“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord… [at the time when] the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.” Whenever the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, it is time to sit up and pay attention, to fasten our seatbelts, to watch. Whenever the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, it means that important words are about to be proclaimed, that something is about to happen.
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The word of the Lord has come to Jeremiah in the midst of crisis. The Babylonian army is besieging the city of Jerusalem—the swords of that empire are rattling, the once great city is beginning to crumble—and Jeremiah himself is locked in the royal prison. And why is the prophet in prison? Because he has dared to say to the king that the Lord is handing over the city to the Babylonians. And why is the Lord doing this? Because, Jeremiah has said again and again, the nation called to be the covenant people of God has forsaken its call and has ceased to be a torah-shaped people. Many have turned aside to false gods, putting their trust in the lie that it is Baal who will make them prosper. Oh, many in the city may yet say the right prayers, observe the right practices, make the right sacrifices in the temple, but they have ceased to live rightly. Look, the prophet had proclaimed:
[T]heir houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge with justice
the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy. (Jer 5:27-28)
It is on account of such things that the city is coming down.
And still, Jeremiah hears a word of the Lord that he is “to buy the field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.” That’s just three miles from Jerusalem, meaning that it too is a war zone. Think about that for a minute. That’s a bit like being called to go now and to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of Aleppo. Or closer to home, that’s like being called to go to Winnipeg’s North End, to the 600 block of Aberdeen Avenue, to buy the property adjacent to the burned shells of the four houses that were set ablaze there last week. That’s like being called to move in beside a crack house and across the street from the place where the leader of the Indian Posse lives. What Jeremiah is being called to do is absurd, pure folly. And yet he does it.
The deeds are signed and placed in an earthenware jar, “in order that they may last for a long time.”
The deeds had to last a long time, for this deep crisis in the land would not resolve quickly or easily, and Jeremiah would never himself work that land. The prophet purchases this land from his cousin Hanamel, because it is family land and the “right of possession and redemption” is Jeremiah’s. That actually deepens the significance of the purchase, because in that world land and family were tied in a way that our more transient society can only begin to imagine. Yet we must be clear: it isn’t familial duty or sentimentality that causes Jeremiah to buy the field. It is a very public prophetic act, a sort of parable in action, which insists that all evidence to the contrary, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” “For thus says the Lord of hosts.”
In the words of Walter Brueggemann,
[W]hile the act contains one plot of land for one family, in the narrative presentation, that piece of land is paradigmatic of all the land which Israel held and now loses. Moreover, the public act put Jeremiah on public record as claiming that there is indeed ‘life after Babylon.’ The prophet has put his money where his mouth is.
“Jeremiah,” Brueggemann continues, “invests in God’s promised future exactly when that future seems completely closed off.”
It is an audacious thing to do—part of God’s glorious folly—to stand in the face of what seems only darkness, and to insist that there will yet be light. Yet Jeremiah is not the only one who has dared to do such a thing. In fact he’s not the only one who has purchased a plot of land in what seems an utterly forsaken place. I think of Clarence Jordan setting up an interracial community farm in 1942, right in the heart of Klan country. I think of Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, moving with a little intentional community into a poverty-ridden and drug-infested neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, to simply live a different possibility. I think of the people and of the Christian communities here in Winnipeg, who have embraced the West End or the North End as their home, their place. I know of a number of people here who have done just that. Buy a house, move in, walk and cycle the streets, get to know the neighbors, get involved in local community development, set roots. It might not be quite so audacious a move as was Jeremiah’s, but it isn’t unrelated.
But its not just there, through those “move into the neighborhood” examples that we are called to stand in the face of what seems only darkness, and to insist that there will yet be light; to “invest in God’s promised future… when that future seems completely closed off.” Sometimes the darkness has to do with someone’s depression or someone’s addiction or someone’s illness or someone’s job loss or someone’s broken heart or someone’s deep grief, and most often what is most needed is to have their brothers and sisters in Christ come alongside to help them trust—and see—that God’s light will always trump the darkness. Even when it is hard to believe that, others in community can sustain the belief with you and for you, knowing that—as Bruce Cockburn once put it—sometimes you’ve “Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”
Part of the purpose statement that came out of last year’s Appreciative Inquiry process was a declaration that We are a practicing community | sent beyond our walls. That means that what we do here on Sunday nights must connect with how we live the rest of the week. For some of us that is very directly expressed in our work and vocation; with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Siloam Mission, Food Matters Manitoba, Hand in Hand with Haiti, Bell Tower Community Café, or as teachers, social workers, medical people, youth workers, pastors, chaplains, whatever. But for all of us—regardless of age or employment or education—it really means we cannot step around the poor man lying at the gate, the way that the rich man in tonight’s parable does. It means we have to notice; we have to stave off indifference.
There is of course a whole other sermon to be preached on that parable, but for tonight I’ll say only this. It isn’t told as a map to the afterlife, but rather as what the biblical scholar Barbara Rossing characterizes as “a wake-up call, a warning.” Rossing suggests that this particular wake-up call, “is situating the audience not so much in the role of either Lazarus or the rich man, but in the role of the five siblings who are still alive.” The five siblings, who have Moses and the prophets to show them what the world should look like; how their lives should be lived. As a people under the deep claims of the Gospel, we’re numbered with those five siblings, as surely as we are called to bear witness to Jeremiah’s absurd—and absurdly hopeful—land purchase. And each in our own ways, on the other side of these stained glass windows, are called to embody a hopefulness some might mistake for folly. But it’s God’s folly, so it is good.