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August 4, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15/Hebrews 12:7-11

Title:  “The Leading Indicators”

Israel’s fortunes were at low ebb as our lesson opens. The Babylonians were about to overthrown Israel’s monarchy, and inflict much pain on the people. Yet even as the Israelites were convinced that things could get no worse we hear the prophet Jeremiah make the following declaration [I’ll be reading the last two verses of chapter 32].

What the Hebrews heard as Jeremiah made his bold prophesy we are in no position to know.  We may speculate, however, that the words that reached their ears, though certainly welcome, provided very little reassurance and cheer.  It was a ration of hope the equivalent of a small crust of bread, and these folks were hungry, very hungry.

Allow me to recreate the scene.  It is the sixth century BC.  Jerusalem the great capital city, the city of fashion, commerce, and government, New York and Washington DC rolled into one, was, as our lesson declares, under siege to the forces commanded by the Babylonian strong man, Nebuchadrezzer.  The weakened Jewish defenses were crumbling, and the people, once proud and defiant, anxiously awaited the inevitable, dreading the suffering soon to be imposed.

The year 588 BC is inscribed in the memory of every Jew, for the loss of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Babylonian marauders, marked a turning point in their history.  If Jerusalem could be lost, what ambition or dream was not vulnerable?  Given the opportunity to choose the period of time in which to live, no Jew would have chosen the sixth century BC.  The pious of that era wept, while those in whom the faith of Israel was less fully formed waged a daily battle with despair.  Hope was about to draw its last breath.

The travails of those sixth century Jews are not remote from what many in our world experience today in places like Myanmar, and Syria. Refugees from those lands have been driven into large encampments where they subsist on the barest essentials.

The Israelites had it no better. The specter of violence and death was an “in your face” reality.  The whole rhythm of life was disrupted as persons were forced to re-adapt to life without benefit of the comforting familiarity of routines.  No aspect of life was unimpaired.  Neither work, family activities, leisure, or worship remained as it had been.  The baker could no longer be counted upon to bake bread, the artisan to weave cloth, the cobbler to make sandals, or the city administrators to maintain civic order.  A once thriving economy ground to a halt as people were laid off and money became scarce.

The well being of society was threatened, its future imperiled.  All of the so-called leading indicators by which the health of an economy is measured, things like unemployment figures, housing statistics, bankruptcies, debt levels, inflation index all exposed the bitter truth the citizens of the land were daily forced to live with.

The circumstance in our most immediate history that might offer the closest parallel to what Israel faced was the financial crisis of 2008. The stock market tanked. Many lost their jobs and their homes. Few were confident that the nation could rebound for decades to come.

The prudent take the leading indicators seriously.  They keep abreast of the trends. They anticipate changes that will impact their bottom line.  Jeremiah was an informed citizen of Jerusalem. As God’s prophet posted in Jerusalem Jeremiah was as informed as any citizen of the nation might be about the status of things. He was a familiar, if not welcome, presence in the royal court and other places where the gears of commerce and government turned.

The prudent take the leading indicators seriously.  The economy was on the skids, the times as bad as anyone living could remember.  So what was Jeremiah up to?  There he was in the midst of an economic catastrophe placing a deposit on a piece of land whose value was shrinking faster than the distance now separating Jerusalem and her Babylonian invaders.  It was the worst possible time to buy land, for the Babylonians were sure to confiscate all lands belonging to the Hebrews.

Was this man crazy? Or, was he better placed to know the mind of God? The future would disclose which of the two was the case.

The leading indicators could not have been less favorable, but God chose that bleakest of all moments to make a statement transcending time and circumstances.  “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”    The Hebrews were experiencing difficulty on unprecedented scale, but God promised to stand with them.

There are striking similarities between the emotional burden that Israel of the sixth century faced and so many people around the world are experiencing right now. What counsel might Scripture offer to them? What counsel might Scripture offer us living in more favored circumstances, who nonetheless must cope with threats no less real, albeit of lessor degree?

What leaps off the page for me is that marvelous gift we have been given called hope.  Hope allowed Jeremiah to say, “I will buy that land!” even as the world was shaking at its very foundations.

The leading indicators and all the wise men counseled against the radical decision Jeremiah was making. Jeremiah, however, did not take the counsel of his fears, instead he declared, “I will buy that land!”

Jeremiah lived in the shadow of the Babylonian oppressor just as the rest of the Hebrews did, however, he had a different take on the situation than they did.  God inspired Jeremiah to believe in the future, and Jeremiah responded, “I will not miss a buying opportunity.”

Hope reorients our perspective.  It is the foothold in the side of the mountain we discovered just when we needed to brace ourselves for the ascent.  Hope is the radiologist’s report revealing that the tumor has shrunk a centimeter.  Hope is that inner fire that keeps burning when the odds of our success are fifty-to-one against us.  Hope is a wonderful thing.  Hope is what Jeremiah taught, not in so many words, but through an action that defied all of the leading economic indicators.  He purchased land.

