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Sermon for Ordinary 26 - Proper 21 - Year C
Jeremiah 32:1-15
"Expectant Waiting"
- Rev. Foster Freed -

READING:  Jeremiah 32:1-15 
SERMON :  "Expectant Waiting"

Rev. Foster Freed

    The following was preached by the Rev. Foster Freed, President
    of the BC Conference of the United Church of Canada, at Emmanuel 
    United Church in Bella Coola, BC on September 26, 2004.  We believe
    that the message remains timely and is applicable not only in the
    United Church of Canada, but beyond to the whole people of God.

Expectant Waiting
- Foster Freed

Jeremiah 32: 1-15

The year is 588 B.C.:
five hundred and eighty eight years
before the birth of Jesus.
The city of Jerusalem is under siege
from the armies of Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon.
A prophet by the name Jeremiah
has warned the King of Judah--
a King by the name Zedekiah-- that resistance is futile,
the Babylonian armies will prevail.
This prompts Zedekiah to place Jeremiah under house-arrest,
as a traitor.
But the Word of God,
through a symbolic action--
through the seemingly trivial purchase of some land--
gives Jeremiah the opportunity
to show his loyalty to the land of Judah,
his loyalty to the heritage of divine faithfulness,
embodied in the land.


I often find it helpful, oftentimes exceedingly helpful, to try and find myself --to locate myself--within the thick contours of a Biblical text, a Biblical story. Such as this story. Of a prophet. The prophet Jeremiah and that field--that piece of land--the one Jeremiah purchases (reclaims, redeems!) from his cousin Hanamel. With such a story, I find it a useful exercise to see if I can locate myself within the story. Where might I be? Who might I be, within a story such as this?

In the case of this particular story, I certainly know who I am tempted to be; I certainly am familiar with the part I am tempted to play. By which I refer to Hanamel, Jeremiah's cousin. Hanamel, who sells the land to Jeremiah. I know myself as a potential Hanamel; I recognize within myself a strong leaning toward "Hanamel-ism" (!)

And no, no: I don't wish to be hard on Hanamel anymore than I wish to be hard on myself. Indeed, he may have had a perfectly valid reason for divesting himself of that piece of land, held within his family for generations. Perhaps Hanamel had a young family to protect; perhaps an aging parent to look after. And so, no, I have no desire to diss Hanamel!

Nevertheless, like it or not, Hanamel represents that part of myself that likes to get out of town one step ahead of the posse, one step ahead of the Babylonians. And so, at a time of shrinking church budgets, declining church rolls, sharply inclining median ages of those who remain on the church rolls and, alas, at a time of greater clarity around the evils the Church of Christendom was a party to (the Residential Schools of British Columbia serving as a particularly close at hand instance on this particular weekend): at such a time as this, I am certain that I am not alone in occasionally wondering whether this might not be a good time to play "Hanamel." Sell that land! Abandon that loyalty to the Christian project: if not the Gospel itself, then certainly the institutional manifestation of the Gospel we call the Church. That, for me, remains--likely will always remain--a temptation. To sell my stake, shake the dust off my feet, and change my name to Hanamel. Hanamel Jones! Hanamel Freed!! That, at any rate, is who I am tempted to be, when I ponder the story found in the 32nd chapter of Jeremiah.

That having been said, I also know who I aspire to be within the contours of this story. Not only who I am tempted to be (namely Hanamel), but who I aspire to be. By which, of course, I refer to the prophet himself. Jeremiah. Given the right opportunity--better still, given more in the way of courage and conviction--it is clearly (no doubt about it) the prophet Jeremiah that I would choose, here, as my role model. And I had better clarify just what it is I am aspiring to, when I make that claim. After all, the legacy of the prophet Jeremiah is one of the riches and most complex and most difficult of any of the prophetic legacies found in scripture. Second perhaps only to the prophet from Nazareth, the one we call Jesus, it may be fair to suggest that we know more about Jeremiah's difficult, tortured path than that of any of the other prophets of ancient Israel. And given, given that his path truly was a tortured one--subject to the hatred and suspicion of his own people--I don't lightly claim an interest in imitating Jeremiah's way anytime soon. And yet! And yet!

There is, for me, something about this particular episode in the life of Jeremiah that I find especially attractive: perhaps precisely because it is an episode through which Jeremiah prophesies not only in word but in deed. Which is something we all too often forget, namely that prophets (including the prophet Jeremiah, for that matter, including the prophet Jesus) must be considered not only in light of their prophetic words but also in light of their prophetic actions. And is there not something especially beautiful, something wonderfully poignant to this particular prophetic action? First: in purchasing the land from Hanamel, Jeremiah is presumably performing a deed of kindness for his cousin who--as I speculated earlier--may well have had a legitimate need to sell the land. In the process, Jeremiah also fulfills what, in Hebrew, is known as a Mitzvah: the fulfilling of a commandment, since the procedure Jeremiah follows in redeeming the field is one that is carefully specified in the book Leviticus. More important still, however, is the symbolic power--the symbolic potency--of that purchase of land!

