An earworm--I think that's what they call the song you get stuck in your head. And it's never one of my favorites, like a Led Zeppelin riff or a Bach chorale. No, it's always something like "It's a small world after all." We get little messages stuck in our heads too, like "You'll never amount to anything" or "Look out for #1" or "I need a drink" or "You deserve a break."
What if our offstage directions, the voice whispering inside my head, might be God? Once upon a time people memorized Bible verses, little digestible messages from the Scriptures to shape us, define who we are, how we interact with the world. Sometimes I ask people, "What is your favorite Bible verse?" Lots of people default to John 3:16, because they like it or don't know another one? It does not take my more clever Bible people long to come up with Jeremiah 29:11: "'I know the plans I have for you,'" says the LORD, "'plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'"
Now I love that one too--but what does it really mean? After the worst catastrophe in the entire history of God's people, the holy city reduced to rubble by the vile Nebuchadnezzar, the people barely existing after a forced march into exile, feeling pretty sure God had abandoned them forever, Jeremiah wrote a letter, which must have taken weeks to arrive. Everything in the Bible is slow like that--it may be that we only know God in a kind of slowness. In The Lord of the Rings, there are treelike creatures who speak Entish, "a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to."
Jeremiah is thinking about a very long time, not some plan God has for today or the upcoming holiday season or the next five years of my life. He explicitly measures the time required for God's plan as 70 years--which would mean that no adult reading his letter would actually be alive once the plan came to fruition. I'd imagine his readers had to slow down and ponder that.
People today like the verse, "I know the plans I have for you"--because they like the idea that "God has a plan for my life." But is this really the case? God cares. God is intensely personal. But the Bible just doesn't say a word about God having a blueprint, a script, a "plan" for my life, how I will grow up, whom I will marry, how things will unfold, even when I will die. In a way, such a "plan" might be comforting; but then do we really want to be pawns on God's chessboard, being moved about with no responsibility? The assumption is God's "plan" will be a sunny one--for me. But what about when someone does something horrible? Is God planning to lace your life with misery now and then?
Don't we embrace the wish for "God's plan for my life" because we are fearful or somewhat insecure? We don't like to think of life unfolding haphazardly. We like to think God has earthly happiness mapped out for us. But what if God is actually calling us to suffer for Christ? What if what God yearns for from us is sacrifice? God says "Follow me," and we go--not knowing where we might be led-- and that is the beauty of the following, with no awareness of any plan. God woos us, shapes us, and joins hands with us in an adventure that will wind up who knows where, but the journey is all good since we are near God.
If we read Jeremiah 29:11 carefully, we notice that God's "plans for good" are not for Jeremiah or any other individual, including me or you. The word "you"--in "the plans I have for you"--is plural. In the South, God would say "the plans I have for y'all." The future, the hope God gives "you" ("y'all") is for a crowd, it's for the community, it's for the nation. God called Jeremiah to speak God's Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history. God's plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals. That's so American, isn't it? One autonomous individual, hoping God has a plan for me. So American--so sad, so lonely.
Israel is not our nation, and Israel isn't just any random nation. Israel is the nation God chose because God wanted to use Israel to save the world. When it appeared Israel was crumbling and probably would cease to exist, God declared that God wasn't through with Israel yet; God's promises to use Israel were not broken.
So who is the "y'all" God has plans for now? Israel? Maybe. The United States? America just isn't on the Old Testament radar screen. Could it be the Church? Aren't we the "y'all" God promises to use for good? God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world. God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God's instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me. I never go solo with God; my life in God's plan is interwoven with others in God's "y'all." I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don't even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y'all. I need y'all.
How good of God, not to make us go it alone, but to give us good company in the life of faith! I would clarify that this doesn't make God's plan less personal, but actually more personal. If you are part of a family or a team, it isn't less personal that you are one among the others. There is more love, meaningful sharing. You don't have to bear life alone. Part of God's plan is that "It is not good for you to be alone" (Genesis 2:18); God gives us fellowship, the dizzying privilege of being part of something bigger than just me or my life.
I have learned this about my own life. Last year I wrote a memoir--and not because I fantasize that somebody out there would think that my life is just so very interesting. But when I look back, I see the ways I've been part of something larger than me, even at times I didn't realize I was part of something larger. My sister fractured my skull with a baseball bat; my grandfather hollered "Amen" from the choir loft and scared me a little; I met a girl from Colorado at a Young Life camp; a dear friend died of cystic fibrosis; I drove around with a crazy missionary in Lithuania, thought I'd be killed, and watched her bless a wretchedly poor young mother; my children grew up, and I'm trying to let them go.
I raise a candle on Christmas Eve as we sing Silent Night: nobody would miss my candle if I weren't there; it would still be beautiful; and I guess I could light a candle at home alone and it would be kind of cute. But I love being with the throng, unnoticed but very much a part of something stupendous, tender, glorious. I would not miss it. I think we call that grace. It's being part of God's plan. It falls to me to show up, to raise my candle too, to stammer over the beauty of it all.
To our Bible students, we plead and cajole: "Context, context, context!" Browse through all of Jeremiah, and then read all of chapter 29 closely. Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian juggernaut has conquered Jerusalem, reducing the city to rubble, marching the few survivors off to live hundreds of miles away in exile. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God advises the people to settle down, to take the long-term view; God will not sweep down in the next 70 minutes to rescue the people. They have not 70 minutes or 70 days, but 70 years to wait before God acts decisively to redeem the people of Israel.
"'I know the plans I have for you,' says the LORD, 'plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'" In 70 years, that is. The beauty of it all begins now...but the consummation, the fulfillment, will be when I'm not around any longer. I think I like that. I'm part of something bigger than myself, something that stretches far beyond my lifetime. That takes the pressure off. It's not all up to me. I'm a small but significant part of the grand adventure that is God's plan. We call that grace. And grace is what gives us hope, which is dogged enough to cope with unrealized dreams. Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime...therefore we are saved by hope."
And so we hope in God's good future, nothing as small as a neat little pattern of life that I enjoy for myself. And while we wait, what do we do in the meantime? Jeremiah told them, and thus he tells us: Build houses, plant gardens, marry. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you. And pray to the Lord. Ah, yes, this really is God's plan for me, and you, all of us, y'all. A home, a garden, love, seeking good for the place where you find yourself. And always hope, beyond the horizon. God still has plans, big plans.
Let us pray. Almighty and gracious God, we are grateful that you do have a plan for us, for all of us, for your good world. Help us to live into that, to trust that, even we see that it extends beyond what we can see. In Jesus' name. Amen.