Each year around this time I travel to Washington D.C. to visit an old college friend. There are so many great things about visiting our nation’s capital; so many places and things to see with just about every street that one walks upon. However, there is one place that I make a point to visit each time I have the opportunity: the Lincoln Memorial. I’m not sure what it is exactly, maybe it’s the location on the National Mall, or maybe it’s the size. But one thing is for certain, President Lincoln, from his chair deep within the monument, beckons me to walk the steps into his presence. As I walk the steps, I look back every now and again and see the reflecting pool, the thousands of people of all different walks of life, and in the distance the Washington Monument. As I walk further I am sure to stop at the location that notes the spot where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of my spiritual heroes, gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech. And if it can get any better than that, I continue up the stairs to visit the sixteenth president.
The monument itself takes on a different air than the rest of the city. People seem to feel a certain reverence the closer they get to the statue. And as they look to the left and to the right, they will see some of the most famous words ever uttered in United States history: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and the Gettysburg Address.
It’s the Gettysburg Address that leaves me awe-struck every time. The history of the address is even more amazing. In November of 1863 President Lincoln was asked to prepare brief remarks for the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln was not even the main speaker for the dedication; Edward Everett, former president of Harvard College, former US Senator, and former Secretary of State, would speak for two hours that day. The location of the cemetery was the same ground where over 50,000 soldiers gave their lives during the three days of battle that would eventually lead to a Union victory, and in retrospect, turn the tides of the entire Civil War. But on that day the future of the war, and nation, were very much uncertain.
Lincoln’s words were few, but powerful. Standing at the site of where so many lives were lost, Lincoln shared a vision for this nation that would forever change our common identity; one could say these few words shaped our very core beliefs.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us –
that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –
that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain –
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –
and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
–Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863
Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference. So often in this world our problems seem so big; insurmountable. Today in the year 2016 we ask similar questions as many did during the Civil War. How will we ever unite this nation divided by political ideologies? How will we put an end to this terror in the world? How will we find a safe home for so many migrants and refugees? How can we get police officers and local communities to come together? How can this cycle of violence and death stop? How will this denomination reverse its trajectory of membership decline? How will this church grow? How can I change my life when my future seems cemented in?
Day after day, week after week, year after year we are faced with these issues, questions, and doubts that seem to render us helpless in a world that feels like it is simply falling apart. We may long for the ‘good old days’, covet someone else’s life that is far better than ours, or we may even dream of a better tomorrow, but will this really help? Will this really solve all of the world’s problems, or just make more? Yes, we are faithful Christian people, but it seems like no matter how fervently we pray there is no answer. All we hear is the all too familiar ‘breaking news’ announcement of yet another slanderous political attack, another cap-sized boat with lives lost, another explosion, another shooting, another loved one lost. Who, or what in the world has something that can begin to fix such huge problems? Where do we go from here?
Where do we go from here is a question that President Lincoln asked time and time again as the very foundation of this great country was being rocked and tested, and in his simple small words, he was able to speak to a hope large enough to ultimately save a nation. Today’s scripture does not pretend to have all of the answers to life’s toughest questions, but in a small way, the story of Jeremiah says ‘I feel what you have been through; I’ve had similar experiences.’ So let’s get into today’s story, and see just how God moved in the world of Jeremiah, and still moves today.
We pick up in today’s scripture with the prophet Jeremiah. Now, how many of us know about Jeremiah? He’s really an interesting character! Let’s play a game and test your knowledge a bit:
- True/False: Jeremiah is from the land of Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem. TRUE!
- Multiple Choice: Jeremiah was how old when he was called by God as a prophet?
- Before he was born
- A boy
- An elder
This is a trick question! The answer is actually both A&B; God speaks to Jeremiah as a boy and tells Jeremiah that he has been called since before he was even born! God says something very important here:
Jeremiah 1:10 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
- Okay, last one: What does Jeremiah warn the people of Israel against? The answer: he warns them against the impending conquest of Judah (or Israel) by the Babylonians. The year is 587BCE when the Babylonians will capture Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and force many of Jerusalem’s leaders into exile. This is one of the most tragic parts of Israel’s history, and Jeremiah was there as a witness.
With most of the biblical stories, it’s so important to know the background before meditating on the selected scripture verses for the day.
So knowing what we do now, what does a story about purchasing land have to do with us? In our scripture this morning Jeremiah was in prison. This was not good. In fact, that’s just the start of it for Jeremiah and the people of Israel. After warning after warning from Jeremiah for the people of Israel, the Babylonians laid siege to the land. This was not good. In fact, some probably wonder if this was the end of Israel as they had known it. The three things that the Jewish people identified as the foundation of their faith: the temple, the land, and the people, have all been destroyed and thrown into chaos.
