Sept. 29 Sermon: Betting on Resurrection
Jeremiah was in jail for telling the truth. He had said to his fellow Israelites, “God’s patience has limits. If you keep on oppressing the poor and worshipping idols made out of silver and gold, God will bring disaster upon this land.” No one listened, so Jeremiah’s warnings became more specific, more pointed, more alarming. “Look!” he cried. “The Babylonian army is on the march! They will take this city, plunder its treasures, depose our king, and march us off into exile. Babylon is God’s wrath on our sins. Submit to them, because resistance is futile.” To the king and his court, Jeremiah’s truth was treason; they suspected the prophet was a spy.
Now given “what we used to do to spies in the old days when we were smart,” we might be astonished that this sixth century BC prophet is still alive and not swinging from the tallest tree in Jerusalem. Perhaps Zedekiah was still clinging to hope that, even at this late hour, with the walls closing in and Babylonian arrows falling on the streets of the capital, his kingdom might yet be saved, and he wants to hear the prophet say it. Or it may be that the king would rather have a live prophet speak ill of him than a dead prophet speak nothing of him. Delusional and needy, that king.
Jeremiah’s reply to Zedekiah’s complaint is odd. He tells him about… a real estate venture. Yes, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel has slipped into the besieged city with news that he’s putting the family farm up for sale; the farm lies in Anathoth, a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem; does Jeremiah want to buy it? In the Law of Moses it’s called “the right of redemption.” If somebody came into financial difficulty and had to liquidate their assets, his nearest male relative had first shot at purchasing his property so that the land would be retained within the clan until the individual got back on his feet again. Hanamel has presented his cousin the prophet with an ethical obligation and a financial opportunity.
Or has he? Realtor.com says that the housing market in Columbia is off 2.1% over the past year. That’s not great, but imagine trying to sell your farm when the enemy army has pitched tents all over it. Really, I can’t even imagine what that might be like. We haven’t experienced a foreign invasion since the War of 1812. The best analogy I can come up with has to do with my mom and sister and her family who live on a barrier island in North Carolina. These barrier islands are really glorified sand bars. They grow and shrink and shift about depending on where the winds and the tides drive the sands. Jeremiah’s situation is not unlike mine if my sister called me up at some point in the future and announced, “We’re selling out and moving inland. Wanna buy the house? You just need to know that there’s three feet of water in it at low tide and six feet at high tide.”
I would turn down that offer, but Jeremiah leapt at the chance to purchase a farm behind enemy lines. Is he a sucker? Is he a thrill-seeker? Does he love the rush that comes with risk-taking? Shouldn’t Jeremiah have hung onto his gold and silver coins to bribe the guards for an increasingly rare and costly loaf of bread in the besieged capital? What use is a field that might produce food one day when bread is scarce today?
I talked to some people this week about risk-taking. Most were quite averse to it. “I’m a really conservative person,” said one. “I don’t take risks. I have friends who borrow a lot of money; that seems awfully risky to me.” Another person, sporting a full salt-and-pepper beard, said that his risk-taking days were in the past. “What prompted you to take a risk?” I asked him. “When I thought I could get away with it,” he replied, with a twinkle in his eye.
Many people are risk averse. But in Jeremiah’s case, the obligation stood, whether it was safe to meet it or not, and meeting that obligation to keep the land in the clan became an expression of hope. Jeremiah places a bet on God’s faithfulness. The God who swore to give this land to the children of Israel would not renege on that promise. Jeremiah had hope that God would bend this disaster toward the good for God’s chosen people. So he took his precious resources and invested in God’s future.
“Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The timeline was vague. Tomorrow? Next year? Probably not. God promises no quick fixes, and the prophet has no assurances that God will snatch the king’s bacon out of the fire. In my lifetime? Who knows? But as it’s written elsewhere in the Bible, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Jeremiah may never sow or reap in the field he has purchased, but he dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts in hope that in God’s good time, his people and their land will be reconciled to each other in peace and prosperity. At a moment when all that Jerusalem’s residents could see were enemy troops at the city walls, Jeremiah sees the wrath he’d long warned the people about abated. He sees God’s mercy restoring the fortunes of the people. Jeremiah sees life after the Babylonian death blow. He sees life after death.
Many centuries after Jeremiah prophesied, God sent a new prophet to the people. His name was Jesus. The powers-that-be were even less receptive to his truth that King Zedekiah was to Jeremiah’s. They hung him on a tree and left him for dead. But God raised him from the dead, and everyone who believes in him is forgiven of all their sins. He has laid up an inheritance for us, an inheritance even more valuable than land and turf on this globe, an eternal inheritance in the heavens, where no enemy threatens, no tears are shed, and no fears disturb or disquiet. In God’s good time, the curtain between earth and heaven will fall; God’s abundant and eternal life will fill and renew the cosmos. When will this be? Tomorrow? Next year? In our lifetimes? The timeline is vague. There is no glib assurance that things are about to turn around. As far as we know, our institutions, political, religious, and other, may continue to reel and totter, not from external attack, as was the case with Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah, but from internal rot: immorality, corruption, and lawlessness of the part of some, aided and abetted by others. But God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. There is no future for sin and wrongdoing. Jesus Christ, his love, his justice, his peace, is the future.
And at present, we are presented with opportunities and obligations to bet on a future that belongs to God. Hanamel came to Jeremiah with one opportunity. I’ve got three for you to consider (these are for FPC members; if you’re visiting with us, you’re welcome to listen in, but you’re under no obligation to say yes):
Pray that God would use you to accomplish our goals for the future. You know the goals our elders adopted last month: Be a more Christ-centered congregation; worship and work across the generations; make evangelism a priority; use our music and worship resources to enrich the community; transparency in communication and greater respect for differing points of view. Pray that God would accomplish these goals through you.
Teach Sunday School. Invest your time in the future by nurturing the faith development of our kids, as Jeremiah invested his resources in the hope of a future harvest. We have a lot of kids in Sunday school this fall, and we need more teachers and assistants. I’m speaking especially to those of you who are retired, who are empty-nesters and senior citizens. It’s not just the parents’ obligation to teach Sunday school. In fact, they’re already educating their children when they say grace with them over meals and teach them right from wrong. When we baptize a baby or a young child, all of us take vows to nurture that child in the faith. That opportunity and obligation belongs to all of us.
Remember the church in your will. Jeremiah bought a field that he’d never sow or reap in. His risky investment in that land was a gift to an unborn generation, made in hope that God would restore the fortunes of the people. Making First Presbyterian Church a part of your life’s legacy is a bet that the future belongs to God, that the grace and peace of Jesus Christ will have the last word on this piece of turf. It’s a gift to the next generation.
I know what you’re thinking: put me down for #1. Prayer is the lowest risk undertaking of the three, right? Be careful. When you put yourself at God’s disposal, there’s no telling what chits the Almighty will call in. But it is up to you. So take out your phones, and in the moment of silence that follows the sermon, reflect on the bet that God is calling you to place, and text me at 804-332-5448, or email me. My email address is in the bulletin. If it’s prayer, I have some resources for you. If it’s Sunday school, we’ll get you scheduled. If it’s remembering the church in your will, we’ll be in touch about how to do that.
One guy I spoke with about risk-taking this week had a different take on the subject than most others. He trains homing pigeons for a hobby. He says that risk-taking is part and parcel of his work. You release them; not all of them return, but that comes with the territory. So it is with being the body of Christ, communicating the gospel, and making a new generation of disciples. We have time; we have money; we have a self, uniquely created and beloved by our Creator. Release these gifts to the body, and see how it can grow and bear fruit in God’s good time.