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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Facing the Future

This sermon was originally preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC, on September 30, 2013.

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar--At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it?”

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

I want to restate a few words from this text in Jeremiah… And from this story of a city at war, of a king, and of a prophet, I want to speak today about “Facing the Future.” Facing the Future. And let me go ahead now to say that I may have to stop and catch my breath now and then as we go. I may shed some tears here among people who love me and understand my tears. And those tears are part of the testimony of truth that we trust God’s Spirit to bear us up and guide our steps, to be a lamp to our feet even when the darkness surrounds us.

It was the tenth year of Zedekiah, King of Judah. Zedekiah reigned for about eleven years in all. All of his reign coincided with the imperial reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had already invaded Jerusalem a decade earlier. He wanted to make sure that the people of Judah knew who was in charge. He took over Jerusalem around 597 BC. He took the temple treasure and desecrated it back in Babylon. He deported the young king, Jehoiachin, to imprisonment in Babylon. Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, was the emperor’s own choice to sit on the throne. It was supposed to be a puppet reign for Zedekiah. Nebuchadnezzar would leave one of the royal family on the throne, but Zedekiah was expected to do the beck and call of the emperor, be Nebuchadnezzar’s man in charge.

Who knows how Nebuchadnezzar decided Zedekiah should be his puppet king? He was a young member of the royal family, who had been destined to anonymity after two of his older brothers had already succeeded their father, Josiah, as kings. Jehoahaz had succeeded their great father when Josiah died in battle against Pharaoh Necho’s army. It was the beginning of the end. When the Pharaoh finished a failed invasion of Babylon, he stopped back by Jerusalem and took Jehoahaz prisoner. Another brother, Jehoiakim, was the Pharaoh’s choice for king. Jehoiakim reigned for over a decade, until the Babylonians stretched their imperial influence down into the land of Judah. Then his son Jehoiachin succeeded him, but not for long. That’s when the Babylonians put Zedekiah on the throne.

What a messy story the kingship of Judah had become after Josiah’s death. Josiah, one of the few kings that the Bible has praise for, had restored the temple worship to focus on the God of Moses and promoted the reading and study of the Torah, the written scriptures that have their origin back in the days of the Exodus.  Much had happened since then, and many kings had turned to other gods.  Josiah reversed that trend and sought to focus on the one true God.  However, he seems to have made a fatal mistake when he decided to fight against his more powerful neighbor, Egypt, rather than simply standing by to let the big empires fight it out among themselves.

