“Hope” – All College Church 2011

     This is what the LORD says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the LORD. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land” (Jeremiah 29:10-14 NLT).

     After they [the disciples] gathered again in Galilee, Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matthew 17:22-23 NLT).

My family and I went to a wedding last weekend and since it was out of town, my wife and I reminisced about our time here at DWU so far between the screams and cries of our children in the car. I think my wife likes to get me in the confined space of the car so I am forced to chat and share my feelings.

We are entering on 6th year here which, looking back at the other campus pastor tenure’s puts us in 2nd place for the longest tenure in recent history, going back at least to 1988, maybe even beyond that. When we moved here we didn’t have 2 children, a 6-year old husky/lab dog or almost half the stuff we have acquired since then. We moved from a 700 sq. ft. duplex that was plenty sufficient for two newlyweds to a 2000+ sq. ft. house that feels smaller as the family keeps getting bigger. It is true that you grow to fill whatever space you are given! Life is about change and transition.

I realized three things changed for me personally this past year. In January I was reading an article to be used in the Wesleyan Today (a publication the university produces) where I was quoted and it read “Brandon Vetter, 30.” I almost did a spit take as I was reading the article; I knew I was turning 30 this year but it was just… so… final to see it in print, in black and white like that. Second, I remember my hair stylist back in my early 20s finding gray hairs already and said I would be completely white by the time I was 30. Ha! She was wrong. But I am finding more and more not-black hairs each day. And, last, just this month, August 10th to be exact, I have spent more time on earth without my mother than with her, as she died of cancer when I was 15 years old.

Some changes we go through are incredibly painful like when we lose people we love whether through death or distance; these events transform us and mark us forever, making us different people today than we were yesterday. Sometimes the changes are humorous because we’ve all been there or will be there; they are just a part of life like white hair, aging, middle school, and going to college for the first time. Sometimes the changes we go through are both humorous and painful.

In the midst of all the stuff we go through, all the noise that is out there, there is a voice calling out to us in a whisper, if we slow down long enough, turn off our technology long enough, we can hear it telling us that no matter what we go through, there is always hope, always a future with good in the plan, not disaster. Even when it might feel like all that is left for us is disaster, the voice whispers to us “you are wrong. There is hope.”

Our first Scripture this morning is pretty familiar to those who have Christian relatives who give them Christian-themed gifts. This is a well-used graduation verse that rightly instills hope and excitement into recent high school graduates as they move on to experience post-graduation life, which for many ends up being college. However, as you study this passage and read the story around it in the book of Jeremiah, it is a very interesting choice for us to put on greeting cards, key chains, bookmarks and bracelets.

The book of Jeremiah in the Bible is the longest one by word count (for the trivia buffs out there). Jeremiah lived around the turn of the 6th century BCE, so somewhere around 625 BC – 536 BC in what would be present-day Israel. Jeremiah’s job was God’s prophet; he was charged to speak God’s word to get God’s people back in right relationship with God. Something the Israelites were doing were not up-to-snuff, not in their best interests for healthy relationships, so Jeremiah was trying to get this right before everything fell apart.

Unfortunately everything falls completely apart. While the country of Israel is one nation today, in Jeremiah’s day it was split into 2 countries: Israel and Judah. Israel had fallen more than100 years before to the Assyrians and Jeremiah said the same thing would happen to Judah from the Babylonians. Babylon is present-day Iraq and Judah was just holding on as their own sovereign nation. But it didn’t last.

Around 587/6 BC Babylon invades Judah, captures and/or kills all their leaders, takes a good chunk of the population back to Babylon never to return, and leaves a remnant, a poor remnant, with Jeremiah that was beaten down physically, emotionally and spiritually. You can picture Jeremiah standing among the ruins of his city watching a train of his people walk away from the ruins to leave to never return again. This is one of the reasons why he is known as the weeping prophet.

For the visual learners among us, here is a map of Jeremiah’s day. This is the Middle East, you can say present-day Israel on the left with present-day Iraq on the right. The entire blue section is the area controlled by the Babylonians after they had conquered Jerusalem and the country of Judah. To give you an idea of the size, from Jerusalem to Elam is about 800 miles.  Who is from Texas in the room today? You traveled farther to be here than those exiles who were taken from their home in Jerusalem never to return again.

Since we travel with relative ease around the world today, to put this story into 21st century terms would look something like this. We lack the ability to travel between the stars. One day, aliens from the other side of the galaxy come to capture or kill all our leaders in every country, decimate our structures and cities, take most of our people across the galaxy never to return and leave a remnant, a beaten-down remnant, on earth to begin again.

This is Jeremiah’s depressing story and this is the story behind the Scripture that we freely share with each other during graduations and during times when we are asking God, asking each other, what is the next step I should take? Where should I go to school? What major should I choose? Where can I best use the talents God has given me? Congrats on your graduation and here is a Bible verse that tells the story of the weeping prophet because that is what going to college is like! We use some very interesting Scriptures to encourage each other!

And yet, despite the depressing tale that is Jeremiah’s story, there is a word, a lesson, for us in it today. Jeremiah writes to the exiles carried away to Babylon to come to grips with the fact they will be there for a long time, 70 years or so. That is at least a generation if not two that will not see Jerusalem. They are a people ripped from their homeland to a foreign land with a foreign tongue with foreign practices that simply do not make a lot of sense!

