Text: Jeremiah 29:11 — For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Introduction: Did you know that you can go to a place on the web called topverses.com and discover the best-known verses in the Bible according to their overall popularity? In case you were wondering, there are 31,102 verses in the Bible altogether. The best known as you might guess is John 3:16. The second is John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This morning’s verse has made it all the way to the top 1,000th percentile … coming in at number twenty-nine. I would bet that for many of us, it is the only verse we can quote from the prophet Jeremiah. And that is probably because believers find such comfort in it. If you’ve ever been in a dark place in your life or wanted to encourage a brother or sister in Christ who was, you may well have recited or shared this verse. And why not? It’s a wonderful promise from God that His people have claimed for more than two millennia.
The key to understanding Jeremiah 29:11 is to know something about what was happening with Israel when God spoke these words to them through His prophet. It was in the mid-sixth century B. C. that the Jews were forcibly exiled to Babylon (present-day Iraq) by a king named Nebuchadnezzar. They were removed from the land that God had promised to their forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and made to settle in a place hundreds of miles away that was the center of pagan worship. In the process, they lost everything including their dreams and plans for the future. You know they had to wonder why God seemed to have it in for them. And if you read the book of 2 Kings, you realize that He was, in fact, disciplining them for their disobedience. They blindly followed the evil Kings of Judah, including a man named Manasseh who was the worst of them. He led the people in the worship of false gods and participated in many evil practices including sorcery, divination, sacrificing his own son in the fire and shedding so much innocent blood that it filled the streets of Jerusalem (See 2 Kings 21). That’s why only two chapters later we’re told … “the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke him to anger. So, the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘There shall my Name be'” — 2 Kings 23:26-27. In spite of all this, the people felt like victims who had been abandoned by God. They never considered that they would end up in Babylon, and once there, they never thought they’d get to return to their homeland. And that led them to some very dark and despairing thoughts.
As we prepare to look into this verse, let me lay a little more groundwork for our study by sharing two thoughts of my own: First, God doesn’t always do what we expect. He is not that predictable! Listen to His words from Isaiah 55:9 — As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. His ways are loftier in every way than ours because He is not limited as we are by a lack of knowledge, wisdom or power. And second, God always does what He promises (unfortunately unlike us). Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” When He gives His word, He keeps it. Bear these in mind (God doesn’t always do what we expect; God always does what He promises) as we consider three observations from our text about God and our futures.
God has already planned for our futures (I know the plans I have for you (i.e. His people), declares the Lord). A more literal translation of this verse goes something like this: I know the thoughts that I think toward you, declares the Lord. Now contained in the word “thoughts” is the idea of intentionality or planning. Put it together and here’s what you get: The God of the universe thinks about us and has a plan for us. Now consider that for a moment. Right now, there are over a billion people in the world who claim to be Christ-followers and God thinks about and is orchestrating His plan for every one of us. Does it blow your mind a bit to think that God’s is thinking about you and planning for your life? We certainly don’t think about each other like this! We get so wrapped up in our own affairs that we can hardly remember the birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates of the people we love the most. That’s why we have all kinds of tools (calendars, schedules, etc.) to help us. But God never forgets His children. We never slip His mind. The Jews needed to be reminded of this because they were in exile, carried away against their will. They were living under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and were expected to do what he commanded of them. BUT IN SPITE OF THIS, IF YOU BACK UP JUST ONE VERSE TO VERSE TEN, YOU SEE THAT GOD HAD LIMITED THE TIME OF THEIR CAPTIVITY. IT WOULD LAST ONLY 70 YEARS AND THEN THEY WOULD RETURN TO THE PROMISED LAND. God was saying to them, “I haven’t forgotten you, though you may think that. You are where are because you forgot Me. And I want you to know that this discipline does not change the fact that I love you. You are still my people. You are constantly in my thoughts and plans.” Application: It comforts me to realize that God knows WHAT He’s thinking about us though very often we do not. Sometimes things happen and we cry out, “Why are you doing this? Why is it happening?” And though He doesn’t always answer us, it helps me to realize that while His thoughts may be hidden from me, I am constantly on His mind and He is working on my behalf. I hope that brings you as much encouragement as it does me. God is constantly thinking about you. You are never out of His mind. Illustration: Laurie and I have seven children, all of whom are adults now and fully capable of looking after themselves. Soon we will have our fourteenth grandchild (Beckham). A couple of days a week, our youngest (MJ) is dropped off at our house so we can keep an eye on him while his parents are at work. A few weeks back, I noticed that he wasn’t in the living room or bedroom and asked Laurie if she’d seen MJ. She said “no.” That’s when we both started looking. (Don’t worry, he hadn’t started the car and headed for home.) We found him pretty quickly in our laundry area in the dark with the door closed. Evidently, he walked in there and somehow managed to shut himself him. Sure, he was traumatized and hasn’t tried to talk since. Not really. He was just patiently waiting in the dark until someone found him. I guess we’re both losers because we couldn’t even keep track of one child. Now get this. God keeps track of all His children and is constantly thinking about each one of us! He is never so preoccupied with all the other stuff He has to think about, that even for a moment, His attention is off of us. And I, for one, am very grateful that we are always on His mind, especially in the dark places of life.
The future He has in mind for us is good (plans for wholeness/peace and not for evil). Not only is God always thinking about His children, but His thoughts toward us are meant to bring us peace. He has no plans for evil when it comes to us. Each and every thought that God has about us is moving toward one expected end – our welfare. This was important for the Israelites to hear because nothing seemed to be going their way. They were wondering if God had utterly rejected them. So, through Jeremiah, He informs them that though they are in a lengthy period of discipline, God was already planning for their good and at the right time would bring it about.
