Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
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When It Feels Like the End...

Jeremiah 32:1-15

 The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of what were certainly the most difficult days in the Old Testament.  His ministry began at the very end of the old Kingdom of Judah.  He spoke God’s word at a time when it seemed that all of God’s promises had failed.  Israel had already been divided into Israel in the north, also called Ephraim, and Judah in the south.  The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to Assyria 130 years earlier.  Ten of the 12 tribes had already been scattered and taken into exile.  Judah had already been defeated by the Babylonians about twenty years earlier.  They were now a subject people, forced to pay tributes to the king of Babylon.  The best and brightest of the young people of Jerusalem, like Daniel the prophet, had already been taken off into exile.    

 And now things were even worse.  The current king, Zedekiah, decided to rebel against Babylon and stop paying tribute.  The Babylonian armies had already laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.  The rest of Judah was already in enemy hands.  The siege started in January of 588 BC.  It lasted for two-and-a-half years, ending in July of 586.  

Jeremiah knew how it was going to end.  God had already told him that this was his judgment on Judah.  He proclaimed God’s message to the people, saying, “Don’t resist.  Surrender, and save your own lives.  This is God’s work.  We will be taken into exile.  Accept God’s judgment.”  Needless to say, the king didn’t appreciate Jeremiah’s words.  He was seen as disloyal, even as a deserter to their enemies.  So at this time, Jeremiah was a prisoner of the king.  

It seems as if all of God’s promises have failed.  They are going to be exiled, taken away from the Promised Land.  God’s covenant with them is tied to the land.  Can they even be God’s people in exile?  

You see, in ancient Near Eastern mythology, “gods” were tied to the land.  In the story of Naaman, the Aramean who was healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha, after he was healed, he took some of the soil of Israel back with him to Damascus.  That way he could worship the God who healed him.  God’s people were supposed to know that he is the God of all creation, but they were always tempted to think in the way of the world around them, just as we are.  

In the midst of this context, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, comes to him and says, “Buy my field in Anathoth.”  Anathoth was Jeremiah’s home town, about four miles north of Jerusalem.  

According to Leviticus 25, land had to stay in the same family.  It could not be sold permanently to anyone outside the family.  Because, remember, land is part of the covenant relationship with God.  That’s the reason why Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to King Ahab.  It was tied to his covenant relationship with God.  

If someone needed to sell their land, because of some financial crisis, a close relative, a GOEL, a kinsman-redeemer, was to buy the land, to keep in the extended family, until such time as the person was able to buy it back.  And if they could not buy it back, then in the Year of Jubilee, which happened every 50 years, all debts were forgiven and all land reverted to its original owners.  In this case, Jeremiah is the closest relative, the GOEL.  He is supposed to buy this land to keep it in the family until Hanamel can afford to buy it back.  

By the way, an interesting side note here:  God tells Jeremiah that Hanamel is going to come and make this plea.  And it’s only after Hanamel does so that Jeremiah is certain that he has heard a message from God.  And that’s often how it is when we hear from God.  We might wonder if we’re hearing correctly until it is confirmed in some way.  But back to the story:

Hanamel wants to sell his land.  Why?  Well, normally a person sold their land when they were in debt and needed to get out of it.  But it could also be that Hanamel sees the writing on the wall!  Judah is done for.  Jerusalem is about to fall.  Perhaps he is simply trying to “get out of Dodge” with a little money in his hand.  There were many refugees at this time, fleeing from the war that has devastated the nation.    

The better question is:  Why would Jeremiah buy the land?  It’s a foolish thing to do!  The land in question is under the control of Babylon!  There are enemies at the gates!  Jeremiah himself has been prophesying doom.  For him to buy this land would be the equivalent of buying land in France in June of 1940.  Or buying land in Syria today!  Why would Jeremiah do such a thing?

Because he is betting on the future.  He has a confident assurance that there is still a future for God’s people in the Promised Land after the Exile.  

On two other occasions, God told Jeremiah to buy something.  Once it was a loincloth.  Every guy has to have one!  And then it was a pottery jug.  In both cases, those things were destroyed, as visible prophecies of the coming destruction of Jerusalem.  But this time, Jeremiah buys something as a visible prophecy of a future restoration.  

As people of faith, we are called to have hope for the future.  Not just a vague hope that “maybe things will get better,” but a confident assurance that God isn’t done with us yet.  

So Jeremiah buys the field.  He pays 17 shekels of silver for it.  Bible scholars tell us that was the equivalent of about 18 months of wages for an average laborer in the Old Testament, so, tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money.  The deal is done in a public place, before witnesses.  That was how business was done in the ancient Near East.  Often the city gate was the place of business, because that’s where the town elders sat each day.  In this case, Jeremiah is imprisoned in the king’s courtyard, so the witnesses were probably the king’s officials.  The silver was weighed out.  Standard sized coins weren’t common at this time.  And two copies of the deed were made:  one sealed and one unsealed.  Again, this was common.  The unsealed copy was for the public record, and the sealed copy was to make sure that no one altered the terms of the deal.  

And then both copies of the deed were placed in a sealed clay jar, to preserve them for a long time.  After all, it would be 70 years of exile in Babylon.  You’ve heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls?  Scrolls written around the time of Jesus, discovered in caves by a shepherd in the 1940s?  Almost 2000 years old, but intact.  Well, that’s because they were stored in clay jars to protect them.  And the fact that the Dead Sea area is very dry also helped.

And then Jeremiah prayed to God, “Nothing is too hard for you.”  At a time when there was no good reason for confidence about the future, Jeremiah trusted God.  He trusted the story wasn’t over yet.  He demonstrated that faith.  He put his money where his mouth was.  It’s easy to say you believe God’s promises.  It’s more difficult to act like you believe them.  

I read this, and it tells me that when it looks like we are at the end of the story, God is actually starting a new chapter.  I think this story can speak to us in those “this is

the end” moments of life:  The death of a loved one, a lost job, lost health, and so on.  Probably most of us, maybe all of us, have had a “This is the end” moment.

When I was about halfway through seminary, I had an experience that felt like an ending point.  I lost my job in a church.  When I started seminary, I was hired as a youth pastor at a United Methodist church near the school.  

Things did not go well there.  Part of it was that the church had really been burned by a few experiences in their recent history with pastors.  They were not a trusting church, and honestly with good reason.  Part of it was that I just made some mistakes in how I related to some folks in that congregation.  I was young and inexperienced, and I think it showed.  And when there was a problem with the youth program, I was blamed, and I was asked to leave.  

The whole experience left me feeling burned.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in the Church anymore.  And I wasn’t sure that I’d even be able to, because that church said some pretty unpleasant things about me to my District Committee on Ministry that made them question if I would be working in the Church or not.  And here I was, half-way through seminary, wondering if it was the end.  

But I was given another chance.  I was offered a student appointment back here in Western PA, a place called Templeton, near Kittanning.  I served there for a year.  And they were good folks and good churches.  I was deeply blessed by my time there.  By the end of that year, I knew that there was still a future for me in the Church.  And as hard as it was to go through that “time of exile,” in the end, it helped me.  It deepened my faith.  It confirmed my calling.  And I think it helped me to become a better pastor.  

I’m sure I’ll have other experiences that will feel like the end.  Hopefully, I’ll remember then that God isn’t done yet.  And I hope you’ll remember that, too.

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