April 26, 2021
The COVID-19 is not without precedent. Maybe in details, but in general there are many precedents of times in which God’s people are in trouble, frustrated, dying, and worried. Times during which political leaders throughout the world are struggling with the situation or fumbling through the situation. THIS as a situation has many precedents, including the time that the prophet Jeremiah was alive thousands of years ago. In this post, adapted from a Sermon given several years ago, I am going explain what Jeremiah did and said, and how Jeremiah’s faith and actions give us a blueprint for what we should do now.
Scripture: Jeremiah 32: 1-15 (from the Common English Bible Translation):
Jeremiah received the Lord’s word in the tenth year of Judah’s King Zedekiah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. At that time, the army of the Babylonian king had surrounded Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined to the prison quarters in the palace of Judah’s king. Judah’s King Zedekiah had Jeremiah sent there after questioning him: “Why do you prophesy, ‘This is what the Lord says: I’m handing this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will occupy it; and Judah’s King Zedekiah will be captured and handed over to the king of Babylon; he will speak to the king of Babylon personally and see him with his very own eyes. And Zedekiah will be carried off to Babylon to live out his days until I punish him, declares the Lord. If you make war against the Babylonians, you will fail.’” Jeremiah said, The Lord’s word came to me: Your cousin Hanamel, Shallum’s son, is on his way to see you; and when he arrives, he will tell you: “Buy my field in Anathoth, for by law you are next in line to purchase it.” And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel showed up at the prison quarters and told me, “Buy my field in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for you are next in line and have a family obligation to purchase it.” Then I was sure this was the Lord’s doing. So I bought the field in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. Then I took the deed of purchase—the sealed copy, with its terms and conditions, and the unsealed copy— and gave it to Baruch, Neriah’s son and Mahseiah’s grandson, before my cousin Hanamel and the witnesses named in the deed, as well as before all the Judeans who were present in the prison quarters. I charged Baruch before all of them: “The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Take these documents—this sealed deed of purchase along with the unsealed one—and put them into a clay container so they will last a long time. The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
These times are NOT unprecedented. I keep hearing that our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. In the most important ways that is simply not true. Certainly there is no precise and particular precedent to the exact combination of medical and political situations, but the basic situation has many precedents. And the situation we have is this: God’s people are in trouble, we’re frustrated, we’re dying, we’re worried, and political leaders throughout the world are struggling with the situation or fumbling through the situation. THIS as a situation has many precedents, including the time that the prophet Jeremiah was alive thousands of years ago. Here I am going explain what Jeremiah did and said, and how Jeremiah’s faith and actions give us a blueprint for what we should do now. And what Jeremiah said is as simple to hear as it is powerful, and as it is hard to implement: trust God and be faithful and follow God’s laws.
Image 1 – from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/map-gallery/i/map-israel-and-judah
To start off discussion of this story from the Old Testament, let’s put Jeremiah’s life in context. Jeremiah was called by God to prophesy to the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Josiah. This after the once mighty kingdom of Israel has been split into two parts – Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is at this time the capital of Judah. It’s late in the history of Judah. 627 BC or so. And if you look at the map of Judah at this time, you see how tiny Judah really is. It is closer in size to a county within the State of Indiana than it is to the United States. A tiny little country with enemies all around.
For most of Jeremiah’s life the Kings of Judah who were evil and did not worship God. Judah was first controlled and then overrun by Babylon. Much of Jeremiah’s ministry was calling the people of Judah to repent and mend their ways and thus avoid the wrath of God. As you can imagine, this did not always make him popular. These were not happy times. And we are clearly living in times that are not happy, so perhaps there are some lessons for us from Jeremiah’s ministry.
Image 2 – List of Kings of Judah taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kings_of_Judah
|Years (BC)||King||Important events|
|640–609||Josiah||Jeremiah called to ministry in 627|
|609 (3 months)||Jehoahaz|
|609–598||Jehoiakim||Jeremiah prophesies the downfall of Judah; is threatened with death by priests of the Temple|
|598 (3 months)||Jehoiachin|
|597-587||Zedekiah (last king of Judah)||Jeremiah prophesies that Babylon will overrun Judah and that King Zedekiah will be carried off in captivity to be brought face to face with King Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah is put in captivity in the courtyard of the King.|
Jeremiah did in fact irritate a lot of people, including the Priests and his own kings. In the Old Testament you know that things are going to go bad for the chosen people of Israel whenever you read the phrase “And they did that which was evil in the Lord’s sight.” And you hear that a lot about the chosen people during the last years of Judah. In fact Jeremiah describes how people treat each other in Chapter 8, verses 10-12:
From the least to the greatest,
all are eager to profit.
