After 29 chapters of gloom and doom with only an occasional glimmer of hope, we have come to Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33) in which some words of hope brighten the darkness of the present and the future. And here in this text, the words of hope become a deed of promise.
It’s as though Jeremiah is told by God to put his money where his mouth is. Anyone can promise good things as a way of propping up hope; talk is cheap. But this symbolic action by Jeremiah wasn’t cheap at all. God had promised Israel a future and here God sealed that promise with a commercial transaction that involved a piece of real estate and a goodly sum of money. To appreciate this text and preach it as good news for today, we must see how unexpected and how unbelievable it was.
Anyone reading Jeremiah from cover to cover will be surprised by the sudden emergence of the Book of Consolation. Again and again, God has said, in effect, I’ve had it. I’ve put up with your sin for generations now and it is clear that you aren’t going to repent. So now I’m going to punish you for your endless, stubborn sin. There’s no going back. It’s the last hour. Prepare to meet your doom.
Indeed, Judah’s doom was at the very door. All the outposts of Israel’s military defenses have been conquered. The army of Babylon has surrounded Jerusalem and the siege in its second year. Conditions in Jerusalem are horrific with disease and despair everywhere, even to the point of starvation breeding cannibalism. In just few months, the gates will be battered down and the walls will be breached, the army defeated and the civic leaders killed, the city sacked and the temple burned to the ground. The people will be deported to Babylon and the Land of Promise will be empty and desolate. It’s the eleventh hour. It’s nearly over.
But now here in the Book of Consolation, God offers comfort and hope. It’s almost enough to make one accuse God of being fickle. I mean, after all these thundering warnings about the imminence of disaster, why would God all of a sudden speak such hopeful words? Is God like a certain national leader who tweets out self-contradictory messages every morning? Does God change his mind on a whim?
No, God is still very angry and he will carry out his threatened punishment for the good of his people. But he is always loving as well and committed to the welfare of his chosen people and the world he will bless through those people. Even when he punishes his covenant people, his lovingkindness never fails. So, although these words of hope are unexpected given the situation in Israel, they are thoroughly consistent with God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises.
But we have to admit that God’s word to Jeremiah here is a bit unbelievable, even irrational. I mean, the city is under siege and Jeremiah himself is in prison for preaching a negative gospel. Soon the city will be in ruins. Jeremiah knows that. Indeed, his constant proclamation of ruin is what has landed him in jail. So, he’s not going anywhere and soon Jerusalem and its environs will be nowhere. Thus, God’s command to buy land in Jeremiah’s home town of Anathoth makes no sense whatsoever, not commercially, not personally.
It looks like a good deal only for Jeremiah’s cousin. The text doesn’t say this, but is he selling out so he can have the cash to flee to Egypt (which is exactly what many of the Israelites did, including Jeremiah, albeit a bit unwillingly)? Is this a fire sale? It doesn’t seem to be. The price Jeremiah paid, while not exorbitant, was not exactly cheap either. Almost any way you look at this deal, it’s a bad deal for Jeremiah. When the land is in ruins and the people are gone, what will Jeremiah do with his new purchase? It will be worthless.
But of course this real estate transaction isn’t a personal investment for Jeremiah; it is a promise from God, a vivid way of saying, “There is hope for his land and these people. And here’s a sign of the future.” As verse 15 says, “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” God uses an everyday thing, as God so often does (think of bread and wine), to make a stunning promise for the future. God anchors that promise in the quotidian details of ancient real estate deals. What a fascinating insight into the way they did business back then! And what a fascinating way to demonstrate that God’s promise of a normal future is as real as the normalcy of selling a piece of real estate. There will be life on the land again, however impossible that may seem right now.
Jeremiah goes through with the deal, in spite of the fact that he sees the folly of it. He does that for one reason and one reason only. Verses 8b-9 put it simply: “I knew it was the word of the Lord, so I bought the field from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him 17 shekels of silver.” Five times we read that the “Word of the Lord” came to Jeremiah. He could see the situation for the disaster it was, but he heard the word of the Lord and believed it. He walked by faith, not by sight.
There is the challenge to us in this text—to look at the hopeless situation in which we find ourselves (under siege and in prison), and yet to walk by faith in the word of God. Keep walking by faith, even when it seems there is no hope of God’s word coming true. Jeremiah knew it would take a long time for the promise to come true. That’s why he had Baruch seal up the deed in a clay jar for safe keeping. (Remember that the Dead Sea Scrolls were kept safe for 2000 years in just such clay jars.) Jeremiah was under no illusions that life was going to return to normal any time soon. But he bet his money, his property, his life on God’s faithfulness to his word. That’s our challenge in the difficult days of our lives.
But this text is not just about the challenge to live by faith. It is, even more, about God’s ability to do what seems impossible. It is no accident that Jeremiah concludes his transaction with a prayer in which the key line is in verse 17. “Nothing is too hard for you.” God responds with a summary of Israel’s great sin and a promise of his greater mercy, which begins with the rhetorical question of verse 27, “I am Yahweh, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
Those oft repeated words in Scripture give us our connection to Jesus Christ for our sermon on this text. At a time when the world was under siege by the powers of darkness and all of humanity was in the prison of sin, God came to a humble Jewish maiden living in a corner of the Land. God promised that she, though a virgin, would bear a Son who would fulfill all of God’s distant promises. When she asked how this could happen, since she had never had sex, the divine response was the familiar, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
The birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sign of hope for a world bent on self-destruction. All the promises of God find their yes in him. When it seems as though there is no hope for you or your church or your nation, remember that God put his money where his mouth was, as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. God bought the farm so that we could have a place in the new heaven and the new earth.
To help people live into the hopelessness of Judah’s condition and thus the folly of Jeremiah’s transaction, remind them of similar situations in today’s world. Picture bombed out villages in Iraq or Syria, now deserted. Imagine being offered a piece of real estate, a two story house now reduced to rubble. Would you buy that house at any price, especially knowing that the prospect of peace there is near zero? Or more immediately, recall the devastation wrought on the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian. If someone had offered to sell you a piece of prime beach front property as Dorian was smashing into that island, would you have bought it? Where there is no future, people don’t buy land. Unless they believe that one day God will restore normalcy to that place.
I just read The Pioneers by David McCullough, which chronicles the acquisition and settlement of the Northwest Territories in the early days of America. That territory included the states around the Great Lakes, where I now live. Who would have thought that such a land deal would turn out so well? Along with the Louisiana Purchase, that was one of the greatest land deals in history. One historian, commenting on this story in Jeremiah 32, called it “the worst land deal in history.” That’s true, if you look at the historical context. But it’s not true, if you believe the promise of God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 29, 2019
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 Commentary