Friday, August 25, 2023

The Way Things Are

 We’ve spent some time this week waiting for medical decisions. If that’s not something you’ve never had to do, then maybe you don’t realize how frustrating it can be. Doctors and hospitals seem to move glacially slow sometimes — largely, I guess, because when we’re waiting for them, it’s because we or people we love are sick. We want to get well.

     Doctors, meanwhile, have to wrestle with The Way Things Are. They have to look at the risks and side effects of treatment alongside the goal of making their patients well.

     I’ve been preaching from Jeremiah this month, and Jeremiah is a prophet of The Way Things Are. God sent him to give his people a theological perspective on what they’re mostly looking at with geo-political eyes. From their perspective, The Way Things Are is not acceptable. They’re being threatened, existentially, by the kingdom of Babylon. But they’re the kingdom of Judah, the people God has made a covenant with, so of course God must be on their side. Some of Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues are telling the people that God is going to intervene and vindicate them. Just a year or two, these prophets say, and Babylon will be defeated. 

     Jeremiah has been given a different message. One that doesn’t make him popular, but that has the advantage of being the truth. “The Way Things Are is going to be with us for a while,” he tells the people. He tells them that, for 70 years, they’re going to have to live under the Babylonian thumb. The time upon them is one in which they’ll live in exile in the kingdom of Babylon, away from the land that God gave them. Jerusalem, and the Temple upon which they’ve placed so much of their faith and from which they’ve gotten so much of their national identity, will fall into ruins. It will seem to everyone that God has given up on them. 

     In chapter 29, the prophet tells God’s people to “build houses and settle down” in Babylon. They are to have children and build families. They are to “seek  the peace and prosperity of the city.” They are to “pray  to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah tells them that they’re in Babylon for the long haul; it’ll be their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who get to return to the land of promise and see Jerusalem again.

     That must have been a difficult message to swallow. But the Babylonian siege ramps are already against Jerusalem’s walls. God says, “I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.” He warns King Zedekiah that if he chooses to fight against Babylon, his army will fail. 

     This is The Way Things Are. Israel can’t beat Babylon, God says, so they might as well — not join them, exactly, but invest in their lives there. They can prosper, even away from the Land of Promised, the city of David, and their cherished temple. They shouldn’t just blend in; they should keep their identity as God’s people. But their prosperity for the next several decades will be tied to the prosperity of the Babylonians. Like it or not, their future is entwined with the future of Babylon.

     Jeremiah is walking a fine line. His people need to recognize The Way Things Are. They need to be realistic about that. The Way Things Are is not the whole story, though. 

     In chapter 32, Jeremiah buys a field. From a strictly financial point of view, it’s an odd decision. The value of land in the Kingdom of Judah is about to plummet. Jeremiah will eventually go into exile with the rest of his people. There’s going to be no one to farm or develop his new property. Jeremiah might as well dig a hole and put his money in it. With The Way Things Are, buying a piece of property makes no sense. 

     I guess that’s why God has to tell him to go through with the purchase. But it isn’t that God wants Jeremiah to be a real estate baron; the purchase is symbolic. While the people should be investing in Babylon, Jeremiah’s example shows that they shouldn’t give up on the Promised Land either. 

     God says:  

“Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time….Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah’s purchase of land is a way of assuring the people that there’s a future life for them in the Promised Land. The deed to his field will be waiting for his descendants when they return. 

     The Way Things Are now isn’t the way things will always be. 

     That’s hard for most of us to understand. I guess it’s human nature to imagine that nothing will ever change. When things are tough, it seems they’ll always be tough. When we’re waiting for treatment options for a medical problem, or waiting for a bad situation at work to get better, or wondering if a relationship will survive, or worrying about financial problems, we tend to assume things will always be as they are now. It can he hard to imagine a better future.

     Jeremiah’s message from God encouraged his people to deal with the realities of The Way Things Are. Sometimes we use religion to avoid exactly that. We hide behind our doctrines, our systems, our rituals, our Bibles and our hymns and our prophets, because we don’t want to engage with things as they are right now. But we have lives to live, even with The Way Things Are. We have jobs to do, families to raise, prayers to pray. We can still find the beauty of God’s world to enjoy. We can prosper, even when we don’t like how Things Are, and we can help others to prosper too, in all the ways that we need and in all the ways that matter. 

      We need to resist or urge to withdraw and not deal with The Way Things Are.

      But we can also get overwhelmed by The Way Things Are. Dragged down by it. That’s what Jesus was talking about, I think, when he warned about getting weighed down by fear and worry. We can lose all perspective. Give up on the hope of things ever changing for the better. When that happens, we can become bitter, angry, pessimistic people who delight only in dragging everyone else down into the muck to keep us company. To make our choices and live our lives as though nothing will ever change, there’s no hope of more or better, will inevitably lead us to bad decisions and all their repercussions. 

     So God tells his people to invest in Babylon. But he also tells Jeremiah to invest in Jerusalem.

     I think it’s interesting that God told Jeremiah to put the deed to his new piece of property in a clay jar, so that it will last “a long time.” Sometimes life requires that we put our hope for a better future away for a while. 

      When that happens, we have to take special care that our hope doesn’t get lost. We need to make sure that we preserve it so that, when the time comes, we remember that we have it. That means looking after ourselves spiritually, knowing that The Way Things Are doesn’t negate the promises and faithfulness and compassion and love and grace of God. That’s why we worship and pray and take Communion. We’re protecting our hope.

     God tells his people to invest both in Babylon and Jerusalem, both in The Way Things Are and The Way Things Will Be. In both cases, of course, he’s telling them — and us — to invest in him. It’s God who will help us to cope with The Way Things Are, help us to push through our fear and disappointment, prosper, and help others to prosper. And it’s God who will keep our vision of The Way Things Will Be in front of us, especially in the promises he makes to us in Christ.

     In Christ, may we never lose sight of the Way Things Will Be. And may we always make the most of The Way Things Are.

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