Josiah’s sons did not seem to learn a lesson from their father.  They also tried to use military might to thwart the wishes of their powerful neighbors.  Jehoiakim had made the mistake of trying to use an alliance with Babylon to hold off Egyptian power, only to have Babylon come back and invade.  You would think that Zedekiah would have learned something from his brother’s failure, but instead he switched it around and made an alliance with Egypt to hold off the Babylonian power.  Father and sons trusted in military might rather than leaving things in the hands of God.  It cost all of them their lives, Zedekiah included.
One of the oddest parts of the story is that both Jehoiakim and Zedekiah kept the Prophet Jeremiah nearby.  Kings of Israel and Judah had many kinds of advisors, including prophets.  Some were false prophets, and some were even prophets of Ba’al, as in the case of Ahab and some others.  But the way the story of Josiah’s heirs plays out, Jeremiah is never too far off, even when he is in jail, from these kings.  As this passage of scripture tells us, Jeremiah was confined in the royal courts.  He was often protected and fed when the city was filled with danger and empty of food.  That is the situation here in the story we are examining today.  Zedekiah seems to understand that Jeremiah is a special case among the prophets.  Jeremiah does not say what the king wants to hear.  This prophet speaks a troubling word in the presence of the powerful.  When Jeremiah gets punished for what he says, he comes back and sticks to his story under threat of worse punishment.
 Zedekiah probably had some level of belief that among all the prophets who advised him, Jeremiah might actually speak a word from God.  It was regularly not the word Zedekiah wanted to hear.  Maybe he kept Jeremiah around hoping for the day to come that this true prophet would get a different message from God.  He was probably hoping Jeremiah would finally come through to say that God is on Zedekiah’s side.  That may be what is bugging Zedekiah right here in this text.  He asks Jeremiah why he has to keep on saying that God is going to let Babylon conquer the city.  If you read more of the story, you find that Jeremiah has told these kings that God wants them not to fight against the Babylonians.  Since Babylon will win, these kings should go ahead and give up before the fight.  You can imagine that those are not popular words among the rulers of the land.
Yet Jeremiah does not change his prophecy.  He still holds to the message from God that Babylon will conquer Jerusalem and the surrounding Kingdom of Judah.  Zedekiah’s only hope is to go along with Babylonian rule.  But then again, by this tenth year of Zedekiah’s reign it is probably to late for him.  He could have gone along with Babylonian rule as Jeremiah advised him long before, and his family might have survived.  But now, the time is up for him.  The Babylonian army has laid siege to Jerusalem for many months.  Nebuchadnezzar will want to punish Zedekiah and the political establishment.  Things are already very bad in Jerusalem.  People are hungry.  Violence awaits outside the door.  And Zedekiah is desperate to hear that things will change.  No doubt, Jeremiah himself also hoped to hear that things will change.  They were living in very hard times.
Today’s lectionary text from Jeremiah speaks a word to people living in hard times.  It is about a time when God’s people were struggling through an economic crisis brought on by war.  It was probably worse than a recession.  Surrounded by the Babylonian army and cut off from their usual access to production and trade of necessary goods, the people were barely getting by.  Starvation and illness were everywhere.  Fear gripped their hearts.  The future seemed to offer little except more of the same or even worse.  People called out to God and wondered if God even listened to them any more.
When we read Jeremiah and other prophets we know that corruption was rampant among the powerful in Israel and Judah.  The rich did not always come by their wealth honestly.  They did not pay a living wage.  They cheated their workers, and if that was not enough, they beat them.  They grew wealthy on the sweat and blood of others.  They drove the poor deep into debt, then took their homes and their lands.  They made debt slaves of the masses.  The kings were either in on the scams or turned a blind eye to the plight of the people.
Add war to the equation, and things only get worse.  Scarcity means that those who have very little become those who have nothing.  People become ill and don’t have the strength to recover.  Families lose loved ones to the army, to starvation, and to disease.  In every street there is mourning and sorrow.  No one knows what to expect.  Even people who have faith see nothing but trouble as they look to the future.
Economic crisis, war, family hardship, losing loved ones—we don’t have to be in the ancient Kingdom of Judah to find ourselves in hard times.  Things are not exactly the same for us now as they were for the people of Zedekiah’s time.  But some things may still resonate from the story.  Some things ring true.  We do face uncertain futures.  We do find ourselves fearing whether what comes next will be more of the same or even worse.  We do feel the deep ache of loss and grief.  You know that today I speak as one who has seen my life reshaped by the loss of my beloved Everly.  The future we had expected will not come to pass.   

Many of you have walked this same road.  For others it may not have been the loss of a loved one, but another form of crisis that reshaped your life and made you wonder just where the future would lead.  Someone lost a job that had provided food for a family, and there was no union to stand up and intervene to help keep the job.  Someone lost a home to foreclosure and had no place to go.  Someone saw a son or daughter drift away physically and emotionally.  Or your loved one was taken far away by a job and can hardly ever visit.  Someone lost a neighborhood to rising crime and violence and does not feel safe to go outside.  Yes there are many reasons why we struggle to face our futures.
In this story we find two primary characters who struggle to face their future:  King Zedekiah and the Prophet Jeremiah.  We remember that Jeremiah is sometimes called “the weeping prophet.”  He was not especially happy about what life had handed him.  It is hard enough to be a prophet in any times, but when the whole political system is collapsing and your job is to deliver the message of doom, well let’s just say Jeremiah did not apply for this job.  It wasn’t his chosen career.  As the son of a priest, he could imagine plenty of other ways to have lived out his life in relative peace.  And now that all those doomsday prophecies were coming true, Jeremiah probably felt worse than ever.
Zedekiah, on the other hand, as the son of a king, probably had always hoped he would get a shot to be the king.  When the Babylonians hauled his nephew away and put him on the throne, he probably thought his future looked pretty bright.  If only Jeremiah could come through with a word from God that matched up with Zedekiah’s hopes, then he could be sure.  But now the game was in its final rounds.  The clock was ticking, and the outcome was not going to get better.  How was Zedekiah going to face the future?
What is Zedekiah’s tone in these verses?  Is he merely puzzled by Jeremiah?  Is he deeply troubled and asking a question because he sincerely does not understand?  On the other hand, is he angry, as his brother Jehoiakim often had been with this prophet?  Is he asking a rhetorical question only, but intending through the question to be blaming Jeremiah for his problems?  I have to say I can’t be sure from the evidence in the text.
From one angle I can see a king who feels defeated already.  He may be facing the future with resignation and fear.  Jeremiah keeps telling him that even if he fights, he will not win.  Jeremiah has told him that he will not escape the Babylonians.  He will lose the war and be captured.  Eventually he will die as a prisoner.  His family will no longer be on the throne.  Zedekiah may be grieving the loss of his dreams and resigning himself to doom.  In any case, Zedekiah has little reason to hope.   

