Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hope in the Face of Fear--a sermon on Jeremiah 42

Rev. Teri Peterson
Hope in the Face of Fear
Jeremiah 42.1-12
24 July 2016, P2-2 (overflowing: hope)

The events of today’s reading happen shortly after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had defeated the Israelites, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried their king, officials, leaders, priests, and well-off people away into exile. The people left behind were either too poor to be of interest to the Babylonians, or were military men who had fled out into the countryside to escape.
Just before the people came to Jeremiah in today’s story, they discussed their options, and decided it would probably be best if all of them who were left went out of the land and down into Egypt. Their own land had been ruined by war, so a famine was likely. Their cities were rubble, and the government and artisans and people with resources were all gone. Egypt was the opposite direction from Babylon, and far out of reach of Nebuchadnezzar, so felt safer. Having figured all this out, they come to the prophet to seek God’s blessing on their decision, as we read in Jeremiah 42, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

Then all the commanders of the forces, and Johanan son of Kareah and Azariah son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, ‘Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the Lord your God show us where we should go and what we should do.’ The prophet Jeremiah said to them, ‘Very well: I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.’ They in their turn said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the Lord your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.’
 At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Then he summoned Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces who were with him, and all the people from the least to the greatest, and said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea before him: If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, as you have been; do not be afraid of him, says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to rescue you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, and he will have mercy on you and restore you to your native soil.

The world was falling apart. First, the king and all the ruling class and the religious leaders, along with the merchants and artisans, had been carried away to Babylon, and a puppet king installed. Then, when he also refused to listen to the prophet and insisted on going his own way, the Babylonian army had come and camped around Jerusalem, laying siege to the city for 17 months before finally breaking through and destroying everything—pulling down buildings, including the Temple, setting fire to the city, and tearing down the city walls. The entire Israelite army was either killed or ran away. The Babylonians looted the Temple and the city, and carried off all that bronzework we heard about a few weeks ago, and all the gold and silver ritual dishes, and also the rest of the merchants, officers, Temple staff, secretaries, and advisors who had come to live in the city in the intervening decade. Second Kings ends the story of the battle with the simple statement “So Judah was exiled from its land.”

Those who are left—the officers who deserted during the battle, making their way back to the ruined city, the poor people left behind to work the land, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar—have watched their whole world turn upside down. Their leaders have failed them. The economy is in shambles, the environment is a disaster, and their understanding of themselves as chosen and blessed by God, the best nation, has been shaken.

Into this anxious and angry community, the newly appointed governor tries to speak calmly, encouraging the people to live in this new reality and make a way forward.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord, saying the same thing: stay here in your land, build and plant, and God will build you up and plant you here—no more tearing down, no more plucking up. Live here now, and be God’s people here and now, and don’t be afraid.

The people, though, can’t hear it. They shout that the prophet is lying, God would never say that. They insist that the governor is corrupt because he was appointed by the king of Babylon, so they kill him over the dinner table. And then they get together and talk about how good things used to be, and how they just want to feel that way again—safe and prosperous and blessed.

It’s like they are re-living the exodus, channeling their ancestors insisting that it was better back in Egypt when they sat by the pots and ate their fill.

But they are so blinded by their fear that they can’t see—they can’t see how their memory of the past is colored by their anxiety, they can’t see forward, so they decide to run away. They’ll go back to Egypt, as far from the stranger king as possible, reaching way way back to their roots…and then, maybe, they’ll be safe.

They come to Jeremiah for prayer with this plan already in mind, anticipating that he’ll offer them God’s blessing. They insist that they’ll do whatever God says, as long as Jeremiah tells them everything. They insist so vehemently that it feels suspicious, actually, like they may be covering their anxiety with lots of words, babbling almost. Protesting too much, perhaps.

Jeremiah knows, and God knows, they’re not going to obey. But Jeremiah takes them seriously anyway. He goes to God and prays—for ten days, asking God for guidance. That’s a long time in an anxious space, with people stewing in their fear. It’s hard to wait, especially when it feels like the world is falling apart and we have to do something RightNow. Jeremiah doesn’t rush, though—he isn’t afraid to listen for what God is truly saying, and to take the time to be certain before speaking.

When the word comes, Jeremiah knows it won’t be well received, but he speaks it anyway. He offers God’s words of hope: I will build you up, I will plant you, do not be afraid, remain in this land.

It’s a beautiful vision: God says “I am with you.”

Spoiler alert: the people can’t see this vision. Their eyes and minds and hearts are clouded by fear—fear of invasion, fear of hunger, fear of each other. They cannot hear quiet truth, or carefully considered words. They long for the way things were, and they don't want to do the hard work of building God’s new future when it seems easier to go back, so they instead insult Jeremiah and his secretary, calling them liars and other names. And they pack up Jeremiah and Baruch into the already loaded caravans and carry them off to Egypt too.

In the face of fear, the people could not choose hope.

It takes courage to be hopeful when the world is falling apart. When everything is upside down, and our self-image is shattered and we aren’t sure what’s coming next, and our minds are full of images of the good old days, it is hard work to look for God’s presence and hope amidst the ruins of our assumptions and anxiety. And it’s hard to pray honestly, as Jeremiah did. Many of us are tempted to take the path of the people—asking God to bless the side we are already on, rather than asking God to open our hearts and minds and wills to walk God’s way…and then to wait for God to reveal the path, even while we are afraid of what might happen.

In the world at any given moment, there’s plenty to be afraid of. And there are people all around encouraging us to fear our neighbors, the possibilities of the unknown, the future, the government, nature, other countries, other religions, other political parties. We are constantly inundated with messages of fear, and it’s easy to slip into “it was better before when we were in Egypt” mode. It’s easy to join the throng in putting our trust in things other than God, taking matters into our own hands because God is too slow to answer, or because the word of God is too hard to follow.

But there’s also plenty of reason to hope. Even in the face of fear, we can choose hope. We can live as if we believe God’s promise is true: Do not be afraid, I am with you. We can be careful not to be blinded by the anxiety peddled by our leaders and our media, we can insist that they be truthful in their dealings with us, and we can refrain from automatically disbelieving anything we don’t already agree with. We can act with integrity—a key theme of the book of Jeremiah—and make sure that what we do and how we behave lines up with what we say we believe. We can do our part to make the world look a little more like the kingdom of God—treating everyone, even our enemies, with kindness and respect; caring for God’s creation even when it isn’t convenient; looking out for people on the margins and helping those in need even when it costs us more than we get back. We can refuse to participate in groups or systems that do not recognize the image of God in every person no matter their race or religion, and instead create spaces where all are truly welcome. We can choose hope, in the midst of all the fear that floats around and threatens to overwhelm us. It will take enormous courage, and we may sometimes have to do it even when we aren’t feeling it, but we can, and we should, be people who embody the good news of God, true in every time and every place: do not be afraid, I am with you.

May it be so. Amen.

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