From Rubble To Return
Jeremiah 33, 29:11-13, Romans 4:1-5, 18-25
Free Community Church
3 January 2016

As we begin 2016, I wonder how you are doing…honestly? Over the past year, I’ve been through various ups and downs, and I’ve grown in some ways too. One way I’ve grown is that I’ve deepened in my understanding of God’s love in my life, and what it means to be loving and compassionate to myself. I always thought that I already love and accept myself to quite a healthy extent. J But I realized in the course of the past year that I still have much to learn and practise in this regard. Interestingly, practising compassion on myself has, in turn, helped me to practise compassion on others in a deeper and more authentic way. And I am grateful for these lessons I am learning.

What about you? How has 2015 been for you? What were some of your highs and lows of the past year? Were there moments when you felt God open your eyes to something new? Or perhaps you experienced God’s grace or presence in a difficult situation? Or maybe you didn’t feel God at all…and that has been bothering you. Over the past year, I’ve had many pastoral conversations with various individuals in FCC. Sometimes these conversations have to do with conflict between people — within or across ministries. Sometimes these conversations have to do with personal grapplings with faith and theology, as we try to make sense of who God is in our lives and what that means for us.

One reason why we decided to kick off the new year with a sermon series called “From Rubble To Return” is because we realize that in FCC, we are very good at deconstructing the traditional ways people view God and the world. Given the wide and diverse theological spectrum of our congregation and preachers, people who step into FCC will undoubtedly be shaken a little or at least, be challenged by different ways of thinking. I believe diversity is good because as we keep our minds open, we learn new things about God and one another. Our faith will be one that is well thought-through, mindful and intentional, and not just a replica of someone else’s thoughts or experiences.

However, while we have been very good at deconstructing people’s concepts of God, we have perhaps not been very good at helping people reconstruct a personal faith that feels life-giving and anchoring…at least for some. When I first attended FCC more than 4 years ago, I often wondered how people from other churches make the transition. What was it like for you? Maybe some of you were pleasantly surprised, and enjoy the diversity and intellectual challenge; while others among you may feel a little baffled by the diverse approaches to faith here, and find it hard to identify deeply and feel a sense of belonging in this church. Personally, I didn’t have a difficult time adjusting to FCC but I think that’s probably because I’ve had the chance to go to bible school. I have spent time grappling with many of these theological tensions prior to attending FCC. But for many people, I can understand if it feels a little destabilizing to have our concepts of church or God challenged or deconstructed.

So as I was discussing with Miak and Gary about the sermon series for this year, we decided it would be good to create some space to help us reconfigure our faith and nurture our spiritual lives. Of course, when we say that, we don’t mean we’ll be giving you a specific instruction manual on how to live your life. We appreciate that each of us is unique and we relate to God differently. But we hope we can create some space for reflection, growth, dialogue as we seek to grow together as a community. Some of us come to FCC with hurts and wounds regarding our own identity and that in turn, affects our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. For some of us, our lives are in shambles and we are uncertain what God’s plans for our future may hold. For others, our lives may be going well but you’re wondering, “Is there more to my spiritual life? What does God want for me…what does God want from me?”

When we study the Bible carefully, you will see that the theme of restoration and renewal permeates through the entire Bible from the Old to the New Testament. The breaking down of relationships, the dissolving of our limited human concepts of God, the questioning of our identities and the transformation of communities…they are usually just the first step towards restoration and renewal. It was all happening in the Bible since the beginning of time. It’s not just a modern day thing. The good news is that for every cycle of breaking down, there is always restoration and renewal at some point. Always.

So it’s not unusual for us to experience the breaking down of relationships, identities and our limited concepts of God. The question is: do we allow God to draw us closer in times like this or do we run away in anger, hurt or disappointment? How do we return to God in such times? How can we experience the restoration and renewal that God desires for us?

To help us answer this question, I want to look at two Bible passsages together with you this morning — one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first is from Jeremiah 33.

