A Ridiculous Message
The Cost: What it Takes to Tell the Truth
I want to share a text message conversation I had this week with Jason Smith. He was texting me to ask if he could give out my cell phone number to a colleague who was trying to reach me.
Yeah, you might want to give him a little love the next time you see him. His job is very stressful, because his boss is crazy and, at least in this case, she couldn’t decide what she wanted to say. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
If you’ve been with us these last four weeks you’ll know we’ve been following the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, whose message today seems to stand in stark contrast to what we’ve heard from him over these past weeks.
The Book of Jeremiah chronicles the life and work of Israel’s longest-tenured and most prolific prophet. Remember Walter Brueggemann’s definition of a prophet that has been helping us understand Jeremiah’s role: prophets are called by God “to have an impact on persons, to impinge upon perception and awareness, to intrude upon public policy, and to evoke faithful and transformed behavior.”
And, up until now, Jeremiah has been doing just that by preaching a message of warning: if you don’t shape up, God is going to punish you, and it’s going to be bad.
So, let’s review. The country called Judah is about to finally end. Done. Remember, about a thousand years before, the people of Israel got what they wanted: a king. That didn’t work out too well, and less than 100 years after David took the throne, the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. For the purposes of this sermon series, I’ve been referring to the land as Israel, but technically the area where Jerusalem and the temple were, and where Jeremiah worked, was called Judah.
By the time we get to Jeremiah’s prophecy today, Jeremiah is nearing the end of his almost forty year career as a prophet. About ten years before today’s passage, Jerusalem had been besieged, the temple desecrated, and large segments of Jerusalem’s population—mostly leaders, nobility, craftspeople, the city folk—were exiled to Babylon. King Zedekiah was on the throne as king in Jerusalem, but he was just a puppet king, subject to the whims of the king of Babylon. Jerusalem is still under attack, actually, and very shortly following today’s passage, Jerusalem will be attacked again and the city and the temple destroyed.
But in today’s passage, King Zedekiah has had it with Jeremiah. Lately, Jeremiah had been going around telling King Zedekiah that he’s toast, basically, that he will be dethroned and carted off the Babylon next. This just drives Zedekiah crazy, so he throws Jeremiah in jail at the palace to keep an eye on him and to try to keep him quiet.
The thing is that Jeremiah has had a long career of truth-telling, and he isn’t about to keep quiet now! But when he starts talking this time, his message is…different.
It’s not what the king or the people had been accustomed to hearing from Jeremiah, the weeping prophet.
From a literary standpoint you should know that the passage from this morning comes from a small section in the book of Jeremiah—chapters 30-33, called the Little Book of Consolation. Go back and take a read this afternoon. When you do, you’ll see that the love and hope and promise of Jeremiah’s poetry in these chapters is stunning and beautiful…and seems so very different from everything we’ve been hearing over these past few weeks from Jeremiah.
In his prophetic role, Jeremiah had only one message—it was a message of repentance and restoration—but in the middle of their despair, the people heard his prophecy of hope and his message sounded contradictory, like he was nuts. The people in Jerusalem who were living in fear and distress and conflict, who felt that God had abandoned them and there was no future for them…well, they heard Jeremiah’s message and thought it was completely ridiculous.
Here’s what happened. Jeremiah had a vision that his cousin Hanamel would come to him to say that he had to sell a field, and Jeremiah being next in line to own the land would be offered an opportunity to buy it. Well, sure enough, who shows up at the jail but cousin Hanamel, offering Jeremiah the land?
And, then, as you heard in our reading this morning, Jeremiah makes an elaborate public display of the legal and financial transaction of buying the land—deeds were signed and witnessed, money was counted out in public, all the paperwork was sealed away in Jeremiah’s version of a safe deposit box. And Jeremiah pronounces these beautiful words of hope: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Okay, let’s review. The city has been attacked, the infrastructure decimated, families torn apart, homes destroyed. The people are limping along, trying to piece things together, but the specter of the Babylonian threat just hangs over their heads. They can’t really make plans for the future because they’re so overwhelmed by the realities of the present. The political instability is obvious to anybody who’s paying attention and the fear of what’s next is crippling.
But into this situation, Jeremiah starts talking about buying land. Buying land in a politically unstable situation, where one day the land might belong to you and the very next day it would be forcibly taken by a foreign army. Instead of gloating that he’d been right all along, Jeremiah seems to change his message upside-down. No more threats of destruction; instead, he’s talking hope. Deep abiding hope, real future, reconciliation, coming home.