Hope is what the church teaches.  Indeed, hope is our birthright as Christians for we believe that the lives we are living provide but partial access to what will ultimately be.  The Apostle Paul, writing in his magnificent letter to the Romans, has given a capsule summary of the church’s view of hope.  “Therefore, [he writes] since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

Hope for persons of faith is that prize out there yet to be obtained.  It is the object of our strivings.  It is that foothold we so desperately need when adversity makes its move.

I remember once reading a colleague’s church  newsletter that yielded an insight on the subject of hope that I would like to share with you.  The insight had to do with the difference that exists between hope and optimism.  I want to work with that distinction a bit because I think it can help us gain a better understanding of hope as the church defines it.

Think of optimism as “a kind of general feeling that everything is going to turn out well because we want it to turn out well.”  Hope, by contrast, “is based on reality, on what has happened in the past and what, then, we can reasonably imagine and expect for the future.”  Did you catch that?  Hope is based on the informed expectation that events in the future will be consistent with events in the past.

There is nothing at all wrong with optimism.  It is very positive orientation to have toward life.  But one’s optimism may be baseless, a mere flight of fancy divorced from reality, a flight of fancy which may well end in a crash landing, a landing from which the former optimist walks away a hardened pessimist. But hope is grounded in the belief that God’s mighty acts in history establish a baseline for the future.

Standing amid the rubble where Jerusalem’s proud ambitions once stood, many labeled frivolous Jeremiah’s decision to buy land during those tempestuous times.

Yet God stepped in to prove that all the leading indicators were wrong. The times were as bad as they had ever been, on that point no one would disagree, but Jeremiah insisted that God could be trusted.

The God who was directing their destiny was the God of the patriarchs, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was the God who by Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea and into the Promised Land, a land flowing with mile and honey.  He was the God who blessed the Israelites with a kingdom under David. No, the God in whose name Jeremiah acted was no “Johnnie come lately,” but was the God Israel had known throughout her history.

Hope needs a big frame, for the hope to which Jeremiah pointed spanned generations.  Remember that hope by our definition is established on the foundation of past events.  But theologian Paul Zahn says it more succinctly, “hope [he writes] is remembrance projected onto the future.”  [Remembrance projected onto the future.]

The wise fellows of Jerusalem chided Jeremiah for proclaiming hope in such desperate times.  If he bothered to look at the leading indicators, if he read what the economists were saying, if he checked in with the Office of Management and Budget, and the people over at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, he would have been more careful with his money.  “Buy land now?  He must be joking.”

Friends, our leading indicators have looked, and will undoubtedly look, pretty bleak again.  Though morale in the nation is generally high, the fear quotient is also high.  We live cautiously these days.

So what is the word of the Lord for us today?  Friends, it is an ancient word.  It is the word HOPE, and the foundation of hope is our God active in history, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  It was God who said to Israel, “Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people [for their disobedience], so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them.”  God spoke to Israel.  It is that same God who speaks to us right now, “Don’t shrink back, there are buying opportunities out there.  “Live your lives”, says the Lord.  “I’m in charge.  I’m looking out for you.” says the Lord.  Not idle pronouncements, friends, those claims have been validated in Jesus Christ.

Hope, to quote Paul Zahn, is “remembrance projected onto the future.”  This fellowship is a community of memory, and from those memories we are bold to envision a glorious future.  Why?  Because God is the God of glory, and God is Lord, past, present and the future.  God is the Lord of history.  God is the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, who beckons us to the future his victory over death has won. Now, friends, that is hope you and I can bank on. Embrace it and be strengthened by it.  AMEN.

PRAYER

Ever faithful God, whose faithfulness is disclosed in ways as subtle as the delicate breeze that greets us as we step out the door on this August morning, and as profound as the proclamation voiced through one of the great prophets of old, we greet you this day a people of faith engaged in a journey of faith.

Lord, you are our companion, but also our guide. Into the deep recesses of our spirit send your restoring waters that we may be refreshed, restored for the miles we shall yet travel.  For the companions you have given us for our journey, for their support, prayers, and love we are especially grateful, praying that you will form us more perfectly into that community you intend us to be.

For the ancient word that speaks to contemporary need, and the church whose mission it is to prepare disciples to live the word, we give our thanks and praise. We pray for churches around the world, particularly those struggling to sustain their ministries for lack of funds or internal conflict.

Eternal Father, we pray for those who live burdened by a troubled spirit, people who feel isolated with no place to turn. May they find in the communities which surround them the support and encouragement to carry on. We honor those who maintain the thousands of Alcoholics Anonymous groups around this country and world, and celebrate the efforts of other such agencies whose mission it is to uphold the faltering and lost.

Lord, we pray for a spiritual awakening in America.  We have taken so much for granted about life, and the good fortune we enjoy.  We have even taken you for granted, O God, given little of our time, little of ourselves, to prayer, worship, service, and other activity that would bring honor to your name.  Be merciful, Lord, be merciful.  Do not condemn us, but by your grace work in us and through us to achieve the potential we were created to enjoy. Strengthen us in all worthy pursuits that day by day our hearts and minds may be more perfectly conform to the life of your blessed son, Jesus.

O God, counselor and guide, we pray your blessing on this congregation that our collective efforts in your name may be a worthy offering to present at your altar.

For this day, and our friends in this worshiping community we give thanks, praying the prayer that Jesus taught us….