Monday, June 28, 2010

Jeremiah (4): Bear Market Real Estate

Jeremiah 32 - The passage begins by introducing “the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD” but it gets sidetracked into the context of the particular word. So, before we dive into the word, we’ll also take some time to talk about the context. As we mentioned last week, Judah, the southern kingdom and all that remained of Israel and Judah, was conquered and exiled twice, about 11 years apart. The first time, in 598, the educated and the leaders were taken, and everyone else was left behind to pay taxes. But they decided they could be independent, proposed to pay Egypt to help them, and ended up in worse shape. It didn’t take long for Egypt to discover that Babylon had already taken everything of value. Now, the Babylonians are at the gate, the city is under siege and is about to fall.

While this is making the headlines, the prophet Jeremiah is experiencing his own personal version of siege – he is under arrest in the palace court of the guard. It is while under arrest that the king, Zedekiah, comes to Jeremiah. Zedekiah quotes Jeremiah and asks him why he is saying such seditious things. We never hear a reply . . . though if the king could quote Jeremiah’s sermons he might have listened to the part that answered his question (Brueggemann, 301).

All of this is prologue, introductory material and context for one of the strangest and boldest business transactions ever recorded. Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel wants quick cash, wants Jeremiah to buy his field and keep it in the family. It’s about 3 miles from Jerusalem (Peterson, 174) and it is probably crawling with Babylonian soldiers, but it would make a nice summer house if you ever get out of the palace guard. Jeremiah has made it clear that Judah is going to fall, that economic life will cease. Why buy? Then again, Jeremiah has also proclaimed God’s promise of restoration. Why buy? Eugene Peterson says, “There is more here than Babylonians at the gate; there is God in your midst” (173). Walter Brueggemann writes, “There is indeed ‘life after Babylon.’ The prophet has put his money where his mouth is” (302).

The late John Templeton, a legendary investor: When war began in Europe in 1939, he borrowed money to buy 100 shares each in 104 companies selling at one dollar per share or less, including 34 companies that were in bankruptcy. Only four turned out to be worthless, and he turned large profits on the others. (“Life Story - The John Templeton Foundation”)

You just know that smart folks with cash to invest were doing the same thing in our recent economic collapse. BUT – Jeremiah never got to see the return on his investment. Jeremiah never had the chance to “flip” this house, this land. Jeremiah’s carefully preserved deed, whether the sealed or the open copy, or the earthenware jar, has never been found.

Was it a “sure thing”? Yes. Would Jeremiah profit by it? No.

The purchase of the land locates Jeremiah in a special place in the story. Jeremiah is not simply waiting for Judgment Day, but participating in Redemption.

Mission - Redemption: Jeremiah shares Judah’s context (prison/siege), but he shares God’s mission. “The right of redemption by purchase is yours” (32:7). Because he participates in the redemption drama, he moves from passive to active, from wishing to hoping. What defines the difference? What sets him apart? The action he is willing to take, the investment he is willing to make in God’s future, buying a field for “$17" (Peterson).

Scripture: Jeremiah scrupulously records the financial transaction, with witnesses and multiple copies of the deed. He instructs Baruch to keep it safe in an earthenware jar. But beyond this story, the deeds do not appear in any historical record. How then were they kept safe? How then was the title preserved?

The safe place for the deeds, the record that preserved them, is in our hands today. It is the Scripture (Brueggemann, 302). “When your words came, I ate them. They were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name” (Jeremiah 15:16). King Zedekiah, on the other hand, has not paid full attention to the word, does not delight in the word, does not “eat” the word, and he doesn’t receive the dignity of an answer to his question.

The Word is Jeremiah’s refuge. In the Word, he finds the record of salvation history. Once he has completed the transaction, he offers a doxology, a prayer of praise: “Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard [impossible] for you” (32:17). In this one sentence, Jeremiah refers to three formative biblical stories, three dimensions of salvation history (Brueggemann, 303). First, Creation – “you who made the heavens and the earth”. Second, Exodus, deliverance, salvation – “by your great power and by your outstretched arm”. The expression “outstretched arm” is used over and over in the Scripture to refer to deliverance from Egypt. And, third, Promise – “nothing is impossible for you”. It is a reference to God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, the promise of a son to an old barren couple. Aside from the context of exile, here in Jeremiah and also in Zechariah, this Hebrew form for “wonderful, difficult, impossible” is used in only one other narrative context – the promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.

Jeremiah joins God in mission, participates in the work of redemption, takes refuge in the Word. In doing so, he not only reflects on salvation history, that is, on the entire arc of grace. He not only reflects on salvation history, he enters it. He finds that salvation history is Jeremiah’s history, is Judah’s history (even though they may be unaware), is our history. Creation? We are designed by God with love and care, made in God’s image, made “God-compatible” (Robertson McQuilkin). Exodus? God delivers us from slavery, sets us free from captivity, leads us out into freedom. Promise? When a future seems impossible, Abraham and Sarah, when a future seems impossible, Judah and Jerusalem, God’s promise is for a “hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29).

“Ah Lord God!” Salvation history is our history. As Eugene Peterson says, “There is more here than Babylonians at the gate; there is God in your midst” (173).

The purchase of the land locates Jeremiah in a special place in the story. The purchase of the land locates the Land in a special place in the story. We’ve seen that we can find our place, like Jeremiah, in salvation history. But, as much as I admire Jeremiah, I find that I have a lot in common with a plot of land overrun by Babylonians, I find that I have a lot in common with a city and nation under siege. You ever find yourself run over by life? You ever spend a day just waiting for the other shoe to drop? Let’s put ourselves in that place in the story and see what the purchase of the land does to us.

The land is “redeemed” by Jeremiah (32:7). It might be overrun by Babylonians, but it is redeemed. It has a future . . . we have a future . . . that is not defined by Babylon but written in promise.

Judgment is part of the picture. For too long we’ve assumed that if we are “God’s chosen” that we are “untouchable”. In the words of today’s psalm, “No evil shall befall you” (Psalm 91). But that is not “impossible” for God. “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). We need to live before God with humility – because God is the righteous Judge AND because God is the compassionate Redeemer.

Judah sees judgment all too clearly; they can’t see the possibility of restoration. But Jeremiah does. And he does the most practical thing: He acts on his belief. His belief tells us that what is restored and redeemed – the land, the nation – is what is destroyed and judged. We don’t get written out of the story, there is a future for us.

God proclaims that we – as much as we may be under judgment, as much as we may be afflicted – we are to be known as “God’s people” and God is pleased to be known as “our God” (32:38). God proclaims that we will be given a new heart (32:39). In the words of the advent hymn: "He comes to make the blessing flow far as the curse is found" ("Joy to the World").

We have a new place in the story. We are the redeemed, and Jesus is our redeemer. “The right of redemption by purchase”. We are “purchased with scars” (Wayne Watson, song, “People of God”). We are “bought by the blood of the Lamb”.

Eugene Peterson, 1983, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Walter Brueggemann, 1998, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns.

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