A real estate deal seldom had it so good. All through the Bible you can find a recurrent theme related to real estate, to land, to who owns what. It all began with a promise of land to Abram (who for some reason had to leave behind the land he already owned to set out for a place he knew not of). Abram never got very far, however. Indeed, by the time he died the only plot of land he owned in the Promised Land of Canaan was the tiny square he purchased for Sarah’s grave. It would be many centuries before Abraham’s descendants would occupy the entire land for themselves (only to re-lose it eventually before coming back later) but the idea of the land and its theological significance has been prominent in the Bible almost from the get-go.
In the case of Jeremiah 32, the simplest of real estate transactions takes on a monumental and a divine significance. Jeremiah is urged to purchase a part of his family’s allotment of the Promised Land, and although at any given moment in Israel’s history this would have been a commonplace, at that precise moment it was anything but an ordinary transaction.
This was like buying up a lot of 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. This was like donating a kidney to someone with terminal cancer and who the doctors claim has at most 2 weeks more to live.
Israel was on the verge of being conquered by the Babylonians. The vandals were at the gates. The barricades were not holding. The land was being pillaged and it was only a matter of time before everyone was carted off far from the land. And if anyone knew that, it was Jeremiah because he had been the prophet of doom and gloom for quite a while already. Ironically, in Jeremiah 32 Jeremiah is even under arrest and under lock and key on account of those very predictions. King Zedekiah had finally had enough of Jeremiah’s being a nattering nabob of negativism and so to shut up his mouth the king shut Jeremiah up in the courtyard of the palace.
Curiously, however, God was already ahead of the curve (as God so often is!). Even as Zedekiah is stewing over the difficult words Jeremiah had been speaking, God was giving Jeremiah a brand new message that was in the end an exceedingly hopeful message. It’s as though God was saying that the stuff that had Zedekiah twisted in knots at that very moment was yesterday’s news (even if the terrible events themselves still had to happen in tragic ways) but that God was looking to the future, and it was a better and more hopeful future at that.
Jeremiah bought some land not because it made any sense to do so at the time but because it pointed to a better and coming time when it would make sense for the people of the covenant once again to buy and sell and own pieces of the Promised Land. They would return. A new day would come. Jeremiah’s real estate transaction may not have been a counter-cultural act exactly but it was surely a counter-intuitive one given the circumstances and the impending doom that was descending on Israel. But by being counter-intuitive, God through Jeremiah opened up a new intuition, a new set of things to know that spelled hope for all.
Reading this story makes me wonder about the things Christian people do even yet today. To the minds of many in our society today, a lot of what we Christians do in worship, in our lifestyle choices, and in how we raise our children may well look like the equivalent of buying a house on the Gulf Coast even as a Category 5 hurricane is bearing down on it. Living as we say we do out of the riches of God’s kingdom and behaving (again, as we say we do) as citizens not first of all of this world’s kingdoms but of God’s kingdom makes no sense to people who see only the day-to-day reality of commerce in a me-first, celebrity-driven, power-hungry society.
Why waste time on a Sunday morning singing to God and listening to sermons (of all things!). You could better stay home and watch “Wall Street Week” and find out how to invest your money and make a fortune in the here-and-now as opposed to investing in the fantasy world of God’s New Creation. Why brainwash your children with Bible stories and claims that there is a Lord who watches over them when what they really need to know to survive in a harsh world like this one is that they have to look out for good old #1 and not count on some divine help swooping in from above.
Of course, this all is troubling enough. More troubling still, however, is the fact that a lot of us who profess to be Christians are sensitive to these kinds of criticisms and so sometimes try to hide our Jeremiah-like transactions. We domesticate our faith, treating it as a kind of hobby in ways we hope will distinguish us from fundamentalist fanatics. We turn our worship services into coffee house-like experiences so that they don’t look so other-worldly after all even as in some places sermons seek to be as practical as possible so as to help Christians get along better in this world (“Five Ways to Grow Your Business” and “Seven Ways to Raise Successful Children” are not unusual titles for sermon series these days).
Jeremiah was under arrest for having the courage to speak God’s truth. Then he opened himself up to looking foolish on account of transacting a land deal that was finally nonsense on the face of it. It takes the courage of faith to do that. Here’s hoping we still have that pluck and that faith today.
In the 1978 film Superman, the news media gets wind of a story that ends up creating something of a sensation. Because eventually the news gets out that a mysterious, anonymous person had been buying up huge stretches of useless desert in the American Southwest, and paying top dollar for the land at that. Indeed, the prices this unknown investor was willing to pay were ridiculous by every real estate standard and norm. Someone would need to have a very good reason for such odd land deals.
Of course, in the fictional world of Superman it turns out that the mysterious land buyer is the nefarious Lex Luthor and the reason he is buying up all that “useless” land is because he plans to detonate a nuclear bomb in the San Andreas Fault, the result of which would be having almost all of California drop into the Pacific Ocean and thus making all that formerly useless desert property now beachfront property on the ocean worth billions of dollars.
It’s a wildly silly premise but then it’s only a science fiction movie. Still, Lex Luthor’s apparently strange real estate transactions forced the conclusion that he must have had a reason. And he did.
So did Jeremiah in a land deal that must surely have also raised eyebrows and caused many people to wonder just what could possibly be behind such a purchase. Happily in this real-world, non-fictional scenario, there was a very good and happy reason: it pointed to God’s renewal of his covenant and of his people.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 Commentary