Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

"...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative."

These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor. He wrote these words in January 1943, at about the same time he became engaged to Maria von Wedemayer, daughter of a close friend. Three months later, as he knew was inevitable, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis due to his resistance activities, who would keep him in various prisons for two years before finally executing him in April 1945, as the Reich collapsed around him. Bonhoeffer’s dark ending would seem to make a mockery of those words of hope (not to mention his engagement). Nevertheless not only were these deliberately maintained and included in the collection Letters and Papers From Prison, but even to the every end of his life he refused to relinquish or refute that hope. As he was taken from the makeshift chapel at FlossenbΓΌrg concentration camp, he relayed a message through an English prisoner to an Anglican clergyman with whom he had worked. It was a simple yet starkly profound message: “This is the end – to me the beginning of life.”
It is no stretch to compare Bonhoeffer’s plight with that of Jeremiah at the time of today’s reading. Jeremiah was also imprisoned, or at least under a form of “palace arrest” for not toeing the party line and continuing to prophesy Judah’s impending defeat as God ordered, His nation crumbled around him; in Judah’s case the Babylonians, who had long been besieging Jerusalem, were on the cusp of completing the deal. Many were in exile already, others were about to be taken, and Jerusalem itself would soon be destroyed.
And Jeremiah, in the face of all this utter doom and defeat, buys a plot of land.
Mind you, Jeremiah did so mostly because God told him to do it. Otherwise, how could someone who had been in the business of alternately fiercely pronouncing doom on Judah and weeping about it (as the last two weeks’ readings show) suddenly do something so radically, irrationally optimistic as buy a piece of land?
This is, after all, the one stray prophet in the land who won’t make his prophetic utterances conform to the wishes of the king. He is being detained, after all, because of the order of Zedekiah, the current (and soon to be last) king of Judah. It seems as though Jeremiah had this bad habit of kneeling in prayer rather than snapping to attention at the king’s oh-so-solemn civic rituals, in a manner of speaking. See, when all the other prophets were busy telling Zedekiah that Judah was special and that God would never let those nasty Babylonians win, Jeremiah is being held prisoner because he prophesied that Jerusalem would fall and that the king himself would be taken into exile in Babylon, confronted and held in exile by his royal counterpart, face to face. In short, he said what was happening – what was plain as the nose on your face to anyone with eyes to look out the window and see the massed Babylonian troops making ready to march into the city – and was being punished for it. Let those with ears to hear, hear.
King Zedekiah could have had Jeremiah executed at any time, but unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeremiah would survive his imprisonment, only to see all those dire prophecies come true. Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed, and Jeremiah would see many of his people carried off to exile in Babylon.
And yet Jeremiah buys a piece of land.
Now clearly God is setting something up. In verses 6 and 7 we hear how God tells Jeremiah to look for cousin Hanamel to come asking Jeremiah (still prisoner in the king’s court, mind you) to buy a piece of land according to the very old “right of redemption” rule, by which family members (in a predetermined priority order) were first offered the opportunity to buy property that would be offered for sale. (It’s the same rule that is applied in the story of Ruth, a clever application of which enables Boaz to marry Ruth at the culmination of that book.)
And sure enough, in verse 8 here comes cousin Hanamel proposing exactly as the Lord had said he would. Jeremiah quickly understands that this isn’t just a real estate transaction; it’s an example of symbolic action as prophecy. So Jeremiah not only makes the transaction, but also takes all the right steps to ensure its legality – properly weighing out the payment, having witnesses attest to the purchase, and having the documents of sale stored in clay pots for long-term safekeeping, an act that would compare to putting all the records in a safe deposit box at the local bank. Jeremiah is very precise about all this, and gives his scribe Baruch very clear and very specific instructions to make sure that these documents about the transaction were handled with the utmost care and preserved to the greatest degree possible at that time. And all this, remember, with the enemy army about ready to burst through the city gates.
Not only this, but here in the very text we’re reading today, Jeremiah is being very meticulous to record all this, not only for his current readers or hearers but for whatever posterity might be coming along to read this in years to come. Along with all the jeremiads and laments recorded in this book, we have been given this extremely detailed description of this real estate transaction.
For the love of God – literally, for the love of God – why?
Of course, we see it in verse 15:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

No matter what the Babylonians did, no matter how much they wrought destruction and death upon the land and people, no matter how many of Judah’s people were carried off into exile to join those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel who had been carried off before; no matter what happened next, God would still be the only One who would write the end of the story, and the Babylonian conquest was not going to be the end of the story.
If you are inclined to read a little extra, you might finish out this chapter of Jeremiah. First Jeremiah reveals that even he is a bit baffled as to what exactly God is up to in this situation, even as he has been very faithful in carrying out the word that God gave him to give. Then, starting with verse 26, we get God’s response to Jeremiah. God, as happens a lot in this book, reiterates the evil done both by the people of Israel, the Northern Kingdom already conquered and exiled, and by the people of Judah now under imminent conquest. And then God makes clear; what is about to be destroyed, I will restore. Those about to be exiled, I will return. Then God makes another proclamation of that restoration, all the way through chapter 33.
We are good at despair.
We are good at seeing what has gone wrong, what has declined, what has fallen apart, and deciding it will never be restored. It’s beyond hope. You get a lot of that in political rants these days. And frankly, the church is way worse sometimes. We look at the empty pews and the large number of folks out there who just don’t care, and we despair, and we assume the church, individual or universal, is doomed.
But God is no more interested in our writing the end of the story than he was in the unfaithful people of Israel and Judah, or the Babylonians for that matter, writing its end. No matter what may be destroyed, no matter what may fall away or fall into disrepair, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story.
God will restore what God chooses to restore, no matter how destroyed it might be.
Now it would be good if we would listen to those prophets who are warning us about the idols we set up for our adoration, and perhaps pull back from our sins before we suffer the inevitable consequence of such false allegiance. But even if we don’t, even if what we see as “civilization” or “culture” or “society” utterly collapses upon itself in destruction, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story. And that is our hope, no matter how ridiculous or even ‘hopeless’ it might seem. Even the destruction of what we think we know is not the negation of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that is good news.
So in the end we don’t get to despair. We don’t get to live in fear. We don’t get to go into that defensive crouch and point fingers of blame and lash out and tell those who suffer that they deserve it. If we truly claim to be children of God, members of the body of Christ, well, guess what? We remain faithful no matter what. No matter how bad it seems we don’t get to give up. We remain faithful. Or maybe we figure out how we’ve not been faithful, and change. But, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, nothing in death or life or destruction or exile or imprisonment or ruin can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
            And in God’s time, God will restore what God will restore. And only God gets to write the end of the story. Not us, no matter how bad things seem.
For a God who promises restoration even at the edge of destruction, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#637            O Sing to the Lord
#806            I’ll Praise My Maker
#320            The Church of Christ In Every Age
#541            God Be With You Till We Meet Again

It's probably just as well that the land was not identified as agricultural.
It would be very different to say that Jeremiah "bought the farm"...

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