Friday, 14 July 2017

Fields of Hope

After a lull of mild sunny days, the cold has set in. Kitten and boys become frighteningly frisky. The frost shows up. Ice-white and wet, it glistens on the deck. Covering tufts of yellowed grass, wilting the wild rose clinging to the fence. But from my kitchen window, I can see the promise of Spring, held tight in clusters of Jasmine flower buds. Each a small embryo, containing the certainty of new life, even if it is not yet visible. The hope of warmth, which will cause each floret to open its heart to the sun, setting free the scent of Summer. In contrast to the bare treetops and stark landscape of Winter, these little buds are an annual marvel. In spite of the bitter cold, the hint of snow in the air, they flaunt their fragile beauty.

I came to the end of the journey with Jeremiah*, but somehow the words and themes stay with me. One chapter in particular stood out so much, that I felt the need to share it.

At the beginning of Chapter 32 we find Jeremiah, imprisoned by King Zedekia because of his prophesies regarding the capture of Jerusalem and Zedekia's exile to Babylon. Jeremiah is confined in the courtyard of the guard, in the royal palace of Judah. At that very moment the army of the king of Babylon was encircling Jerusalem, ready to overtake it. In the midst of the chaos, God tells Jeremiah: "Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say: Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it." It happens as God said, and Jeremiah signs the deed and seals the deal.

I was raised to be practical. My father claimed practicality to be next to godliness. I was taught to eliminate risks in decision making, to pursue a solid career which would be secure and certain. Jeremiah's life was an illustration of practicality. His ideas and beliefs got turned into actions, and his actions were so on target, that the history of his century was largely a shadow of his personal history. One of the most practical things that he did was to buy this field in Anathoth, his birthplace. But to his fellow country-men, this transaction seemed ludicrous. He was judged and jeered at, as an impractical fool.

In a small way, it reminded me of the time that we bought the property we now live on. It was a dense Wattle forest in a sequestered mountain village, which, at the time, few people knew to exist. The owners of the land did not accept our offer, the bank would not grant us a loan because of the risks involved, and our families held their breath with apprehension. But somehow it all fell into place. After fierce opposition, tough challenges and debilitating doubt. We bought our field, for it was a risk which God had already calculated on our behalf. After more than a decade of Jehova Jireh's provision, we no longer fear for the future.

There is much enthusiasm for practicality in our society, but what is seen as being practical is often in opposition to biblical practicality. Jeremiah's sense of the practical conflicted with the impracticality of the people around him. His sense of the practical was built on the belief that God is sovereign, the pivot and reason for our existence. His hope was not a fragile branch swayed by every breeze. It was constant, unquestioning in obedience and trust.

Jeremiah was asked to invest in a property in the middle of war threatening at the city gates. He was confined in the court area, but his actions were obviously still visible to the people. At the time when the deed for the field was signed, witnessed and sealed, the Babylonian army was camping on it. The enemy was pounding on the city walls and about to take the people off to exile. And at this time, Jeremiah bought land on which he would never plant an olive tree, prune a grapevine, or build a house. Then why did he do it?

Apart from just being obedient, he did it because he was convinced that the troubles everyone were experiencing at the time, were being used by God in what would eventually turn out to be the salvation of that land. God was using that piece of land as a sign that He would fulfil His promises. C.K. Chesterton wrote: "As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude. It is only when everything seems hopeless, that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable." At the moment when judgement was at hand, he speaks the words that evoke hope. "It is the time of distress for Jacob, yet he shall be saved out of it" (Jer 30:7). There was more than Babylonians at the gate, there was God in their midst.

Judgement was not the last word. Judgement was necessary because of centuries of hard-heartedness. It's real work was (and still is) to open hearts to the reality beyond ourselves. To the inrushing grace of our merciful, forgiving God.

"The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness...
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with timbrels,
and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers"
(Jer 31:2-4)

God cries out with the deep love of a parent:

"Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him,
I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord"
(Jer 31:20)

While the people were prosperous, they supposed that nothing could interfere with their satisfied existence. During those years Jeremiah preached judgement. Now that calamity was all around them, they believed that nothing could make it better. From the prison court (a rather unhopeful place), Jeremiah gives his message: "There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country" (Jer 31:17).

He backs up his words by weighing out seventeen shekels of silver, finding the required witnesses, signing and sealing the deeds to a seemingly worthless piece of land. He asks his friend Baruch to put the official deeds in a pottery jar to preserve them, that they may last a long time. "For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jer 32:14).

Buying that field in Anathoth was a deliberate act of hope. Often acts of hope expose themselves to ridicule, because they seem impractical. "Hope commits us to actions that connect with God's promises. Hope acts on the conviction that God will complete the work that He has begun even when appearances oppose it." ~ Eugene Peterson. If we live in hope, we often go against the stream.

But I believe that this is exactly what God tells us to do, however uncomfortable at times. "And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2).

In the flurry and panic of that time in Jerusalem, which is not unlike the time we live in, there was this practical act of hope that stands out from the historical record. Jeremiah bought a field in Anathoth for seventeen shekels. It was an act which made the word of God visible. Jeremiah literally put his money where his mouth is. It showed the way out of the chaos of despair into the ordered wholeness of salvation.

I am beginning to realise what it really means to be practical. To place my hope in God who is sovereign, and act out this hope from day to day. To hear what God says, and act in an appropriate response to it. To stand strong in chaos, to believe that the God is omnipresent, in everything. To trust that He brings about good through evil, and that evil can no more oppose His will, than Satan can destroy what Jesus has sealed in our hearts. It is not so easy to act in hope, because most often the immediate evidence is against it. It is not easy to accept that God is in the death of an infant, in genocide, in cancer, in the persecution of his children. But if I do not relinquish my understanding in this regard to the Lord's, then I inadvertently attribute more power to Satan than to God.

It takes courage to act in hope. It will often mean acting in defiance of what is perceived to be sensible and right. But is the only thing that can survive the decay of the moment. Paul encourages us to be "joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer" (Romans 12:2). When our hope is placed in Jesus, then being joyful in all things and acting out this joy and hope becomes possible, since we know the hope to which we were called. "In his great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" ( I Peter 1:3-4 ).

I once had a fridge magnet which read: "Be realistic, expect a miracle." But miracles are worked out through blessings and hardship. Jesus is willing. He is the only one who can help us live a courageous life of faith and hope, but we have to reach out and touch His hem. Risk standing out in the crowd. It is the single flower that pushes through the asphalt, that catches the eye. We have a choice: to conform, or to be transformed. God is in catastrophe, in mental and physical agony as much as in times of progress and abundance. Karl Barth said that "hope is having the faith to dance today to tomorrow's music."

To stay in step with the Holy Spirit, means to step out in faith. To live in the Hope that will never be ashamed. To be transformed. To surrender fear. To give thanks in everything. To praise God in everything. It is not a pious denial of reality. Paul and Silas sang praises to God in a dank prison cell. An earthquake shook the earth, their chains fell to the ground, the prison door swung open. A prison ward and his family were saved. Paul and Silas were absolved from their charges and they walked free.

There are still fields of hope to be bought. The God of Jeremiah's days has not changed. He still wants to restore his children, even if it means walking them through hardship and heartbreak. There is still grace to be found in the wilderness. There is still God's everlasting love and faithfulness towards his darling child. Be practical - live in HOPE.

* Running with the horses ~ Eugene Peterson, Blog: 30 June 2017 - "Persistently Persistent"