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Making the Best of a Bad Situation

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A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on October 10, 2010.

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

Did you read the best selling book, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? It chronicles Gilbert’s trip around the world after her divorce and what she discovered about life. Atlanta native, Julia Roberts, played the part of Gilbert in the movie version of the book.

Gilbert narrowed the meaning of life down to three words: eat, pray and love. In Italy, she learned about food as only the Italians can prepare it. In India, she tapped into the spiritual side of life and learned how to pray. In Indonesia, she discovered love as she had never experienced it.

Eat, pray and love, Gilbert encouraged her readers in order to find balance and contentment.

I like simple, memorable, verb-filled lists like this. Jeremiah must have liked them as well because he left his readers a similar one. Build, plant and marry, he challenged the captives in Babylon. Seek peace, pray and be good neighbors, he added after giving it more thought.

Sounds like something a grandparent would say.

Who were these captives Jeremiah was addressing in this letter? For that matter, who was Jeremiah?

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah prior to and during the invasion of Jerusalem. He had the longest prophetic career of any of the Old Testament prophets, spanning forty years. He saw the crisis coming that led to the downfall of Jerusalem and tried to warn the people. He was, after all, from the bold and courageous priestly lineage known for speaking truth to power. The leaders refused to listen, however, telling Jeremiah to be quiet.

Jeremiah’s worst fears materialized, though. In 597 B.C., that invasion took place and many of Jerusalem’s most skilled artisans and craftsmen were deported to Babylon.

There was no shortage of false prophets who told the people that their exile was temporary and that within two years Babylon would collapse and they would return home. These harbingers of false optimism encouraged the people to sit and wait out their return like a person would wait out a delay at the airport.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, had another message for the people. He refused to give them false hope, calling the people to a deeper faith.

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” 29: 4-7.

What was Jeremiah’s message to the captives in Babylon? Through his trusted messengers, Elasah and Gemariah, he told them there would be no early release from captivity. That day would eventually come, but not any time soon and possibly not for a generation or two.

In the meantime, the former residents of Jerusalem needed to settle down, unpack their bags and get on with the affairs of life. Build, plant and marry, he told them. In addition, be model citizens and good neighbors by being peacemakers and praying for one another.

In other words, it was time to make the best of a bad situation. The failure to do so would only make their time in Babylon worse.

Why did Jeremiah have this message delivered to those living in exile? He cared about them and did not want them living in denial or with bitterness, which would lead to frustration, anger, confusion and despair.  As bad as being deported was, he knew that having a bad attitude was worse. So he offered an alternative voice, full of grace and truth, which could help them deal with reality and make the most of their situation.

Is this a message you need to hear today? Maybe you are not where you want to be or ever thought you would be. Perhaps you are dealing with chronic health issues, you have lost your investments in the Great Recession or a job transfer has taken you away from family and friends. Your mate of many years has died or your marriage, which began with so much promise, has breathed its last breath.

What do you do? How do you make the most of a bad situation?

I believe you begin by listening to those who care about you, even if they are telling you what you do not want to hear. The Israelites refused to listen to Jeremiah, and it cost them dearly, both before and after Jerusalem fell. If they had it to do over, I believe they would heed his sound advice.

Whose prophetic voice and wise counsel are you ignoring? Why do you think they are talking to you? Is it time to listen?

Would you let me add my voice to theirs and talk to you about how, based upon this text, to make the most of a bad situation?

Accept reality. Take a picture of your situation, which a friend of mine refers to as “camera check.” Don’t put things in the picture that you wish were there, only what is really there.

“It is what it is” is a phrase commonly heard these days. Well, what is it? Face the facts, though they may at times be brutal. Denial and deception are deadly.

Don’t get stuck in the past. While it is important to grieve and give sorrow a voice, we must never let the grieving process paralyze us.

Recall what you had at one time with heartfelt gratitude, cherish your memories and look to the future with hope and anticipation. As John Claypool used to say, “We do not know enough to give up and live in despair.”

Take an inventory of who and what you still have. While you may have lost some things, there is never a time when you have lost everything.

The ancient Jews despaired because they lost everything they valued when they were deported: their temple, city and homes. It seems all they could focus upon was what they lost, ignoring what they still had.

Jeremiah reminded them, however, that all was not lost. They still had those things that really mattered: faith, family, friends, love and hope. Losing what they thought mattered could help them discover what really mattered if they would let it. It can for us, too.

Take responsibility for your life. No knight in shining armor is going to ride in on a white horse and rescue you, just like it did not happen for the disillusioned captives in Babylon. The decisions you make today, large and small, will determine where you will be tomorrow. Make wise decisions.

Look at all the verbs in this passage: build, live, plant, eat, take, seek and pray. Surely you sense Jeremiah’s call to action. It was his way of telling the captives to quit grumbling, complaining and bickering and do something.

Don’t sell yourself short. You already possess the strengths you need to make the most of a bad situation. I am confident this is not the first time your back has been to the wall or you have had to cope with a “new normal.”

I have another counselor friend who was telling me last week about a “strengths assessment.” She asks her clients several questions to help them discover their strengths.

What have you been through? What got you through it? What did you learn about yourself? How can you use these strengths to make this situation better?

Spend some time this week answering these questions. I suspect the answers will be very revealing.

Find a support group. There is no reason to travel this road alone. Be a good neighbor at all times in all places by opening your life to others and by reaching out to those around you who are struggling. This will make such a difference in your experience.

Rely upon God. He wants to be a traveling companion as well. He is willing to accompany you on every step of your journey, even in your Babylon, providing the wisdom, insight, strength, courage and stamina you need. Open your life to Him and take His hand.

What role could this church play in your life right now? Is this the place where you need to put down roots and develop meaningful relationships that will help you in the days ahead? Is it time for you to re-plant your life in a new community where you can receive and be a blessing? If so, I invite you to become a part of our warm and welcoming fellowship. I think you will find it to be rich, fertile soil.