This sermon was based on Jeremiah 29:1-7, and preached at the Central Schwenkfelder Church, Worcester, PA on March 14, 2010
There are a few questions I would like to ask this morning. And by the time we’re through, I would like for you to attempt to answer it. What welfare of Worcester, and the larger North Penn area can we seek? What are the needs of this community? What are we, as a congregation, here for? Is God’s mission to Worcester, our mission to Worcester? And furthermore, what led you to Central Schwenkfelder Church? What or whom did God use to bring you here? To help us answer that question, please note the words of Jeremiah 29:7: “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”
Allow me to give you some context of this verse. After decades of rebellion, idolatry and lawlessness, the Israelites were carried away into Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C. Jeremiah was preaching at the time. He sent a letter to the captives to encourage them. And encouragement is what they needed. It is set in the context of hope. Verse seven is essentially an instruction to “settle down, resume life the best that you can. Make the most of this unfortunate situation.”
But the situation would not be ideal. For the next 60 years or so, the Israelites were exposed to all kinds of mistreatment and atrocities. Daniel was imprisoned, asked to eat foods incompatible with his conscience and eventually thrown into a den of lions because he refused to stop praying to his God. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to the golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. All this in a land of exile, a different culture, a home away from home.
Consider our Christian faith in the context of our diverse and ever-growing secular culture. Is this really our home? Or is it more like the best we can have at present- more like a home away from home? What can we learn about the Christian life and our purpose in this world that does not know Christ?
I. THE CHRISTIAN FAITH INCLUDES DISCIPLINE BY GOD THE FATHER.
The following is Burton Goddard’s depiction of what going into exile would have been like: “The trek of a conquered people into captivity is a pathetic sight. Tradesmen unaccustomed to physical exertion are herded along, weary and footsore and faint. Old men who have known better days are cursed by guards as they stumble on the march. Little children cling to their mothers’ skirts and cry. Families become separated- forever. Nor do the cruelties suffered or the heartaches endured end when the journey comes to a close. The strange land of adoption is seldom friendly. The newcomers are fortunate if they escape slavery. They are no longer a nation, no longer free. They long for the familiar scenes of the homeland. Their hearts are not at rest.”  Sounds like a place that no one would want to be. Nevertheless, these Israelites were instructed to “sit down and stay awhile.” In verse five we read that they were to “Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Marry and be given in marriage….”
Are there similarities in our present setting? Maybe not physically. No one is under a harsh foreign ruler or subjected to a difficult political climate. But what about spiritually? How do we understand our diverse culture? Are we Christians living in a home away from home? Now it is important to understand that this dark time in Israel’s history was not a “righteous vengeance” of God. Rather, it was discipline. And discipline has a purpose. It’s root means “to disciple, to train.” Notice the words of Hebrews 12:7: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? …Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Our place of privilege is quickly vanishing and we’re finding ourselves as strangers in a strange land.
So how do we respond to a culture that is becoming more secular? First, let us be reminded that this present world is really not our home, but we are awaiting our true home, which comes from God. Take for instance, Hebrews 13:14: “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” This world is not our home, not what we would pick, necessarily. Rather it is more like a home away from home. We are becoming more like exiles, trying to make the most of our surroundings, while the social, political and even familial climate is not our ideal.
Secondly, and as a result of this first reminder, we cannot get too tied to the present. Because the present was never meant to satisfy. Malcolm Muggeridge, the 20th Century British author, statesmen and agnostic convert to Christianity said: “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves at home here on earth.” In other words, Christians live with a constant sense of anticipation of something better. Materialism is a form of being anchored to this world. And, the sense that this is all that there is. There’s a line in the Jack Nicholson movie of a few years ago, “As good as it gets.” Nicholson is in waiting room of a psychotherapist and asks the individuals seated, “What if this is as good as it gets?” This isn’t all that there is and this isn’t as good as it gets. THE CHRISTIAN FAITH INCLUDES DISCIPLINE BY GOD THE FATHER. Secondly…
II. THE CHRISTIAN FAITH INCLUDES A MISSIONARY EFFORT TO THE WORLD!
Our place of privilege is quickly vanishing and we’re finding ourselves as strangers in a strange land. So what do we do about it? It is not like we can make this country or this culture Christian. My answer: We must act as missionaries to a culture that desperately needs the good news of Jesus Christ without compromising any aspect of that good news. You and I are Christ’s ambassadors. We believe that the Bible is true; that Jesus’ blood atonement was necessary and that there are real places called heaven and hell.
But our missionary efforts are more an awareness than a method, especially as we are in the season of Lent, a period of preparing for Easter. We must refocus our lives on the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, which gives us peace in our present world. In anticipation of His death, Jesus said in John 17: 15: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
Many believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Others believe that it was influenced by Christians, or those that it had a Christian frame of reference. I think what matters most is to answer the question, are we a Christian nation now? Or is it really our job to make it Christian? Maybe it is God’s will that we function as a missionary society to Worcester and the world? That begs the question: what must the church do to be effective?
The present situation is not one of joy. More and more people are leaving the church. Part of this is local and specific. Part of it is cultural and generational. Take for instance a recent article which said that young people are not identifying with church as much anymore. “Affiliation with organized religion is at a 50-year low among young people, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion. The study focused on the generation known as The Millennials — those under 30, born after 1980. According to the study, one in four people (25 percent) between 18 and 30 say they are “unaffiliated.” By comparison, one in five (20 percent) Generation Xers— people born between 1965 and 1980 — identified themselves as unaffiliated at the same age. And the number of unaffiliated Millennials is nearly twice that of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) at the same age. Among Baby Boomers in the late 1970s, 13 percent said they had no religious affiliation.”
What are we as individuals and as a church to do in reference to God’s call to be a missionary or a group of missionaries? Here’s a quote from a friend of mine, Rev. Doug Harvey. He answers the question: “Why are some churches growing and some are not?” Note his answer:
“Thousands of American churches are giving their best resources and energies to ministry to the desires of people who have been Christians for decades while giving almost no thought or effort to reaching those who are outside or new to the faith. The typical growing congregation in America has sought and found a population of people who are responsive to the Gospel, and then given itself to reaching those folks with a style of church that attracts converts and matures those responsive people into committed followers of Jesus.”
This is nothing new. Remember that Jesus gave us a mandate in Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What can we do to fulfill that mandate in our area? What are we doing to reach out with Christ as our message?
Today we have learned two things about the Christian faith. First, it includes discipline by God the Father. And secondly, the Christian faith includes a missionary effort to the world! What welfare of Worcester, PA can we seek? What are the needs of this community? What are we, as a congregation, here for? Is God’s mission to Worcester, our mission to Worcester? To help us answer that question, please note the words of Jeremiah 29:7: “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”
So many of you chose Central years ago as your church home. Others of you have been attending for quite some time and are about to join. Maybe for some of you, this is your first Sunday here. I would like to know: What led you to this church? Now, I would like to hear from you. Would you take a moment and write your answer to that question down, tear it off and put it into the basket on your way out? I want to know how God led you to this church, so that we can be aware of how God is drawing people to us and to Himself.
 Burton L. Goddard, Meet Jeremiah, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1992), 111.
 Article found at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,586405,00.html.