Jeremiah 32:1-3 ; 9-13
Our OT text from the lectionary takes us to Jeremiah, a prophet of God. The prophets and the prophetic writings come from a different place to the legalistic priestly school or even to the wisdom writings of the creative sages. The prophets don’t share the priestly interest, for example, in the cosmic notion of creation and laws and cultic practice; they don’t necessarily dwell on the romantic or the poetic: their interest is in history a history born out of the pain of the Exile where the people were removed from land and home. One writer says that the prophetic school of writing can best be seen as war torn artifacts where the writers engage in truth telling – naming the nature of the corruption that caused so much misery – but then helping the people to imagine a future. And so Jeremiah like the other prophetic writings challenges the people for abandoning all that was done for them and for all that Yahewh was for them, but equally says … hold forth, hold steady, Yahewh will not let you go, keep the faith, there is hope.
Our text about the buying of land at Anathoth, is just that. Hope. It forms part of a separate story in Jeremiah … in fact scholars say that it might even have been a separate book – a book of consolation spanning chapters 30-33. And that within this book of consolation, the buying of land at Anathoth stands as a powerful symbol of hope to a people about to be ransacked by a marauding Babylonian army but also to a people remembering and weaping – by the rivers – there they sat there they wept and remembered Zion. Well could we imagine that the siege mounts had almost reached the top wall, so that they could sweep into the city. Well could we imagine pandamonium and fear filling the city streets and alley ways. The people panicking, the King and his cohort clambering for ways to escape. And all the while, the text has Jeremiah sitting in the city goal house, under house arrest by his King for treason, and there organizing for the purchase of a piece of land. The Kingdom was on the verge of collapse, the people were soon to be chained and dragged into exile and driven from their land, but here Jeremiah schemes for a return.
Here then is prophetic word embraced in action, here this purchase of land from prison conveys consolation and hope – there will be a return, yes you have corrupted the faith and abandoned Yahweh yes all of this is judgment but Yahweh is plotting a return – another exodus – this time not from slavery but from dispossession.
So, what can this tell us.
In thinking about this powerful symbol, the buying of the field at Anathoth, I was drawn to thinking about the First Peoples of this land. What would they think of this idea of dispossession and the symbolic hope of re-possession. Stan Grant in his book Australia Day has a chapter called ‘The Vanishing Place’ and he writes about land as place where Australia disappears: it vanishes. It’s a vanishing place where we go and don’t return. Grant suggests that it is a fear that lies deep within the national psyche – we think we have tamed this country with our cities and our towns; our roads and train tracks. We farm it and fence it. We build things and call them ours. We mark the ground to give us certainty, state and territory boundaries tell us who we are. And we fear things that might take it from us. Because we own it. We possess it. We fear the vanishing of our place.
But Grant infers that for the indigenous community, the vanishing place is something different; different because they see land differently, they don’t own the land, or possess it, they just belong to it. The vanishing place, for them is something cosmic not legal, a place where they get lost in the breadth of story of land, a place that speaks more about connection to ancient languages and the rhythm of production than about boundaries and ownership.
And so the great lie that was invoked, that of Terra Nullius, was deeply offensive not just because it said to all the western world that this land is claimable because there was nothing here, but because it said to the first peoples of this land that they do not exist, they have no connection, they do not belong to it. Well may we have a fear of our land vanishing, but as I understand from Grant that can never happen for the indigenous community. Land for them will always remain. But they have a fear of being taken from the land: the vanishing is not dispossession, but being told you are not connected to it. It’s not dispossession they fear but disconnection … And those fears became realised and happened in the frontier wars and upon colonial settlement, and taking the children away off country what the anthropologist WEH Stanner identified in the 1960’s as the Great Australian Silence.
If there is hope in land for the first peoples of Australia, then it would not be the buying of land; it would not just be about repossession though obviously that would help, it might also be fundamentally about recognition precisely because of the very deep anguish of this sense of disconnection. And recognition is fundamentally the stuff of the Statement of the Heart – a Makarrata plea for voice through amendments to the Constitution, and a practical agreement making and truth telling process through a Commission to enable peace and unity to finally galvanise the aching spirits. Hope embodied in making real again the spiritual connection to land; hope embodied in making room for them to say again this is our place too, this is where we belong; hope embodied in them being honoured again and again as the custodians of this land.
But what of us? What could the purchase of land at Anathoth mean for us?
Listening to Tim Costello talk about his new book a couple of weeks ago he referred to the paralysis that is in his mind pervading our world and our nation. Fear. That we are moving beyond a period of globalization or at least making sense of it, and making new allegiances along ethnic religious gender political lines to mask us from those unsettling things that globalization and change brings with it. Stan Grant in commentating on the situation in the US quotes historian and social scientist David Hollinger where he says we live in an age not of identities but affiliations. Or as Tim says ‘tribes’. And the dominant reason for these new allegiances, or affiliations or tribes is because we are frightened about what Globalisation is bringing to us. Trump’s stand to ‘make America great again’ fed into it; Brexit and Boris Johnson now is feeding into it … nationalism is now rampant and we are building walls not just keep people out but to ensure that the challenges and threats of what they bring will be kept out.
Our world is in a perilous place. Climate change is a real and confronting issue. We in Australia are living in relative peace but our I just get the sense that we are heading toward something frightening with the current political climate and the uneasy relations between the US and China. And then put into that mix Nth Korea which apparently has enough nuclear weapons to turn our region into a sea of fire, and then the simmering tension between the two biggest nuclear armed states the US and Russia, and then the tensions between India and China the two most populous nations on the planet, the lock down between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir region and then the hatred between the Islamic groups – the Sunni’s and the Shiites – as exemplified by the drone attacks on major oil sites in Saudi Arabia, and the tension in Yemen. Our world is not in peace and fear is driving us.
If that is true, where can we scramble for symbols of hope; where is there hope?
Hear then the word from Jeremiah to a frightened captive people. Ch 31 … ‘The days are coming when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of life … Just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant .. I will put my law in them and I will write it in their hearts … I will be their God and they shall be my people.
And then the prophetic action from Jeremiah amidst the chaos of terror and war and siege – I will buy a piece of land at Anathoth … you will return from Exile.
‘the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness, when Israel sought rest, the Lord appeared to them from afar – 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.
Very easy for us to get lost in the problems, to get lost in the clouds and fail to see the breaking in of the sun. But this text says there is hope … there is always hope.
And if you can dare hold to that … if you can dare to believe it … then we can dare to be prophets in our own way and be agents of it … so where might we as church bring the sense of divine nurture and consolation to a people fearful and uneasy, people under siege, people in their own exile, what ever form that might manifest?
Here is one way..
It’s about symbol, a table in a hallway to bring isolated people together. One symbol of hope. What else can we do in the faith to issue a prophetic word of hope?
Our time and our experience is not the same as that of Jeremiah but it is uncertain fearful and anxious. So more than ever before let us search the realm of mystery within, for the God of comfort. Let’s pray, let’s sing, let’s be open to God to acknowledge our situation and perhaps our deep sorrow and let us search for hope. Let us never let go of the dance of courage and hope, for we are loved, and there will be a return, but what can we do to enliven it through Jesus Christ our Lord? That remains a question for each one of us!