“Promises, Promises”

A sermon drawn from Jeremiah 32:1-15

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There are a lot of promises in the Bible – we heard a couple of them in this story about the prophet Jeremiah.

We often hear that we should trust those promises – “often” as in, if we Google “trust the promises” we’ll get about 300,000,000 results – but it might be a good idea to ask ourselves: what exactly does that mean? How do we do that, practically speaking? How should we relate ourselves to the various different promises in the Bible?

That’s not an idle question. Probably no one here would take that last promise, that “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land,” as a hot real estate tip, for instance.

But there are some Biblical promises that people like to read almost that way. For instance, we probably know that a lot of people’s favorite verse in the Bible is Jeremiah 29:11, the one that goes “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the HOLY ONE, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” It might even be some people’s favorite verse here this morning. Because it IS a beautiful, encouraging verse. And these days, if we look it up on the internet, we’ll have literally thousands of choices of different decorative treatments of that verse, that would be appropriate for hanging on a living room wall, or setting on a desk right next to the computer … that we can buy from Amazon for $19.99 … so we’ll feel like those words are addressed directly to us.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either – we surely do believe that the Bible, ancient as it is, does remain eternally fresh and does speak to us and our lives now, and we have good reason to believe that overall God does always want and does always work for the ultimate well-being of God’s people. As long as we remember that the people to whom those specific words were originally addressed were the Judahite exiles in Babylon after the first wave of deportations in 597 BCE, and remember that those folks did not consider those words positive or encouraging, because they didn’t want to hear that they were going to be in Babylonia a long time, long enough to build houses and plant gardens and see their children married, which was precisely the message of the larger context for those beautiful words of encouragement; they wanted to hear that they were going to go home soon! So their response to that particular divine promise was to write back to the replacement king, Zedekiah, who’d been installed in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in place of the king the Babylonians just hauled off to Babylon, and ask him to do something about the prophet Jeremiah, to get him to stop sending them letters saying this demoralizing stuff.

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So a good answer to how we can relate ourselves to these Biblical promises probably needs to include remembering that none of these words are just sitting there like gumballs in a bowl, or stuffed toys on a store shelf, for us to pick out because we like that flavor or think this one would look cute in the nursery. We’ll always want to remember that ALL of them have an original context, in the real life of the historical people of God at some particular time in some particular place.

We don’t seem nearly as tempted to forget that when it comes to promises like that really negative one God makes to Zedekiah, that he is going to lose the war he’s fighting as this story begins, that nothing good is going to come of his course of action, and that he’s going to end up hauled off to Babylonia, too. That prophetic promise, as we heard, is exactly why Jeremiah has ended up in prison – Zedekiah doesn’t want to hear bad news any more than the exiles in Babylonia do, and he has the power to do something about that – at least for the moment. Even though, if he would listen to it, he would be making better practical decisions in his specific real life situation.

So another part of a good answer to how we can relate ourselves to the many Biblical promises seems to have something to do with “discernment” – that disciplined practice of listening for the word of God – what we sometimes experience as the movement of the Holy Spirit – and paying attention to what that seems to be telling us about our own circumstances. That always requires us to bring wisdom to the task of seeing what our lives share with the lives described in scripture, and what we can learn from the experiences of God’s people recorded there. Like – not to respond to bad news the way Zedekiah does, for instance. Even the prophet Jeremiah needed to use discernment.

We see him practicing that discernment in our text this morning, in fact. He says “the word of the HOLY ONE came to him,” but then he also seems to wait, and to hold off affirming that what he’s heard IS “the word of the HOLY ONE” until it’s confirmed by actual events: when his cousin Hanamel actually shows up to ask him to buy this field in the village of Anathoth. Jeremiah’s hometown. A few miles north of Jerusalem. Which at this time, as far as we can tell, would have been full of Babylonian soldiers who are conducting this siege of the city of Jerusalem. The opposite of prime real estate, at that very moment.

We can imagine that Hanamel would have been desperate to sell that field and raise some ready cash, and that he might have been willing to take distress prices to do that – IF he could find a buyer at all. Since he was undoubtedly not the only person in Judah in those days trying to find a way to escape and hopefully survive the immediate very hard times that everyone could see were upon them.

So what Jeremiah does next, which seems very boring and bureaucratic, is actually audacious and dramatic. He acts on God’s assurance of the people’s ultimate well-being.

First, as best I’ve been able to ascertain, using the expertise of the “ancient money calculator” at testament press.com, Jeremiah does not offer Hanamel distress prices. Based on their method, which uses a “normal daily wage” as a benchmark, Jeremiah’s 17 shekels would likely have been worth something like $3,000 in today’s US dollars. And we know these weren’t ordinary times – portable silver would have been even more valuable than usual, and land that was already being occupied by the Babylonian army would have been even less valuable than usual. In other words, Jeremiah seems to be giving Hanamel something like a normal-life price for that field, which is a ridiculous price under the circumstances.

