September 26, 2010
I can really relate to the prophet, Jeremiah, not so much to his mission–which is infinitely harder than mine–but to his temperament. Jeremiah was a sensitive, faithful soul who both took his calling to heart and felt his heart break at times amid his calling.
The passage before us today is one of the prose narratives from Jeremiah’s life. Called to prophesy to a resistant people during a time of impending catastrophe, the prophet is confined to the royal palace during a time when the Babylonian army has Jerusalem under siege. Jeremiah predicts that the king of Judah will be handed over to the Babylonians and the city will fall.
In the midst of this dire situation, Jeremiah receives a rather innocuous message from God. Hanamel, his uncle’s son, will come to see him and ask him to buy the family’s field in Anathoth.
Sure enough, Hanamel arrives and makes his request. Jeremiah complies and sees that the deed of purchase is signed, witnessed, and carefully stored in a pottery jar. The prophet announces God’s long-term intention by saying, “Life is going to return to normal. Home and fields and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country.”
What is beneath this short story? What is the importance of this transaction? Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown (Jer. 1:1). Earlier in the text, we learn that the citizens of Anathoth don’t want to hear Jeremiah’s words of judgment, so they seek to kill him (Jer. 11:21-22). Their response is reminiscent of the reaction Jesus gets from the hometown crowd centuries later in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-37). Jesus walks through the angry crowd and goes his way. Anathoth, however, is in the path of the Babylonian invaders, and its citizens are about to face catastophe (Jer. 11:23) as their town is most likely razed to the ground.
In such circumstances, Jeremiah’s relatives are reduced to poverty, without home and livelihood. Only two options remain–to sell themselves into a bond servant relationship or to sell their land. According to Levitical law, the land never “belongs” to the one who works it; it always and forever belongs to God. If a family member becomes poor and has to sell any of it, the nearest relative–if there is one–shall buy it back.
Every 50th year is proclaimed the year of Jubilee. Those who cannot buy the land back before this time may return to it and resettle there, according to the law (Leviticus 25:23-28). However, there is no evidence in biblical history that the year of Jubilee was ever upheld and celebrated.
Jeremiah becomes the last hope for the family to keep the land in its name. He never returns to Anathoth to live in his hometown. Once Jerusalem falls as he predicts, vast numbers of Israelites are deported where they live in exile for 70 years. Jeremiah stays among the poor who remain in Judah.
There is deep significance to this brief biographical sketch. Jeremiah’s vision of the future isn’t transitory; nor is it skin-deep. Instead, it stretches far beyond the agonies and exigencies of the moment. We do not know how long it is before Hanamel’s family or progeny actually return to the land. The fact that Jeremiah stores the deed in the pottery jar for safe-keeping indicates that the day may be far in the future.
Jeremiah cries out, “Oh, look at the siege ramps already set in place to take the city. Killing and starvation and disease are at our doorstep. The Babylonians are attacking! The Word you [Yahweh] spoke is coming to pass–it’s daily news! And yet you, God, the Master, even though it is certain that the city will be turned over to the Babylonians, also told me, ‘Buy the field. Pay for it in cash. And make sure there are witnesses’” (Jer. 32:24-25).
The prophet is convinced that the imminent fall of Jerusalem and resulting exile of his people is not the end of the story. In such brutal and chaotic times, he envisions a new day when people will return to their homes and again live ordinary lives. He not only envisions such a day–he plans for it. He purchases Hanamel’s field as a tangible sign and symbol that a new day will rise out of the ashes of the present distress.
Does it strike you as counter-intuitive to buy a field in an area where an invading army is taking over and has probably destroyed that very same property? Does it strike you as counter-intuitive to purchase land that you never expect to live on–especially land in a place where your neighbors sought to murder you?
This story grips me in a strange way, here in 2010. Jeremiah is investing in the generations to come, not just his own survival. In times of great upheaval, survival becomes our primal instinct, but Jeremiah has a bigger vision, even in such a time. I think of the South Africans who struggled, generation after generation, under apartheid. Their hope was not for themselves, but for their grandchildren. I think of those who rebuilt Hiroshima after the utter devastation of the atomic bomb. I think of the many times during Sharing Time when Glenn Gall stands up and speaks about planting trees or finding ways to turn deserts into fertile land. I think about Kristen and Steve, working tirelessly with young people to teach them the ways of peace and nurture a responsible global ethic within them. Like Jeremiah, we are investing in the welfare of the generations to come.
I love doing campus ministry, and I’m so glad it is part of the ministry of this congregation. We have the privilege and joy of witnessing the march of generations, as we regularly glimpse the impact campus ministry has far beyond this place. In time, it reaches children and adults who are pastored by alumni who once sat among us. It reaches children who learn music in Guatemala or attend classes in Nicaragua. It reaches young people learning to read in Paraguay and hospice patients in North Dakota. It reaches inner city kids in Newark, New Jersey, and homeless teens in downtown Chicago. Like Jeremiah, we do not “buy the field” for ourselves, but we do it to invest in that which is yet to be revealed, the unseen work of God to come.
There is a lot of hopelessness in the Book of Jeremiah. There is a lot of denial and resistance to his message. There is a lot of violence and ugliness. There is a lot of Jeremiah’s own agony as well, as he wrestles with this difficult calling for which he often feels temperamentally ill-suited.
Yet here, in Jeremiah 32, we have a message of Hope. Hope that the chaos and agony of the present distress is not the last word. Hope that, out of the ashes of the Babylonian invasion, fall of Jerusalem, and exile of the Jews, something good will eventually arise.
It seems odd to me that I am preaching out of Jeremiah today. Yet, today’s message is remarkably similar to the message of the Psalm which I preached on two weeks ago. It is remarkably similar to Executive Minister Alan Newton’s closing words to the gathered assembly at the Regional Meeting of the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genesee Region yesterday. I cannot help but believe it is a word from God for us during these tumultuous times, a word to claim throughout our 2011 Budget Planning Meeting after church, during the challenges we face in our personal lives, amid the uncertainties of this recession that is impacting millions of Americans.
Hope is a four-letter word we can’t say enough! It is as simple as buying a field when such an action may seem ‘useless’ for now, but God knows its meaning will reveal itself down the road.
Alan Newton reminded us yesterday that such times may look like times of chaos and distress, but for the Church, for those who claim to follow Christ, these are times of opportunity. Like Jeremiah, may we cultivate the long view–God’s long view, so aptly described in our Responsive Reading from I Timothy 6:18-19: “…Go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage–to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If [you] do that, [you’ll] build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.”
May the Holy One find us–today, tomorrow, and in the weeks and months ahead–doggedly, persistently, and faithfully hoping in God, investing ourselves deeply in God’s Reign. Amen.