This weekend we welcome freshman and all new students to a place that may seem like a foreign land at times even if you came from not just another US state but from another part of SD (what is the deal with all this corn in SD? Why do you staple it to a building? And, really, people serious stop to look at it and buy a popcorn ball?) We have a foreign tongue (we have initials for everything: SAB, TRIO, SMC, MCC, LOA, LST, PEP, CIA, FBI & KGB) and occasionally foreign practices (you will come to learn what the beanie king and queen are, why we sing the song called the Scotchman that is not a drinking song, and the simple awesomeness that is grocery bag bingo). You very well may feel a bit like an exile from time to time, like the Israelites did living in Babylon.

What was Jeremiah’s advice to these people ripped from their homeland and all that they know? Earlier in chapter 29 he tells them to build houses, live in them, plant gardens, take wives, marry, have your children marry, grow in numbers, and pray for the people and they city in which you live. In essence, live your lives; eat, drink and be merry! Your descendants will see home again but you need to come to grips with where you are so live your lives where you are.

You all will see your homes, your friends, and family again; you will not be gone for 70 years. But Jeremiah’s advice for adapting to foreign places does apply; get engaged! Do not hole up in your dorm room or ignore all of the activities that are happening around you. Get to know new people, check out the welcome back week activities each night this week, check out worship Thursdays at 11, FCA, Koinonia, go to football, volleyball, soccer, basketball games (all the sports) and maybe leave your dorm room door open when you are there to get to know the people around you.

When you do all that you can to be engaged in this place, to make friends with people here and not lament all the fun your friends are having back home that you see on Facebook, you will much more easily transition from feeling like an exile to becoming a fully engaged Dakota Wesleyan student. Get engaged and you will very soon not feel like an exile anymore.

While you all do get to see your homes again, you are not gone for 70 years, there is a sense that you do never go home again. All of your family, your friends, will be still be there but college and the simple process of growing up, of becoming an independent person, of making new friends here, puts you in a different relationships, makes a different kind of connection with your parents and the friends that you left back home. It is not a bad thing at all, it is the process of maturing and how our relationships change as we age.

I remember my freshman year of college, heading home on any extended break that we got. It was nice to see friends and family, to keep those connections going, but as the year went along and as I got more fully engaged here, the less and less I ran home; it became very minimal as I became an upperclassman. The connections, the relationships, were still present; I still called home once a week, still connected with friends when I was back in Bismarck but the relationships in college became more central because this is where I spent most of my time.

I think this transition is probably the hardest on parents. If you are traditional college-aged, for 18 years, they have been able to watch and to experience everything with you; now they only live through phone calls, Facebook, and the occasional text messages. I remember my wife’s parents, when she came home from college, expected her to keep the same curfew she had in high school when she had kept her own schedule, her own bedtime in college for many months. It can be tough on parents to make this change. So, please, do not do what a recent college grad did: he only called about once a month and the parents found they got more timely information from his Facebook page. I believe they found out there first he was going on one of our international mission trips. Find that right balance of keeping your parents informed on a regular, not over or under communicating to them.

College puts you in a different relationship with parents, friends and family. There will be some bumps ahead but know that they are perfectly normal as everyone adjusts to this new place in life that you continue to mature into all that God has made you to be.

So, maybe this story of Jeremiah that we put on all kinds of graduation themed gifts isn’t so bad after all. I still find it rather odd that this story of death, destruction and despair is what we use to motivate graduates to go take hold of the future that God has in store for them, a future with hope in it. You can bet the Israelites would have preferred a future without exile but their choices led them other places. We also need to realize that the picture we have of our preferred future, of where we think we will be after we graduate or what will happen in the next 4 years, may not be what actually happens.

Our second Scripture reading this morning finds the disciples, the early followers of Jesus, meeting with him. This teacher whom they’ve learned and grew and experienced all kinds of things for 3 years now says he will be killed but no worries he will be raised again in 3 days. Now, let’s just let the weirdness of that settle in a bit because resurrection does not really factor into a regular course syllabus. Your professor whom you take a few classes from over the next 3 years says they will be killed but no problem they will come back to life to teach another Calculus class. Weird right?

The disciples are filled with grief because that is not the picture of the future they’ve had. They’ve enjoyed being with Jesus, they’ve learned in the good times and the bad, and just might have thought he was going to be around for a long time. But something much bigger is going on; God has set into motion the redemption, the healing, of humanity and the entire planet and it starts with Jesus coming back to life, showing death has no more power.

The disciples end up becoming the early church leaders and a movement that began 2,000 years ago is still alive today. This was not what they had pictured when they signed up with Jesus but, I’m going to guess, was so much better than anything they could have ever imagined! God indeed had a future with hope for them; now, it included all kinds of ups and downs, challenges that they would likely have rather skipped, but they lived out their God-given talents and design to launch a movement of Jesus followers that still exists today.

So, where you sit today, this picture you have of your future, may or may not be where you end up in 4 years. You may change majors, you may adjust your out of classroom activities, and you might even find yourself adjusting what you believe. That is all normal and an excellent piece of experiencing college. You may find new talents you did not even know God had given you, enter a completely different career path, and find yourself living into a completely different kind of future than you could have ever imagined. And it is a future with hope.

We are all so excited you all are here today. We will do all that we can to help you stop feeling like exiles to feel like you are indeed a member of the Dakota Wesleyan community where we do all that we can to discover and to develop the God-given abilities inside each one of us, so we can fully participate in the rebirth of humanity, of the world, and of us made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together…

            God, we are filled with all kinds of emotions today: excitement, fear, uncertainty, joy, sadness and hope. We are glad to be in this place but we are not quite sure of what is going to happen next; what classes will be like or what kind of relationships we will ultimately make? We miss what we left behind but we go forward knowing you go ahead of us with a future filled with possibilities, hope, and things we could have never dreamed or imagined. Help us live in a way that makes the most of all that You have made us to be and follows in the footsteps of your Son Jesus. It is in his name we pray, Amen.

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