September 29, 2013

The Word of the Lord Came to Me

Series:
Passage: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Service Type:

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel 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.’

Introduction

This is bad real estate advice; there wouldn’t have been a realtor in Jeremiah’s day or one since who, given the circumstances, who would have told Jeremiah it was a good time to be buying property in Israel. Buying property at this moment was like shifting your whole investment portfolio to stocks at the very moment the stock market was crashing.  This was like purchasing a house and signing on the dotted line at the very moment when the foundations of the home were starting to slide down into a sinkhole.  Oh, I know that some investors will buy up land when they calculate that prices have bottomed out based on their optimism that prices will rebound in the future.  But the situation Jeremiah faced wasn’t a typical drop in value in the course of economic cycles; the “barbarians we at the gate”, so to speak.

Two superpowers have been vying for control of Palestine—for the whole of the Middle East for that matter—Egypt and Babylon.  The year of Jeremiah’s land purchase was 588 BC when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had set up siege works to starve Jerusalem into submission.  It was 18 years prior (606) when the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish that they made Israel a vassal state and deported a number of Israel’s leading citizens to Babylon; a deportation that included the prophet Daniel.  In 598 BC the Babylonian army invaded Israel and besieged Jerusalem a second time, prompted by a decision of Israel’s then king Jehoiakim to side with Egypt.  More leading people were deported to Babylon, designed to further weaken resistance to Babylonian rule, and Zedekiah was made King of Israel by the Babylonians.

Zedekiah “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” the Bible records (2 Kings 24:19). Zedekiah also decided to play one superpower off against the other; he rebelled against Babylon (i.e. doesn’t send the annual tax/tribute).  He likely is calculating that Babylon is war weary and won’t bother to come; Zedekiah sides with Egypt.  But the Babylonians come.  Jerusalem is besieged a third time and this time Jerusalem was destroyed, including the temple, and Israel occupied.  At the very beginning of that siege Egypt did make some military noises of coming to meet Babylon; Babylon’s army withdrew from the siege for a short time to deal with Egypt—it was at the time of this sort reprieve from the siege that Jeremiah gets the word from God to buy land.  Would you be buying?

1. So why does God give Jeremiah such ill-advised real estate advice; that is ill-advised as far as most common measures are concerned?  It is a word of hope.

It was St Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”  To be clear, St Francis never meant that words were unimportant.  He was speaking hyperbole; overstating something to make a point.  What we have in Jeremiah’s land purchase is the gospel being preached in action—using only a few words.  What appears, by every measure we humans use, to be a bad real estate decision is, in God’s economy, a great word of hope spoken to his people.  It is a pre-figure of the cross in this respect; what appears by every human measure to be God’s humiliation weakness and utter failure—Jesus just hanging there limp on a cross of crucifixion—is in reality the triumph of God over sin and death, the triumph over all the perverts and destroys.

It is we humans who have made a distinction between word and action; not so in the Bible with respect to God.  The dualism of much modern thinking is evident in the sharp distinction made between spiritual and physical, body and soul, public and private, word and deed.  Last July NFL wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on camera uttering a racial slur; he later apologized stating, "This is not the type of person I want to be portrayed as. This isn't the type of person I am. I'm extremely sorry."  Note the dualism in his apology—the distinction between action and intention—“This isn’t the type of person I am.” In the Bible word and action are one thing.  God’s word and action are one thing.  Who God is, is known in what he does.  Here is the message spoken in what God tells Jeremiah to do; “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

When Jeremiah was called by God into his prophetic/preaching ministry the Lord said to him.  “Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:9-10) On reading Jeremiah you will find that much of his preaching was in the category of “pluck up and pull down.”  It was why King Zedekiah had imprisoned Jeremiah; Jeremiah insisted on proclaiming that if Israel continued on its path of ignoring God Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians and Zedekiah would not escape.  While there was time to repent and experience a different outcome Jeremiah gave his warnings.  However, at the time when the end was certain Jeremiah preaches a word of hope—of building and planting.  The purchase of this property is one of his sermons of hope.

Jeremiah’s other great work is the book Lamentations.  It is written after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians; it a laments over the city’s demise.  In the centre of this book is that much loved text, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) It is a wonder of the gospel that some of the sweetest words of hope are penned in the midst of the worst disasters.  Is this not also true of our Lord’s crucifixion.  The word of hope spoken by God for a sin-sick world was uttered during the worst of disasters—in the dereliction of the Son of God on the cross.  Indeed the sweetest word of hope is uttered in a single name—Jesus.  Jesus isn’t merely the name of a first century Jew—as if you could separate word and action; to say Jesus, in this gospel way of speaking, is to mean all that he did.  This is why the hymn writer would say that Jesus is the sweetest name I know.

