Houses and fields and vineyards again (Jeremiah 32; Pentecost 16C)

Jeremiah is usually associated with doom and gloom, as we saw in last week’s lectionary offering: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer 8:18, 22). In the reading for this week, however, offered by the lectionary (Jer 8:18–2, 9:1), Jeremiah is optimistic. Even though he is being held under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), he is planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation.

Jeremiah arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:7, 16). He is a child of Judah, and here is sending down his roots even deeper into the land that God had given his ancestors. He believes that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling Judah and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). This attitude is thoroughly grounded in trust in God.

Jeremiah “serves as an examplar for exiles by acting with obedient hopefulness in the face of invasion and captivity”. The land purchase “begins the fulfilment of the visions of 30:1–31:40.” It is located at “the nadir of Judah’s story, during the bleakness of invasion” (587 to 586 BCE by our reckoning). (Quotations from Kathleen O’Connor, Oxford Bible Commentary, 515)

On the surface, the purchase appears futile, as Jeremiah foresees the dominance of the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, their king; this dominance shall remain, it seems, for some time, “until I attend to him, as the Lord declares” (32:5). So the prophet insists that the transaction take place, as a sign of hope in the future amidst the despair and devastation of his present.

This is what scholars call a “prophetic sign-act”, one of a number that Jeremiah enacts: wearing a linen loincloth, then hiding it, recovering it, and finding it “ruined, good for nothing” (13:1–7), a sign of the punishment to come on Judah (13:8–11); living as a celibate (16:1–2) as a sign of the exile to come (16:3–9); and pointing to the work of the potter, shaping a vessel, spoiling the vessel, and remaking it (18:1–4) as a sign of the way the Lord will treat Israel (18:5–11). Indeed, the last word of Jeremiah is to have his words written on a scroll which is thrown into the Euphrates River (51:59–63), to indicate that “Babylon shall sink, to rise no more”. (51:64).

The redemption of this parcel of land is a “prophetic sign-act” offering hope. It is reminder of the commands about the land found in Leviticus 25, where the Lord is said to have declared that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). The last concept is picked up in New Testament texts describing the people as aliens (1 Pet) and looking to the promise of a heavenly city (Heb 11).

The Levitical decree sits in the chapter concerning the Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1–7) and the Year of Jublilee (Lev 25:8–55), a time of cancellation of debts and restitution of the land, a liberating sign of the liberating God who is to be worshipped; “the people of Israel are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 25:55). The redemption of the land by Jeremiah, acting through Baruch, signals an ongoing commitment to the covenant which the people had with the Lord God.

The purchase of land demonstrates a trust in the promise spoken in the preceding chapter. Jeremiah famously speaks about the new covenant; his words, however, are often spiritualised—the law is not written on stones, but written in the hearts of the people (Jer 31:31–33), the knowledge of God is not to be taught, but will be innate—“they shall all know me” (Jer 25:34).

By contrast to this common spiritualised interpretation, Jeremiah intends that this new covenant is to be lived in all of life; it is not simply a promise for an ethereal future, but it is to be a tangible reality in the immediacy of life in the present. So Jeremiah enfleshes the promise through the purchase of land. It is an incarnation of action some centuries before Jesus!

Interestingly, although the lectionary shifts the order of these passages, the purchase of land in Jer 32, signalling the promises made in the oracles of Jer 30–31, is placed immediately after the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to come to terms with their situation in exile: “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters … multiply there [in Babylon] and do not decrease” (Jer 29:1–9). They, too, are to express their covenant faith in the realities of everyday life, even if they are in exile in a foreign land.

The details of this commercial transaction, involving money, property, and a deed of purchase (vv.9–12), are important; they indicate that how we treat our possessions, the land on which we live, the land which we own, reflects our faith. Jeremiah knows the trust of Lev 25:24; the land is of God—in this case, it has been given over to the family of Jeremiah as a trust, for them to care for. That trust is to “last for a long time” (v.14).

So the story invites us to consider how we exercise our responsibilities in property matters, how we live on the land, how we show that we believe that the land is of God. (It sits well alongside the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary, from Luke 16, which also emphasises the importance of responsible dealing with property and material things, in the life of faith.)

