It has been quite a week. But more about that in a moment.
Over the past few weeks, the lectionary has been inviting us to read passages drawn from the prophecies of Jeremiah. We have read Jeremiah’s often gloomy and dire observations about his people, about the circumstances of his time, and about God’s displeasure with the injustices, the idolatries and the infidelities that were so evident in the life of Israel.
But then we come to today’s passage. And though it is a strange little story, it reflects a profoundly different note in Jeremiah’s writings.
And all because Jeremiah bought a field.
It was not uncommon for the biblical prophets to illustrate the meaning of their proclamations with some form of physical act or image. Some of the prophets used the image of a plumbline to describe the standard by which God was measuring the people’s concerns for justice and righteousness; others used images such as broken pottery or shattered jars to illustrate the people’s broken relationship with God; still others used even more startling images – not least of those being Hosea, who was directed to marry a prostitute in order to symbolize God’s relationship with the unfaithful people of Israel, and then to return to her even after she continued with “business as usual”. In such ways, the prophets often used physical, tangible objects, or strange situations, to serve as spiritual metaphors for their messages.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah offers one of the most intriguing of those prophetic illustrations.
The scene in today’s passage is set in a troubling and frightening time in the history of Jerusalem. As our reading opens, we are informed that the king of Babylon was encamped just outside of the walls of Jerusalem, besieging the city and threatening not only military conflict if they sought to resist, but famine and starvation if they did not. For the people of Jerusalem, it was a crisis of the first order, a time when their very future seemed at best uncertain, if not downright frightening.
And Jeremiah, himself, was in an even more significant dilemma than simply being a member of a besieged city. We read that “the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.” So the king of Babylon was the city of Jerusalem from outside the walls, and the king of Judah was confining Jeremiah on the inside. Not a good situation, in any way.
So what did Jeremiah do?
He bought a field.
As the passage opens, we read that Jeremiah received the strange message that a relative named Hanamel was going to approach him to see if Jeremiah wanted to exercise his familial option of purchasing a field in Anathoth. In that ancient culture, the “first right of refusal” or the “right of redemption” when a person wanted to sell a piece of land, went to one’s kin, thereby preserving the land within the bounds of one’s family from one generation to the next.
Hanamel’s timing was certainly strange – a foreign army was besieging the city, and Hanamel dropped by – while Jeremiah was imprisoned — to ask if his cousin was interested wanted to buy some land that was up for sale.
But what was even more strange was the likely location of the land that was being offered for sale. Anathoth, as best we can tell, was located quite close to the walls of Jerusalem – at most a few kilometres from the city gates, which means that the field in question was – most likely – under the control of, if not actually the location on which the besieging Babylonian armies were encamped.
But, strange as it might seem, Jeremiah agreed to the deal. As the passage unfolds, Jeremiah not only agrees to purchase the land, but goes through all of the necessary steps to ensure that the deal is done correctly. He signs the papers, counts out the money to his cousin, has witnesses attest to the legitimacy of the transaction, and even arranges for the title deeds to be properly stored to minimize any chance of later dispute.
It was a strange scene, to be sure. But there is an incredible theme woven through it – a theme of brave, faithful, courageous, daring, defiant hope.
Because buying that field meant that Jeremiah was willing to make plans for the future, in spite of all of the evidence which suggested that the future was bleak and uncertain. Even though he was confined in the king’s prison, and even though he was agreeing to buy land that was under the control of a foreign army, land that he had no reason to hope would ever be free or accessible to him again – he went ahead and bough the field. And why?
Because God had assured him that there was reason to hope. The future was not as bleak as it might have seemed. As today’s reading concludes, we read, “for thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Which is an act that reflects a daring and a defiant hope in a time of great despair.
One of the greatest biblical commentators of our time is the American theologian Walter Brueggemann. One of Brueggemann’s most powerful insights into the role of the ancient prophets – and their relevance to the church in our own time – was this. He wrote, “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Let me repeat that. That “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Does any of that sound relevant to our times, and even to the events of the past week?
There has been a lot of disturbing news over the last week. We have witnessed deeply troubling behaviour on the part of political leaders on all sides of the ideological spectrum – in Canada, in the United States, in Britain, to say nothing of the many other places in this world that desperately need good leadership.
And I am sure that I am not along in admitting that – regardless of one’s perspective on the scientific claims that are being made or the solutions that are being proposed to deal with the changes and challenges of the world’s climate – the words and sentiments expressed by many young people, over the past week, seemed tinged with a great deal of despair about the future. Children who speak of not knowing if they have any sense of hope about the future of their lives and their world; young people who speak of the fears that have shaped their childhoods and that make them doubt that they ever want to have children of their own.
And these news items only add to the long list of troubling realities that confront us on a daily basis.
at if Brueggemann is right – what if “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair”?
So what might it mean to tell the truth rather than perpetuate illusion, to grieve rather than deny — but also, and perhaps most importantly, to proclaim and inspire hope in the face of despair?
I do not entirely know. But I have a suspicion that it was that same question that led Jeremiah to buy the field. To do so was a dramatic and hopeful manner of declaring,“things might not look particularly good right now, and – God knows — I am the last person who can be accused of painting a rosy, pollyannish picture of the difficult situation that we are in; no one can accuse me of denying the crisis that is confronting us; but in spite of the reality of what we are facing, I am choosing to continue to trust in God’s promises; I am choosing to continue to believe in the sovereignty, and love, and concern that God has for us and for our people; I am still willing to believe that God still has the power to triumph over the seemingly impossible predicament in which we presently find ourselves, and lead us to a good future.”
And one of the reasons why such hope is vital and necessary – perhaps now more than ever – is because hope has a wonderful track record at leading to positive change in the history of our world. Fear, despair, anger, resentment, blame, finger-pointing, scapegoating, rage – all of these things can be powerful forces within us, as human beings. But hope is always more transforming and more powerful than any of those negative sentiments. Because real hope does not deny reality, or minimize challenges, or perpetuate illusions – to the contrary, real hope looks at reality, as it is, and invites us to seek ways to act that do not leave us paralyzed in our fear, our despair, and our anger.
And hope is not only a gift from ancient prophets like Jeremiah – hope is a defining virtue and quality of the Christian life. For we serve a Saviour who stared the world’s most difficult realities in the face – even to the point of death itself – and emerged triumphant.
Which is why we, as the church, need to be a people of hope, even in the face of the difficulties that our world, our society – and most importantly, our children – are going through. We need not deny or minimize the challenges but we need to find ways –honest, authentic, humble ways – to speak words of hope. Which is sometimes more difficult than it sounds, but is worth working at. Try it even this week – when you hear people demeaning or disparaging some politician or some political party (and particularly ones with whom you might not necessarily fully agree), don’t join in the rhetoric of disparagement, but instead strive to speak a word of hope or encouragement about them.
Or when you hear people speaking with fear, or pessimism, or despair about the climate, strive to speak of some small reason for hope in spite of the challenges.
Or when you hear a child speaking of their fears about the future, speak a word of hopeful encouragement to them about the difference that they can make, and the support that you will offer to them as they seek to do so.
We have all heard the old statement that we are called to be the change that we wish to see in the world; but perhaps the same can be said of hope – be the hope that you want to see in the world. And do so in a way that gives others reasons to hope as well.
For we, of all people, have reason to live in hope. We are those who believe that Jesus rose from the dead, which means that hope can never die; we are those who believe that Jeremiah was bold, yet ultimately right, to buy the field; we are those who agree with Brueggemann that “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair”.
We are those who pray, with author of Romans, so long ago, that “the God of hope [might] fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that [we] may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”