Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
This past week the Major League Baseball post-season started, and while this year more teams started in the playoffs the season is over for the vast majority of teams. While some teams made a run for the playoffs, other teams ended the season with a losing record. One of the things I really appreciate about sports fans is that even in the face of defeat they find a way to be optimistic. A losing season, just means it is a “building year”, a year to learn from the mistakes, tune up the strengths, and come back better than ever. Sometimes building years can turn into a few years, or even building decades (just ask a long time Cubs fan).
In most sports leagues a building year can be disappointing, but does not have many consequences beyond that. However, that is not true for English Soccer. I know soccer is not as popular over here, so you may not be overly familiar with how it works. English soccer is set up a bit like baseball with a Premiere league being the major league. Then there are multiple levels of minor leagues. The difference is English soccer has a promotion and relegation system. This means at the end of the season the bottom three teams are relegated to the next lower league and the top three teams from the lower league are promoted to the higher league. This adds a lot more drama to the idea of a building year, because this means next season is not just hopes for a better record but it means that next season a team is fighting to claw its way back into the top league or they are fighting to keep their position.
While I know it is not likely, I would love to see a similar system implemented into a U.S. sports league. It adds a lot of excitement to a season, and I think gives a lot of long term investment to the fans. Consider the arc of Manchester City. This is a football club with a long history dating back to its founding in 1894. However, a century later the team was in a rough spot and it culminated with the team being relegated out of the premier league at the end of the 1998 season. After a few building years, the team won back promotion to the premier league in 2002. They held on and a decade later, Manchester City won the premier league. A feat they have accomplished five times since then, including the season that concluded in May of this year. I imagine once the championships were won there was an incredible sense of pride for those long time fans who stuck with the team through the years they were relegated.
I really do admire the diehard sports fans who stick with their team through thick and thin, who celebrate the wins and promotions but hold on through the losses and relegations. There is something truly beautiful in the optimistic loyalty of the diehard fans who truly believe that a bad season is just a building year, and that next year will be better. I think as people of faith, and as this morning’s scripture illustrates, this is a lesson we can learn from and find hope in. Even if it feels like we are going through a building year we can have hope because God is faithful.
The prophet Jeremiah was cursed to live in interesting times. It was a time of great upheaval. The Assyrian Empire based in Nineveh, which has long been the military powerhouse of the Middle East and which had conquered the Northern Kingdom, was destroyed. In quick order the Assyrians found themselves conquered and assimilated into the now reigning Babylonian empire. At the same time, Egypt was reasserting its strength. Jerusalem found itself caught between these two ancient super powers. Both powers wanted to use the Israelites as an ally and buffer against the other. In 605 the king of Judah, Jehoiakim found himself mostly by force allied with King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jehoiakim rebelled against this arrangement, and in response the Babylonians marched on Jerusalem, but they did not destroy the city. Nebuchadnezzar installed a new king friendly to him and he took the Israelites best and brightest minds and artisans back to Babylon. This most famously included people like Daniel.
This was the backdrop to Jeremiah as he faithfully prophesied what God told him to say. However, by the time of Jeremiah the fate of the Israelites had already been sealed. Jeremiah mostly had the unhappy task of announcing the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah was given the job of telling the people that the bill for their collective sin and turning from God was going to come due. This is one of the reasons why Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as the “suffering prophet.” Yet, not all of Jeremiah’s messages were doom and gloom. Jeremiah also spoke of a hopeful future. Jeremiah spoke of restoration and redemption. He spoke of a new day and reasons to stay faithful until that day.
Which is what we read in this morning’s scripture. We read verse 1 to set the context. Starting at verse 4 this scripture contains the contents of a letter that Jeremiah sent, and Jeremiah makes it clear that he is relaying a message from God. This letter was sent to the people, like Daniel, that were taken in 605 to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. This is a letter addressed to people who were torn from their homes, torn from their lives, and exiled in a foreign land. We read just the beginning of the letter, but the message is clear: It is a building year. They should not despair. They should live, find joy in life, and stay faithful to God. In the part we did not read, Jeremiah does let them know that it will in fact be several building years, that the exile will last seventy years, but in the end God will be faithful as we can read in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The overall message of the letter that Jeremiah wrote and we read the beginning of in this scripture is one of hope. It is a message of God’s faithfulness that will carry on into a future, and since God will be forever faithful this morning’s scripture encourages those in exile to build, plant, marry, increase, and plan for a better future. The message of this morning’s scripture is to embrace the reality that some years are building years and we can have an assurance that we can be faithful in those years because God will be faithful for us. The message of this morning’s scripture is we can continue to have hope because God is not just the God of the present but of the future.
