[Trust the Process] of A Promise
August 13, 2017 Pastor: Matt Wilcox
Topic: Evangelism & Community Scripture: Jeremiah 29:4–29:14
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz… These names probably don’t mean a lot to all of you. But for Philadelphia 76er fans, these three names represent the culmination of years of painful, heavy, terribly difficult endurance. Up until about 2013 or so, the 76ers were stuck in a rut. They weren’t awful but they weren’t good. And in the NBA that kind of situation usually leads to years and years of decent-never great basketball. And that wasn’t good enough. So the Sixers hired a guy named Sam Hinkie to be their general manager. Hinkie was known to be somewhat of an analytics savant and would prove to have a good knowledge of what it took to become great in the NBA. And what it took was bad. Really bad. Hinkie warned the owners, the players, and the fans that things would get worse before they got better. A lot worse. And so began a 3-year stretch of some of the worst basketball the NBA has ever seen. The 76ers began tanking, a term used to describe intentional losing. The thinking was that the worse the team got, the better their draft pick would be the next year and then that meant a better chance at drafting a truly great player.
The 76ers became virtually unwatchable. They broke the league record for the most consecutive losses, they lost more games that some 2-3 teams combined. In the third season of this tanking effort, the team only won 10 games out of 82. But it was for a purpose. There was a plan. And amidst this dark time, a slogan emerged that would become the banner for every basketball fan in the Philadelphia area: Trust the Process. It would be hard. It would be downright unbearable. It would be painful. It even cost Sam Hinkie his job. But the process would work out to something great. And you know what? It looks like Sam Hinkie was right.
Over the course of those three awful years of bad basketball, the 76ers have finally emerged as one of the most exciting teams in the league. Players like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz are top-tier potential stars, and are on the team only because of the process. There is hope in the hearts of Philadelphia basketball fans again, and that is because they trusted the process and endured the hardships and the patience it took.
Now, as much as I love to have the chance to talk about my favorite sports teams, I didn’t just share all of that so that you’d become Sixers fans. These kinds of ideas – a promise or process that things have to get worse before they get better, the notion that there is a greater/overarching plan – is really the fabric of our text for this morning. And our text this morning is a popular one. I’d go as far as to say it is likely one of the most quoted, printed, and reproduced Scripture texts out of the entire Bible.
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. This verse has been used in countless places, situations, and publications. It’s been uttered in hospital rooms, assigned as the life verse for newborns, embroidered onto quilts, written in graduation cards, and hung up in living rooms and hallways. It’s been used to inspire, encourage, comfort, and compel. It is prolific in its presence. And it’s treasured by many. Except my wife.
This is a passage of Scripture Caitlin really struggles with, and so do I. I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is make someone like the Bible less. But I think there’s an inherent problem with the way most people read, absorb, and internalize this passage of Scripture.
Berit read for us the context surrounding this very popular line of Scripture. But for the first few years of being Christian, I never heard anything other than 29:11. I remember seeing it on peoples Bible covers at my church, decoratively printed on some decoration in a friend’s house, and I remember it being written in the cover of a book I received when I graduated high school. Odds are, your experience with this text is similar to mine. It wouldn’t surprise me, if for many of you, this is the first time you heard the full two paragraphs where this text comes out of. And that’s what causes a big part of our problem.
We hear this verse quoted, see it written, and we often absorb it as if it is the Bible’s equivalent to a fortune cookie, like it is a single phrase of wisdom spoken directly to us. I have no doubt in my mind and faith that the words of Jeremiah can inspire and influence the lives of any of us in this room. But we make a misstep when we take this single verse out of its context and immediately assume it was written concerning our current struggles or prayer requests.
The truth is actually a little more difficult and the verses surrounding our text reveal the bleak, troubling circumstances from which this inspirational mantra occurs. The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, are in exile. They have literally been invaded by a powerful enemy, defeated, ripped from their homes, and forced to live in and assimilate to an entirely foreign land. Mass deportations took place. Families are separated, homes are lost, and hope is all but gone.
It is to those people that these words are first given. To a people completely devoid of hope. To a people lost and scattered. To a people who are wondering if the God they knew even heard them. Even the plural word “people” is important here. These words aren’t written for the prophet Jeremiah. They aren’t for a single, wandering soul with a heavy heart. The Hebrew use of the word “you” is plural, not singular. They are written for a nation.
But if we keep exploring the context of this beloved verse, we find it actually gets harder to comprehend. God tells this hurting, defeated, hope-starved nation of people that it is going to get better…eventually. That it will likely get worse before it gets better. He tells us that after 70 years in captivity, in exile, in their current state that He will bring them home. 70 years! It’s easy for us to not consider time when we read the stories of Scripture but we have to catch this. Some, many, of those hearing this verse of Scripture that we love to embroider on blankets and quote in times of trouble will die before its promise comes to pass. Yes, there’s a plan. Yes, God makes a promise. But it’s not the quick-fix, mic drop type of declaration that we think it is.
So every time we share this verse to a loved one hurting or to a friend uncertain of their future, we are, indeed, sharing a powerful promise of God, but it is a promise that comes with a difficult and painful weight. We don’t often realize that. We mean to inspire and to encourage. But while the words of the prophet here are meant for inspiration they are primarily a message of endurance and a reminder not that God fixes everything when we ask, as if he is some sort of handy man, but rather that the Lord is there with us through the painful trial of endurance and the worst moments of life.
