“Surprised by Hope”
God holds the future. The future is God’s, despite the immediate glimpse of the world we may see. Sometimes we need to be reminded that whatever we’re enduring in the moment will not last forever. We experience hardships of varying durations and significance, and in each case it is both challenging and helpful to remember the Christian promise that God holds the future. The Lectionary’s first reading this week provides us with one of the biblical texts at the heart of that promise. Under siege, after 13 years of proclaiming disaster and destruction, and seemingly surprising himself, Jeremiah receives a message of hope through the vision and completion of a land purchase transaction to buy the Anathoth field of his cousin Hanamel. The context of this prophecy and event is crucial for its meaning and interpretation. Preachers can take several approaches to this passage. There are some details that can be used to expound upon the particulars of this message of hope, or this passage can serve as an illustration of the types of hopeful prophecy that come from “Moses and the prophets” that the gospel passage ends with in Jesus’ parable.
Sometimes even if we know the future hope isn’t immediately coming—we can handle the meantime in light of that future promise. Knowing that bedtime is coming can help a parent like me push through a few more hours when patience is running thin. Runners may get a closing boost knowing that they are 9/10 of the way done. Our anxiety about our finances may be lessened as we approach payday even though we don’t have the money in hand.
We don’t know enough about Jeremiah’s family context, the price of silver shekels, or land in Anathoth at the time of this sale to know specifically what’s happening—but it certainly appears to be a bad investment on Jeremiah’s end of things. Jerusalem is under siege. The land is in enemy territory (you can consult textual commentaries for more specifics, but perhaps this is the brief period where Egypt has temporarily delayed the Babylonian siege so that communication can happen between Jerusalem and Anathoth.) It is also possible that Hanamel is a refugee in Jerusalem and either deeply in debt or despairing of the future. Jeremiah is either next of kin or perhaps several other kinsmen have passed on their opportunity to redeem the field. What would land be worth that is in enemy territory? It strikes me as the contemporary correlation of being offered the chance to buy some Blockbuster Video stock. Or maybe a controlling stake in cassette tapes?
But Jeremiah sees in this a sign of hope. An embodied reminder to the people that the immediate context will not last forever. I think it is important for preachers to emphasize this aspect of Jeremiah 32. The hope is not an escape from the present through denial, spiritualizing (in non-bodily ways) the situation, or psychologically clinging to non-material hope. Instead, there is a practical action that serves to sustain God’s people’s hope in the dark years to come. My paraphrase of this situation is that Jeremiah is saying—look, I’m going to make this investment that makes absolutely no sense in financial and political ways to grab this field that is militarily and politically outside the realm of use for a long time. In human terms, this makes no practical sense. But. God’s hope is so powerful that I know who holds our future and this field will bear fruit.
The Anathoth field holds a special promise of future hope for me. When I was in seminary, there was a nearby congregation with a community garden by that name—Anathoth Gardens. The garden has several ways that it serves as embodied hope. A local woman “donated five acres of her land as a hope-filled response to the murder of a local and beloved store owner named Bill King. Envisioning that the land could become a permanent community gathering place, just as Bill King had been creating at his store.” For this particular congregation, the garden also became a new identity for them in the years following a church fire. I recall the pastor positively commenting about the importance for their people to be known as the garden church instead of the “church that burned.” As you bring the Good News to your congregation this week—what situations need practical reminders of God’s promise to hold the future? What ways might you remind your people that the present hardship isn’t their primary identity marker—but that God promises a future that is bountiful, fruitful, life-giving, and good? How can this text serve as a launching point for the necessary Christian imagination that will inform the present in such a way that you and your people can live faithfully amid whatever ups and downs you face as you march (or crawl) to the future God has for you?  https://anathothgarden.org/about/