NRSV JEREMIAH 32:1-3, 6-15
32 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.
6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
There is a place about 70 miles from here that has so much natural beauty – rolling hills, woods that have some interesting twists to them, fields and paths for hiking, running or biking. It is a natural scene that seems to speak of the beauty and peacefulness of creation.
Strange that there is not a house on it. A couple of buildings. You might wonder why there are no housing developments, that it hasn’t been, as we might derisively say, “been discovered.” With respect to the prophet Jeremiah, you might wonder why anyone would not want to build a house here, in this place which already has so many fields, with maybe a wild vineyard here and there.
That is until you look around more closely and notice there are all these markers in this place. And cannons. What’s a cannon doing in a nice, bucolic setting like this? A place where anyone would want to buy a chunk of real estate and put down a nice home, make an investment, and capitalize on an opportunity to make a killing with the latest fancy homes?
The cannons should be a tip-off. The place is Petersburg; or the Petersburg National Battlefield Site, outside and within that city some 30 miles south of Richmond. The site of the longest siege of any US American city, a nine month siege in the closing days of the War Between the States.
I remember going there as an 11-year old while we were on our way to visit my Mom’s beloved older brother in Morehead City. I got into trouble because, being a burgeoning Civil War buff, I became totally absorbed in the place, thinking about all that happened there. We were parked near that yawning hole known as The Crater, where a bunch of Pennsylvania miners blew up part of the Confederate line; but then a mix up in planning sent unprepared troops into the hole instead of the specifically trained African American forces, and the result was a Confederate victory, and eight more months of bloody conflict.
It’s a beautiful place now, so much so that it is hard to conceive of so much carnage. But you would have thought it an absolutely awful place to make an investment 150 years ago. Deeply dug trenches, meant to protect the opposing soldiers from snipers and cannon shot, scarred the landscape for miles around. Sharpened stakes for protection poked up from the ground. The remnants of soldiers encamped in awful conditions; hot sun in the summer, punctuated by rain that resulted in puddles that didn’t drain, and trench foot and other diseases more dangerous than the battles themselves. All of the raw elements of human beings living out in the open, occasionally with bodies from the last battle lying everywhere. It looks beautiful now, but in those days it must have truly been hell on earth.
Whenever I read this passage out of Jeremiah I think of that place. I think of it because it must have been a lot like Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown. Anathoth was a place that probably had some beautiful homes and vineyards and fields because it was located near the holy city of Jerusalem. But at the time of this writing that proximity made it a battleground; it was used by the Babylonian soldiers as a staging area while they besieged the city. A ghastly siege that resulted in starvation, cannibalism, death and finally the capitulation of the city and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. As any place filled with soldiers on duty, Anathoth, like Petersburg, was filled with sights and sounds and smells of an army encamped for months, tearing up the landscape, answering nature’s call in the open, creating a scene that must have been similar to those images portrayed in Dante’s Divine Comedy; especially The Inferno, where he writes in vivid details about his imagination of hell. A place that was completely and totally desolate.
You may have been to Petersburg, probably not to Anathoth. But perhaps you know about them. Some of you know all about them. They are the places in our lives where it seems that everything is desolate. It is the place we have been when it seemed that there was no hope, no possibility of anything good coming. They are the places we might have wanted to run away from, the last places we wanted to be but were there anyway, the places where we didn’t want to have anything to do with the people around us, or felt like others didn’t want to have anything to do with us. It could have been your hometown, like Jeremiah’s, a place that wanted to kill him when he proclaimed God’s judgment there. A prophet is without honor except in his own hometown, another prophet, bound for crucifixion, would say years later. Or it could be another place – a hospital, a nursing home, a retirement facility, a job, a school, a relationship. Anathoth is any place that is desolate, devoid of life, any place where you feel there is no hope at all.
Except that, as we all know by faith, with God there is no place that is devoid of hope. Even Anathoth. Even that place that wants to suck the life out of you. Even those hopeless places. Maybe especially there.
