Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Ridiculous Investment

Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:1-8
“A Ridiculous Investment”

        I was listening to NPR Tuesday when the news of the earthquake in Mexico was reported.  Because it occurred in a sparsely populated area it will probably not receive the publicity of some of our more recent catastrophes but it continues to remind us of how fragile and unpredictable our universe is.  In light of our text this morning, it reminded me of an earthquake in Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755.  This event devastated the Portuguese capital, killing thousands, sparking a debate throughout Europe on God’s role in natural and manmade disasters.  At the time Lisbon was a religious center second only to Rome in importance. The fact that the event happened on All Saints Day was seen as blasphemous.  The earthquake spurred a conversation asking questions about the role of God in the life of God’s creation.  The two questions which caused the most alarm continue to be raised in conversations today.  First, why does God allow such devastation to ruin God’s good creation?  The second, and I believe more difficult is, why doesn’t God intervene, preventing the slaughter of the innocent?
        For anyone who would like to read about the history of this debate I would recommend a work recently published by Tom Long titled What Shall We Say; Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith?  If you are looking for easy answers to this on-going debate, I warn you that Long’s conclusions may not be satisfactory.  I am not sure there is an answer that fully explains suffering, evil and God’s place in this complicated equation.  But the text that we have this morning pushes us back into the conversation and then leaves us with an answer that is either an extraordinary example of Godly reliance or absolute foolishness.  It is amazing how often faith is described as both.  
        The Book of Jeremiah is reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C.E.   This crisis is the dominant event in the Old Testament.  Much of Old Testament theology was shaped by this episode and the exile which followed.   In this midst of this crisis resides the bigger than life personality of Jeremiah.  Historically we can not determine if the prophet represents one or many voices, but we can be sure that the theological premise that drives this book is the concept of covenant.  Israel’s covenant with Yahweh is rooted in the memories and mandates of the Sinai tradition.  Simply put the covenant stated, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  It was a contract based on the sovereignty of God and the expected obedience of Israel.  In simple terms, compliance to the law resulted in rewards.  Disobedience resulted in heavy sanctions leading to death or displacement.
        Therefore, in light of covenant theology, when the armies of Babylon camped outside the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah, while not denying the power of Nebuchadnezzar, believed the presence of Babylon was incorporated into the intention of Yahweh.  Because Jerusalem hadd sinned and ignored the covenant, the results would be destruction and exile. 
        I think we are all familiar with cause and effect theology.  We act, God reacts.  We sin, we are punished.  In truth it is a bit simplistic yet this thought pattern still prevails.  I remember a couple of years ago Pat Roberson responded to the earthquake in Haiti by proclaiming God was punishing Haiti for pacts it made with the devil 400 years ago.  Robertson was referring to the emergence of what we now call voodoo as an expression of religious belief. When Robertson made that statement I figured he must have been smoking something a bit illegal.  Now that he has publicly endorsed marijuana I guess he was.  But I digress. There is a second, more complicated theological issue which strongly emerges from this book.  It is the pathos of God.   Despite the stubbornness and defiance of Judah, God can not  give up on this relationship.  When I read Jeremiah 31 I am reminded of Hosea 11.  It depicts God as a loving and patient parent trying to deal with a disobedient child.  “When Israel was a child I loved him.  I called him out of Egypt.  But the more I called to him the more Israel went from me.  Yet it was I who taught Israel how to walk.  It was I who took him in my arms.  It was I who lifted Israel to my cheek. It was I who fed him.   How can I give you up, O Israel?  How can I hand him over?  My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.”
        Anyone here raise the perfect child?  Anyone here have a moment as a parent when you wanted to throw your hands up in utter defeat?  We set the parameters and we expected those rules to be observed.  We carefully explained our reasoning and lovingly did all the right things.  We read Green Eggs and Ham; we rocked them to sleep listening to Dylan or the Grateful Dead; we fed them apples, bananas and green beans; we even made sure their shirts and pants always matched.  Then one day we noticed little Adam and little Eve were next door climbing in the neighbor’s tree and talking to a snake.  Where did we go wrong?  What should we have done differently?  What do we do next?  Truth is, we never gave up on them, because we had taught them how to walk.