For too long, Zedekiah had refused to listen to the word of God that came through the mouth of the prophet.  He had made up his own plans for the future in defiance of God’s word.  He had believed in his own cleverness and strength to handle life’s challenges.  He had treated his best adviser as a false prophet, and perhaps even as a traitor.  Who would dare to stand up to the king and say, “The invading army is coming, and I advise you to surrender”?  So Zedekiah had ignored the bad news during good times, and now there was no way to ignore it any longer. 
So maybe Zedekiah had gotten so used to ignoring God’s guidance for his life that he was deeply confused and puzzled by Jeremiah’s persistent message.  Maybe he was crying out this “why” to Jeremiah as a “why” to God.  Why me, God?  Why is this happening now?  Why can’t it go away?  Why are you still sending this message through this irritating man Jeremiah? 

But of course, Zedekiah knew deep within himself why the message never had changed.  The message a decade ago had called on the king and the people to change their ways, but they never had been willing to do so.  Zedekiah had spent too many years facing the future with denial.  He was hearing God’s word, but acting like it didn’t apply to him.  He was denying that God could see the way that things would go.  He was throwing matches into a parched field, denying that he would soon set the land on fire.  Let’s pick an example of this behavior.

Elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, it tells of Zedekiah proclaiming a Year of Restoration, a Sabbath year, maybe even a Jubilee.  Slaves were set free.  Debts were cancelled.  But it turns out it was a sham.  It was just for show.  The wealthy people who had owned the slaves went around and gathered them back up and enslaved them again.  That kind of sham righteousness was the problem.  Putting on a show of piety in the midst of injustice is what made God’s stomach turn.  It still does.   

When we face the future, we can’t be scheming to do things our way, ignoring the righteous calling of God.  We can’t be assuming that if we keep messing things up that God will come along at the last minute and sweep away all the mess we made.  God wants honest piety and faithfulness.  God wants us, in the midst of struggle, to live with integrity, love, mercy, and justice.  God wants us to choose nonviolence even when we would rather gather up our weapons and fight the King of Babylon.  God has a way that we should go and sends messengers to help us understand it.  We ought not to be puzzled when we refuse to listen, for decades at a time, and then keep on thinking God will come around to our way of thinking.  We don’t want to be like Zedekiah, facing the future with puzzlement that God does not do things our way, that God doesn’t join up with us in our schemes.

Or maybe Zedekiah called Jeremiah in to ask these questions out of anger.  Maybe he was blaming Jeremiah for all his problems.  In some kind of twisted logic of rage, he was saying that if Jeremiah had just prophesied what Zedekiah wanted to hear, then all this mess would not have happened.  Maybe he thought Jeremiah’s words had broken the rules of positive thinking.  Maybe he thought Jeremiah had spoken the disaster into existence.  Whatever messed up logic that anger brought about, Zedekiah may have been blaming Jeremiah for his problems.  And through Jeremiah he was blaming God.

Never mind that God had given ample warning for the king to change his ways.  Never mind that God had placed Jeremiah in the midst of Zedekiah’s life, even in the worst of times, to help him find the error of his ways and repent.  Never mind that time after time, Zedekiah had been willing to make choices exactly the opposite of the word of God.  Now, it’s Jeremiah’s fault.  Now it’s God’s fault.  Blaming anyone but himself, Zedekiah may have been lashing out.  Everything has gone wrong and somebody is going to have to take the blame.

