This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.2 (This was after King Jehoiachin[a] and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.”
So almost two months ago, Volodya, Ira, and I were at Ira’s parents’ house about an hour outside of L’viv. We were winding down, getting in our respective beds, reading our bibles, when Volodya looked at me and said, “What do you think salvation means?” At the time, it was really the best question he could have ever asked me.
I have devoted this past year, this time that I’ve spent here in L’viv, as time to really reconnect with God through scripture. Some weeks I’ve done much better than others, but I really have made a more pointed effort to really read and pray through scripture. And when Volodya asked me that question I had been having a really hard time with some things I was reading in the Bible.
When I was growing up I was raised in a few different churches. My spiritual life started in the Roman Catholic Church with my father’s family. My father wasn’t a very religious man, and to this day he still is not, but my grandparents have always been very God fearing. I remember they were the first people who taught us how to pray. We would pray every night that we stayed at their house together. My sisters and I, would all three sleep in the pull out couch, and my grandma would sit at the end of the bed and guide our prayers. We rarely, however, went to church. We moved to the small town Blanchard, Oklahoma when I was in the 2nd grade, and we made friends with these girls that invited us to church. This was the beginning of my Baptist years. From about the 2nd grade through the beginning of college, if asked, I would have told you that I was a Baptist. This was of course seen as something worse than starving children to my father’s family. I remember lots and lots of conversations about the differing beliefs of the Catholic and Baptist churches, and how since I was now a member of this new church I thought that everyone I loved was going to hell. But I must say, the Baptist churches I attended were all wonderful churches, and I learned so much from them and was shaped and molded by them for a long time. However, now I do see the world a bit differently, and though I’m thankful for my Baptist time, I feel a bit different about the important things in my faith.
When I was younger, being a Christian was all about the following things: 1. You must be saved. 2. You must be baptized. 3. You must wear the proper clothes. 4. You must memorize all the bible verses you can. When I was a child this is what it meant to be a Christian. And if you did these things, God would be happy, and you would get your ticket into heaven. Everything that I was taught about what it meant to be a Christian was about my ‘ticket to heaven.’
So I ask you today, is that what salvation is? Is salvation this check list of things that you must do in order to get your ticket to heaven? When Volodya asked me that question two months ago, I had been marinating on this thought for quite some time. I had been reading Matthew, and in the 6th chapter it talks a lot about reward. Don’t pray in public, those who have have received their reward. Pray in private and God will reward you. Don’t do act of righteousness in public, for you will not receive a reward from you Father in Heaven. Instead do not tell your right hand what your left is doing and your Father will reward you. Do not fast in public, for I tell you that they who have, have received their reward. Fast in private, and your Father will reward you.
I was truly and deeply bothered by these verses. Not because I think that the content is odd. I think that the message of these passages are great. But I kept getting stuck on this word reward. To me, I kept reading this word as ‘ticket to heaven’. Do these things and you get your ticket to heaven. Truthfully, I’m still a bit bothered. Folks there are people outside of this room, and maybe inside this room, that are living for the ticket to heaven. That kind of life is not the one that God desires for us.
Friends, I’m sorry to say that our lives aren’t about heaven. Our lives are about living faithfully in order to glorify God. If you’re living life by a check list just to get into heaven, you are missing the point. We were given life, we were breathed into by God, so that we may live a life serving Him in all we do so as to bring glory to God because of His love for us. Sort of like I talked about at Pilgrims two weeks ago, these actions, the righteousness, and fasting, prayer, and sacrifice for God comes out of our person as the fruit of our love for God. It does not come out of a place of desire of some reward. Those who lust for the reward are not experiencing the fullness of this life.
In this passage from Jeremiah, they are talking to an exiled people. These folks know that they are going to be in Babylon for a while before they get to where they are going. They know that some of them may not ever make it to where they are headed, but they also know that their promised land awaits them. And what are they told to do in the meantime? They are told to live. They are told to garden and make homes and have babies.
In many ways we are still these exiled people. We are here on this earth with these lives that we have to do something with. And we have a choice. We can choose to say the words, and go through the motions. To live life by a check-list. To live a life that doesn’t seek God or His glory, much less to bring his kingdom to Earth. A life that waits for heaven. Or we can choose to live a life that brings honor to God because we have no other choice. Because to live any other way would be impossible for our souls. To live in such a way that justice, mercy, and love burst out of us as we go through our lives praising God and trying to bring a little bit of His kingdom to Earth. Not because we have to. Not because we want our ticket to heaven. But because we need to so that we may breathe. So that we may live. So that we may be free.
The point of Christianity is to have a full and abundant life with God that will continue throughout eternity. And life begins now. It begins as soon as you make that decision to make God the Lord of your life. Freedom is in this place and we must claim it. To live in the freedom of God now. Amen.