Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The story of Jeremiah’s purchase of the field at Anathoth has been one of my favorite stories for years. In fact when we formed an organization for our work in Mexico, we called it Anathoth, until someone better at marketing convinced us it was never going to become a strong organization until we changed our name. They were right. We eventually changed it to Partners in Hope, and that worked better. But I always had a little regret, because this story expresses beautifully what we were trying to accomplish: build hope when things felt hopeless.
Instead of explaining the story I want to retell it from the perspective of the jailer. Jeremiah had been in prison many times because he kept confronting kings. So I’m going to imagine the story from the perspective of the jailer, who knew Jeremiah quite well by now.
“Welcome back, Jerry. I’ve saved your old cell for you. You seem to like it here - your home away from home… Wow, you really did it this time. Not only did you say Jerusalem will be defeated by the Babylonians. Now you’ve gone and told the king he’s going to be deported. I’ve gotta admit, you’ve got chutzpah. Well, go ahead and get settled. They ought to be bringing you dinner pretty soon. (Turn to leave, then turn back)
What’s that? You’re expecting a visitor? But you just got here. How does anyone even know you’re here?… You dreamed it? God spoke to you in a dream? Oh, how nice. Did God happen to mention what time we could expect, uh… who did you say was coming? Hanamel? Your cousin? And you got this idea through a dream? I see. Do you happen to know why Mr. Hanamel is coming to see you? He what? He wants you to buy his field in Anathoth because he’s a little short on cash? Ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one. I gotta hear this. Why would you of all people buy property in the suburbs around Jerusalem at a time like this? You have been announcing the destruction of Jerusalem, and he thinks you’re going to invest in property? He must be pretty hard up to come to Mr. Doom and Gloom himself.
You what? You’re actually going to buy it? Are you crazy, Jerry? Hey, if you just want to throw your money away, I myself have some property I’d like to dump right now. You want to buy mine too? I suppose now you’re going to tell me that God told you about this part in the dream too… He did, huh? Oh, come on Jerry, if you want to be crazy that’s your problem, but don’t bring God into it. God would never tell you to do something that ridiculous. You won’t be able to get 5 cents on the shekel on that land after the Babylonians finish with us.
Well, like I said you might as well go ahead and get settled. (sarcastic) Mr. Hanamel might run into traffic on his way. (Pause) (Turn and face the other direction) Yes? What’s that you say? There’s a visitor for Jeremiah? And he says he’s his cousin. Oh… my…God! Y, y, y, yes, sssend him down. Jeremiah is … expecting him.”
The next few days were like a whirlwind. One would think Jeremiah was king with all the people coming to get him to sign papers, write checks, witness signatures, and who knows what else. When it all settled down again, I asked Jeremiah what that was all about. He said, “You know, it’s really true that Jerusalem is going to fall – I think you know that. Things are going to get a lot worse. The entire economy is about to come to a halt. Nobody’s going to be selling houses or fields or vineyards or anything else in Jerusalem for quite a while. But things will get better eventually. I’ve preached a lot of bad news for 40 years, and people haven’t believed me. But even in the midst of the bad news, I never gave up hope that things would eventually turn around. But there’s not much point telling people things are going to get better if they don’t believe things will get worse first. At this point, I don’t really expect people to believe my words. But they might take my actions seriously. So this land deal I just executed might be something they remember in the future. Maybe they’ll figure out that, even when things look hopeless, God’s promises are still valid.” When Jeremiah finished his explanation, I thought to myself, “maybe this guy should be king.”
The message of Scripture is that hope in God’s promises wins the day, even in the midst of hopelessness. Of course, we only know that as a promise, not as a fact. We keep retelling the same old stories year after year because it’s not an easy thing to believe. Stories act like a drum- beat that creates an alternative rhythm to our lives. When things couldn’t get much worse and the drum beats to a rhythm of desperation, hope is still possible, even when it seems to have no connection to what you see around you. We have to listen to that drumbeat.
Jeremiah acts in hope. “Jerusalem will fall. The siege ramps are already leaning against the city walls. The king, and most of the residents, will be deported. But houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. And I’m going to invest in some family land to show how deeply I believe that.” What are some of the siege ramps leaning against our walls? One of them is the ever present reality of police-on-black shooting. When we hear about someone investing in a property or a program that makes no sense and holds no guarantee of success, something shifts in us. We’re tempted to hope, even when there aren’t enough reasons to. Another siege ramp is people stuck in depression with no sign of relief. They need to hear stories of hope to gather the energy to make a move in their lives. My guess is that at least some of you need to hear something that to lift you out of hopelessness or frustration.
Jeremiah’s question for us is: How do we face the full reality of our world with hope? The answer in part is to simply show up, learn to mourn our losses, face the pain of life in full consciousness and act in hope. So engage in whatever practice will help you stay emotionally present to the pain of life when it hits you between the eyes, even when you’d rather pretend it’s not really happening. Sometimes, merely engaging in the most normal actions of life is courageous and radical in an Anathothian sense. Sometimes we will be bearers of hope unknowingly by simply being available.
There is a story about a teacher who was asked to go to the hospital to teach nouns and adverbs to an elementary school boy who was too sick to go to school. When she entered the room she saw that he had been severely burned over most of his body. She had no idea that that is what she was going to find, and had to retreat to the hallway to recuperate before talking to the boy. What would she say to this boy? It didn’t look like he could even live past tomorrow with such terrible burns. Not knowing what to do she walked into the room, approached the bed, and said to the charred body of a boy, “I’ve come to teach you nouns and adverbs. I’ll return tomorrow so we can get started.”
The next day as she was approaching the boy’s room, one of the nurses stopped her and said, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher was flooded with feelings of guilt: “I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. What good are nouns and adverbs to a little boy who’s probably going to die anyway?” She began to defend herself to the nurse: “I didn’t mean any harm. They asked me to come and teach him nouns and adverbs.”
The nurse interrupted her guilt-filled confession. “Before you came the boy had given up on life. He thought he was going to die, and frankly, so did we. But after you left, he started trying to open his eyes and move his lips and last night he wanted to eat something for the first time.” The teacher went in and commented to the boy that he seemed better today. He responded, “I thought I was going to die. But after you came I got to thinking that they wouldn’t bother sending someone to teach me nouns and adverbs if I was going to die.” Unbeknownst to her, the teacher had given hope to the little boy. Even when we do things for the wrong reasons, we can give the gift of hope.
Let us pray that the God of hope will accompany us on our journey so that we might work for a new world, where houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought and sold, and nouns and adverbs will again be taught.