Sermon for 17 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Jer. 32:1-3a, 6-15
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
It was theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who said: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.” No one knew this truth better than the ancient prophet, Jeremiah.
In our first lesson today, Jeremiah tells us the historical situation of the Kingdom of Judah, at around 587 BCE, when Zedekiah was king. He says that Judah and it’s capital, Jerusalem are under siege by the Babylonian army. Throughout Jeremiah’s long career as a prophet, he had spoken several prophetic oracles that fell on deaf ears—because the leaders and people of Judah rejected his “bad news” messages and turned to other prophetic sources to hear “good news.” Over the years, Jeremiah had won no popularity contests as the “Most Successful Prophet Of The Year.” In fact, at times, he had suffered severely for speaking God’s Prophetic Word to the leaders and people of his native Judah. It would be more accurate to describe Jeremiah as “The Least Successful Prophet Of The Year” for proclaiming all of his gloom-and-doom messages.
In one sense, human beings haven’t changed all that much since the days of Jeremiah. We, like the leaders and people of Judah, want to hear “Good News,” we don’t like “Bad News;” we don’t want to accept a message of judgement. We, like the people of Judah, want to be told that everything from our attitudes, to our behaviours, our actions and lifestyles are correct—and we are God’s blessed people. It’s not us who deserve judgement—that is reserved for our enemies, who are destined to fail and/or be destroyed by God. However, “bad news,” a message of doom-and-gloom, a message of judgement is exactly what God gives to Jeremiah to proclaim to the leaders and people of Judah. He tells King Zedekiah—who had placed Jeremiah under house arrest for his “bad news” prophetic messages—that it was only a matter of time before Judah and Jerusalem would fall into the hands of the Babylonians and Zedekiah, along with other citizens of Judah would be captured and exiled into the land of the Babylonians. Of course, this did not sit well with King Zedekiah or the citizens of Judah—but it was the truth. Why were the King and citizens of Judah so reluctant to believe Jeremiah? Hadn’t he been proven right before? His prophetic oracles were legitimate messages to the leaders and people of Judah, and yet they rejected both Jeremiah and his prophetic oracles. One wonders again, if things have changed all that much since the days of Jeremiah. Who are the legitimate prophets in our midst? Do we recognize them as such? Do we listen to and put into practice their prophetic messages? We, like the king and citizens of ancient Judah, also ignore and reject many of God’s legitimate prophets and their messages to us. We too would rather have a popularity contest winner speak to us a message that is easy to hear and accept; we can’t stand or accept authentic messages that are too challenging and “go against the grain.” Any message that critiques us, our attitudes and lifestyle cannot be correct or legitimate, can it? So, over the long haul, one wonders what is in store for us. Shall we, like the King and people of Judah, end up being under siege and be captured and exiled by our enemies? Is this a story that instructs us today to pay attention to what happens when we reject God’s prophets and messages? What will it take for us to avert God’s judgement on us or our nation?
However, the story does not end there for Jeremiah and the people of Judah, nor for us. After Jeremiah speaks his “bad news” message to the King and people of Judah; he then is given another prophetic oracle. This time, he is told to purchase—at the worst possible time in his nation’s history, when doom-and-gloom are overwhelming!—precisely then, he is approached by his cousin Hanamel to by a family field at Anathoth. This is a most remarkable prophetic oracle! First, it is remarkable because it is the most detailed real estate deal in the whole Bible. Every detail of the deal is spelled out as if it were written by a most erudite “legal-eagle.” Jeremiah takes meticulous care to have the land’s deed written up properly, along with all of the conditions of purchase; as well as the necessary witnesses present for the signing and sealing of the deed. Then there is also to be another “open deed” as well. The documents are to be placed in “earthenware jar” for safekeeping and preservation, and given to Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch. All of this was in keeping to the laws of redemption, as prescribed especially in Leviticus chapter twenty-five; where it states that one’s closest next-of-kin has the first legal right to purchase land when it is necessary to sell it, so as to keep the land in the family.
This prophetic action of Jeremiah is also most remarkable because it is a symbolic action that re-affirms God’s covenant with the Israelites as a whole—namely, that God gave the Israelites the Promised Land, and God shall allow them too keep it as their homeland; even though they had to now go into exile for a time to suffer the consequences of rejecting God’s faithful prophet and God’s message to them. Eventually there would be a time of restoration; a time of redemption; when they would return and occupy the Promised Land again.
Thus, the purchase of this field at Anathoth is a symbolic prophetic action of hope for all of the citizens of Judah. Even though the enemy would destroy and occupy the nation; there would be a hopeful future. There would be a time, when, as Jeremiah so vividly promises: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” It was not in Jeremiah’s lifetime that this message of hope and promise would be fulfilled; but further into the future.
On one occasion, someone—unfortunately I cannot remember whom it was—told me that there is a Jewish tradition which states the field Jeremiah purchased at Anathoth is the present-day site of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. If that is true, then one can see how Jeremiah’s prophetic symbolic action has indeed been fulfilled; and how that piece of land has become the place of higher learning and countless blessings and hope for a better future for so many people.
As God’s people, what symbolic prophetic actions do we need to engage in to bring hope to the church and the world? When the people around us can only see gloom-and-doom; death and destruction; despair and hopelessness; may we be like Jeremiah of old and live and act in hope for future generations and ourselves. For we worship a God who has, in the person of Jesus, defeated all gloom-and-doom; all death and destruction; all despair and hopelessness. Ultimately, God shall deliver us too from our places of siege, exile and oppression. We, like the ancient people of Judah, shall be freed to return to the “houses and fields and vineyards” of God’s Promised Land forever and ever.
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