Monday, September 27, 2010

Risking for Hope

His was not an easy message to deliver; he was to speak the voice of a prophet. Prophets usually aren’t embraced with open arms; they typically challenge the status quo and human beings resist change, sometimes to the bitter end. It was a difficult and often lonely road for a young man to walk; but he was obedient to his calling no matter what it cost him personally. Sometimes it broke his heart to have to speak such strong words to his own people, but this was the message God had put upon his lips. He could no more deny it than he could his own name—Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”.

God called the young Jeremiah to speak a very challenging word to a stiff-necked people—see Jeremiah 1 for the story of Jeremiah’s call. For years Jeremiah warned Judah what was coming if they did not change their ways. The people had turned from God and there would eventually be serious consequences for that decision. The people, of course, didn’t want to hear the message the Prophet proclaimed—maybe they thought, “We’ll change later…” The leaders were willing to use any means necessary to “shut up” this trouble-maker. They threw him in prison even going so far as to toss him in a deep well and hope he never managed to crawl out. Meanwhile, the people gathered around them voices who would proclaim the message that they wanted to hear. These false prophets were “yes-men” who would say “Peace. Peace” even as the dust clouds kicked up by the approaching foreign army began to drift over Jerusalem.

Needless to say, Judah did not heed the warnings of Jeremiah—the true Prophet. He poured out his heart to them; he tried to point to a hopeful future but neither did he mince words about what was coming. Perhaps he hoped that such forceful—sometimes downright shocking—language might evoke a response from the stubborn people—but it only managed to get him punished. The leaders steadfastly refused to listen, and now it was too late. The future they most feared—and a future that might have been avoided had they been willing to listen to the Prophet’s words—was now coming upon them, and there was nothing they could do. All that Jeremiah warned them would happen was finally coming to pass. The Babylonian invasion had begun!

I think if I was Jeremiah, I might well have washed my hands of the situation long before it got to this point, and said: “Lord, I tried over and over again, but they just wouldn’t listen to me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting out of here before the last gate to freedom is cut off. I know better than anyone what’s coming and you’ll forgive me if I don’t want to hang around for it…” But he didn’t do that at all. Jeremiah is a prisoner in the king’s palace as the invasion of Jerusalem begins and not only is he still physically present, but he seems to be investing in the future of a place that is about to become occupied territory as the Babylonian army marches into town and wreaks havoc in the city.

Picture this: the invading army is on the doorstep of the city; siege ramps were laid at the city walls—hope seemed to be fading fast. Destruction of Jerusalem seemed imminent. And what does Jeremiah do? Does he turn tail and run for his life? No, he decides now is a good time to make a real estate investment—see Jeremiah 32.

At a time when the vast majority of folks were making plans for a hasty exit from Jerusalem, Jeremiah chose to purchase a piece of family property in Anatoth. It would sort of be like purchasing property in New Orleans in the days just prior to August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and so many were desperately struggling to leave town—and in fact in both cases many would never make it out alive.

By all accounts it seemed like an extremely risky investment—you might even call it stupid. Jeremiah, however, seemed bound and determined to see it through. He was convinced God had instructed him to do this. What could he possibly have been thinking?

I can only think of one answer: hope. Jeremiah purchases the field, but he seems to waiver at least a little. He is puzzled as to why God would ask him to make such a risky venture right now? In answer to his inquiry, God tells Jeremiah that a new day will come when the fortunes of Jerusalem will be restored and God will renew God’s covenant with the people of Israel. One day, says God, life will return to “normal” here—fields will be bought and sold once more in Jerusalem. What Jeremiah does here is a visible symbol that he believes God’s promise and is willing to work toward creating that hopeful future.

The Prophet purchases the field as a sign that he is willing to put his trust in a future that is at this moment completely invisible and one that probably seems humanly impossible to achieve. Jeremiah believes God when God says to him: “I am the Lord God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?”

Several hundred years later, Jesus made a similar risky investment—at the risk of sounding blasphemous, you could even say it was a pretty dumb decision on the part of our Lord. It certainly has bought with it a fair amount of grief over the centuries. But like Jeremiah, Jesus stood behind his decision then, and he remains committed today. He too was convinced God was leading him to do this. What could he possibly have been thinking? The answer I believe is similar—hope.

The risky investment I refer to is, of course, the Church. Jesus calls Peter “the Rock” on which he will build the church, and he entrusts spreading the message of the Kingdom of God to flawed human beings like you and me. Jesus knows our flaws and limitations better than anyone and yet he chooses a human institution to be the vessel through which the whole God-enterprise will succeed or fail. He entrusts his early followers with continuing and perpetuating what he started, and each generation has continued that practice. And remarkably, it has worked! The New Testament records the spread of the early Church around the known world of the first century, and we continued from there. And despite our many struggles, past and present, the Church is still the only means there is to spread the message of Jesus to the world—and so far as I know there is no Plan B for getting this done.

And so God asks those of us whom make up the Church to do the same thing he asked Jeremiah. Jesus asks us to put our trust in the Church to help bring about the future God dreams of even when that future isn’t always clearly visible and even when it sometimes seems humanly impossible to achieve it.

To be brutally honest, though, there are times when the Church seems to be more a part of the problem than the solution—it seems sometimes that we devote our best efforts to holding back the future rather than helping to make it a reality. In those moments of frustration, some of us might be tempted to think we should jettison the whole enterprise and start fresh. Maybe we are better off going it on our own in the world? Maybe the Church has outgrown its usefulness in our post-Christian world? I believe we should resist the temptation to think that way. I believe there are some problems that we can only conquer together—not as individuals. I believe that we need each other to finish the race; we weren’t meant to run it alone!

Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding onto something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

So what is the Church holding onto today? In a word—hope. We hold onto the same hope that Jeremiah held onto when he purchased a field in the face of an imminent foreign invasion, and that Jesus held onto when he made the risky choice to entrust flawed humans like you and me with spreading the Gospel—that there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. Even in the moments when the Church seems to have failed utterly and our hope fades, we will not turn back. Instead, we persevere, holding onto the belief this present darkness is temporary and a new day will in fact come, and that when the Sun shines it will shine out the clearer and what seems like an impossible dream today will tomorrow’s reality.

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