Sermon Text – Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15
In case you weren’t here, we had a pretty big celebration right about this time last week. Three people in our congregation chose to be baptized by immersion. It was a joyous day as Ivy, Max, and Shannon told us of their desire to be baptized and we, as a congregation, made promises to support them.
A while ago, I was talking to a friend who isn’t Christian about baptism and my friend said something like, “I have always thought dunking seems strange. I mean, why would you basically try to drown someone just to initiate them into your religion?”
I kind of had to laugh. Sometimes we are so close to our own rituals that we forget how bizarre they must seem to the rest of the world. To me, baptism is just a normal thing – part of being Christian. But to those who aren’t Christian, of course it seems pretty strange that you would celebrate God’s love and welcome someone into your faith system by dunking them deep in water.
Of course, baptism isn’t really about drowning people. At least, we never say that when we celebrate it. But, the truth is, in its historical roots, there is an element of baptism that is about drowning.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Or to use less-flowery language – we really do kind of drown and die when we are baptized. We celebrate a union with Christ – who died – in order to more fully realize the power of Christ’s resurrection. We die so that we can live more fully into new life.
I have heard stories from people who really did feel totally changed and new after their baptisms. I think that is really amazing. I don’t recall it feeling that way for me, exactly, but I do recall it feeling like a really big deal to my six-year-old self. I do remember feeling scared when the pastor prepared to dunk me under the water – and incredibly relieved when I bobbed back up to the top for air.
We all understand baptism a little differently. For you, this idea of dying with Christ may be totally abhorrent. I would understand if it was. That’s okay. I don’t agree with all of Paul’s ideas either.
But regardless of how we feel about the idea of dying through baptism, I think it highlights a couple of really important and true things about the Christian faith.
First: Christianity is a religion for messy times.
Throughout history, Christianity has flourished in times of despair and difficulty. Jesus and his disciples lived in a difficult time – oppressed by the Roman Empire, struggling to survive day-to-day, striving to make meaning and find hope. Those folks in the early Church had all of those same problems. And what we see over the course of history is that Christianity, as a religion, has gotten stronger and more crystallized during times of crisis.
When persecuted people struggle with their faith to find meaning and hope, their faith becomes clearer and stronger. When I am trying to figure out what is most important about my faith in God, I have learned that listening to people who are living through hard times – be it war, famine, persecution, slavery, condemnation, sickness, abuse, fear, anxiety, you name it – listening to those people has taught me more about Jesus and God than listening to people who are living the good life. And I’m sure many of you can identify with this because you may have had the experience of noticing your own faith gets much stronger and clearer in those difficult times.
Christianity is a religion for messy times. And the reason it speaks so clearly to people enduring horrible atrocities is because Christianity is all about death….and resurrection.
You can’t have one without the other, of course, and that’s where we get this idea of dying through our baptism. Because in order to truly experience the gift of resurrection, you have to have at least looked death in the eye.
And it’s not too hard to find opportunities to look death in the eye – if you’re paying attention.
Every week, Jack and I are invited into sacred places where people are looking death in the eye. People who are coming to grips with the finite nature of our bodies; people who are struggling through slow-and-painful or sudden-and-surprising deaths in relationships.; people who are caught unaware as one of life’s joyful transitions – like becoming a parent – pushes them into a whirlwind of grief they weren’t anticipating: fears of job loss, home loss, losing family members, losing ourselves.
You know that bumper sticker that says, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” I’d like to add another one, “If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention.”
Because there is just bad stuff happening out there all of the time. Some of it is close to home – and some of it comes to us through our computer and television screens. In a world with Syria, Nairobi, the Washington Navy Yard, global warming, and on and on….sometimes if I allow it all to get into my heart I become so worried that I feel paralyzed.
I tend to have a somewhat anxious personality and I find myself imagining myself or my loved ones in those situations. I become scared. I feel overwhelmed.
And I find that I need stories like the one we just heard from Jeremiah to ground me - to bring me back to reality. To soothe my soul and help me find the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other – allowing myself to be open to the pain and suffering in the world, but still finding ways to protect myself from it. Because I do so deeply believe that one of the most important things we can do as humans is be open to suffering without allowing it to destroy us.
I know I’ve said it before, but I just can’t help but say it again. Here’s another example of the Gospel – the Good News – calling out to us right there from the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes I hear people say that they can’t stand the Old Testament because it’s all gloom and doom, but not this story. It is full of hope and promise. It’s a keeper.
Unfortunately, it’s also a little difficult to understand at a first pass through because it starts in the middle of an ongoing story and refers to a lot of people and places that are unfamiliar to us.
Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in the 6th century before the common era. He lived in Jerusalem, just before its conquest by the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah was from a small town just outside of Jerusalem, called Anathoth.
As today’s story begins, Jeremiah is imprisoned in King Zedekiah’s court. Zedekiah was the king of Israel. His country was under siege by the Babylonians. They had been completely cut off from the world around them – including the farmland outside the city that they depended on for their food. His citizens were hungry, thirsty, sick, scared, and probably feeling pretty hopeless. The Babylonian Empire had conquered so much of the world around them and now they were coming for Jerusalem. The word siege comes from the Latin verb for “to sit” and that’s what they were doing. Just sitting. Waiting to be captured. Waiting to die. Waiting for things to get worse.
“If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention.” Right?
The prophet Jeremiah has been telling the powers that be that this day was coming for a long time. And they didn’t want to hear it. That’s how he ended up in jail. They threw him into a dungeon for continually saying very uncomplimentary things about Israel’s rulers. But I have to think that, at some level, King Zedekiah knew he spoke a bit of truth. Why else would he have pulled him out of the dungeon and brought him up to the court, where he could easily bend the King’s ear?
Jeremiah knew that sometimes actions speak louder than words and he was kind of a showy prophet. He would often act things out – strange shows of symbolism – to try and get a point across.
And that’s exactly what happens in today’s story. In the midst of the siege of Jerusalem, “the word of the Lord” comes to Jeremiah in the form of his cousin, Hanamel. This cousin comes to Jeremiah, who is in jail at court, and says, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth. It is your right to buy it.”
In this particular time and place, real estate wasn’t just listed on a ReMax sign in someone’s yard. Instead, when someone needed to sell a piece of property, the privilege of buying it first went to close relatives. So Hanamel is asking Jeremiah if he will buy this piece of property in their hometown.
Now stop and think with me for a moment about the outright stupidity of even considering this proposal.
Number one: Jeremiah is in jail. He has no need to own a sweet little piece of property in his hometown. Number two: the entire city is under siege. Even if he wanted to buy the property, he wouldn’t be able to get there to take care of it. Even if he got out of jail, he couldn’t get out of the city. Number three: I’m no real estate agent, but I’m pretty sure markets crash out pretty hard during war, am I right? Nobody wants to buy or sell anything during a war. You have no idea if your land or money is going to be worth anything tomorrow You’re doing good if you can get somebody to take your Visa card and give you a loaf of bread. Buying land is not high on your agenda of things to do.
So what does our friend Jeremiah do? He buys the field of course. And he does it in a very public way – gathering everyone around him to watch him sign all the papers. And he seals the deed up and puts it in a big clay jar to protect it. And then he tells us why he is doing this dumb, foolish thing. He does it because he has received a word from God. The word is, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Houses and fields and vineyards…and cappuccinos, and engagement rings, and prom dresses, and books for college classes, and baby shower gifts, and airplane tickets for vacations, and warm winter coats for snowy days, and birthday cards for best friends….all of these things shall again be bought in this land.
In other words: resurrection is real. Hope is real. “If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention,” true. But also “if you aren’t at least a tiny bit hopeful, you may be paying attention to the wrong things.”
Death is real. Pain is real. Suffering is real. I believe we are all familiar with that other bumper sticker…. “stuff” happens.
“But do you know what else is real?” Jeremiah asks us from these dusty old pages? Hope is real.
Even in the midst of a siege, Jeremiah held on to the hope that life would go on. That God would not abandon them. That they were all moving together towards some kind of future, even if they didn’t know what it would look like and they were all very scared.
Jeremiah proclaimed the good news that resurrection was waiting on the other side. Death might have to come first, but they were all held together by a God big enough to stand with them and in them and work through them to show all of us that death is never forever. There is always something more. Resurrection always has the final word.
Now I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of how this all works. I don’t know what will happen to me after I die. I don’t know how I will find the power within myself to survive horrible atrocities should they come my way. But I do know that my faith gives me hope. Hope in something beyond me that can move me to a place where I can find peace. Peace in the face of fear. Peace in the midst of chaos.
When I look at stories like this one, I am filled with resurrection hope. After all, if a guy like Jeremiah can so publicly commit an act of audacious hope like buying that field when he was in the midst of an outright siege? If God can do that for Jeremiah, then maybe God really can help me find hope when I am hunkered down in my own bunker, scared and overwhelmed.
“Seek hope,” Jeremiah says. “This isn’t forever,” Jeremiah says. “Go ahead, fall into the water. It will feel like you’re drowning for just a second but then the power of the water will push you back up and you will be resurrected,” he says.
The Hope of Jeremiah – for his day, and for ours. Thanks be to God.