It’s too bad Al Carroll is not here this morning. Well, I guess it’s not too bad Polly and he are in Ireland, but Al is going to miss some of the fruit of the recent Rochester meeting some of us just attended.
Mary and I got there a day earlier than the rest of the group because there was a Ministers Council meeting on the day before the Annual Meeting. At that Ministers Council meeting we spent five hours with a professor of Old Testament at the Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School looking at the book of Jeremiah. Al was quite puzzled by that. He could not imagine sitting himself for five hours at such a gathering. And he could imagine even less how those of us there were not only quite exhilarated by the experience but were wishing we could do more.
So today, I want to talk a bit about Jeremiah, one of the Old Testament prophets. As we do that, I think it would be helpful for us to think about what an Old Testament prophet is. They are people who have a word from God that they have been called to deliver. They are truth tellers, often confronting religious and political leaders and everybody else with truths they would rather not hear.
We often think of Prophets as people who predict the future which is something they do on occasion, but that’s not the main part of their job description. It’s more apt to say, that prophets don’t so much predict the future as the contradict the present.
That’s also what makes them Seers. They are not so much seeing the future, but seeing where the present is leading. And they see on several levels.
That’s why the writer of the Book of Revelation is like an Old Testament prophet. Some of us think that book is not really a prediction of what the future holds in the sense that books like those in the Left Behind series think of it. Rather we see it more as a prophetic look at the author’s present circumstances trying to see what’s beyond and behind the events that are unfolding. And what the prophet of The Revelation always sees is the victory of Jesus in the lives of his followers in every age, not just in some kind of end times state.
So Jeremiah is one of the Prophets. As our instructor that day noted he was part Shaman and part Showman. And he had a particularly difficult message to bring to Israel. His constant proclamation was that the current siege they were undergoing by the Babylonians would end in a victory for the Babylonians. That’s not the message from the church any king or political leader or the common populace is wanting to hear in war’s most desperate hour.
There were plenty of other prophets running around, none of whom get a book in the Bible named after them, saying that in her darkest hour God would save Jerusalem and route her enemies. But that wasn’t Jeremiah’s message.
And what made it even more difficult for him was that there was a bit of a break in the siege. Babylon was having a bit of trouble on its flank with the Egyptians, and some of the soldiers outside of the gates of Jerusalem were sent to deal with that problem. The people were hoping the siege would end. But Jeremiah assured them defeat was still coming, delayed a little bit, but not much.
That’s why we read at the beginning of Jeremiah 32 that he is under house arrest. People are free to come and see him, but he has to stay put where he can’t be further demoralizing a demoralized citizenry that is anxiously waiting for the more encouraging words of the other prophets to come to pass.
But Jeremiah never let up on his word from the Lord that the Babylonians are going to win this battle. And he didn’t have much good to say about those other self-proclaimed prophets. Can you imagine how welcome all those TV preachers would be in the White House if they said that God was not on our side in the Iraqi War rather than always saying what the President wants to hear? That was the position Jeremiah was in. He was not welcome in Jerusalem’s ruling palace other than its jails.
And he was a showman. He would walk around the city of Jerusalem with his arms stretched out like he had a yoke on. “This,” he said, “is how you will be dragged off to your exile in Jerusalem.” Or he would go about in his underwear, saying “they are going to drag you off to Babylon in humiliation.” He said babies and their mothers would starve before the battle ended.
In this story, though, something rather unusual happens. Jeremiah gets the opportunity to buy a field and he does it. It’s all quite amazing. Here is the prophet saying the country is doomed, about to be overrun by a powerful enemy, and all the servivors carted off to exile in a land far away. He said the nation wolud be decimated, and fit barely for the weeds and rodents that survived the onslaught.
But he buys a piece of land. And he makes a big show of it. He goes through all the legal documentation, making sure the deed is not only properly recorded, but it is put away safely.
Suddenly there is a word of hope in all the doom and gloom he has been declaring. But it is not easy hope. The nation is still going to be destroyed. The Temple torn down. The people of Israel, people who considered themselves the chosen people of the only true God, are going to be humiliated by a conquering army.
That’s not the end of the story, though, for Jeremiah. This Seer sees more. Even though the people have turned so far away from God, worshiping idols, sacrificing their children on Jerusalem rooftops that are about to be leveled, even though they have neglected the poor and mistreated the stranger, even though they have made money more important than God and each other, God is not going to turn away from them.
Sure, they are going to experience hard times. Prophets don’t predict the future, but they see the consequences of the present behavior and what it is going to cost that society. That’s why some speak of prophets not as predictive but descriptive. And Jeremiah described a culture that has turned so far from God that there’s nothing left but destruction.
There, though, is more than the present. The Prophets do look to the future and what they see is God at work in this world. That’s why Jeremiah is a Prophet of hope even when he says the present is pretty hopeless.
And the hope is not simply for someplace beyond the grave. Hope takes root here. Jeremiah bought a piece of land in Israel, not heaven. He said the day was coming for Israel where it wouldn’t be cries of fright and anguish and hunger people were hearing, but wedding songs, and feasts celebrating the new born.
So what do we do with this prophet of doom who offers so much hope? We don’t live in Jerusalem in 587b.c.e, but in 2007 Ohio. There are all kinds of political implications in this story. If Israel could never quite manage to be a Jewish nation, how on earth do we imagine this to be a Christian nation? This story says all kinds of things about what happens to societies when they turn from God and each other. It talks about what happens to people when we leave God out of the picture.
But what’s the personal stuff here? Many of us have had disasters come into our lives, some of us have felt as leveled as Jerusalem was. But Jeremiah bought a field because he believed that the future belonged to God. And Jesus seemed to always live toward the future. He called that band of women and men to follow him, knowing they would get to the future even though great tragedy and heartache and pain would come to Jesus and them. And he knew they would show us how to get to the future, as well.
This story asks us how willing we are to believe in God’s future even when the present looks so desolate. The Prophet in The Revelation says hold on, even if it’s by your finger tips. Jeremiah says buy some property. The Apostle Paul asks what in all of creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus says “I am with you to the end of the age.” The future is coming and Jesus is there.
It’s a word that sustains us in the hard days of the present. And if we believe God is in the future it changes how we live. It shaped the way Jeremiah lived in hard times. And he passed something along.
The theologian and prophet in her on right Rita Nakashima Brock tells this story. It’s a good way to end our brief excursion into the life of the Prophet Jeremiah and what hope can make of us.
“There was once an ordinary woman who lived in a small town near Modesto, California. She was not famous, powerful or influential. I do not recall her name. I was told this true story about her. She was the kind of person we would call a good neighbor. She was friendly, liked by her neighbors and good to her family. When the U.S. entered WWII, she supported our government, until the California Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren signed an order requiring all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry to be interned in relocation camps.
Many of this woman’s neighbors were Japanese Americans. She knew them and loved them as her friends. She went to Sacramento and lobbied the legislators. She wrote to the president to try to stop the camps and the confiscation of Japanese property. She could not move the powerful and famous. She was a lone nobody. Few others protested. The Disciples of Christ was the only official church body to protest the interment of Japanese Americans. So this lone woman did what she could. She bought all the Japanese farms and homes in her town for a dollar each, and watched her friends be taken away. When the camps were finally closed, when the Japanese who survived had no homes left, when their lands were stolen by our government, this woman’s neighbors were lucky. She gave her friends and neighbors back their homes and land so that they might live.
Jeremiah would have understood.