Our attitude to the land is actually a live current issue in Australia, as we mark the turning of an era (as the Queen dies, so the King reigns). Signs and symbols of British imperialism in this Great Southern Land remind us that, although the land was, and is, and will remain, central to the lives of the First Peoples of this continent, British colonisers have invaded, settled, massacred, and imposed a foreign way of life on those First Peoples. For them, being on country is being in spirit—connected with the spirit of the ancestors, living in harmony with the spirit of the creator God. There are resonances, surely, with the close connection to the land that Jeremiah here exhibits.

So in our context, the fact that Jeremiah buys the land is a challenge to our expectations that we can simply assume and take control of these lands. The fact that Jeremiah exchanges a contract for the land reinforces the importance of our dealings with real estate, property, finances, and people. His property transaction attests to the promise of the Lord to a besieged and soon-to-be exiled people, “ houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). The sign, to us, is clear: what we do with our material, physical lives ought to reflect the spiritual hopes and commitments that we have as people of faith.

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See also

Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8; Pentecost 15C)

The prophet Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37).

King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Sure enough, after Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE, they pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements.

Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). That is the passage that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday. The grief of the times led Jeremiah to an expression of utter despair: “is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22).

The region of Gilead was the mountainous northern region of Transjordan, the land to the east of the Jordan River—an area which now is in the nation of Jordan. Whilst it was not part of the land of Canaan, it was promised to “half the time of Manasseh” (Deut 3:13; also Num 32:40). A medicinal perfume was made from a balsam shrub that grew in the area; it is noted in the Joseph story as being carried by a company of Ishmaelites who “came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Gen 37:25).

This balm is also included in the present which Jacob later sent to the ruler of Egypt: “a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds” (Gen 43:11). According to Josephus, the Queen of Sheba brought “the root of the balsam” as a present to King Solomon (1 Ki 10:10; Antiquities of the Jews 8.6); the balm was later noted, admiringly, by a string of writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Florus, and Diodorus Siculus). It forms a saying in contemporary life, referring to a certain cure,

Jeremiah continues after this oracle of woe to denounce the worship of idols that the people perpetuate (10:1–16) and their breaches of the covenant (11:1–17). As a result, his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20). He declares that God condemns others who are prophesying; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18).

The prophet then dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

The message of Jeremiah up to this point is stark, confronting, demanding: turn around, reshape your life, repent—or suffer the consequences. It’s no wonder that he felt aggrieved and despairing; who would respond? It’s a message that remains confronting and demanding for us, today. How do we respond?

A reticent prophet: called, equipped, and sustained (Jeremiah 1; Pentecost 11C)

This is a sermon that I wrote and presented for Project Reconnect for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 11. The video of the sermon is at https://projectreconnect.com.au/2022/07/21/21st-august-2022-pentecost-9-the-prophet-jeremiah

Project Reconnect is a worship resource that is published weekly to help congregations with their worship service. It includes a PDF information sheet with video messages, music resources and discussion starters. (The website notes, “downloads are free but we would appreciate your donations to help continue our work”; see https://projectreconnect.com.au)

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Prophets. Not profits as in financial gain, the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something. But prophets, as in the chosen messengers of God, empowered by the Spirit, equipped to declare the word of the Lord to the people of God.

If your mind goes to prophets, perhaps you might think of Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”; or Micah: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”. Perhaps you think of Elijah: “the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.” Or is it Isaiah who comes to your recollection: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I’m not surprised if one of those famous prophets was the person you immediately thought of. We have heard from some of them in the Old Testament readings in previous weeks, so they may be fresh in your mind.

But in today’s reading, we hear about the call that God placed on another person, a somewhat reluctant prophet: Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was not itching to respond to God, when he received the call to become a prophet. He was not very old; some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. We might have sympathy for Jeremiah on this account; he was young, hardly at an age that we would recognise as qualified and equipped to be a public spokesperson for God!

So when he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means, “alas” or “woe is me”. Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all.