A word of caution is due when it comes to this promise. Jeremiah 29:11 is not some kind of rabbit’s foot that will protect us from pain and suffering, though I’ve heard it used this way many times. When someone is going through a difficult trial they will recite these words and ask the Lord to remove them from it. But that’s not the right way to approach His promise. You see, God is the one who exiled Israel to Babylon in order that they might be humbled, confess their sin and repent by turning back to Him. He knew that it would take seventy years for this to happen. And, of course, it did. That’s when a man named Nehemiah was moved to pray: (Nehemiah1:5-9) — “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and laws you gave your servant Moses. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’” God heard Nehemiah’s prayer and granted him favor with the new king (Cyrus) so that he was able to lead some of the exiles home to rebuild the wall surrounding Jerusalem while Ezra the priest rebuilt the people so that they once again followed God as He intended. God worked in a way that brought about good for His people, but only after they submitted fully to Him. Application: One of the great weapons of the enemy, the devil, is discouragement. His goal is always to rob God of glory by causing us to doubt Him or even to wonder if for some reason He is working for evil in our lives. Here’s a piece of advice the next time you find yourself in this place. As a child of God, He will never act wickedly toward you. And if the devil ever comes to you and insinuates that He is, just remind Satan of this verse and declare that God plans for our welfare (peace) not for evil. He loves us and always works for our good! Say it out loud so the enemy can hear you and declare your faith in this promise. If you do, the Bible says he will flee from you (James 4:7).
I want to address one more thing before we move on to the last point. You may be wondering what God is doing when He allows His children to goal through trials and deep suffering. Here are five answers for you: (1) Just like He was with Israel, He can be purifying us from sin; (2) He uses trials to test us and reveal what’s in our hearts – Deuteronomy 8:2; (3) He humbles us so that we recognize our need for Him; (4) He prepares us for greater ministry; (5) He teaches us about His character and nature. Here is a story that might help you understand: The barracks where Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsy, were kept in the Nazi concentration camp, Ravensbruck, were terribly overcrowded and flea-infested. They had been able to miraculously smuggle a Bible into the camp, and in that Bible, they had read that in all things they were to give thanks and that God can use anything for good. Betsy decided that this meant thanking God for the fleas. This was too much for Corrie, who said she could do no such thing. Betsy insisted, so Corrie gave in and prayed to God, thanking Him even for the fleas. Over the next several months a wonderful, but a curious, thing happened: They found that the guards never entered their barracks. This meant that the women were not assaulted. It also meant that they were able to do the unthinkable, which was to hold open Bible studies and prayer meetings in the heart of a Nazi concentration camp. Through this, countless numbers of women came to faith in Christ. Only at the end did they discover why the guards had left them alone and would not enter into their barracks: It was because of the fleas. “God, why do you let these things happen?” “Because I love you and am working for your welfare and good.”
God orders our present lives in light of His future blessings (to give you a future and a hope). God is not just giving us a vague promise that things are going to get better sometime, somewhere. The word “hope” refers to the expectation of a certain future. In this case, God has given us these words to help us understand that He has an appointed end for His people and nothing will prevent us from reaching it. The Israelites couldn’t see it, living hundreds of miles from home under the rule of the Babylonians. And neither did King Nebuchadnezzar or King Cyrus. They had no idea that God was at work. They just did what they wanted to do, and in each case, it was part of the plan to teach the Israelites, make them holy and bring them home. That was their hope all along, and from God’s perspective, it was as certain as any of His promises.
Jeremiah 29:11 gives us great comfort especially during the difficult and dark times of life. It reminds us that God is constantly thinking of us, that His thoughts toward us are good and that upon the completion of His plans and purposes, He will bring our appointed troubles to an end and give us a future and a hope.
Here are a few applications for us to think about as we wind things up this morning:
If you’re in a dark place right now, look for God in it.
If you’re in a dark place right now, know that you will not be in it any longer than God deems necessary.
If you’re in a dark place right now, realize you’ll be better off for it. That’s the hope – the expectation of a certain future — when your life is in God’s hands.
Conclusion: If ever Genelle Guzman McMillan needed to know she was being held in the strong arms of a God she couldn’t see, it was now. It was just after 12:30 p.m. on September 12, 2001. The towers had fallen 27 hours earlier. Amazingly, Genelle was still alive. Although the 30-year-old Port Authority clerk had fallen from the 64th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, she had survived. But what were her chances of being rescued from the 10 stories of smoking rubble in which she was entombed? Her head was squeezed between chunks of concrete while her legs were sandwiched by pieces of a stairway. Because her right hand was pinned under her leg, only her left hand was free. With that free hand, she reached in the darkness, hoping to find something to hold on to—physically as well as emotionally. But Genelle could not grasp anything. In the depths of despair and smoking debris, she began to pray. “I kept my hand out there, praying to God,” she recalls. “Show me a sign. Show me a miracle. Show me that you’re out there. Show me that you are listening to me.” Not long after, someone grabbed her hand. A man’s voice identified himself as Paul. Although Genelle tried to open her eyes, she could not. Paul reassured her that she would be fine. He encouraged her to hold on to his hand. According to a newspaper account, she grabbed his hand. She remembers he was not wearing gloves, unlike the firefighter who found her. She also remembers he grabbed her hand with two hands. “He was holding my hand for a long time,” she says. “And then other workers came and pulled me out.” Genelle Guzman McMillan was the last person pulled alive from the collapsed towers. But she is not the last person to experience being held by God when there seemed to be no hope. Jeremiah 29:11 reminds all God’s people that out of seemingly nowhere, His hands are there to hold us through the darkest times of our lives and to give us a future and a hope.