September 29 Sermon

A SIGN OF HOPE

A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 29, 2013 (Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it;

46Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

9And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.       – Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

1 Timothy 6:6-19

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We have recently been reading passages from the prophet Jeremiah in our worship services.  Jeremiah lived almost six centuries before the time of Jesus, during a major crisis for God’s people who lived in the kingdom of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem.

In the passage that we read this morning, Jeremiah was “confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah.”  Jeremiah was under house arrest – because he had a bad habit of speaking the truth – God’s truth – to powerful people who didn’t want to hear it.  Judah had been rebelling against the powerful Babylonian Empire, and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had enough of their willfulness, so the Babylonian Army was camped outside the walls of Jerusalem, laying siege to the city.  Things looked grim for the folks in the city – they couldn’t go out to work their fields or get supplies; food and water may have been getting scarce; I would guess that fear and even panic were starting to set in.  King Zedekiah and the other leaders were probably trying to reassure the people that God would do some mighty deed to save them — as God had saved their ancestors many times before.  They were probably hoping for some encouraging words from the prophet of God, Jeremiah.

But Jeremiah kept telling the king that Jerusalem would be conquered, the city would be set on fire, and the king and all his wives and children would be taken away to Babylon.  This was all God’s punishment for hundreds of years of worshiping other gods and failing to trust in the God of their ancestors whom even now they were hoping would save them.

This reminds me of a film that came out almost 20 years ago.  Before he became the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor.  In the film “True Lies,” Arnold played Harry Tasker — a secret government agent – so secret that even his wife and kids didn’t know what he did for a living.  But at one point he and his wife – played by Jamie Lee Curtis – get captured by some terrorists who are going to interrogate Harry.  They inject him with a truth serum, so that he can’t help but answer any question truthfully.  While they are alone together for a brief time, Harry’s wife asks him what is going to happen to them.  Normally, he would want to be hopeful and reassuring, but their situation is grim, and he can’t help tell the truth – they are going to be tortured and they are going to die.  Not very helpful!

I think Jeremiah was like that.  He was under the influence of God’s truth serum – he couldn’t help but speak the truth – the word of God.  And so he was bad for morale – for the people of Jerusalem and for the king.  So King Zedekiah had Jeremiah confined in the palace where his depressing message couldn’t infect the people.

But then a new word came to Jeremiah from the LORD.  God revealed to Jeremiah that his cousin, Hanamel, would come to him in the palace and ask Jeremiah to buy a field that belonged to him in the village of Anathoth – about 3 miles from Jerusalem.  But this was no ordinary real estate transaction!  For one thing, it was a family obligation.  According to Jewish tradition, when the tribes of Israel – after escaping bondage in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years – moved into the land they believed God had promised to them, each family got their own part of the land.  That was crucial, because in those days, if you had land, there was a good chance you could provide for yourself and your family, and maybe even accumulate some wealth.  If you had no land, you were probably going to live in poverty all your life.  Land was wealth!

But anyone can fall on hard times.  If someone who had land had to sell it, a member of their extended family would have first right to buy or “redeem” the land, so that it might be kept in the family.  For some reason (the text doesn’t say), Hanamel wanted to sell his field in Anathoth, and Jeremiah, his first cousin, had first chance to buy it – for 17 shekels (about 7 ounces) of silver.  I don’t know how much money that was in those days – whether it was a standard price, or a great bargain.

The problem was the Babylonian army was probably camped on that field at that very moment.  And Jeremiah knew better than anyone that Jerusalem would soon fall, and all the land around it would probably be almost worthless for the foreseeable future.

I’m sure any financial advisor would have told Jeremiah to save his money.  It was a bad investment.  But Jeremiah didn’t just buy the field, he made sure everyone nearby knew that he was buying that field.  He carefully paid the price, recorded the paperwork, got witnesses, and kept the documents where they would be safe for a long time.  Disaster was at hand for the people of Jerusalem.  But Jeremiah was investing in a future no one could see.  He was investing in God’s word, and God’s promises.

Here we see a fascinating transition in the ministry of Jeremiah, and in the book in which his words and actions are recorded.  This is a part of the book of the prophet Jeremiah known as the Book of Consolation.  Jeremiah has tried for much of his life to “afflict the comfortable.”  Now that mission has failed – the people and king have not listened.  Disaster has struck, as prophesied.  So now Jeremiah takes up the ministry of “comforting the afflicted.”  He now gives them hope for a new life not just with words – he puts his money where his mouth is.

That investment proved to be wise indeed.  The Babylonians did conquer and destroy Jerusalem and the land around it.  The fields and vineyards went untended and unfruitful for years.  But a generation or two later, the mighty Babylonian Empire was defeated; the Jews living in Babylon were allowed to return home if they wanted; the city of Jerusalem and its temple were rebuilt; and the fields of Judah became productive again.  Jeremiah didn’t get to enjoy the fruit of the field he bought in Anathoth, but it stayed in the family.  And his act of faith in God’s future helped to sustain his community through hard times.

Jeremiah believed that God’s power is not limited by current circumstances.  That is an important lesson for us to learn and take to heart.  Because sometimes we face difficult circumstances where we can’t see any hope of things getting better – personally, as a church, as a world.  We may have to suffer the consequences of bad choices for a while – sometimes that is the only way we will learn!  But God’s future is always wide open!

Our reading from 1 Timothy is a reminder that wealth is not where we should put our hope because it is uncertain.  I know we all wish for enough – for ourselves, and our children and family.  We wish for enough so that we don’t have to worry.  It would be nice to have enough.  Tevye the Jewish milkman in Fiddler on the Roof says, “Lord, I know it’s no shame to be poor – but it’s no great honor, either!”  But the problem is – there is never enough to take away all worry.

But there is always enough to invest in God’s future.  There is always enough to be a sign of hope.  There is always enough to”take hold of the life that really is life.”

Amen.

Robert J. von Trebra

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