While this scripture was originally addressed to the Israelites in Babylonian exile, it is a message that I think we need to hear today as Christians. Because the collectively the church in America is in a season of building years.
For years now Christianity in America has been on a bit of a downward trend. For instance, all the way back in 2015 the website HuffPost published an article entitled “Are We Finally Witnessing the Death of Christianity in America?” Reports of Christianity’s death have always been greatly exaggerated, but perhaps they feel a bit more pressing today. The Covid-19 pandemic has had far reaching and still developing consequences. One of those consequences is church attendance. The vast majority of churches in the United States see current attendance well below pre-covid attendance. For many this is a sustained drop of 20-30%. It is not just a drop in attendance, but it is a drop in who is attending. Young adults, those 18-34, make up 24% of the U.S. population yet only account for 14% of the people who fill sanctuaries on any given Sunday. In denominations like the UMC, 42% of church attenders are 65 or older. This all combines for a fairly sobering statistic that was released as part of a Pew Research Center last month. By the year 2070 Americans claiming any religious identity will by all statistical indications be less than half the population. While you may not have had the numbers and the statistics to back up your gut feeling, I am likely telling you stuff you already know. You can see as easily see the sanctuary today has less people than you once remember. You have a sense of how much Christian values and principles have shrunk from public consciousness. The factors that have caused this situation where America is steadily moving to being a post-Christian nation are complex and multi-faceted. As much as we want it there is no silver bullet and there is no magic program that will be an instant quick-fix and turn things around overnight.
Given all of this, I understand the knee-jerk reactions some might have. I understand the desire to circle the wagons and retreat from a world that clearly does not want us. I can even understand how someone might feel like throwing in the towel and say “why bother with this anymore” if it seems doomed to fail. And while I can understand how someone could have those reactions, I do not agree with them. Instead of giving into an insular, cynical, and pessimistic viewpoint I look to scripture’s like this morning’s for hope because even in times when things can seem bleak, God has a plan for the future.
An example of how this is true can be seen in China. Before the communist revolution and Chairman Mao took power, China was not exactly a Christian country. Unfortunately Christianity was too tied to the culture of western colonization to make a lot of inroads and pre-revolution there were only about five million Christians in the infamously populated country. Once the communists were in charge, it was especially bleak for Christianity. The Chinese Communist Party officially promoted atheism as a state religion. Anti-religion campaigns as part of the Cultural Revolution saw all religious practices banned and sacred texts outlawed. Yet, the church of Jesus Christ not only endured it flourished. Today, Christianity still faces persecution and Christian religious practice is heavily policed in China, but even at conservative estimates Christianity is growing at a rate of over 7% year to year in China. After decades of attempted repression, Christianity in China grew from only 5 million souls to somewhere over 100 million today.
The death of Christianity is still exaggerated, but there is no doubt we are in a building year. We should not give into cynicism but trust that God has a plan for the future, a plan for the church to prosper. Like this scripture encourages we should build, we should plant, and we should prepare for a future. It does not matter if church attendance is down, because there are still people who need to know that there is still good in this world and that love is real. It does not matter if we are all getting older because there are still the least of these who need cared for. It does not matter if someday Christians are in the minority, because people still need Jesus.
May we embrace that we are likely in a building year. This means that sometimes we plant seeds for trees whose shade we never expect to sit under, but we do so knowing that the kingdom of God is being built. We should not get discouraged, but we should be faithful in following God. So may we faithfully continue to serve this community by showing them God’s love through our actions. May we faithfully reach out to others and invite in. And may we put our full trust in God and have an enduring hope that God has a plan for the future, a plan for the church to prosper. May we have confidence in that hope because it is not build on shifting sand. It may be a building year but our hope is built upon Jesus Christ, the solid rock on which we stand.