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Jeremiah 33:1-26

While Jeremiah was still confined in the courtyard of the guard, the word of the Lord came to him a second time: 2 “This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it—the Lord is his name: 3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ 4 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the houses in this city and the royal palaces of Judah that have been torn down to be used against the siege ramps and the sword 5 in the fight with the Babylonians[a]: ‘They will be filled with the dead bodies of the people I will slay in my anger and wrath. I will hide my face from this city because of all its wickedness.

6 “‘Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. 7 I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity[b] and will rebuild them as they were before. 8 I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. 9 Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.’

10 “This is what the Lord says: ‘You say about this place, “It is a desolate waste, without people or animals.” Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more 11 the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying,

“Give thanks to the Lord Almighty,
for the Lord is good;
his love endures forever.”

For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the Lord.

14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

15 “‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

19 The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 20 “This is what the Lord says: ‘If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, 21 then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne. 22 I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars in the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.’”

26 For I will restore their fortunes[e] and have compassion on them.’”

Do you know what was happening to the Israelites when God was speaking to Jeremiah about all this? Have you heard of the Babylonian exile? Basically, at some point of Jewish history, the Babylonians conquered Israel and Judah and even though the Jews fought very hard, they lost everything – their land, their homes, their families — and the survivors were taken as slaves to Babylonia. In the midst of the fighting, the temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed and their homeland was decimated. All that was left were ruins. And the Jews were exiled to Babylonia for 70 years. God had warned them that this would happen because of their rebellion and evil ways. But God also promised that they will be restored one day. And as God promised, the Jews under the leadership of Nehemiah, rebuilt their homes and the temple in Jerusalem after 70 years had passed. You can read more about this in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

In this passage that we just read, Jeremiah speaks of the coming restoration, the restoration of normal, everyday life. The restoration of joy, health, healing, peace and security. As a prophet, he conveys God’s words, “‘Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. 7 I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity[b] and will rebuild them as they were before. 8 I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. 9 Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.’ There will be heard once more 11 the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying,

“Give thanks to the Lord Almighty,
for the Lord is good;
his love endures forever.”

One of the chief tragedies of the Babylonian Exile was the end of the Davidic dynasty. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). But the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. The promises of God seemed to have come to an end.

To a people devastated by loss, Jeremiah’s prophecy offered hope: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (33:14). All might seem lost, but God still is faithful. The house of David might be cut down, but God is able to bring life out of death. A branch will sprout.

Historically, the Jews managed to rebuild the walls and temple at Jerusalem after 70 years but David’s line did not return to the throne. So we have come to understand that passages like this were speaking about the coming ideal ruler, the Messiah. The descendant of David who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” is Jesus who appears 400 years later — the one whom we just celebrated over the Christmas season. His coming to earth and his salvation encompasses not just Judah and Jerusalem, but the whole world.

So there are 3 overarching truths I want to share with you this morning as we look at this passage together. Even when things may seem to be in shambles and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, remember that:

1) God has a bigger plan and it is for good

2) God has made all the provisions necessary for this plan

3) God’s plan will always come to pass

Firstly,

1) God has a bigger plan and it is for good

Just like the Jews experienced during the Babylonian exile, sometimes life can seem very dark and we wonder if there is any hope left. Our hearts are filled with doubt and sadness, and we are tempted to question God’s promises because we just can’t see the way ahead. All we see is darkness and suffering.

But God shows us again and again in the Bible that God has a bigger plan. Always. And that plan is for good — for our restoration and renewal. Jeremiah 29:11-13 says,

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 hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

2) God has made all the provisions necessary for this plan

Notice the language that God uses in Jeremiah 29 and 33. “I know the plans I have for you..”, “I will heal..I will bring back from captivity and rebuild them as before..”, “I will fulfill my promise…”, “I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line…”, “I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them…” These declarations were all spoken in the active verb and there is no vagueness about it. No “maybes”, no “perhaps”. God says, “I will.” Not somebody will. But I will. There is no ambiguity about it.

