By Pastor Piet Van Kampen
23rd Sun. after Pentecost, October 25/28, 2018
Jeremiah 31:7-9 (EHV)
7 This is what the Lord says. Sing with joy for Jacob, and shout for the greatest of the nations. Make your praises heard and say, “Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel!” 8 Watch, I will bring them from a land in the north and gather them from the ends of the earth...
Terry was not in a good place. His first marriage had ended badly due to his hard-drinking and infidelity. Then, he’d recently found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. All Terry really had going for him at this point in his life was his job. He was a reporter for the Associated Press living in Beirut, Lebanon. But then, Terry’s life went from not being in a good place to being in a really bad place. In 1984 the terrorist group Hezbollah took Terry Anderson hostage and held him in captivity. They finally released him seven years later in 1991.
I doubt that any of you have been taken hostage in your life—if you have, you haven’t told me about it. Yet, we can identify with Terry Anderson. We can sympathize because we each have our own little “captivities” in this life: times of suffering that turn our lives upside down. Sometimes it’s our own fault—sometimes sinful pride and arrogance ends in harsh consequences. And sometimes our suffering is not our fault, but the Lord in His infinite wisdom allows us to go through it. Sometimes it lasts for a few hours or a few days; sometimes it goes on and on for years.
In our lowest moments, we’re tempted to believe that God has abandoned us and our suffering will never end. But is that really true? Yes, we face suffering, but we do so as God’s people—and that means something. These words from Jeremiah 31 were written for His people in their captivity, to give them hope that during captivity, God’s people take comfort—(1) resting on His promises and (2) calling on His deliverance.
- Resting on His promises.
First of all, during captivity, God’s people take comfort, resting on His promises. The Kingdom of Judah was not in a good place. The country had turned away from God and worshiped idols, giving themselves over to all kinds of immoral behavior. So, one day God’s judgment reached a tipping point. And God’s people went from not being in a good place to being in a really bad place. He allowed the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar to come and destroy Jerusalem. And his army took tens of thousands of survivors and forced them to march hundreds of miles to Babylon, where they would serve in captivity for the next seventy years. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment and just imagine how helpless and hopeless these people must have felt at that moment in time. Did God still love them? Would they ever see Jerusalem again?
We feel the same way in our own “captivities.” The captivity of loneliness. The captivity of anxiety and fear. The captivity of illness or disability. The captivity of too many bills and not enough money. The captivity of too much responsibility and not enough wisdom to handle it. We wonder if it will go on forever, if things will ever be different. We wonder—if God’s still there.
Yet those feelings are not entirely a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, suffering and captivity are terrible. Yet we also have to see the good that the Lord can work, even in terrible times. Suffering gets us to see our weakness as sinful human beings, how much we need God. By their captivity in Babylon, the people of Judah realized that they were nothing without God. Their suffering made them ready to listen to God again.
And what did God have to say? “This is what the LORD says… Watch, I will bring them from a land in the north and gather them from the ends of the earth” (v. 8). The LORD promised to save His people from their captivity—and to bring them back to the promised land! And how would they know that it was the LORD’s doing? “The blind and the lame will be there, the pregnant woman together with the woman in labor” (v. 8). Everyone who would’ve otherwise found the journey impossible would be there! They’d all be saved—and not just a tiny remnant! “They will return as a huge community” (v. 8).
These people—they’d turned away from God. They were unfaithful to Him. Why should God even care? “For I am a father to Israel” (v. 9). He would save them because He saw these people as His children—even though they didn’t deserve it.
And that promise wasn’t just meant for the people of Judah. God promised to not only bring his people home from Babylon, but to “gather them from the ends of the earth”! This wasn’t just about the end of an earthly captivity; it was also about the end of our spiritual captivity—in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ! Even though we turn away from God every day, Jesus willingly made Himself a captive to God’s Law, so He could perfectly obey God in our place. And as He Himself faced the suffering of hell on our behalf, “after he was brought to his goal”—after His death on the cross—Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation” for all who believe in Him and follow Him (Hebrews 5:8-9). And through the blood of Jesus, God now sees you as His children too.
So during captivity, God’s people take comfort—resting on His promises! We take comfort that, in the saving work of Jesus, we are still God’s people. We take comfort that the same loving God who sent His Son to save us also loves us and helps us even now. And even if that deliverance doesn’t come right now—it will come. Letting go of everything else, we cling to God’s strength and God’s mercy because we know the word of Christ that says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
Early on in his captivity, Terry Anderson constantly protested the way his captors were treating him. One day, he demanded that they give him a Bible. He was a little surprised when they actually gave him one. And over the next several years, as Terry put it, that Bible “got a lot of service.” He read it cover to cover, many times. And in that time the Holy Spirit changed Terry’s heart. Terry went from being an agnostic—one step above an atheist—to being someone who had God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ. And that grace sustained him. Terry could rest knowing that no matter how his captivity was going to end, he would be with the Lord.
- Calling on His deliverance.
Life didn’t become easy. Terrible things still happened to Terry and his fellow hostages. And the same was true for the children of Israel in their captivity. “They will come weeping,” God says of His people (v. 9). He doesn’t say whether it’s tears of sorrow and regret at the past or tears of joy at the future. Maybe we’ve all shed some tears over the years during the captivity of our suffering. And yet, as we rest on God’s promises, during captivity God’s people can take comfort, calling on His deliverance.
“This is what the LORD says. Sing with joy for Jacob, and shout for the greatest of the nations. Make your praises heard and say, ‘Lord save your people, the remnant of Israel!’” (v. 7). In Genesis, we’re told how men like Adam, Enoch, and Abraham “called on the name of the LORD”—how they began to publicly worship God. Our own “captivities” of suffering give us the same opportunity—to proclaim, to praise, and to pray!
To proclaim—to “sing with joy for Jacob”, to proclaim the goodness and mercy of God even in our bad times, to share with others the very promises that give us so much comfort!
To praise—to “Make your praises heard”, to praise the LORD and worship Him, not only with loud hymns of praise here, but to make our entire lives one big doxology to God! To set an example of faith and trust in the midst of whatever it is we’re going through!
And to pray—to say, “Lord, save your people!” To call on God at all times and in all places. To be like blind Bartimaeus and keep on asking for God’s help—and when people tell us to stop to pray even louder.
During Terry Anderson’s captivity, the grace of God enabled him to pray and encourage his fellow hostages. And when it was all over—when he was finally set free—he publicly forgave the people who had hurt him.
Terry’s now in his seventies. And looking back, he admits that life hasn’t been easy. Terry still struggles in his personal life. And over the years, when he saw his captors’ faces on T.V., he’d catch himself angrily shouting at them. In a recent interview he wondered out loud, “Am I a jerk because I was held hostage or did I survive captivity because I’m a jerk?”
Terry’s weakness reminds us of our own, that we are the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman going into labor. We can’t do it on our own; we need help all the time. Yet you, me, Terry, and all of God’s people share the same hope and the same help from God’s holy Word: “I will bring them… I will lead them,” He says (v. 8, 9). He does the work; not us.
He led His people out of captivity and home to Jerusalem on a level road by streams of water. And in the same way, He has put us on the level path of His Word and brought us to the life-giving Gospel river. There He fills us with His power, so that amid our tears, we can still call on His holy name. No matter what you’re going through, rest in His promises and call on His help—His help to save us now, His help to take us home to heaven. Amen.