The Old Testament is chock-full of good news. But we often miss all that good news because it is packaged in ways that are unfamiliar to us.
Our Old Testament reading for this morning is a perfect example. It’s the story of Jeremiah buying property in Anathoth. Why should we care? What does his property have to do with us? What’s the good news here?
Unlike last week, I have an answer for this one!
We need some context, but, thankfully, Jeremiah lived in dramatic times. And strange though it may sound, our passage comes at the very climax of the drama.
Start at the beginning. When Jeremiah was a child, the kingdom of God’s people Israel was called Judah. And Judah was dominated by the great power Assyria. The very existence of Judah as an independent kingdom seemed in jeopardy.
But while Jeremiah was still a young adult, Assyria went into decline, and Judah was able to assert more independence. Judah’s king was faithful, the kingdom was expanding, and the people experienced a religious revival. It was a good time in Judah’s history, and must have felt especially good after the Assyrian scare.
Jeremiah began his prophetic career during those good times. But Jeremiah’s message was mostly grim. Jeremiah told his people that the good times weren’t going to last, that God was angry, that trouble was coming.
It was NOT a popular message. But in good times, Jeremiah was mostly tolerated as a harmless crank.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah was right. The faithful king died. The religious revival petered out. And, most ominously, when Jeremiah was about forty, a new power, Babylon, emerged, and began expanding towards Jerusalem.
The king of Judah was confronted with a difficult choice. Should he submit to foreign domination and pay a heavy tribute? Or should he take his chances with continued independence, and resist militarily if and when the Babylonians attacked?
Jeremiah preached submission. Jeremiah said resistance was futile. Jeremiah warned that God was using the Babylonians to punish the people of Judah. Better to submit to the punishment than try to resist the mighty Babylonians without God’s help.
The king decided to resist anyway. He stopped paying tribute to Babylon, and prepared for battle. Jeremiah was horrified. Jeremiah warned the king, and whoever would listen, that they were doomed to defeat.
Now, step back for a minute. We know that Jeremiah was a great prophet who spoke the word of God. We know that the king should have listened to him.
But think about this from the king’s perspective. He didn’t know for sure that Jeremiah spoke for God. What the king did know was that Jeremiah was undermining morale at a time when he was trying to rally his people for a decisive battle against a superior power. Think how the Ukrainian leadership would have responded to someone like Jeremiah in the lead up to Russia’s attack this year.
In good times, Jeremiah may have seemed like a harmless crank. But when the Babylonians were coming with a huge army, Jeremiah seemed like a traitor to a lot of patriotic people in Jerusalem.
Things got worse. The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem. People began to go hungry. The kingdom was struggling for survival. And Jeremiah kept telling them to surrender.
They didn’t listen. And within a few weeks or at most a few months of our passage, still in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem. Devastation ensued. The temple was destroyed. The city was burned. The king was executed. The people were exiled. Judah became a small province in a brutal empire.
That is what was coming just after the time of our passage. And by the time of our passage, surely everyone in Jerusalem could see that it was coming. There was no reasonable hope left.
There is already a lesson here, although it may not sound all that good. Sometimes our strength is not enough.
Jeremiah’s people learned that lesson the hard way. They could not hold off the Babylonians. They were reduced to helplessness. And in that state of helplessness, they could see, they could really see, their weakness, their need, their utter dependence on God.
That lesson is hard to absorb. I mostly think of myself as a can-do person. There are plenty of things I am not good at. But I figure that I can handle most of the problems that are likely to come my way, and I can find help nearby when I need it.
But here is the hard truth. That means most of the time, I am like the people who ignored Jeremiah’s warnings, who decided to take on the Babylonians even when Jeremiah told them that God was not with them in the fight. And like them, I may well face challenges that are beyond my strength. That’s a grim thought.
And now, at last, we get to the good news. When the strength of his people was exhausted and all was lost, Jeremiah speaks a word of grace.
Remember that Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who had been warning about exactly this for decades. Jeremiah had been dismissed and persecuted for warning the people about this precise moment. Now that it has come, what is Jeremiah’s message?
At first, it seems almost pointless. At God’s instruction, Jeremiah purchases a little property in rural Judah. Jeremiah paid for the property, signed the contract in the presence of witnesses, and took care to store the deed safely.
If that seems odd to you, it’s because it is. Think about purchasing a little vacation home in eastern Ukraine right now. That’s what Jeremiah was doing, except the situation was worse in Jerusalem than it is in eastern Ukraine.
So, what was the point? Why does God have Jeremiah purchase property at this moment, when the Babylonians were literally at the gates? What was the message for Jeremiah’s people? And what is the message for us today?
Hope. At a moment of despair, Jeremiah preached hope.
There was nothing Jeremiah’s people could do for themselves. Worse yet, God seemed to have abandoned them. But in obedience to God, Jeremiah was making plans for the future, for the time after the Babylonians went away, for a time when property deeds in Judah would again mean something.
With this simple gesture, Jeremiah reminded his people that they had a future with God, that God wasn’t done with them, and that God would prevail over the Babylonians and any other threat they faced. Jeremiah was telling them to hope on, even in the face of defeat.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The people of Judah were going to suffer. Jeremiah himself was going to suffer. But no matter how bad things might get, always they could hope because their hope was in God.
That’s true for us, too.
There are all kinds of problems in our world, and it is not clear that we have the resources to deal with them.
But we don’t rely on our own strength, not in the end. We rely on God.
We know that God rules the world. We know that Jesus Christ has overcome sin and death. We know that God’s kingdom is coming.
And so we hope, always.
And with that hope, we can keep going and keep working for God’s kingdom, even if our own strength gives out.
This morning I give thanks to God for reminding us that we do not have to rely on our own strength, and for inviting us always to put our trust in Him. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan