By Joey Royal
I want to focus this morning on our Old Testament reading, which is Jeremiah, chapter 32. I chose this text to preach on because I think it brings us into a world that is, on one hand, strange and different from our own, and yet, on the other hand, similar to ours in some important ways.
Here we are with the prophet Jeremiah, shortly before the fall of Jerusalem and the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. What 9/11 was to the United States, the fall of Jerusalem was to ancient Israel — the world of familiarity and security falling apart.
Now, it’s clear in the Old Testament that this catastrophe is brought about by God as judgment against his people for their continued unfaithfulness and idolatry. We in the church don’t talk about God’s judgment very often, but it’s everywhere in the Bible so it cannot be ignored.
As a backdrop to today’s text, here’s a short section from Jeremiah chapter 2 in which God lays out the reason why judgment on Jerusalem is inevitable and imminent:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
Here the metaphor is water. God is the fountain of living source, the source of life itself. And false gods (“idols”) are like containers that claim to carry water, but in fact are cracked and can’t carry anything at all. They are counterfeit and useless. And yet God’s people want counterfeit gods instead of the real thing. So the charge against God’s people is twofold: First, they have turned away from God; and second, they have turned to other idols.
We may understand the seriousness of idolatry better if we realize that all throughout Scripture God’s relationship to his people is spoken of as a marriage. God and his people (that includes us) are bonded together by a covenant, much like the way we are bonded to our spouses in a marriage covenant.
This means that the relationship between God and his people is a very intimate and very costly thing. It also means that breaking that covenant is very serious and creates disastrous consequences. This is why when the Bible talks about idolatry, it likens it to adultery. God’s people have cheated on him, and broken the marriage bond. And God — like any lover who is cheated on — is very angry.
God is patient, but his patience has a limit. By the time we arrive in the Book of Jeremiah, God has endured unfaithfulness from his people over and over again. And now judgment is coming, and judgment is coming in the form of the Babylonian Empire conquering the city of Jerusalem and carrying the people off into exile. Before the Book of Jeremiah is over, this will have happened.
The prophet Jeremiah is the one tasked to bring this depressing message to the leadership of Jerusalem. He tells them time and time again that the world they know is coming to an end very soon. And like most people in the face of crisis, they are in denial. They assume things will always be as they are.
The book of Jeremiah is not easy reading — there is no doubt why they call him the “weeping prophet.” But it is necessary reading for God’s people, and I’m going to suggest this morning that Jeremiah’s situation is, in many ways, similar to our own.
But first, let’s look at today’s text, from chapter 32. Most of the preceding chapters have been taken up with the theme of judgment. But in this chapter and one preceding it, the subject shifts: Yes, judgment is still coming on Jerusalem, but we are invited to think about what comes after that judgement. This is a word of hope.
As our text opens today, we’re told that the Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city will inevitably be conquered — it is only a matter of time. Jeremiah is being kept captive in the court of the king. And so into this catastrophe, God brings a strange message to Jeremiah. He tells him that very soon his cousin is going to come to him, and his cousin will offer to sell him a piece of property in Jerusalem (a field). Furthermore, God tells Jeremiah to accept this offer and buy the field.
So, sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin comes along and offers to sell him the field. Jeremiah accepts, signs the paperwork in front of witnesses, and takes ownership of this property.
Now, the natural question arises: Why on earth would anyone buy real estate when the world is falling apart?
Another way of asking this is: Why would anyone invest in a future that will not exist? This is like a Jewish family buying property in Poland on the eve of Hitler’s invasion in 1939; it makes no sense. The property you bought today will, in all likelihood, not be there tomorrow. And even if it is there, it won’t belong to you anymore; it will belong to your captors.
Well, the last verse in our reading today tells us why it makes perfect sense to Jeremiah to buy that field: After the purchase is complete, God tells Jeremiah to put the deed in a sturdy jar, so it will last a long time. Why? Because God has promised that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
So why should Jeremiah buy that land when the city walls are falling down? Why should he invest in a field when Babylonian torches are ready to burn all the fields to ash? Because God has promised a future. And that land is a sign of God’s promise. That land is a symbol of resurrection.
God’s promises don’t always appear to make sense. From our perspective, God’s promises often look impossible. But remember what Jesus once said: “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
I began today by saying that this text is both strange and familiar to us. I think we have no trouble seeing how strange it is, but how is it familiar?
I think it’s familiar because we in the church today are experiencing a similar sense of crisis and dislocation that Jeremiah and his contemporaries felt in Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, Jerusalem had no future. And, I want to suggest, humanly speaking, the Anglican Church of Canada has no future.
I read a depressing article the other day on the collapse of the mainline church in Canada. The article laid out the decline of the churches — including the Anglican Church — and suggested that part of the problem is the church’s too-eager willingness to accommodate itself to a secular culture. As the church gave people less and less to believe in, the pews began to empty. And then the article cited a statistic that I found shocking: If present trends continue, the Anglican Church of Canada will have one member by the year 2050.
The city walls are crumbling. The axe is being laid to the root. Is this God’s judgment on a church that has forsaken her true love? Maybe it is.
But Jeremiah reminds us that God judges us not to destroy us but to restore us. For that reason, I am convinced more than ever that, as we face imminent collapse and extinction, God is calling us to “buy land.” God is calling us to invest in the future, even though it looks like there will be no future for our kids and grandkids.
If we remain faithful, God is saying to Holy Trinity Anglican Church: “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” If we remain faithful, there will still be a church for the kids among us to grow up in.
So, then, what does it look like for us to “buy land”? Let me make a few suggestions, and then I’ll leave it to you to pray and ask God.
First, we need to invite God into our homes. This means we need to continually teach our children about Jesus, to model Christlike love in our marriages, to live our private and family lives in a manner worthy of Christ. As I often say, this is not a call to perfection; it’s a call to faithfulness. Our homes should be havens of humility, generosity, and forgiveness.
Second, the church needs to invest in the young. I’m delighted that Holy Trinity has a thriving Sunday school program. I’m committing myself in the coming years to working more and more with youth. By God’s grace, we have a congregation that is good mix of old and young; this is not the norm in the Anglican Church, but it must continue to be the norm here. Many Anglican churches are very nice buildings with hardly anyone inside them; our country is littered with museums and tombs that used to be churches.
Third, we need to recover evangelism as the calling of every Christian. We have good news to share — in Christ, death and sin have been conquered! In the Church we have a foretaste of what true humanity is intended to be! In the first epistle of Peter, we’re told to “be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” Let’s share with others the source of our hope and joy. This shouldn’t be flashy or contrived; it should be a sincere expression of our peace and joy.
Lastly, we should, in the words of Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city.” That’s the message God gives to the exiles in Babylon — seek the welfare of the city. Although we are citizens of heaven, we’re also citizens of Yellowknife, and we need to contribute to the common good as we are able. Yellowknife is a modern city, full of vibrancy and hope and ambition, but also full of despair and violence and homelessness. As Christians, we have a responsibility to make this city better simply because God loves Yellowknife.
So, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, as we see more and more statistics of imminent collapse, let us remember that our church is in God’s hands. Our job is not to fix the church; our job is to be faithful to God. And as we do that, remember God’s promise to Jeremiah: “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
And now let’s go out and buy some land.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.