But chapter 27 of Jeremiah tells us that the prophet told Zedekiah early in his reign that he did not have to die.  Any of the lands that did not rise up to fight against Babylon would be allowed to remain in their homes.  They would be subject to Babylon, but they could continue living much as they had lived in their own homeland.  But Zedekiah preferred the words of the false prophets that Babylon would soon grow weak and good times would be just around the corner.  Jeremiah was an irritant, even a traitor in his eyes.  He did not want to hear God’s word, and he now faced the consequences of his rebellion against God and against Babylon.  That unwanted turn of events may have caused the anger to well up within him.  Now in this story, he may have been lashing out in anger toward God, as if God were just picking on him.

We are blessed to have the word of God to guide our lives.  Even more than Zedekiah and Jeremiah, we have the revelation of God in Jesus Christ to show us the path to take.  We have the light of the Spirit shining in our hearts and on our paths.  Why do we refuse to heed the word of God?  Why do we continue in our own ways, thinking we can make it turn out better?  But God is not mocked.  It makes no sense to be angry with God about consequences we should have anticipated.  We don’t want to find ourselves in the place of Zedekiah, angry at God, at God’s people, and at the world in general because things are not going our way.   

Frankly, one of the truths we have to face about the world is that it is not organized around making things go our way.  None of us is at the center of the universe.  We have to be ready to deal with hardships and unexpected turns of events.  It’s a complex world, and we are not in control.  Whether kings in Judah, emperors in Babylon, financiers on Wall Street, terrorists in a mall, people handing out bribes in the halls of government--powerful people will try to twist the world to their wills.  The repercussions of their actions may send ripples out to affect millions and billions of people in our world.  And God has left open the possibility that people will freely choose to do what they ought never to do.  It’s not God’s fault when we turn to our own ways.  And when powerful people do so, the effects may reach all of us.  God is still with us in the crisis.  God is still making a way when the world is handing us no way.

This way-making God is the reason Jeremiah can see beyond the intense pain of the crisis they were facing.  When Zedekiah calls him in to ask these questions, Jeremiah has an answer.  The answer reminds us a little of the Friend of Sinners.  When people asked Jesus questions, sometimes he answered indirectly by telling a story.  That’s what Jeremiah did on this occasion.  He told the king a story. 

At first it seems a bit confusing.  Jeremiah starts talking about his cousin.  His cousin came over to say, “Hey, Jeremiah.  Jairman.  Listen to me a minute.  I’ve got a way to hook you up with something.  Now don’t look at me that way.  Don’t go walking off.  Hear me out, cuz.  You know I wouldn’t steer you wrong.  Look, it’s me, your boy Hanamel.  You know me, man.  Okay, here’s the deal.  There’s this piece of land down in Anathoth, and I can help you work out a good deal on it.  Anyway, you already have the right of first refusal on this deal, see.  So let’s make this happen.”
Jeremiah had already heard from God that this very cousin was coming with a deal on some land.  Having trusted God until now, Jeremiah continued to trust God in these harsh times.  So he went along and made the deal.  The story almost gets tedious after that, as he goes into such detail about the price and the deed and the witnesses and the storage plans.  But all those details are there to drive home the point.

Jeremiah had been living through the same hard times as Zedekiah, without all the fringe benefits that go with being the king.  While Zedekiah had to hear so much bad news from Jeremiah, Jeremiah had to learn about it first and then go out in public and say it.  He was one of the least popular guys in town.  People got tired of hearing his messages of doom.  Jeremiah got on everyone’s last nerve.  He felt their cold stares and bitter insults.  It was not the life he had hoped for.  But when God told him it was a good idea to buy some land and store the deed for safekeeping in a place that it would last a long time, he did it.

Jeremiah was not in denial.  He had believed God’s word from the beginning, even if he did not like it.  Jeremiah was not angry with God, even if at times he begged God for things to be different.  Jeremiah had learned that God is faithful and true.  He knew that he could trust God to come through, even in the hard times.  The economy of Judah was in a mess.  The invading armies were burning cities and destroying agricultural lands.  Homes and city walls were being destroyed.  It was not really a time to be investing in property.  For sure, prices were low.  But it was not clear that an investment would pay off anytime in the near future.  Yet Jeremiah went down and bought the piece of land.

After finishing his story, Jeremiah gave Zedekiah the interpretation:  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  It was not a very direct answer to Zedekiah’s questions.  But the answer it gave is this—the same God whose word is being fulfilled in the destruction of Judah’s political system and the fall of your family, the same God who offered you a way to continue to live on in this land with your family, the same God you have refused to listen to, this same God whose word is true has promised that this present time of destruction will not be a final end.  Once this corrupt system is swept away, people will start to regroup.  Eventually, the conquering empire will crumble from its own self-destructive ways.  