        Is God beyond those same feeling that we have as parents?  Not according to Jeremiah.  And that puts God in that awful place between a rock and a hard spot.  The covenant was to be obeyed and disobedience resulted in punishment.  And yet the God we find in the pages of Jeremiah and Hosea, this God that spills into Second Isaiah and Jonah, this God that dominates the Psalm, this God that explodes into the gospels, this God of compassion and mercy and grace loves us like a mother and a father and everything in between.  This tension between the covenant sanctions and the pathos of our creator exposes a passion, an ambiguity, even an absurdity we expect to find in parents but not in our God. I hope that last sentence bothers some of you because it bothers me to make such a statement.  Rules are rules, break the rules and the consequences are understood, especially when relating to a covenant with God.  And yet this God, this Yahweh, this Father of the one we call Jesus, disrupts the eternal sanctions of the covenant by promising that God will restore the unhealthy relationship.
        I love the words we find in Jeremiah 31.  God will no longer write the words in stone.  God will write the words upon our heart.  The covenant now will not just be with a chosen people.  It will be with each one of us.  Furthermore the broken covenant will be renewed and the relationship between God and God’s people will be once again be restored.   Of course there is a small catch.  This renewal will not happen immediately.  Jerusalem would be demolished.  The Jews would be hauled off to Babylon where they stayed for a generation.  But Jeremiah was promised that one day, the children of Israel would come home; one day, the city would be repaired; one day, the Temple would be rebuilt;, one day, the covenant relationship would be restored; one day, God would walk among God’s people; one day, maybe not this day, but one day soon.
        How does one react to such a promise?  How does one make a symbolic gesture to show that even in the midst of defeat, even in the midst of slavery, in the midst of death, even in the midst of unrepentant sin, God has a plan.
        Jeremiah went out and bought a piece of land.  Let’s understand the complete significance of this.  Jerusalem was about to burned to the ground.  Jeremiah knew this.  The warring tendencies of the Babylonians have been well documented.  Basically they carried off a segment of the population into slavery and killed the rest.  They burned anything made of wood and dismantled the rest. Everything of value was seized or destroyed. Jeremiah knew this.  He knew chances are he would not live to see his next birthday.  And yet he bought a piece of land.  What are we to make of this?  Walter Brueggemann calls this a case study in fidelity.  Jeremiah believed that God will always be faithful to God’s word.  If God promises restoration there will be restoration.  Therefore in an act that some would celebrate as unprecedented faith, an act others would declare as madness, Jeremiah purchased a piece of land everyone knew would be worthless with in hours.  
        What does that say about Jeremiah?  What does that say about God?  What does this say about us?  How much of our time is spent between the impending doom of death and the promise of life.  I think this is a critical question that we should grapple with each time we move toward Holy Week.  I suspect everyone here understands the pain of Good Friday.  I am not talking about the death of Jesus.  I am speaking about those moments of personal injury or impending illness.  I am talking about those sudden catastrophes when your life is taken from your control.  I am talking about failed relationship,  the death of a dream, the end of hope.  We understand Good Friday.
        On the other hand we have celebrated the joy of Easter.  Again I am not referring directly to the resurrection of Jesus.  We have witnessed days of liberation from that which enslaves us.  We have received doctor’s reports that announce miracles where none seemed possible.  Deb and I have two grandchildren by methods that were science fiction a generation ago.   We know the joy of Easter.
        But we live most of our lives as if it were Saturday.  We live between suffering/uncertainty and the dream of liberation/ rebirth.  We live most of our lives waiting… on God, waiting.. on each other, waiting.. on Easter.  It is in the Saturday time, between the calamities that befall us and the possibilities before us that we are asked to remember the covenant written on our heart that states, somehow, perhaps in ways that we might never understand, God will restore that which has been broken.  We are asked to buy a piece of land in Madrid, or Mexico.  We are asked to invest in lives that are broken and seem beyond restoration.  We are asked to have faith where no faith seems warranted, and offer hope where no hope seems possible.  We live in the shadow of the cross, there is no denying this.  But we also live in a time when even the cross gives way to life.   How do I prove this?  I can’t.  But I continue to believe, despite everything I might encounter, despite anything I might be told, despite all my questions, despite all doubts, despite everything that tells me otherwise, God is faithful…...and that…… despite all else…… is sufficient.
                                                        To God be the glory,  Amen.   

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