JEREMIAH 32:1-3A, 6-15

Over the summer, in worship, we have spent time with the prophets of Israel, as they have helped us to strengthen our prophetic imaginations. Today, as we turn the page from summer to fall, we are concluding this series with a passage from Jeremiah. Jeremiah is largely a book of judgment that chronicles the last days before Israel fell to the empire of Babylon, and Jerusalem was destroyed. Near the end of that book are a few chapters known as the Book of Consolation, which speak to a deep hope in that darkest moment of Israel’s national life. This reading is from that Book of Consolation, and it tells the story of Jeremiah’s hope. Hear now the word of God.

32:1 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. 32:2 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, 32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 32:7 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.” 32:8 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. 32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 32:12 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. 32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 32:14 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. 32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

There is a legendary story about the great Reformer Martin Luther and an apple tree. I say legendary because the story didn’t appear until 1944 – nearly four hundred years after Luther’s death. But like many stories, its truth does not depend on its facts. The story goes that someone once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew that the very next day the world would end. That’s a provocative question, and I imagine that most of us would spend that time with our family, or close friends, the ones we love, maybe in church, or at least in prayer. Martin Luther – the legend goes – responded: I would plant an apple tree.

Now that’s an unusual response. What point is there in planting an apple tree if the world is going to end tomorrow? There are surely many theological answers to that, but the point of the story is simple: it shows us how to live with hope in the face of judgment.

The prophets of Israel, whom we have been studying this summer, announce judgment with the authority of God. It is dangerous to attempt to summarize all we have heard, but if I could boil it down, I would say that the prophets pronounce judgment on idolatry, self-centeredness, and hardheartedness.

When the prophets see people worshipping false gods, and therefore forgetting the goodness, mercy and power of the living God, they condemn idolatry. Whether the people are worshipping another’s culture deity (which is strange to us) or worshipping the culture itself, the nation, and the national identity (which is much closer to home for us), they condemn it as idolatry.

When the prophets see people being treated unfairly before the law, when someone with power is pulling strings to get an advantage over a person who doesn’t have the same access or privilege – they condemn it as self-centeredness. It is a violation of our basic obligation to one another as human beings created in God’s image and set beside each other as neighbors in our common world.

When the prophets see people being overlooked or ignored in hardship, when persons with resources take even more for themselves and ignore the poverty of their neighbors, they condemn it as hardheartedness. God requires a justice that is both fair and compassionate – our call is to look after one another so that no one has too much while another has too little.

Idolatry. Self-centeredness. Hardheartedness. The prophets pronounce judgment in metaphors that are strikingly relevant to our lives. Much of what has made this sermon series so surprisingly engaging is that the prophets give us a powerful lens through which to see and critique the world around us. But as we conclude this series today, I want to consider with you the question that lies behind the apocryphal story of Martin Luther and the apple tree: how do you live with practical hope in the face of judgment? In other words, how do you have hope when it seems hopeless?

On the whole, the book of Jeremiah, though some passages are beautiful, is a book of final judgment against Israel before their defeat and captivity by the Babylonian Empire. The setting of this chapter is that Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians; before long the city will fall, the leaders will be taken away into slavery, and it will lie in ruins. The prophet himself is imprisoned in the inmost courtyard of the city, under guard. The King has placed him there so that he will cause no more trouble, and won’t demoralize the city’s defenders with his hopeless oracles of judgment.

In the midst of the siege, at a lull in the action, Jeremiah receives a strange word from the Lord. A cousin was going to visit and offer him the chance to buy a piece of property. Now, by law, Jeremiah had the right of first refusal on this particular piece of family property; but… the nation is about to be destroyed. Why would he want to spend good money – cash money – on a piece of land in a nation that is under siege? No one of sound mind would make that investment – but the word of the Lord had come to Jeremiah, and so he did.

Jeremiah weighed out real money – solid silver – and signed the deed in the presence of everyone he could gather, and he had it witnessed, multiple copies. His told his faithful aid and scribe Baruch to place the deed in a clay jar, seal it tight, and bury it so that it would last for generations. Then the prophet told the gathered people, all of those were shaking their heads at his foolishness, the real reason for his hope:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

You see, Jeremiah’s purchase of land was an act of faith. He created, in a sense, a sacramental sign. Sacrament is simply a religious word that means a sign that is filled with divine promise. Purchasing that piece of property while the city was under siege was a sacrament of hope. God would not forget Israel. Burying that deed in a clay pot for generations far into the future to find was a practical act of hope in the midst of judgment, that God would be faithful. As one scholar eloquently said, “The act symbolizes God’s intent to provide a future beyond the present judgment.”1

How do we live with practical hope when there seems to be no hope? A little more than a month ago, a man by the name of Albert Woodfox died at age 75. Woodfox is known for spending probably the longest period of solitary confinement of any in the history of American prisons. Imprisoned at the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana, he spent 44 years, or 16,000 days, in solitary, 23 hours a day in his 6×9 foot cell. In the summer, the mosquitoes would eat him alive. If it wasn’t the heat, it was the panic and claustrophobia. The air and the ceiling would close in, and he would jump up just to chase away the horrors. And the truth, that would come out many years later, is that Woodfox was there for a murder he did not commit.

