The Long View, or, the Dullest Passage in Scripture
September 29, 2013
“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jeremiah 32:15)
What would you say if I told you that today’s reading from Jeremiah is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture, but also among its dullest?
First the dull part. Most of the passage involves outlining the legal process required for procuring land. The detail is, to put it mildly, laborious and even a bit mind-numbing.
So why do I like it so much? Because Jeremiah’s action constitutes one of the greatest acts of faith in the Bible. Oh, there are many other noble and selfless acts that merit our praise. But somehow this passage really speaks to me.
As it was, the Babylonians were well into the process of brutally sacking Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish life, both religious and cultural. Not only was the great Temple situated within its walls, but the very promise of God had assured the city’s eternal protection. What was happening, in other words, was unthinkable, which only added confusion and complexity to what was already an unmitigated disaster.
Because it was thought God would never allow the city to be harmed, this event produced a major crisis among believers. For if this most basic of tenets within Jewish belief had proven false, what about all its other beliefs? More to the point, what did this have to say about the validity and trustworthiness of Jahweh himself?
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jewish theologians eventually settled on an answer to these questions. They concluded that Jahweh had willfully allowed these things to happen because of Israel’s faithlessness, and not because God had broken his promises or was deemed incapable of keeping them. The finger of blame, in other words, was found to be solely with humans, and not God.
But this understanding was to come only later. Jeremiah, in other words, had no such assurance to go on; he was living it out in the moment. Having been jailed by the Israelite king for faithfully predicting the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem now occurring, it boggles the mind that Jeremiah would choose this moment to purchase a plot of land in a place now about as close to hell on earth as possible.
True, God has commanded him to do it, but it still amazes me that he could commit so boldly to an action so contrary to reality and common sense. Notwithstanding, he risks his worldly assets, staking his claim by sheer faith alone.
In both of our other readings today, from 1 Timothy and Luke, we pick up on the same theme. In all three readings we are witness to something that lies at the very core of biblical faith, that requires we take the long view of things, eternal things.
In all three readings we’re reminded of the tenuous nature of the temporal world in which we live, a world where so much of what we value proves, ultimately, to be nothing more than misplaced priorities, idols.
The rich man in the Lazarus story from Luke, for example, sits high and mighty, content in his material wealth. Yet in the end, when he rudely encounters eternal life, his wealth fails him utterly. There he is shown to be both short-sighted and ignorant, to his shock and amazement.
In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul warns his young protégé of the dangers of placing one’s confidence in money and worldly influence. Instead, Paul wisely counsels Timothy to place his confidence in God alone, in things eternal, pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness; fighting in essence the good fight of the faith, taking hold of the eternal life to which he had been called, and in the presence of many witnesses.
Of course such counsel sounds good – on paper at least! But does it still make sense in those moments when life is overtaken by troubles, when the very things we depend upon are taken from us?
In such moments our faith surely is put to the test. Perhaps only then do we find out whether we in fact are willing to take Paul’s sage advice. Or willing to act concretely as did Jeremiah, with courage and conviction, choosing an uncertain future premised on faith alone, a future deemed reckless, if not foolhardy, when judged against all worldly evidence to the contrary.
The question really boils down to this: are God’s promises true? Or are they just comforting words we say to ourselves in quieter moments? More to the point, are the promises of God sufficiently true to base our lives on or are they mere happy sentiments that melt away in times of very real trouble?
I don’t know about you, but I wish my faith was as strong as Jeremiah’s, which is why I find his actions so impressive, so noble. When faced with the dissolution of everything he previously had based his life on, God’s promises, his beloved nation and home, his very way of life, he doubles down on God’s word of hope. More to the point, he literally puts his money where his mouth is!
Today we face a slew of challenges. In some ways you could compare it to the time of Jeremiah. True, foreign armies have not overtaken our fair city, or nation, but all around we are besieged with unhappy changes in our way of life, not the least of which is the diminishment of the church.
The tendency is to despair, deny, or give up. As Christianity declines in influence, overtaken by a shriller and ever-more confident secularity, we are hard-pressed to find a solution. At best, we hunker down and keep doing what we’ve always done. At worst, we accept the criticism and try to fit it, thinking that, then, people might like us.
Jeremiah’s courageous act of faith speaks to me in a way that convinces me that we needn’t rewrite or re-imagine the gospel, nor cower in fear born of fatalism, even as our ramparts are beset. No, Jeremiah tells me that we are to place our full confidence in the power of God, in the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is there that we need to “double-down.”
What our world longs for, whether it knows it or not, is what is otherwise plainly obvious: that we were created by God for God. The Westminster Confession states this fact as its very first tenet, which comes in the form of a question.
“What is the chief aim of man?” it asks. The answer? “To glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” Upon this all of life hangs.
The church, simply put, offers this very God as well as the one aspect of life all human beings require. And when we place, against all odds, all our confidence on this simple yet profound truth, assured that God’s promises to us are true, we will act with integrity and confidence as to things eternal, having taken in effect the long view. And it is this and this alone that shall insure the church’s future. Amen.