And such is the down side of being the prophet.
Because if you tell the truth into any situation, usually—okay, always—your message is going to seem ridiculous, because you’re inviting people to step into the future, into a reality they cannot see, toward the ultimate goal of wholeness and reconciliation. Because God’s aim with us is always a future and a hope, the healing of brokenness, the untangling of dysfunction, the restoration of relationship, the rule of love.
My first sermon ever at Calvary, ten years ago, was called “First Things First.” I wanted to talk about how I’d hoped we could relate to each other as pastor and congregation, and in that sermon I asked for feedback. I asked people to email me or call me, to suggest books or ask questions, to make the sermon last more than fifteen minutes on Sunday morning and to stretch it into an ongoing conversation throughout the week ahead. I want to know what you think, I told you.
Well, first thing the next morning, Monday, I got a call from retired Navy Admiral Ken Carr, a longtime member of Calvary, a very respected and influential leader who has since moved to Connecticut. Ken is not known for pulling any punches, and as soon as I answered my phone he said: “I hated your sermon yesterday. You said you wanted to hear what we thought, so I’m just calling to tell you I hated it.” I love to remind him of that; it’s become a joke between us.
But despite that rocky start, over these ten years we’ve managed to keep a pretty open flow of communication going between us. There are some of you, in particular, who email me often, sharing your reflections, your spiritual meanderings, your questions, and, also, your opinions. That happened this week when our beloved deacon chair, Rachel Johnson, emailed to tell me about an interview she’d seen between Hillary Clinton and Bishop Elias Taban, a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Sudan, who received an honor from the Clinton Global Initiative this week.
Taban has been in the news a lot lately; his personal story is deeply compelling. He was born in a maternity hospital in South Sudan at the moment his village was being attacked by Sudanese soldiers, at the very start of the first Sudanese Civil War. His mother escaped to the jungle where they survived for the first few days following his birth. Growing up Taban knew nothing other than a country torn apart by war; he was a child soldier until he escaped to Uganda and began his amazing journey to finally become a leading religious voice in a country still struggling to right itself since the end of its second civil war in 2005.
In her introduction to Bishop Taban, Hillary Clinton recounted a trip to Sudan, where she was meeting with leaders of the country trying to see a way forward. They were explaining to her, she said, how the divide was too wide, the pain too deep, the distance too far, for cooperation and collaboration to really happen.
Clinton said she stopped President Salva Kiir, who was telling her this, and asked him to read a copy of an op ed written by Bishop Taban, where he proposed a future beyond the pain and dysfunction of the present. As the president read, he noted Taban’s name and said, “He was a soldier with me!” Secretary Clinton replied, “Yes, but now he is a man of peace.”
For a country ripped apart by generations of infighting, deep religious and cultural chasms, and crippling lack of infrastructure, Taban’s call for peace, hope, and reconciliation seems almost, well, ridiculous. Still, he insists:
“[W]hen war comes to an end, always the best thing to think, is to know that your enemy…is no more your enemy. You need to be able to reconcile and forgive one another. [Our organization that drills wells for water recently went into Darfur to drill some wells.] And the people in Darfur who were northerners said, ‘You know, we have been fighting with you all these years. What has brought you here to do these water wells here?’ And we told them: because God told us to love our enemies as ourselves. So I would like to say, many times we tend to hold onto the past. And if you hold onto the past you will never progress, you will never advance. But when you know that the past is a bygone, we need to live, we need to continue with life, and I need to forgive my brother and sister. That will open a door of civilization, a door of progress and humanity.”
After these weeks of listening to the prophet Jeremiah go on and on about destruction, we might be puzzled today with his message of hope. Is he confused? Is he changing his message? Is he insane?
No. None of these. It’s just that anytime a prophet is talking, the message sounds a bit ridiculous. It’s nothing like the reality we live; it’s about a future. Sometimes that future involves repentance, and sometimes that future involves hope. But always—always—the future God has planned for us is one of reconciliation, healing, wholeness, and love.
Some days that’s hard to imagine. But the grip of God will not let us go…it will pursue us and push us, it will challenge and enfold us, it will break down our sin and make us face hard truths, and it will heal us and give us hope.
And, it will give us courage to speak prophetic words of hope into situations crippled by despair, even when we sound downright ridiculous.
 Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Jeremiah: Portrait of the Prophet,” in Interpreting the Prophets, ed. J.L. Mays and P.J. Achtemeier (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 117-18.