Now, Woodfox was no angel. He was a rightly convicted criminal when he went to went to prison; he grew up rough in the sixth ward of New Orleans, and was sent to Angola for armed robbery. But when he arrived at Angola, life there was so brutal he cobbled together his own moral code. He organized other prisoners to protest the cane-cuttings and beatings, to share food, and create some semblance of autonomy and dignity for the inmates. He was deemed a radical by the guards, and in some ways he was. Because he was so effective organizing other prisoners to protest the inhumane conditions, in 1972 he was framed for murder, tried and convicted, and placed in solitary. There was not a scrap of evidence that he committed the murder; and in 2014, a US Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, citing mostly racism.

Woodfox’s life is tragic and complicated, but what is most remarkable about him is what he did in solitary confinement. He found his true self. His cell became a university, full of law books borrowed from the prison library. Armed with case law, read 40 or 50 times if need be, he won small privileges for all the solitary prisoners: fans, radios, magazine subscriptions, and an end to unnecessary strip-searches. For two hours a day, he would read about the troubles of the outside world, which not only took him mentally out of his cell but expanded his sympathy with the whole of suffering humanity. He did not care much now if, when he complained about his toilet blocking up, tear gas was sprayed in his face. Far worse was happening elsewhere.

From his solitary cell, Woodfox expanded and built a community with other prisoners. He listed his own greatest achievement as teaching a prisoner called Goldy to read. On his hour out, he would stand in front of Goldy’s cell and they would go through the dictionary together. After that, he encouraged his pupil to call him any time of the day or night if he still couldn’t understand. One glorious day, Goldy found sounds and words knitting together, and the world opened up to him.

How do we live with practical hope in the midst of present judgment? That is to say, in the face of challenges that have no immediate solutions, that may even lead us to despair, how do we live with hope? Some problems are global – war, racism, or climate change. Others are deeply personal –divorce, illness, loss. How do we hold on to hope? Martin Luther said he would plant apple seed in the ground. Jeremiah bought a piece of land and saved the deed for future generations to find. Albert Woodfox explored the breadth and depth of the world from his cell and won small freedoms for his friends. These are more than just hopeful actions. They are, in a sense, extraordinarily sacramental: they bear witness to God’s intent to provide a future beyond the present judgment. They bear witness to real hope.

As we live with a new awareness, a new prophetic imagination, we must be careful to not deal in the quick highs of false hopes and wishful thinking. Jeremiah did not pay for the land and sign the deed because there was a lull in the action. He didn’t bury that deed in the ground because he thought maybe the Babylonians had changed their minds and decided to go home. He paid the silver and signed the deed out of deep faith in God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness, and God’s promised future – even though Jeremiah had no reasons to be optimistic.

If we read a little further in the chapter, after Jeremiah had signed the deed and everyone had gone home, we hear a prayer where Jeremiah lays out his worries to God. He first declares how wonderful God is and all that God has done, and then he recounts how bad things are, and how the city is about to be in ruins. And then he ends the prayer with a kind of puzzlement: “But you sovereign Lord say to me, Buy the field with silver and have the transaction witnessed.” Jeremiah is not engaging in wishful thinking or false hope. He’s being faithful but he’s deeply puzzled. In his puzzlement, the voice of the Lord speaks to Jeremiah: “I am the Lord, the God of all humankind, is anything too hard for me?”

That is the reason for our real hope. Is anything too hard for God? This is real hope that comes from confidence in the goodness, the faithfulness, and the power of God. Real hope, that gives us the courage to make sacraments of our own, signs of hope, even in the most hopeless circumstances.

And should we ever despair our ability to make these signs of hope or to be hopeful in the face of present judgment, God is faithful to give us these sacraments in worship – these ordinary sacraments that breathe fresh life into our souls week by week.

Not unlike the apple seed planted in the ground, or the deed buried in the earth, the waters of baptism and the feast of the Lord’s table represent for us sure, tangible signs that no trouble, no distress, no disaster, can take away a hope that is founded in God.

In the waters of baptism, we find a sign of dying and rising with Christ. In a world that is marked by death, in lives that are at so many points haunted by the inevitability of death, the waters of baptism are a sign for us of the promise of eternal life. We, who have already shared with him his suffering and his death, will surely share his resurrection.

At the Lord’s Table, we find a sign of the feast, the heavenly banquet of abundance and joy that God has prepared. In a world that is marked so often by scarcity and fear and therefore by exclusion; in lives that are so often characterized by hunger – hunger for food, for friendship, for purpose, for love – gathering around this table reminds us that there is room in God’s kingdom for all, and all will be filled.

These are the sacraments of our deepest hope. These are signs of the enduring faithfulness of God. Is anything too hard for God? Amen.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina

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