Lest we forget: Jeremiah knew, better than anyone this side of God, that the field he was purchasing from his cousin was bound to be--at least in the short-term--entirely useless and utterly worthless, sort of like buying prime real estate just outside of Baghdad, one week before the launching of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, some 18 months ago. And so, through a land transaction that makes no short-term sense--none whatsoever--Jeremiah is able to express unyielding solidarity with his people and undying hope for their ultimate future. "For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land."

Which is why I aspire to be, at least on my good days, why I aspire to be at least a wee bit like Jeremiah. Willing not only to speak the Word but to risk living the Word: putting my time and talents and treasure on the line even when it appears to make no sense whatsoever. And so, in the midst of a church that so often appears to be on the verge of losing its way--at times, on the verge of losing its hope of ever finding its way--and tempted though I am to cut and run like Hanamel, at my better moments I aspire to be a rock: a risk-taking, field purchasing, solidarity-with-God's-people rock. Like Jeremiah. Almost heroic. Like Jeremiah.

I'd love to leave it there. Shout, Amen! Invite the organist to play the next hymn, and pat myself on the back as a prophet-in-training. Only trouble is, I'm simply not convinced that the sort of heroics I aspire to are anything at all like the stance God wants and expects from me at this moment in time, the stance God wants and expects from this United Church of ours, at this moment in time. You see: left to my own devices, I'd likely turn out a Hanamel. Playing the script according to my personal fantasies, I'd likely wind up a rather pathetic, would-be, pseudo-Jeremiah. But is it possible, is it possible that God may be calling me, calling you, calling us, to a different sort of pathway? One in which we look not to Hanamel, not even to Jeremiah, but (odd as this may seem) to the land itself, to the field of Anathoth and all of the other fields in the land of Israel. Looking to the very land as our guide, as our role-model. Land that cannot possibly cut and run, the way Hanamel cut and run! Land that cannot possibly engage in actions, symbolic or otherwise, like the symbolic actions of Jeremiah. Land that has no choice but to await the stark judgment and the tender mercies of its God.

And let's be clear that judgment and mercy come in tandem. Judgment: in the form of the terror of Babylon, wielding sword and flame. Mercy, in the subsequent fulfillment of the promise made through the prophet: "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land!" Not a pitiless judgment devoid of mercy. Not a meaningless mercy devoid of truth. But the land itself experiencing judgment hand and hand with mercy, starkest truth joined at the hip with loving-kindness, all of it producing genuine hope for a hungering, thirsting people.

Ancient Israel! The people of Judah. A people who could not have manufactured that hope for themselves, a people who could only wait--hopefully, expectantly, like the land itself--waiting for a hope that could only come to them from God. Waiting! Expectantly! Like the land itself. Waiting! Expectantly! For the tender judgment and bracing mercies of their God.

And here, I must be honest!

There's a part of me that hate's all of this. I'm a do-er, not a wait-er. No doubt, part of what drew me to this United Church, was its activist stance, its ethos of engagement. If there's a wrong to be righted, let's do it! If there's an injustice to be protested, lets' get on with it! Indeed: whoever I listen, as we were privileged to listen yesterday, to the stories of Residential School Survivors, there's that side of me that wants to leap up and start fixing…until I recall that we got into Residential Schools, partly because our forebears deluded themselves into thinking that there were, in fact, simple solutions to complex dilemmas. They didn't have them then. I doubt we have them now.

And so maybe, just maybe, now is a time for expectant waiting. Not listless, despondency. But not self-confident activism either. Expectant waiting. Not exactly sitting on our hands; not doing nothing. But not leaping to do anything with the arrogant presumption that this is our world. The good news being, as our creed reminds us, that we are not alone, for this is God's world. And that God, the God for whom we expectantly wait, is none other than the God of Jeremiah (bringing judgment and mercy), the God of Jesus Christ (enduring the Cross for the sake of the joy that was set before him). The God who promises renewal for God's people: not according to my time-table nor according to yours, but according to an ancient wisdom and a holy patience to which we can but yearn to attune our hearts and minds. Waiting expectantly!: on the God who promised new life for Jeremiah's people. Waiting expectantly!: on the God who is alive in our midst. Chastening. Astonishing. Renewing. Transforming.

And all of it…all of it: in the gracious Spirit of the One we call the Christ!

May the glory be His, now and for ever. Amen.

copyright - sermon by Rev. Foster Freed, 2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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