Toorak Uniting Church

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Hope needs maintenance

Jeremiah 33: 14 16
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
30 November 2003

"The word of the Lord happened to Jeremiah" it says at the beginning of the chapter. In the courtyard of the King’s palace in Jerusalem it is where it "happens" when Jeremiah is held prisoner on the accusation of spreading subversive propaganda and undermining the morale of the army and the people of Judah.

Jerusalem is under siege. Thousands of Babylonian soldiers are gathered around the city and instead of keeping up the spirits and towing the party line like a good prophet, Jeremiah’s prophesying has been found subversive, un-supportive and discouraging by the authorities. The city will be laid to waste he has said and the people will be carried off into exile as a punishment for years of injustice and living contrary to what has been laid down in the laws of Moses as guidelines to a life according to Gods will. Injustice has been piled upon injustice, wrongdoing upon wrongdoing and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Not a very uplifting message for those who are preparing to defend their city or for anybody that lives within it’s walls.
Going straight against the line of the message of King approved prophets who say that as long as the temple stands in the middle of Jerusalem, God will surely not let anything happen to the people who live around it. No matter what they’ve done.

Jeremiah however, in the past 32 chapters, has been busy confronting the people of Judah and their King with this: "Don’t think the Lord will save you from what your own wrongdoing has brought upon you," he has been telling them. "Don’t think the outward semblance of religiosity and the presence of a holy building in your midst will make any difference. You will have to bear the full consequences of your wrong doings. The full consequences of years and years of ignoring the law that God has given you. The full consequences of speaking pious words that were not in any way followed by deeds to match".
A harsh message, and the King and the people of Judah are not particularly keen to hear it.
So they lock up Jeremiah in the palace of the King in the court of his guards. Not a very enviable situation to be in or one that inspires hope.

However, it is there, locked up and gagged, that Jeremiah receives another word of the Lord, and another one. These words "happen" to him according to the Hebrew. And I imagine that means something like this: As much as Jeremiah knew before with an un-shakeable certainty that the tide would not turn this time, that Jerusalem would be destroyed and Judah laid to waste, he now knows with that same deep conviction that not all is lost. Justice and righteousness will return, a new branch will spring up for the house of David and there shall be safety and prosperity and life that is good.

Convictions that spring from faith, from a close and sustained contact with the Lord in prayer. The word of the Lord "happens", light breaks through in a place that is dark and gloomy and has little prospects. It enables Jeremiah to look beyond the immediate impending disaster to a future in Gods hands.

Jeremiah is given a dream to dream and hope to share.
And for those who are prepared to listen hope gets mixed in with his message of condemnation: "We will get into a pretty bad shape" Jeremiah says, "but God won’t leave it at that, God will bring us back, God will start anew with us………"

It is a very suitable message to be read in Advent, the time before Christmas when we look forward to celebrating the coming of the light of God in the world. When we look forward to the festival that celebrates Gods coming in our midst to make a fresh start, a new beginning.

It is becoming a bit like Jeremiah. Although not in a situation quite as desperate as his was, but still, I assume all of us get bogged down at times by all the difficulty and confusion that surrounds us. By injustice we see happening, by the situation in the world, by all the worries and difficulties we are confronted with on an every day basis.

Looking forward to Christmas is looking for light, waiting for a Word to "happen" that will give us hope, will help us look beyond the immediate. That will fill us with the conviction grounded in faith that even when things look terribly gloomy, even when we have made the most dreadful mistakes and worked ourselves into a dreadful mess, God will not leave us in the wastelands we have created. That even while there are all sorts of not so good things happening there is something different going on at the same time. God working towards another future. God working towards a reign of justice and righteousness, God working on a better solution, a different leadership, making sure that small green buds are already starting to show on a further perfectly dead looking tree. Providing hope for those who are prepared to listen.

King Zedekiah did not want to hear Jeremiah’s message. He did not want to hear the bad news, did not want to be confronted with the fact that he and his people were in a mess that would be impossible to get out of. That years and years of wrongdoing and wrongful political manipulation were now bearing their awful fruits. He refused to face the truth and confess to his sins and lay himself open to renewal and change. He chose to gag the prophet, hide the truth and carry on with what he had been doing all along. This however made it impossible for him to hear the second message of the prophet, the message of redemption and future renewal, the message of impending forgiveness and hope.

Hope is a strange thing. On the one hand it is something that has to "happen" to us. As the Word of the Lord "happened" to Jeremiah. A deep and unshakeable certainty somewhere deep down beneath our belly button that all will be well in the end, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a future bright and shiny even when the clouds of gloom and doom are gathering over us. In that sense hope is a gift. A gift Jeremiah receives in prison with the troops of Nebukadnezar gathered around the city, ready to bring Jerusalem and the countryside around it to ruins.
It is however not only that, not only a gift. It is something that needs work, active involvement, interest and willingness of the receiver as well. The message of hope never reaches Zedekiah because he is so busy securing the future by his own means that he fails to see he is dependent on a power bigger than himself. Fails to see that even where for the moment, through his own wrongdoing and that of others, things look pretty grim, the buds of a new beginning are already showing. Zedekiah chooses the false hope of prophets paid to sing his tune, of self-deception and denial. In the end he will be left with nothing at all.

To receive hope, real and meaningful hope, to have it happen to us, we need to make room for it. Refrain from thinking that it all depends on us, stop with the desperately trying to save what we’ve got now because we cannot imagine that something better could come if we just let go. But putting our trust in the Lord, face up to where we may have gone wrong, privately but also collectively and listen, be prepared for the Word of the Lord to "happen" to us.

Often we’ll need others, people as courageous as Jeremiah, people like the cricket in the story who are able to play us the tune to which we can get engaged in living Gods life, dancing Gods way, in such a way that we can hear it.
We’ll have to actively search for signs of coming, signs of light, beacons of hope in this world. In faith, because we believe they must be there, as Jeremiah did. Who even in prison was looking for signs and pointing them out.

That is what advent is about, the practising of an expectant waiting in trust, looking beyond the immediate, opening ourselves to the possibility of something altogether new and exciting happening in God’s name.
Not two thousand years ago, nor in the far future, but here, now, with us. Two thousand years ago a child born in appalling circumstances made all the difference, a difference it wants to make again, today, in our hearts. Christ will be born today, if we only let him.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003

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