This verse is thrown out during painful, terrible times, as if it is a Band-Aid. But what does a Band-Aid do for cancer? This is where we can be dangerous with our knowledge, or lack thereof, of Scripture. Many of my professors have told me that often times people know just enough about the Bible to be dangerous but not necessarily helpful. And I think Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the ways that’s made true.
Grief and suffering can be paralyzing. Not only for the one suffering but for those surrounding the one who suffers. In the face of pain, loss, confusion and hopelessness, we can often defer to things that are easy for us to say (and sound good in our heads) but really do the opposite of what we intend.
When I was in the 7th grade I lost my mom. One of, if not the most important person in my life was taken from me. I don’t remember a lot from the funeral. I remember wondering who all the seemingly hundreds of people who were there were. I remember feeling tired. I remember wondering if the doctors were wrong and if my mom would wake up. But I also remember being angry.
I had people, well-meaning people, say things to me. Things that I’m sure they thought were helpful. Things that they probably thought were inspirational. “God just needed your mom in heaven with Him.” “God sometimes chooses the most beautiful of flowers to be in His presence.” But you know the one that hurt the most? That made me the angriest? That put me on a path to turn from God for months? “God has a plan.” And yep, you guessed it, I heard Jeremiah 29:11 over and over.
I, a grieving and lost middle school boy, was told by countless adults that this was God’s plan. Losing my mom was God’s plan. Do you have any idea what that did to me? What it does to others who struggle or suffer? I get it. It sounds comforting and they print it in all the sympathy cards but we need to stop. Because you know what happened after all those people said those words and quoted that passage? They left. And that’s not what Jeremiah 29:11 is about at all.
In the heart of God, promises are a thing of community and relationship. Common space and shared burden. Promises are things given to the many so that each individual can be found within God’s embrace. Jeremiah 29:5-9 shows us this. God tells the suffering people to settle in together. To build houses, plant gardens, and grow families. To be together. To endure together. To pray together. To grow in faith together.
And so my first bit of encouragement, the first thing I beg of us, is for those of us who come into the presence of one who is suffering or lost or broken. Don’t quote Jeremiah 29:11 unless you mean it. Don’t give a greeting card with it written in it unless you’re willing to live it out. It’s not a gift we leave at the feet of one hurting before we return to our life. Jeremiah 29:11 speaks of a sharing of pain, a communal endurance. It marks a willingness to enter into the darkness and the pain and chaos of another life and build a house there, plant a garden. It’s more than uttering the phrase “God has a plan” when we don’t know what to say. It’s the invitation and offering of saying “We’re in this together.”
My next challenge is for all of us when we are the one who suffers. When we are the one wandering in the darkness and ripped from the familiar comfort of the life we once knew. It is a reminder. Yes, sure, God has a plan. But almost more importantly, God is with you. Whether it is waiting to hear back from the college of our choice to wondering if we’ll ever find our calling to the one who just had a devastating conversation with a doctor. God is with you and you are not alone. Our Lord and Savior is Emmanuel – God With Us. He came to this place, endured the same darkness and strife common to us all. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and the embodiment of God’s promise because He literally, physically, intentionally entered life with us, and suffered ridicule, profiling, torment, and death, so that we might be able to live as the recipients of God’s promise.
And not only is God with you, but so are we. First Pres is a lot of things and we have a lot of excitement building in our family of faith right now. But none of that, not a paid off mortgage or a successful VBS or the start of a new year or a hope for what’s next, none of that is more important than you and our call to you. We are called as a church, as the people of God to worship and live and endure and celebrate together. It’s why our time of community prayer is so precious. We are with you. With each other. Through trial and anguish and loss and celebration and excitement and newness – we are together. We are building something here, growing something special, but we are doing it together. And we are called to hold each other through the tears, through the loss, in the darkness. Church should not be a place where we put on a smile and pretend. It should be the place where our hearts are opened.
This is why being a part of a small group or ministry group is so important. Sharing life together should be about so much more than simply filling these pews one hour a week. So if you’re not in a small group or don’t have that place that place of connection yet with anyone in this church, please, talk to me and Larry. We’ll plug you in. If there isn’t a group yet, we’ll make one. Just like the promise God makes in Jeremiah 29:11, church is lived out and fulfilled within community and relationship. We do so much more when we’re a community rather just a collection of individuals.
The motto for Philadelphia 76ers fans became and continues to be Trust the Process. For us, as the people of God, I want us to Trust the Process of a Promise.
The promise of God is real and it is sure. But it is embodied and fulfilled within a process. Just as the Israelites endured decades in exile, so too must we sometimes endure the dark night of the soul in order to see the bright and hopeful glow of the morning. It is an effort and practice of faith. John Calvin said, “There is no place for faith if we expect God to fulfill immediately what he promises.” Our faith will be tested and stretched and brought to the breaking point sometimes but we can trust the process of a promise together in this family of faith. And we can do it with certainty as we look to the cross. In Christ, all of the promises of God and all of the long and lonely roads are brought to fulfillment. So what do you say? Will you Trust the Process?