Maybe you might know how he feels: when we are asked to do something difficult, something demanding, something challenging, that is beyond what we feel that we are able to achieve. For you, that might be the challenge of running a marathon, or being invited to speak in public to a large crowd, or learning a new language. Big challenges, lots of hard work, too much to consider. For me, I can think of a few challenges that really freak me out: climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge (I don’t handle heights very well at all), letting a snake coil around me (that’s a petrifying thought), touching a spider (we just aren’t going to go there in any way!)

Jeremiah was incredibly reticent; like Moses, he was not going to take up this invitation in any way. Moses declined the offer of becoming the spokesperson for God: “who am I, to go to Pharaoh? what could I say to him?” but God persisted, and Moses relented. Likewise, with Jeremiah; initially, he says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”, but God persists: he will support the young man Jeremiah, just as he supported the young man Moses.

But I think that we have this story from the opening chapter of this book, in our reading today, not because it shows us that God will help us overcome our fears about challenges set before us. It think that it is not Jeremiah’s words that we are to focus on. It is, rather, the words that God speaks to Jeremiah which should ring in our ears.

It is the encouragement for the task that God promises—and later delivers—that must stand out for us. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’”, the voice declares; “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God gives the right words for the appropriate time. That is remembered when Jesus later tells his disciples that the spirit would enable them to speak, even in the midst of difficulties (Luke 21:13–15).

And then, we hear the words: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” In typical style, the first word of God to the human being chosen for a specific task is, “do not be afraid”. When God appears to human beings—in a vision, as an angel, in a voice from the heavens, in a response to prayer, as a niggling, unsettling feeling, in words of advice or guidance from a friend—however God might appear to us, it can be an experience that evokes fear, awe, anxiety. Who is this, speaking to me? How am I to respond?

“Do not be afraid”, said the Lord, to Abraham, in a vision (Gen 15). “Do not be afraid”, he said, to Isaac, at Beersheba (Gen 26). “Do not be afraid”, to Moses, in the wilderness (Num 21), to Joshua, facing the combined might of a great army (Josh 11), to Elijah, also facing a great army (2 Kings 1); “do not be afraid”, Isaiah says, on behalf of the Lord, to king Hezekiah (Isa 37); “do not be afraid”, the voice of God says to the prophet Ezekiel, when he was called to his role (Ezek 2), and to Zechariah (Zech 8). It is a common refrain throughout the stories of the people of Israel.

And we hear the same phrase repeated in New Testament stories, when God speaks to Zechariah, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Mary, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Joseph (Matt 1), to Simon Peter (Luke 5), to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, in Corinth (Acts 18), and to the ageing prophet John in exile on Patmos: “do not be afraid” (Rev 1). It is God’s consistent and encouraging word to those who encounter the intensity of divine presence, the enormity of divine challenge, the inescapable call to follow, to believe, to declare the word of the Lord: “do not be afraid”. It is God’s word to each of us.

So the word of God to Jeremiah is clear: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Jeremiah is willing to respond; to accept the challenge, to take up the call, to stretch himself and step into a new experience.

What Jeremiah would encounter in the decades that followed, was pretty heavy stuff. He didn’t know that at the time that he accepted the call to be God’s spokesperson. He persisted, held strong, remained faithful throughout all the difficulties that ensued for the people of Israel, as they were attacked, besieged, defeated, and then sent into exile, away from their homeland, off into a strange, foreign country. Jeremiah held fast; he remained faithful to the call that God had placed upon him through all of this.

And God held fast to him through all these tragic events. Jeremiah received the support, the guidance, and the encouragement from God through this all, as the people of God were taken from their beloved land, and sent far away into exile. God remained faithful.

So we give thanks to God, for God holds fast, God remains faithful, God does not let go, no matter what. That gracious, faithful commitment to us is the heart of the good news that we know, that we proclaim, that we live in our lives: the ever-faithful God who is with us, the ever-present God who is for us.

For this, we say: thanks be to God!

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1. What do you think about the idea that a teenager could be the chosen voice of God?

2. How do you deal with difficulties on your walk of faith? How do you listen for what God might be saying to you at such a time?

3. Think of a challenge that faces your congregation or faith community. How might you work together to discern what God is calling you to do?

4. Jeremiah was called to speak to all the people—the whole community—in the public arena. How do you make your voice heard in the public discussion of important issues today?