2.  The word of hope Jeremiah offers in this property purchasing sermon is a word from God.  The hope spoken of in this message cannot be separated from the source of that hope; God.  The future hope of houses once again being bought and sold is certain because God is certain. The day of buying and selling Jeremiah foresees speaks of everything that goes with it; of Israel returning to the land to rebuild and plant again.  A reality that came to pass seventy years after Jeremiah’s prophetic word.

The point I underline with you is that in spite of all that would indicate that it was not the time to be buying land, Jeremiah went ahead and did it.  Jeremiah is no land speculator.  When a person starts buying up property that does not appear to make any economic sense you begin to suspect something is afoot that will change its value.   In the 1978 movie Superman the nefarious Lex Luthor was buying up “useless” desert land in the American Southwest: he planned to detonate a nuclear bomb in the San Andreas Fault, the result of which almost all of California would drop into the Pacific Ocean and thus making all that formerly useless desert property now beachfront property on the ocean worth billions of dollars.  Jeremiah has no plan in mind that would make this property in Anathoth spike in value.

Jeremiah acts because “the word of the Lord came to me.”  Jeremiah invests in a future he has no expectation he will live to see; a future promised by God.  Jeremiah spends resources—hard earned cash—for a future God has in mind.  I see Jeremiah’s remarkable faith and I wonder if I were in his shoes would I have made this land deal with my cousin.  There are people throughout scripture who make this same decision; Abraham who leaves his home in UR for “a land God will show him”; Moses who leaves his farming business and quiet home to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt; the devout teenage girl Mary who risks her future because “the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

The gospel of John begins this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Friends, the word of the Lord has come to us.  “To receive him, to believe in his name”, as the Apostle John described relationship with him, is to receive into your life the definitive Word of God.  Jesus is what God wants to say to humanity.  To have him in your life is to be able to say with Jeremiah, “the word of the Lord came to me.”

Jesus, the Word of God said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  The gospel conclusion of having received him in our life is that we join him in his endeavours; we will join him investing in that which he says has a future—his church.

Now there are places in our world where it is dangerous to be identified with the church of Jesus Christ.  In August the unrest in Egypt was used as an opportunity by some to attack Christians, setting fire to a number of Church buildings.  The threat that Coptic Christian live with is constant, so much so that to become a Christian means you sign on to the high potential of being a martyr for this faith.

Here in Canada the threat isn’t physical persecution; it embarrassment.  Many view the church as lacking relevance.  I have only so much time on the weekend; why would I bother carving out time to go to a worship service just to be bored?  At the 2012 General Council of The United Church Of Canada, the tri-annual meeting of the national level of the church’s councils, the General Secretary’s State of the Church document did its best to put a happy face on a denomination in steep decline, casting about for a clear sense of mission to carry it forward into the future.

What is happening generally to many main line protestant churches (decline) is, to some degree, our reality here at Central.  Who wants to remain on board a sinking ship?  If you were thinking of leaving some of your estate to charity would you invest in the church?  When you think of the demands of life required for keeping body and soul together; these demands set definite limits on any volunteer time you might have.  Would you invest this precious commodity in building up the church?

Aren’t these all the questions Jeremiah would have asked himself about what God asked him to invest in?  Will we invest ourselves in the church is what feels like days of reversal? It may not be, culturally speaking, considered a prudent investment of your time, talents or finances.  Yet our Lord thought it worth his life.  The church has been charged with the task of making the good news that is Jesus known; will we, like Jeremiah, invest in accord with “the Word of the Lord who has come to us”?

Conclusion

Larry Tauton is the director of the non-profit organization Fixed Point Foundation, an organization that takes seriously the Christian mandate to engage the world; an engagement that must be willing to listen to the perspectives of others.  In an article titled Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity Tauton identifies lessons learned in a project undertaken by the foundation that asked atheists what led you to become an atheist.

Many of these atheists had attended church somewhere along the way. One recurring theme was put succinctly by one responded; “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life … I haven’t seen too much of that.”

Tauton went on to conclude: “There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: "I thought you didn't believe in the Gospel," someone asked.  "I do not," Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, "But he does."

From Mike Silva’s book, Would You Like Fries with That?: 101 Ways to Picture the Good News of Jesus Christ comes this challenge; another way of stating the challenge on Jeremiah’s land purchase.

If you were inside the cockpit of a departing airplane, just as it took off from the runway you would hear the copilot or captain call out, "V1." This phrase represents the "point of no return."

As the airplane accelerates toward the end of the runway, the pilot must decide if the plane is moving fast enough for a safe takeoff. This speed must be determined preflight based on several factors, including the air pressure, temperature, speed of the wind, and weight of the aircraft.

The pilot maintains a hold on the throttle as the plane approaches the V1 speed, so that he or she can abort the takeoff if something goes wrong. However, after V1, the plane must take off.

As Christians, we should have a V1 commitment to our walk with Christ. Trusting Christ is to have reached the point of no return, apply full throttle, and take off.