From prophet to priest,
all trade in falsehood.
If you think about it, much of what Jeremiah says is a reasonable description of some of what goes on in the world today, isn’t it? So here are some lessons from Jeremiah already. If we look around ourselves and think things are not as they should be, it’s not the first time that people of good will have thought that. But we should not count upon status as chosen or special people to save us. We need to listen for God’s word with open hearts. This last little verse from Jeremiah is particularly clear. It doesn’t criticize thieves or tax collectors. It criticizes priests and prophets. It criticizes the people who should be listening steadfastly for God’s word but are not. So what we all need to do is listen for God’s word.
Thus far Jeremiah seems very depressing. Then there is the story in the Scripture at the start of this essay. At the start of the story of the fields of Anathoth, Jeremiah is in captivity in the courtyard of King Zedekiah. He is there in captivity as punishment because he made the King really, really, really mad. Jeremiah prophesied the downfall of Judah and that King Zedekiah of Judah would be carried off to Babylon where he would be brought before King Nebuchadnezzar. At this time, the army of Babylon had Jerusalem surrounded. Now remember that Judah as a whole is maybe 50 miles wide, 150 miles long. We don’t know exactly how far outside of Jerusalem the army of Babylon was, but it could not have been too far. For the sake of argument, let’s say a handful of miles. Things look bleak for the Kingdom of Judah, King Zedekiah, and for that matter Jeremiah.
Image 3 – Vineyard, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vineyard#/media/File:Aerial_View_-_Landschaft_Markgräflerland1.jpg
And then Jeremiah has a dream, foretelling that which is to come. A relative from the area where Jeremiah was born is going to come to him and offer him the right to purchase a field owned by a relative. That is what this “right of redemption” referred to in the Scripture at the beginning of this document was. It was an element of Jewish law that functioned to keep property within a family. Buy a field that was about to be overrun? Anybody with a lick of sense would be packing their bags and heading for the hills. What does Jeremiah do? God speaks to Jeremiah and tells him to buy a field (some translations say vineyard) and get witnesses to the purchase and keep a copy of the deed safe in an urn. Jeremiah does it – much to the amazement of his relatives and friends.
Image 4 – Ancient urn (in this particular case one of the Dead Sea Scroll urns) from https://www.pinterest.de/pin/462252349233909508/
This is an act of tremendous faith. At a time when Jeremiah knew his homeland was going to be overrun by the Babylonians, he purchased this field as a sign of his faith that God would renew Judah. This is in many ways the best news in Jeremiah. God will restore. The Babylonians did in fact overrun the city, and Jeremiah died without ever seeing Judah restored and its relationship with God healed. But God will restore. “The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
This is for me one of the most optimistic verses in the Old Testament – because it shows steadfast faith in God in time of trouble. Jeremiah knows that the courtyard in which he stands will soon be overrun by enemy soldiers and yet he proclaims that houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land. Like Jeremiah, we must have faith in God’s steadfast love. But God acts on God’s timeline, and we must be patient. Jeremiah was. We are not sure what happened to Jeremiah. Perhaps he died in Judah after it was overrun. Perhaps he was carried off into captivity in Babylon. In any event, he died thousands of years before his patience and faith were shown to be well founded.
The lesson of Jeremiah has fundamentally three parts: faith and patience are the two parts of the story that are obvious in the purchase of the fields. But what came before? What came before for Jeremiah was him calling the people around him to act in ways that were faithful to God’s teachings. Like the situation faced by Jeremiah, the situation we now face requires a lot more than patience and faith. It calls for action in ways that are faithful to God’s teachings as we understand them today. And we have a benefit that Jeremiah did not have: we have heard the teachings of Jesus, and we know the Golden rule.
Worldwide, as of the day I write this, more than 3 million people have died from COVID-19, and millions more have been affected in ways that will change the rest of their lives. It’s a dire situation and everyone must do what they can to try to make it better. The book “God was here and I was out to lunch” by James Moore helps explain what we can do today beyond being patient and having faith. In this book, Moore puts forth three “don’t s” that we can use to guide our actions. Here are these three “don’t” s along with some of my comments about “dos” related to them.
