Sunday, September 26, 2010

Planning Ahead (Jeremiah 32:1-3; 6-15)

It's not until we take a close look at Jeremiah's situation and the situation of the city he lived in that we see just how wild an act God calls him to do here.

On the face of it, we have Jeremiah being told to buy a piece of property, record the deed and make sure it's filed correctly. Just imagine someone who's always said Christianity was just boring would think when he read this passage. "I'm supposed to get excited and connect with the divine because of real estate?"

But there are a couple of little caveats about this piece of land, which Jeremiah buys because he is the closest surviving kinsman to the original owner. He has the right of first refusal on it by law. The first caveat is that this land is very likely occupied by a whole lot of Babylonian soldiers and has been for some time. They will have trampled it, pitched tents on it and otherwise treated it like an army treats the land on which it sits. The second is that the soldiers are on the land because Jerusalem is under siege, and when the city falls there is a good chance that an old man like Jeremiah won't survive it, nor will the halls where records like property deeds are kept. If he does, he's one of the religious leaders of the city and Babylonians tended to cart people like that off so they didn't help organize a resistance when the soldiers finally left.

Now, if he survives and if he stays, he's still left with a beat-up piece of property that he may not be able to work, given his age, and that he may not even be able to prove he owns if all the records are destroyed. But Jeremiah goes through all the formalities and proper procedures for transferring the title of the land as though things were as they'd always been. To borrow a cliché, this seems like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But God directs him to do it, so we need to puzzle out what's going on if we can. One possibility is that God wants Jeremiah to offer a message of hope to a discouraged people, so they don't totally collapse. Jeremiah has been a prophet of disaster for many years now -- we even call a long speech that harps on everything that's wrong a jeremiad. If people see him acting like things are not completely hopeless, considering all of the doom he's talked about. then they may take heart in the face of their impending defeat. Winston Churchill's speeches often had this kind of effect on the people of England during the darkest days of World War II.

That could very well be part of the reason God calls Jeremiah to this act, but I think there's more to it. Judah, the last remnant of the nation of Israel that had been ruled by David and Solomon, has been attacked by the Babylonians for several reasons. One of the major ones is that Babylon is tired of this tiny country using its position in between Egypt, Babylon and Assyria to keep playing one off the other and have their own way. The Assyrians already knocked off the northern kingdom of Israel a couple of hundred years earlier, and the Egyptians plundered Jerusalem not too many years before this. Now Babylon has decided to put an end to the foolishness and just take the place over.

The rulers of Judah played these empires against each other because they thought it was the only way their nation could survive. And they believed they'd get away with it because they were God's chosen people who had God's promise that they would always endure. Never mind that, according to Jeremiah and nearly every other prophet who we can read they hadn't acted like God's people for the past couple of centuries. Never mind that God's promise was to a people, not a nation-state, and that they were clearly not depending on God when they tried playing the political game even though they were not in the same class as the heavyweights like Assyria and Babylon. The prophets said, "Doing this bring us disaster," and they were right.

Well, now that disaster was sitting in the living room with its feet on the table, God wanted to remind the people that he had indeed promised they would always be his people, even if they didn't understand what he meant by that. So Jeremiah gets his call to buy the property. That's crazy, people might say. You're acting like someone's going to be around to make good on this deed and all of these transactions, like Abraham's descendants will be around here to observe this law and follow it.

That's exactly how I'm acting, Jeremiah might say. Because that's what God has promised, and I can either believe it or not. I choose to believe it, and if I'm going to believe it with my words, I'm going to believe it with my acts as well. I may not see how it will happen, and I may not see when it will happen, and I might be like you and think it's crazy to figure it ever will happen. But if I'm going to follow the God who says it will happen, then I'm going to act like it will happen.

I can look in the mirror and see evidence of someone who has heard God's promise that he has all things in his hands but who doesn't always act it, of someone who claims to follow and tries to follow Christ but who way too often follows himself and where he wants to go. But the wonderful thing about the promise of God is that it's a promise of redemption, not just for all of the failures I've had up to the time I committed myself to following him, but for all of the ones I've made since.

That sounds like good news to me.

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