Out of this chaos a new beginning will arise.  God’s people will get a new start.  So I’m buying a piece of land now to be ready for what God is going to do for me and my descendents.  I may not see the promised land, but I have been to Anathoth and taken a look at it.  I see where it’s going to be.  I may not get there myself, but I’m getting it ready for future generations.  My heart is heavy now.  I hurt for my people.  I hurt for you, my King.  It didn’t have to be this way.   

But now that the walls are closing in on us, I’m not giving up.  I took a little bit of my money and put it on the future.  It may be a burned up piece of barren land right now, but there’s going to be a nice house up under some shade trees:  olives and figs growing next to the house.  There’s going to be a vineyard up on the hill.   I see the perfect spot for a vegetable garden.  Grandmas are going to teach their grandchildren about gardening there.  Over there’s a good open space for children to play.  Down below the house is a place to put a barn and pen to keep some goats for milk and cheese.  Yes, this little place in Anathoth is going to be nice.  Maybe there will be a bee-house so we can have milk and honey.  Zedekiah, I’m not giving up hope, even though I’m mighty weary right now.

How will we face the future?  Will we trust God even when we can’t see how things will turn out?  As for me, I’m trying to be with Jeremiah today.  Everything I had planned seems like it has been swept away from me.  I don’t know for sure which direction I should be going right now.  But I do know that the One who brought me this far is still with me.  The One who gave me the blessed gift of my wife still holds her and holds me.  So even if I don’t know where the next steps are going to take me, I’m still walking with the Lord.  I’m going to find my way down to Anathoth and invest in the future.

A well-known pastor of my parents’ generation published a book of four sermons entitled Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.  In it, John Claypool shared with the world his pastoral struggle and personal struggle with the loss of his ten-year-old daughter to cancer.  I found the book on my shelf not long after Everly died.  So far I’ve read two of the sermons.  The first one he preached not long after they learned of his daughter’s cancer.  The second one came when she had a severe relapse many months later.

In that second sermon, he looked at the familiar passage from Isaiah 40 that tells of the prophet’s words to those among the exiles who felt that God had abandoned them.  Isaiah reminds them of who God is—the creator, the mighty one, and also the loving one who gives power to the faint and strength to those who have no might.  Isaiah acknowledges that in difficult times even young people will faint and be exhausted, but then offers well-known comforting words to those who wait upon the Lord.  They will renew their strength.  They will mount up with wings as eagles.  They will run and not be weary.  They will walk and not faint.

Claypool says that in the past he at times might have thought that the progression of encouragement should have been in the opposite order.  Walking leading to running leading to soaring seems like an ever-upward trend.  But now in his grief and struggle he realizes that while God may bless us at times with moments of high soaring, and while God may strengthen us at times for a season of running hard, those are not the norm for our lives.  There is a grace in walking with God in our day-to-day living.  There is a steadiness of walking that is not replaceable by bursts of energy or bouts of ecstasy.  And in the midst of our hardest times, there is an utter dependence on God to lift us up on our feet to keep on walking when we are sure that all we can do is to faint.  Claypool said of his own grief that he was sure that he had no wings to fly, and what he had of legs would do no good for running.  Then he said, “but by the grace of God, I am still on my feet! …. All I am doing is walking and not fainting…. And this is the most needful gift of all.”

As you face the future, God will give you strength even in your weakest times.  God will lift you up and give power when you faint.  God will never fail us.  While we may be unfaithful, God remains faithful.  So go on down to Anathoth.  Invest in the future, because God has big plans for us.  There will be houses and fields and vineyards built and bought in this land.  Thanks be to God.


1 comment:

jeanftw said...

One day at a time, one step at a time, one moment at a time. My fears of the unknown kick in when I obsess about the future. It's a struggle for me to remember to keep my head where my feet are planted. My faith keeps me until I can feel the joy of everyday simple things again. That in between time is excruciating and so uncomfortable that I want to get through it to the other side that I know will be better. I have found that rushing through the pain keeps it unresolved popping up when I least expect it. So my pain which is feeling all those mixed up feelings is part of my healing.

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