minutes longer."1

That's what Jeremiah was saying to the exiles.  Times will be very difficult, but don't give up.  You will not be coming home soon, but hang in there.

It is wise counsel for all of us.  When your life is a struggle, sometimes what makes all the difference is your tenacity to keep going for as long as it takes.  Jeremiah advises the exiles on how they can survive their ordeal.  They are to live as normally as possible despite their less than optimal circumstance.  He says "Do not put off the business of daily living and working toward a future.  Build houses, plant crops, raise children and see that they get married and raise families."  Even though they feel like crawling onto their straw mats and pulling the covers over their heads, they are not to despair.  Jeremiah challenges the exiles to thrive despite their dreadful situation.

If you are out of work and you have interviewed for two dozen jobs and you have nothing to show for it, keep getting up in the morning and looking for a job.  If the person of your dreams has broken off the relationship, and your mind is constantly bombarded with thoughts of what you have lost, hang in there and keep up the task of daily living and planning for a future.  Further, Jeremiah was saying, "Do not continue to be obsessed with the way things used to be.  Move on.  Focus on the positive things you can influence and reconstruct your vision of the future."

Jeremiah's words could not have been eagerly embraced because he was telling the exiles, "Your life will not return to the way it was, so get over it."  His words were anything but soothing.  He knew the people needed a strong dose of truth so they would stop pining for a past that was never coming back.

I have seen people so devastated by the death of a loved one, that I thought they might not survive it.  Yet, time after time, I have been reminded that we humans are more resilient than we anticipate.  People can survive tragic loss, forced exile, physical abuse and emotional torture.

I'll never forget Ellie and Paul's loss of their two sons in one awful accident.  I remember Jim who survived the Bataan death march.  I think of Laura's granddaughter overcoming the physical abuse of her husband.  I sympathize with Judy in her emotional torture.  All of us are stronger and more courageous than we think we are.  Keep in mind that nature has had a million years to weed out the weakest.  We are the survivors.

We tend to think that life can only be rich and satisfying when it is trouble free.  We imagine that we can only experience wellbeing when our loved ones are healthy, our work is rewarding and our financial situation is secure.  However, the prophet Jeremiah declares to the exiles who have had their homes destroyed, their livelihoods crushed, their faith fractured and are now living in a foreign land as servants to their enemy, that they can still live meaningful and productive lives.  It will not be the life they imagined and it will not be life without hardship, but they can still experience the rewards of family life and achieve a sense of purpose in their work.  This is their chance to swim into new waters they have never explored.  In addition to challenging them to do many of the same things they would be doing if they were still in Jerusalem - tending to their homes, planting gardens, increasing their families - Jeremiah challenges them to go further in their faith than they have ever gone.  He tells the people to pray for those who conquered and deported them and adds, "Seek the welfare of [Babylon], for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Here is where Jeremiah drops a gem of divine wisdom.  Not only should we not give up on life when it turns sour; not only should we refuse to allow our troubles to overwhelm us, but we should never stop striving for a world where everyone thrives because we have learned to get along with each other by seeking one another's welfare.

God yearns for the day when we people of earth reject revenge and embrace our enemy.  And God calls people of faith to lead the way.  It is a long and strenuous venture that will not be completed in our life times, but God calls us to forge the path that will eventually lead to peace.

Elizabeth Boulton tells of being in Haiti a few years ago before their devastating earthquake.  Even then she was struck by the people's determination and resiliency.  She was with a group that was planning to hike to a magnificent waterfall.  Their guide said that the sight of it would take their breath away.  They filled their water bottles, lathered up with sunscreen, laced up their hiking boots and hit the trail. Elizabeth asked the guide how far it was.  He responded, "Only 15 minutes.  Maybe 20."  One hour later after trudging up a steep mountainside, Elizabeth asked their guide as politely as she could, "Are we getting close?" He assured her that the falls were not far - only 15 minutes or so up the mountain.  Maybe 20.

Two hours later, with no waterfall in sight, her lungs were burning, her feet were blistered and her water bottle was bone dry.  She could go no further, even though their guide insisted that the falls were not very far now, only about 15 more minutes. Elizabeth plopped down with her back against a tree.

That's when she noticed the woman who had been walking some distance behind them with a basket of 20 pounds of oranges deftly balanced on her head.  The woman smiled when she saw Elizabeth, gracefully swung the basket down into her arms and sat down beside her.  She cut one of her oranges in two, handed half of it to Elizabeth and said, "We have a saying in Haiti: After mountains, more mountains."

It's true: the life expectancy for a Haitian man is 55 years.  Haitian women are 60 times more at risk of dying in childbirth than American women.  Haiti is one of the poorest nations on the planet, its people are routinely governed by corrupt and sometimes brutal politicians, the country has seen devastating hurricanes and earthquakes.  After mountains, more mountains.

When Elizabeth finished the orange that had been given to her by the poor Haitian woman, she felt refreshed and rose to her feet.  She said to herself, "Fifteen minutes more.  Maybe 20."

We do not know how far away we are from that new world where people will finally beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  But we are called to pray earnestly and to live faithfully and to keep pressing on toward our destination.  One day, after mountains and more mountains, people will come up over a rise and catch sight of that mighty waterfall, and it will take the whole world's breath away.2



1. Tony Campolo, "Wild Hope," on 30 Good Minutes website for October 1, 2006.

2. Elizabeth Myer Boulton, "Reflections on the Lectionary," Christian Century December 1, 2009.