Yet despite all of this, Jeremiah receives word from God in the form of a dream to buy some land. The dream is proven true as Jeremiah’s cousin proposes this land acquisition as was custom with the laws of Israel to offer it to relatives. Jeremiah accepts the terms, signs the papers in front of the required witnesses, and shares God’s word for the people:
15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
No, this will not turn into the latest episode of ‘Extreme Makeover’ , ‘Fixer Upper’, or ‘Flip or Flop’; the message from the Lord to purchase land is more representative of a vision for the future than a mere real estate venture. Here, God is telling Jeremiah that Israel will have better days ahead—there is a future for God’s people.
Jeremiah’s role within the prophetic tradition is quite important. We teach about God’s calling in our lives. We use Jeremiah as a model for ‘going against the grain’ and speaking for what you know is true. But there is another important part of Jeremiah’s message that we sometimes overlook in the midst of such harrowing warnings and news of the temple destruction and exile narrative. Jeremiah reminds us time and time again: God is still there.
Jeremiah will give us bad news for chapter…after chapter. He will yell, and complain, and warn, and lament. He will have it out with the people of Israel and with God. Things will go from bad to worse within the chapters of this book. And still, God is there.
Jeremiah has a million and one reasons to walk away from his people, from his land, from the temple, from his faith. Many of us would not be surprised if, after going what he went through, Jeremiah finally cashed in his chips and left or just gave up.
So why did Jeremiah stay? Why did he continue to rise up with each day, even though the days seemed to get worse and worse? Because God was there. God never stopped speaking to Jeremiah, despite the bleakness of Israel’s future. God never stopped listening to Jeremiah’s cries for help. God was there.
In the midst of the darkest days for the people of Israel; when their land, their temple, and their people were decimated, God spoke to Jeremiah once again. This time, God told Jeremiah to buy land. It is amazing that such a small, simple, act can have such an impact on one’s life.
Jeremiah would then play his role in sharing God’s word as he would gather witnesses together and use this act of a land purchase as a symbol for so much more. There would be a future for the people of Israel. Right there. In the same land that was promised generations before. The temple would be rebuilt. The people would return from exile. There is a future, and there is hope.
Today we can celebrate such hope. We celebrate a God who has always been, always is, and always will be present in our lives. The Good News: despite our darkest days, our longest nights, God is here, and God uses the small things in this world to share with us a much larger message: God has a future and a hope for us. God is here in the midst of negative political campaigns. God is here in economic uncertainty. God is here when millions of individuals do not have a safe place to call home; migrants and refugees fleeing their homelands much like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s time. God is here when there are more questions than answers concerning the United States’ foreign policy. God is here in the gun violence that plagues our communities, even right here in Lynchburg. God is here in the uncertainty and pain of police shootings and broken relationships in places like Tulsa & Charlotte. God is here with black lives. God is here with blue lives. God is here with all lives.
And when we acknowledge these small acts in life as part of God’s much larger message of hope, then we join the prophets and clouds of witnesses that have witnessed to God’s movement throughout the ages.
God was there when Abraham looked up at the stars. God was there when Sarah laughed. God was there when Moses spoke to Pharaoh. God was there when Ruth stood by Naomi’s side. God was there when Esther spoke up for her people. God was there when Jeremiah purchased the land. God was there when Jesus broke bread and poured the cup. God was there when Paul wrote his letters from prison.
God was there when Martin Luther nailed the theses to the door. God was there when John Calvin preached ‘blasphemy’ in Geneva. God was there when Thomas Jefferson dreamed of independence. God was there when Lincoln shared a few words at Gettysburg. God was there when Martin Luther King shared about his dream. God was there when Mother Teresa fed the hungry. God was there when Rosa Parks took a seat. God was there when Harvey Milk came out. God was there when the towers came down and the American people rose as one in embrace.
And God is here today, in the small moments of our lives, reminding us of the bigness of God’s love.
God is here, with Westminster Presbyterian Church, as our members age and decline, and the building shows its age.
And what does God do? God calls us to gather in prayer. God calls us to worship with music. God calls this congregation to seek a new pastoral relationship. And by doing so with these small gestures, God shares with us that our best days are not behind us, but lie ahead. There is a future, and there is hope.
Thanks be to God, who whispers to us in our dreams, who moves within our daily lives, and who transforms our very hearts. Amen.