When I went off to college, I had no clue. No clue what to take with me that would make me feel at home, no decorations, no posters or records (that’s what we had back in ancient days). I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, no clue what I wanted to study, I just did the program and went off to college. Going into this whole ordeal I wasn’t a scholar and didn’t have any aspirations to have a career. I vaguely remember applying to the college along with one other and got into this one, so that’s where I went.
Now I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a very large city. I went to college in Fulton, a small town in the middle of ‘nowheresville’, Missouri. I thought perhaps I had made a mistake when on one of the very first days I turned on the radio and all I could get were hog reports. For those of you who don’t know, hog reports let you know how much hogs and pigs are selling for at market. Let’s say my learning started from almost day one. Yet even though I had no plans and no clue somehow I knew that everything would be ok - that I would somehow get through these years and figure it out. And, well, I did.
There is one verse from the prophet Jeremiah that I have always loved and this simple verse is for our reflection today because I think it is apropos for graduates and anyone else along the journey of life who is in doubt or facing something entirely brand new in their lives. 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.
It’s comforting, right? Simply said, God’s got your back, watching out for you because God knows, God cares and Gods plan for you is only goodness.
So let’s put this verse in context. If you were to take a look at a Biblical timeline that aligns the external and internal political movements of the Ancient Near East alongside of the prophetic collections of such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi and the rest in Judah (Israel) at the time, you will be quite surprised to see that prophets, or those called to speak on behalf of God, were the busiest during times of geopolitical unrest, makes sense right? Such is the case with the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was from the Southern kingdom of Judah (Ancient Palestine was divided into two kingdoms: to the North was Israel which had fallen 100 years earlier to the Assyrians and to the South was Judah). After that Judah became a vassal state of Assyria. But King Ashurbanipal, Assyria’s last powerful king, dies. The Assyrian empire falls as does Judah and mighty Babylonia conquers most of the Ancient Near East.
In 597 BCE Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people were taken into exile. So this is the political milieu that Jeremiah faced. Not great if you’re the prophet and your peeps are taken into exile even though you may have warned them.
Before the exile Jeremiah preached repentance because the people had wandered away from their ancestral faith. He strongly encouraged them to return to it and to comply with the Babylonians – to avoid national destruction. So, Jeremiah was not very well liked as you can imagine….telling them to just acquiesce to the oppressor!?
Then, “the Lord saith” to Jeremiah once again (prophets never get a break) – sit down Jeremiah…write a letter….send it to the elders and priests who are in exile. In this letter tell them now to settle in…build houses…have children…carry on with your lives….plant gardens and trees, it’s going to be a while before you can go home. Not very encouraging.
But then comes this verse, “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.”. This passage gives comfort to a forlorn people, a people who really needed some hope.
God has plans for you. That would comfort me if I were in exile, it would have comforted me in the cornfields of Missouri. 70 years is a long time to wait for restoration, it’s a long time to be in exile. But that’s what happened to the people.
And during that time Jeremiah’s oracles changed; rather repentance he prophesied hope for the people. He prophesied with expectation and anticipation that the people would once again faithfully follow God’s covenant because God has plans for them, big ones, ones that will be of great benefit to them, to bring them safety and contentment.
And God has plans for you too as you head off into the future, your future. For all of us really. Now don’t think that I’m preaching predestination…I am not. I believe that we are co-creators in our lives that is, God gave us these beautiful and complex minds that can conquer and comprehend many wonders and things, if we put our mind to it, as they say. That’s the beauty of God’s promise and plan – not to constrict us and bind us into a pre-determined route but to guide and release us to experience fully and express ourselves faithfully in our lifetime.
It is kind of like God’s divine purpose of love dancing with human self-determination acknowledging our freedom of conscience and the good intentions of God. They cannot be separated. God’s plan for us is to live life as it happens to us, confidently trusting that God is for us, not against us and will prosper your future.
But… it doesn’t always happen that way. We make mistakes. We fritter away our time or get involved in other distracting things. The part of my college journey that I didn’t tell you about was that after a year in Fulton at my tiny college I decided to go to the big University in Columbia, Missouri. And, how can I say this? I went to a few parties too many and a few classes too few. I was not invited back the following year.
However by the graces of God keeping me on the path, the forgiveness of my mother, and a full semester at community college foregoing any summer plans that I may have had, I was able to return to my little college in Fulton, and my friends and of course resume listening to the hog reports.
Oh that we all had the wisdom of Solomon to make the best choices possible for our lives at all times. Oh that we could foresee into the future so that our lives and those around us would be lifted up to the highest and greatest potential. Oh, if only we knew when to speak and when to keep silent there would be a whole lot less broken hearts and hatred in this world.
Well believe it, God’s got your back even when you mess up. “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.” Mistakes happen but so does redemption.
Graduates, this church loves you, remember that. Although reluctantly, it’s time to let you go, to release you into this world to further your education. And this you will certainly do, some of it will even come from books! Your future is before you and God is behind you charting your course for a future of hope and prosperity.
You see you need education, trust in God, and hope to get along in this world and to accomplish the wonderful things and attain the ideals that you hold today. And you need the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to listen, because there is a whole lot that can be gained by listening. In the listening comes discernment and discernment sets your course for future.
Barbara Brown Taylor says in her book, ‘An Altar in the World’, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.” That is wise discernment, it’s knowledge, and reflection peppered with all intentionality so that understanding will come.
God won’t ‘make’ everything go right, but if God is present in your mind you can discern the right path ahead of you. With God in your heart you have everything you need as you start this new chapter in your life.
So how did my education turn out? Just fine. I graduated from William Woods College with a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Art. And then, 19 years later God revealed a new path for me to take and I entered seminary at Andover Newton TheologicalSchool and did just fine earning a Master of Divinity degree. So there. Who knew? God had plans for me after all.
“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.”
Amen and Godspeed.