And he does all of this in what must be his clear awareness that he himself won’t see ANY benefit from this particular promise – that is, we know he knows it’s going to be a LONG time before the divine promise that “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” comes to fruition, because he has his assistant, Baruch, seal the paperwork up in a jar. Probably the same kind of jar that was used to store the Dead Sea scrolls – a container that’s made to last. Although in this case, it may only need to last 50 or 60 or 70 years, not centuries. Still, Jeremiah has no expectation that he, personally, will benefit from God’s promise to restore the fortunes of God’s people, on the far side of their military defeat and exile.

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So Jeremiah, in faithfully acting on the prophetic promise he’s received from God, is doing something that does not promise to benefit him personally at all – at least, again, not in that “business as usual” kind of way. Not in the personal prosperity kind of way a lot of people mean when they have a picture of “a future with hope” on their desk at work.

Instead, in this particular circumstance, Jeremiah is faithfully fulfilling a special responsibility he has to take this action: because he is one of the “redeemers” in Hanamel’s family – that is, he is one of the members of the family who is in a legal position to buy family land, to keep it from being lost. That special role had been built into Israelite law from the beginning; a traditional practice that actively embodied God’s own constant redemptive purposes – the practice that created the metaphor that gave us our language of “redemption” in the first place.

So what Jeremiah is really doing is staying true to the instructions that he and his people have always, already had from God – regardless of the current circumstances – on the assurance that God’s redemptive purposes will, ultimately, prevail.

And this faithfulness of Jeremiah’s, in the middle of his own adverse circumstances, gives us a dramatic lesson, from his time, in how we can respond to God’s Biblical promises in our time. Because the main lesson of the text is that Jeremiah simply does what he knows God has told him to do.

Which is what Jeremiah has been doing all along. He has been doing this when his message was so deeply unpopular that the people in his hometown started making plans to bump him off. He has been doing this when the encouraging promises he heard from God were so far off in the future that no one felt like that was much encouragement. He has been doing this when the message he had from God was a direct rebuke of the king, which he must have known would land him in jail. And he’s continuing to do it now, in paying what most of his contemporaries probably regard as an outrageous price for a piece of land that’s going to be worthless to him, for the sake of once again communicating, before all these witnesses, that God is not through with God’s people yet.

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Jeremiah is really acting on a divine promise even deeper and more original than the one that people are going to do real estate deals again one of these days: God’s overarching promise, to be God, the source of genuine life, to God’s people, and to show steadfast love to the 1,000th generation of those who walk in God’s ways – that is, always. That’s the deep promise that Jeremiah is acting on, that ancient promise that weaves its way all through the Bible, being expressed in slightly different words over and over again, all the way down to Jeremiah, and beyond, all the way into the New Testament, where it is perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus, the Christ – who carries those promises of God’s all the way to the cross, and beyond, into new life beyond that death. And then, even beyond that, into the ongoing life of the people of God, including us.

God’s ultimate promise is to give life to God’s people that really is life, that cannot be touched by death.

That’s a core divine promise that, we trust, transcends every single particular real life human context. Or more precisely, which is itself the context for every real life human experience, a context we share with those ancient Israelites, with Jeremiah, with Jesus, and with all humanity. Because the true context for all that human life is God: God who created life itself, and who promises to redeem the life God created, and who has already made good that promise of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Of course, we know we are still waiting for the ultimate realization and enjoyment of that promise of redemption. So we know this isn’t a promise that we will always personally enjoy material prosperity, popularity, or pleasure. Jeremiah is a dramatic example of someone who, in the real life of his particular time and place, had to endure a lot of adversity.

And when we look around at the world of our particular time and place, especially when we think of some of the things that are happening to “the church” these days, we can feel like communities of faith are under siege. We know we can count on God’s ongoing presence – but we don’t have guarantees that we’ll personally see the church equivalent of the days when “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

What we do know, however, is that regardless of those specific circumstances, we have promises that we can stand on for faithful living.

That Jesus is with us to the end of the age. That wherever two or three of us are gathered in Christ’s name, there is Christ in the midst of us. That whosoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. That we’ve been called to that eternal kind of life, the life that really is life.

So how should we relate ourselves to those Biblical promises? Like Jeremiah: Practically, and faithfully. By listening. By discerning. By trusting that God’s long-term purpose is positive. That it involves ultimate restoration and redemption. If we ourselves are among those who are called upon to live through those times of siege, drought, or famine, keep telling the truth, to the best of our knowledge; keep encouraging what we can encourage, keep showing kindness, wherever and whenever we can; and keep bearing witness to God’s redemptive purposes in the world – in this world.

As long as we can do that, whatever the circumstances, we’ll be able to consider ourselves blessed.

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fresco of the Prophet Jeremiah

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Prophet Jeremiah, from Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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