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In January of 1943, three months before he was arrested and subsequently killed by the Nazis, the Lutheran Pastor and Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words about Christian hope and faith when times are dark. He wrote:
"...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative." [i]
These words which Bonhoeffer wrote some 67 years ago are stark and bold and jarring. They were words written in response to a dark and tragic moment in human history. And they are words which conjure up not the warm, reassuring spirit of our grace-filled faith, but the difficult and scary components of prophetic faith. Bonhoeffer calls us to a faith not simply of social benevolence and charity but to a faith which calls the powers and principalities of the day to account.
This is a faith which can leave us alone and at odds even with people whom we thought we knew so well. Indeed, in the end, Bonhoeffer's faith left him alone, in prison cell 92in Tegel, waiting for his death.
Now if we were to find ourselves in a prison cell, alone, waiting for our impending death, with war and social upheaval raging outside the prison walls, what would be our word to the world? What would we do as a testimony to the world that the darkness of the times was not going to prevail? What would we do to inspire future generations? In regard to these questions, it is clear that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had much in common with the Prophet Jeremiah.
In 588 B.C.E., during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned in the royal palace of King Zedekiah of Judah. He had been charged with desertion and treason and insurrection. And on some level, the charges had merit. Jeremiah had been forcefully pleading for Israel to turn from their ways. He saw the gathering storm of Babylon coming from the north. He spoke God's word of judgment and divine condemnation of social injustice and idolatry. So, King Zedekiah had good reason to lock Jeremiah up in the palace. Jeremiah simply didn't tow the royal line.
But then in Jeremiah 32, with war raging and despair undoubtedly growing, Jeremiah gets a new word from God. And this word is different. This word is in regard to some family business. A plot of family-owned land needs to be purchased. And by the right of redemption, a law found in Leviticus 25 which prevents the loss of family property, Jeremiah's cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to buy the family field in Anathoth. It is an absurd request. It is not the time to invest in real estate. It is not the time to invest in the future. It is a time to panic about the present. War is raging. Terror is threatened on all sides. Exile is coming. For Israel the future looks bleak.
But Jeremiah doesn't watch the Fox News Network. Jeremiah doesn't listen to the prophets of doom on talk radio. Jeremiah knows that neither King Zedekiah, nor Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, nor corporate executives or Pentagon officials, none of these really run the world. Jeremiah knows that it is God who runs the world. It is God who gets the final word and God's final word is not destruction. God's final word is never destruction. God's final word is renewal. God's final word is always renewal.
The new Covenant, articulated only a chapter earlier, lays it out clearly:
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." (Jeremiah 31: 31).
It won't be like the old one, says God. They didn't get that one. They didn't understand. This time...
"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people...for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31: 33, 34b)
So, in the spirit and the promise of the future, Jeremiah buys the land; land where houses and fields and vineyards will, yet again, flourish.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison, he wrote a letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. He wrote:
"When Jeremiah said, in his people's hour of direst need, that 'houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land', it was a token of confidence in the future. Our marriage must be a 'yes' to God's earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth." [ii]
Bonhoeffer's words, inspired by the prophet Jeremiah, are as true today as they ever were. We live in a world where the bad news of the day is both a source of despair, and in our 24-hour news cycle, a source of entertainment. We are tempted to react to the tragedies and social unrest of our day with either a self-absorbed denial or a self-absorbed hedonism.
But the people who have Jeremiah as their prophet, the people who have Jesus as their Savior, the people who have Dietrich Bonhoeffer as their martyr, the people who know that the God of the Bible is the source of their lives, these people do not despair. These people do not live lives of denial. These people do not live lives of hedonism. These people live lives of radical hope. A hope, which is not simply some sentimental feeling, but a hope and an orientation which is a commitment to action; an orientation which allows us to see the world differently and to bring that hope-filled vision to life.
We in the church are those people! We are the ones who have been called by our baptism to bring hope to the world. We are the ones challenged to buy land when all the "experts" of the world say "not now" - "The market is not good" - " You would be foolish to buy now."
The Jesuit Priest and modern-day prophet Daniel Berrigan reminds us of the critical importance of Jeremiah's field. Berrigan writes:
"Jeremiah's field collapses time; it symbolizes promise, and gift, and an entire land restored. Is the land blood-ridden and desolate now? Perhaps, but it shall be again a land flowing with milk and honey." [iii]
Jeremiah says to us today, buy the land, build up the church, build up God's kingdom, build up God's reign of justice and righteousness and peace. Invest in and prepare the ground for the future. Show the world that God's spirit is alive and well here on earth. Indeed the future of our lives, the future of our churches, the future of our world is not pre-determined; the future hangs in the balance. And God calls the church to make an investment in that future.
No matter the cost, no matter the risk, no matter the bad news of the day, may we, the church of Jesus Christ, have the courage and strength and faith at this time to make that investment!
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we thank you for your holy word and we pray for your Spirit to fill us with that word so that we might truly be your people of hope who can invest in the future - a future of righteousness and justice and peace. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition; London: SCM Press, 1971), 14-15
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and M. von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92, 1943-45 (ed. Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and U. Kabitz; London; Harper Collins, 1994), 48-49
[iii] Daniel Berrigan, Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 141
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