Sermon for September 29th comes from Jeremiah chapters 28 and 32. The story of Hananiah and Jeremiah can be found in Jeremiah 28:1-17. The story of Jeremiah buying a field while imprisoned in King Zedekiah’s court can be found here in Jeremiah 32:1-25.
Go Buy Some Land
One of the more troubling aspects of prophecy is that we almost never know who was a prophet and who was an idiot until it is too late. Like a gambler who forgets all his losses but remembers every big bet he’s won, we remember the prophets who prophesied rightly, and forget the ones who uttered nothing but falsehoods and platitudes. When we read the Bible, it’s easy to ask “What were those people thinking, that they didn’t listen to the prophets who told them to repent. The signs were all there, how could they miss that?” But the truth is that then, like now, there were many people who claimed to speak for God, and it was hard for people to tell who had God’s words in their mouth, and who just had their own.
Most of the other prophets who prophesied at the time of Jeremiah have long been forgotten, but I wanted to tell you the story of one of those prophets, a man named Hananiah. Hananiah was a prophet just like Jeremiah; they were priests of the temple and prophets of the Lord. It was their job to tell the people (and the King) what it was that God wanted them to do. But in spite of the fact that they both claimed to speak for the same God, Hananiah and Jeremiah never seemed to agree on what God was saying.
Jeremiah said, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us,” (Jeremiah 6:26), Hananiah was among those who said, “You will not see the sword or suffer famine. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place.” (Jeremiah 14:13). When Jeremiah prophesied from the Lord, “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you”(Jer. 18:11) Hananiah joined with the other priests and together they prepared a disaster for Jeremiah, digging a pit to throw Jeremiah in” (Jer. 18:18-20).
The two prophets were as different as night and day. Hananiah was popular. People loved to listen to him telling them all the good things that were coming their way. He was a big hit at court, where the patriots loved to hear him talk about taking a hard stance on Babylonian influence, and how standing tough would be the route to prosperity. Jeremiah on the other hand, did not go to parties, for the Lord would soon snuff out all joy and gladness (Jeremiah 16:1-9).
Hananiah was like a modern-day talk show host; he always knew exactly what to say to make people feel better about themselves. He could turn any story into a feel-good story. Jeremiah, on the other hand, always seemed to have a way of turning things into doom and destruction. He was constantly crying, about the future, about the people’s disobedience, about the coming destruction, so much so that he is known by many as “the weeping prophet.”
Things all came to a head one day in the court of King Zedekiah. Jeremiah was carrying around a wooden yoke on his neck, moaning to anyone who would listen that they should submit to the rule of the Babylonians, and accept their punishment rather than continuing in their sin. This kind of melodrama is why people didn’t like Jeremiah very much. At this point Babylon had already defeated Judah once, and carried their king and many others off to exile. The word of the Lord from Jeremiah was that they should submit and repent, otherwise things will get worse. But Hananiah had something else in mind. The “accept the yoke” stance wasn’t polling well in the swing states.
And you know, Hananiah wasn’t afraid of a little melodrama himself. He was a prophet, after all, so he was no stranger to theatrical pronouncements. So he seizes the moment. He grabs the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck, and shouts in his most prophetic sounding voice, “This is what the Lord says, ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed, and all of the people sent into exile.”
Everyone was very impressed. Wasn’t this Hananiah a much better prophet than Jeremiah? Jeremiah’s loud wailing and weeping couldn’t hold a candle to Hananiah’s booming voice. And who would believe Jeremiah’s doomsaying when Hananiah’s predictions sounded so good, a return to the good old days, the glory of their nation?
When the murmuring died down, Jeremiah stood up. And to his credit, Jeremiah wasn’t angry about the broken yoke, or Hananiah’s prophesying on behalf of a God who had clearly never spoken to him. He simply brushed by him and said, “the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
I believe you can guess the rest of the story. Only one of those prophecies could come true, and well they didn’t name it the book of Hananiah, did they? See, Hananiah, like many of the prophets of that era, did not speak from God’s mind, but spoke from his own mind. He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear. He cared more about keeping his job than telling the truth. Considering what usually happens to real prophets in the Bible, we should be wary of the prophet who profits from his work. And we should be doubly wary of prophecies that coincide with what we want to hear. If we find that the Word of God always happens to agree with what we think, we are more likely to be worshipping ourselves than the living God. And this is exactly what Hananiah was selling. He told the people, it’s all about you, and everything will be fine. God is just a part of the story of your greatness, who blesses so that you can triumph.
But for Jeremiah, on the other hand, it’s about God. It is always about God. According to Jeremiah, God isn’t a bit actor in your story, you are a bit actor in God’s much greater, much larger story. And Jeremiah did not change the story to make it easier to hear, but always gave the cold, unvarnished truth. He proclaimed the word of God even when no one wanted to hear it. Even when it meant that he would be miserable.
Which is why we can believe him, when in the tenth year of the reign of Zedekiah, when Babylon was laying siege to Jerusalem, and Jeremiah was imprisoned in the palace barracks, still swearing that Babylon would crush them like bugs. Jeremiah hears a new word from the Lord: Go buy some land. What Jeremiah could want with real estate I do not know. He was in prison in a doomed city. And the land was a wasteland, burned either by retreating armies or advancing ones, probably both. But God says to Jeremiah: buy some land.
The Babylonians have brought their armies to the gates, the siege ramps are lining up at the walls, and God tells Jeremiah to go buy the field, because God will restore the fortunes of Israel, because the land that is now a desolate wasteland will once again be fertile, its marketplaces will be full again, Jerusalem will once again be full of sounds of joy and celebration.
This is the promise that Jeremiah gives us. It is not that everything will always be hunky dory, that no tragedy will ever befall us, that we do not need to make things right between our selves and God. Our own sinfulness and the world’s collude too often for that to be true. But the promise is this: though we may be besieged on all sides, surrounded by our enemies and imprisoned by our friends, there is still hope. God’s love is more powerful than our failures, God’s grace is greater than our sins. Redemption is never so far that we cannot reach it. As it is written, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again.”
Other prophets have come and gone, most of them forgotten. But Jeremiah has remained, his words have been treasured for millennia not because they sounded good at the time, but because over the years they have proved true. Tragedy exists, in our lives and in our worlds. We all sin, and we all need redemption. And though at times it may overwhelm us, and at times it might make us miserable, God’s love is everlasting and unfailing. God’s steadfast love endures forever. And there is always room for hope.