To an imprisoned prophet mired in a jail cell in an imprisoned city, comes the word of the Lord. It is not a word of deliverance, not a word of freedom. It is a word to buy a piece of land. It will come from Jeremiah’s cousin, who lives out there in Anathoth. He can’t work the land. No kidding; there are Babylonian soldiers camped all over the place. There is no way Hanamel can get out there, let alone work the land so it can provide for his family. God knows this, and tells Jeremiah what is going to happen before it all takes place. And when it does you can almost feel the breath come out of Jeremiah; even after all those times of speaking the word of the Lord, when Hanamel comes to him and speaks word for word what God had told Jeremiah, it must have touched that melancholy prophet some place deep within. The word of the Lord will do that, you know. It will take your breath away. Even when it asks you to do something crazy.
And make no mistake about it buying a piece of land in the middle of a war zone is crazy. Jeremiah cannot make any money off of it. He’s not going to be able to farm it, or sell it off to someone else for a profit. The only reason seems to be to keep it in the family, to keep that part of the Promised Land within the blood lines, which is what the right of redemption does. Jeremiah is next in line to receive the land, but God wants him to do that for other reasons than to keep the family ties intact.
Two other times God told Jeremiah to buy something. Both of those times the purchases were symbols of judgment and destruction. It went back to God’s first words to Jeremiah of what would come of his prophetic words – “…to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” But with God, neither of those is the end of the story. Judgment is not the final word. A desolate land and desolate lives are not the end game.
Always with God it is that third description of what would come from Jeremiah’s words that predominate: “…to build and to plant.” With this purchase, all done in the open with all of the details visible for everyone, with everything done decently and in order to the nth degree, placed in an earthenware jar to last for centuries (like the Dead Seas Scrolls), God through Jeremiah is proclaiming a message: That some time in the future, houses and fields and vineyards will once again grow and thrive, provide safety and nourishment. God’s last word is not judgment. God’s last word is always salvation.
That word is what keeps us going, too. All of us who have desolate places we have come from, or desolate places we are living in now. We can ask where is our hope in all of this? In the midst of our hopelessness, where is the seat of our hope?
There are some who say that our hope is in the next life. That when we get to heaven all will be well. Sure – I want to get to heaven as much as anyone else. But is that what this text is telling us is our hope? Why didn’t God just tell Jeremiah to tell the people that things would be better in the next life?
Because God is not just concerned with the next life. God is concerned about this life, this existence we are going through. God cares about our days of desolation, and our days of jubilation. God cares about this life, and uses the methods and means of this life to communicate a message of hope, even in the midst of desolation: that some time in the future fields and vineyards and houses will be built here gain. Some time in the future a life filled with hope will be lived here again. Some time in the future, resurrection – something known and yet unknown to Jeremiah – would rise up and be the message people would live by. A message whose hope no desolation would ever overcome.
A couple of weeks ago we took the train to New York for my 50th high school reunion. It might not seem like a place of desolation, but years ago it was to me. A family business gone bust, a feeling that I was not a part of any group and that I didn’t belong, along with a long list of other reasons made it a place I wanted to get as far away from as possible with no intentions of ever going back. So for the last 50 years I did not meet up with anybody who was a part of the Plainedge High School Class of 1969. There was a time in the days before we left that I wondered, “What am I doing?”
What I discovered from that time was that the people I went to school with were not the mean and uncaring reprobates I had conjured up in my head. There were, as with any group, some interesting characters, to say the least. But there were also others who were caring and generous and compassionate about other people, who have spent their lives in service to others. A place that I conceived of as being desolate turned out to be a pretty good place to be from.
I recognize that describing this situation in terms of ‘desolate’ is pretty trivial compared to what some folks go through. I didn’t grow up in a war zone, in poverty, with people being abusive toward each other. There were some days of hopelessness but nothing like what some people experience. And yet what I learned is that God has some surprising ways of giving us hope. God did it through the call to buy land to Jeremiah. God has done it by calling timid souls to speak out for peace; God does it by empowering teenagers to call our attention to the plight of the earth we are contaminating.
At some point in every life, there is a place of Anathoth, of Petersburg, of desolation. But in the midst of that place, of that situation, there is a caring God who brings hope in remarkable ways. As Christians we hold to that hope found on a cross, a means of execution. But we also find it in an empty tomb, a proclaimer that God’s hope will flourish anywhere. Amen.