- “Don’t just sit there in defeat.” If we were not Christians it would be easy to feel defeated. But in God – in Christ – there is always hope. If there is one thing you remember from this message, I hope it is the faith that Jeremiah exhibited when God told Jeremiah to buy that vineyard. God told Jeremiah that God would eventually bring victory out of what was in the short run a certain and crushing military defeat. If Jeremiah could go through this and not feel defeated, then we as Americans, in the most powerful country in the world, ought to be able to feel like we can do something to change the world. And I think we ought to be trying to change the world right around us through our direct influence on other people, and we ought to be trying to change the world through giving to missions work that will reach people we will probably never meet. Some of the most painful words I have heard during the pandemic were the words “I don’t know how to explain to you why you should care about other people” by Lauren Morril (although credited with slightly different wording to various other people). We know why we should care about other people! We should treat other people as we would want them to treat us. And that means each one of us doing everything reasonable we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Golden Rule implies that we should listen to the best credible medical advice about how we can act to get us past this pandemic as quickly as possible and with as little additional loss of life as possible.
- “Don’t just sit there in apathy.” If you watch too much news you will come to believe that the situation in the world is hopeless and that nothing can be done about it. Granted, it’s important to know enough about world events to know what’s going on. But let’s face it… at some point paying attention to the news is nothing more than torturing ourselves. I propose that we spend less time watching the news, and more time reading authoritative advice about what we can all do to help bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.
- “Don’t just sit there in indecision.” We need to respond to God’s call with action on our part. And this is indeed a need; we need to do something in order to feel whole in our relationship with the divine. But indecision is an easy trap to fall into. What if we do the wrong thing? God has a plan for this world, and part of that plan is that we should help each other. Educate yourself based on the best current medical advice “now” and heed that advice. And yes… the current best advice is that each of us should be inconvenienced. Us being inconvenienced is consistent with the Golden Rule. If someone could save your life at the cost of some inconvenience to themselves, wouldn’t you want that? So be inconvenienced. Get vaccinated, unless your doctor says you should not. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Sanitize. Do whatever the best medical advice “now” says, and don’t be disheartened or surprised if that advice changes over time. That’s the nature of science. And remember, God gave us brains – presumably so we would use them!
These times are not unprecedented. Times like this have come before. We all want the pandemic to be over. Many of us (but not all) want life to go back to “normal.” But the COVID-19 pandemic is not over and life may never be like what many of us considered to be normal. Jeremiah told us thousands of years ago what to remember and do at a time like this:
- Things are bad now, but they have been bad before.
- Our faith in God should be strong, and it will be rewarded, but it will be rewarded on God’s timescale and in God’s way, not on our timeline and not necessarily according to our earthly wishes
- God has work for us to do, and we should get about doing it now.
The last thing anyone wants to do right now is to be patient with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet being patient and working to fight the pandemic is the best thing we can possibly do.
Today, in 2021, we have the benefit of knowledge that Jeremiah did not have and so we know more about what we should do now: follow the Golden Rule, do everything we can to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, and help save the lives of other people, just like we hope others would work to help save our lives and the lives of those we love.
In discussing this work with another person, that person replied with “But I just don’t trust the government.” This is NOT about your feelings about the government or about politics, or at least should not be. Either 3 million people have died of COVID-19 and tens of thousands of people have worked to create three vaccines that work well against COVID-19 (and two that seem not to), or there is a worldwide conspiracy to convince us that 3 million people have died. Such a conspiracy would involve the governments of the US, Russia, the European Union, India, and Brazil, all working together to fake photographs, millions of burials, and crush their own economies. That the pandemic isn’t “real” is simply not believable for a rational person today. And one does not have to trust governments in order to know what to do. Trust the people in the medical community who are working as hard as they can to save people all around us. The people you would count on if you were inured and taken to an emergency room. Medical professionals who right now very often feel overwhelmed, and in some cases are feeling overwhelmed because they are trying to save people who are not following the best current medical advice from COVID-19.
This version of this sermon is written and organized in a form intended to be given as a sermon over Zoom or other teleconferencing service, with the various labelled images used to show on screen while the sermon is being delivered. You can as easily read it off the web, however. The images are left in place because in some cases they are instrumental to understanding the text.
This sermon text is released under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license – You are free to: Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Attribution is required!