3) God’s plan will always come to pass

As I explained earlier, God’s plan for restoring the Jews after the Babylonian exile took place as promised. And it continued to be fulfilled over hundreds of years through the coming of Christ. God’s plan was bigger than what people anticipated. They expected a physical rebuilding and restoration of their homeland. But God provided the way for all our hearts and souls to be fully healed, restored and renewed. This was not just for the Jews who were taken into exile but for all of us non-Jews even in present day. Jesus provided the way for us to be made right with God. Paul explains all this in the book of Romans.

Romans 4:1-5

Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? 2 If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. 3 For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”[a]

4 When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. 5 But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.

Romans 4:18-25

18 Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!”[e] 19 And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

20 Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. 22 And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. 23 And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded 24 for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.

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The reason I bring up this passage from Romans is because it helps to dispel some of our misconceptions about God and what it takes for us to have a right relationship with God. How many of you think that when you go through difficult times or if your life is in shambles, it is mostly because God is punishing you for your bad behaviour? I ask this question because when we read passages like Jeremiah 33, it sometimes tempting to think people go through difficult times ONLY because God is punishing them for their rebellion. But I want to make sure you understand that this is not true. Jeremiah 33 is only one of many scenarios in the Bible. There are many examples of suffering and hardship that were not the result of bad behaviour or rebellion against God. In fact, some of the people in the Bible who suffered were very close to God, yet they went through extremely difficult times — like Job who lost all his children, his wealth, his health in one day, and David who was hunted like an animal by his own son who wanted to kill him and take his throne.

So if some part of your life is in shambles currently, please don’t assume that it must be punishment from God. Sometimes things are just what they are. Sometimes we learn the deepest lessons about life and about ourselves in such times. Whether you are dealing with a broken relationship or a waning faith in God or a sense of detachment from community, God wants to restore you. God wants to restore us.

Earlier on, we established that:

1) God has a bigger plan and it is for good

2) God has made all the provisions necessary for this plan

3) God’s plan will always come to pass

Some of you may be asking, “But I knew all that already. So what? What does this mean for me? God has a bigger plan and God will make it come to pass. So what is there left for me to do?”

In Jeremiah 33:3, God says, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

And in Jeremiah 29:12-13, God says, “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

So in a nutshell, what does God want for us?

God wants us to experience God’s bigger plan of restoration and renewal.

What does God want from us?

God wants our whole hearts.

If you take a closer look at Romans 4, you will know with certainty what makes us right with God. What makes our relationship right with God? Firstly, it is what God has accomplished for us through Christ in grace. So from our side, it has much more to do with the response of our hearts than our outward behaviour. Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith. Remember in one of my sermons last year, we considered together how faith is a continuous verb — I faith you, God – meaning, I rely on you, I entrust myself and my situation to you, I trust you with my whole heart. I qavar you — meaning I cling to you, my Strength, and I wait on you. Like Abraham who kept believing and hoping even when there was no reason for hope, do you faith continuously in God?

The cusp of a new year is always a good time to take stock of our lives, and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can co-create new intentions in our lives. And not only that. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to act on these new intentions, perhaps with the help and support of the people around us. This is something we can help each other with. The first Sunday of the year is also a time to re-dedicate our lives back to God and to commit anew to values, to people, to pursuits, to communities that we believe are important to us.

Can we trust that:

1) God has a bigger plan and it is for good

2) God has made all the provisions necessary for this plan

3) God’s plan will always come to pass

Will you allow God to build up and restore the broken parts of your lives? Will you place your unwavering trust in a God who loves us beyond our understanding? Together with the Holy Spirit, will you co-create new intentions in your life? What do you want 2016 to be about? What does God want 2016 to be like for you? Will you re-dedicate your life back to God and commit anew to the people and things that you say is important to you?

Let us come humbly to God and lean on those everlasting arms. Shall we pray?

Loving God, we come before you acknowledging that all that we have, all that we are belongs to you. Thank you for giving us the breath of life and the grace to live each day. As we begin a new year together, we commit ourselves anew to you, and to each other, and to all the people and things that we say is important to us. Help us to live, love and give of ourselves wholeheartedly in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

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