The Long Game

Jeremiah has words of assurance this morning, for those with ears to hear. He speaks to a people who are scattered, driven away by evil rulers who did not care for them. He prophesies of the promised king,the heir of David, who will be attentive to the people and will defend and preserve them, so that they can live in confidence, knowing they are safe. 

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” Those words speak of promise, of salvation, of the coming of the Kingdom. They speak of hope in the midst of fear. They somehow foretell action in the midst of our longing for safety and relief from the storms of life. But sometimes we don’t hear them that way. Sometimes they speak of a promise that seems so far off in the future, it doesn’t feel real. Doesn’t feel like something we can count on.Doesn’t feel like a word of promise that we have ears to hear.

Jeremiah was born into a tumultuous time in the history of Israel and Judah. He was called to be a prophet during the last decades of Judah’s independence. He saw the reigns of the last Judean kings, who turned increasingly away from worshiping God and toward worshiping Ba’al. He saw the might of Babylon massed on the border, ready to invade and conquer. He lived through the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the first wave of exile, in which some Hebrew leaders were forced to resettle in Babylon. He saw the resistance of the last king of Judah against the might of the Babylonian empire. This culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Templeand the completion of the exile. In the midst of all of this turmoil, Jeremiah was faithful to God, speaking the words that God gave him to speak and warning the Judeans of the disasters that would befall them if they did not repent.

But that doesn’t mean that the people listened. To people in a desperate situation, “the days are surely coming” sounds an awful lot like a promise for the future, not a promise for today. It can be hard to hold out for something that will be coming some day, a hope for the future when our needs, our fear, our problems are right now. 

In a period of unrest and rapid change, we look for comfort and stability where we can find it. We look for easy answers. And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has never offered easy answers or quick fixes. God plays the long game, which can make us uncomfortable. Resting on God for promises of safety and stability in the future can feel almost impossible when the sands are shifting under our feet right now.

Think about the promise that God offers in our reading for this morning: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…” The remnant. Not exactly comforting, is it? Kind of leaves you wondering, in the midst of all of the uncertainty and fear that plagues us. Am I part of the remnant? How will I know? When will I know? 

I have to imagine that the Judeans who heard Jeremiah’s words in their exile asked those same questions, and struggled to find answers. We tend to trust people who tell us what we want to hear, leaders who speak to our fears and provide reassurance. But what happens when when our expectations are not met and our fears are realized? Many of us tend to draw in on ourselves, to shut down, to stop believing the promises we hear. To look for reassurance elsewhere. And many Judeans exiled to Babylon would have found that reassurance in community with their neighbors, in prosperity in a new land, in marriages to Babylonian people, in new families and new opportunities. 

None of these things are bad things. Assimilation into a new culture is only to be expected for people who were forced to move perhaps halfway across the known world. But as assimilation occurs, people find themselves unwilling to return to what they had before – or perhaps what they never had, but only knew from their parents’ or their grandparents’ stories. And so a remnant is left of people who cling to the faith of their ancestors, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

We face many of these questions in the church today, even if we don’t phrase them this way. We have increasing demands on our time that take us away from involvement in church. We notice that some people who we used to see in the pews on Sunday are no longer here every week; maybe we see them when their schedule allows, or maybe we don’t see them at all. Some of these people move away, or transfer to different congregations. But others undergo cultural assimilation like what many Judeans underwent.

Some people find that they can’t keep up with the competing demands on their time. Others find that time with friends becomes more important than church. Others perhaps see things in the world that they don’t think are compatible with the God they believe in: a society that seems more violent, or climate change, or decreased civility. They may find their faith shaken, and don’t know what to do to get it back on solid ground. Or they remember the church of their youth, and they grieve for what no longer exists. They may look for a replacement for this – and the ones who don’t transfer to another church find themselves looking for another group to join, where they can find the friendship and the connections they are looking for. Some people fall prey to a false gospel, a promise of prosperity or easy answers or a return to the “good old days,” whatever they are longing for in the midst of troubling and turbulent times. Assimilation occurs, and people find themselves unwilling to return to what they knew before – or what they may never have known, except from their parents’ or grandparents’ stories. 

None of this makes the people who leave the church bad people. Our culture has changed, and continues to change, at a dizzying pace. From time to time, this can leave all of us wondering where to turn and who to trust. Even the remnant of us who continue to be people of faith in an increasingly secular society.

Where do we turn? In whom do we trust? When do we get to live in the days Jeremiah foretold, when we shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed? 

If only I had the answer. Instead, all I can say is to remind you that our God plays the long game. “The days are surely coming,” we hear God promise, “when I will raise up a king who is in it for the long haul, practicing righteousness and justice, and bringing safety and salvation.” 

This is the assurance that God offers us – the coming of the kingdom, when we will be able to rest on the promises of God and be comforted. When we will not feel the sands shifting under our feet; when the turmoil of this world will fade away, and we will find ourselves safe and secure, resting in God’s love and mercy for all people.

But there are always naysayers – people who doubt. And the devil uses those people to make us doubt our faith, to make us doubt the steadfastness of the Lord. The devil shows us the world: one more mass shooting, or the warming climate, or the turmoil in Washington that leads us to question whether our leaders have our interests at heart at all. The devil shows us all the existential crises of our time in one sweep of his hand, and whispers, “don’t you think Jesus could fix this all if he wanted to?” 

This is a bold play, trying to get us to doubt our faith, to doubt the assurances that God offers us. “The days are surely coming…” we tell the devil, but the devil responds, “Ah, but can you wait that long?”

We hear the same doubts, the same naysayers in our Gospel reading for this morning: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” You can almost hear the devil at work. I can imagine him whispering, “If he really is who he says he is, he should be able to get out of this mess right now. Then you’ll know beyond a shadow of a doubt what to believe, who to follow.” 

How do we address our immediate fears and insecurities when our Savior, our Messiah, the Lord who is our righteousness, plays the long game?

What is the difference between the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus? Both committed crimes worthy of execution under Roman law. We do not know whether both criminals joined Jesus in paradise, although I believe both were welcomed. No, the only differences that we know for certain are that one had faith, and one did not.  One sought and received assurance, and one did not. One was comforted, and one was not. 

And this is the difference between those of us who cling to our faith in the midst of the turmoil of this world, and those who turn away. The difference is not who is saved; the difference is who receives assurance in the here and now. The difference is who has the faith to rest on the promises of God and be comforted, awaiting the coming of the kingdom.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Let those with ears to hear, listen and be comforted.

We are playing the long game.

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