January 15, 1991, I was living in the guest quarters at Southern Seminary where I was teaching a homiletics course. I had an engagement to go to dinner that night with one of the other professors; he called me near the time he was supposed to pick me up and told me we were at war with Iraq. I turned on the television. We skipped dinner. Everybody, it seemed, was watching that war intently, and so were we. That night I turned on the television and watched “the bombs bursting in air.”
This passage is the study of a man whose nation is at war. On that night in January of 1991, if I had done what Jeremiah did in this passage, I would have called up my real estate broker in Kuwait and I would have bought a piece of ground or a summer house in Kuwait City.
In September 588 B.C., Jeremiah cries, “See, the siege ramps are built up to take the city” (
At this time, the prophet did an unthinkable thing. When all the citizens were discouraged and doom was imminent, Jeremiah took his last seventeen shekels and bought a piece of ground. He himself was a prisoner and couldn’t even go look at the ground. He called his local real estate agent and said, “I want to buy this piece of ground.” He bought this one lot, as if to say, “The promises of God always hold.”
In the year 1400 B.C. God had promised to Moses that they would always own this land. Then, suddenly, it seemed like they would no longer own it and that the promises of God would be forgotten. At such a dreary, hopeless moment, the prophet buys a piece of ground. The lesson is inescapable: God never forgets.
I remember reading a couple of weeks ago a humorous fable of intrigue. It was the tale of a certain man who owned an elephant. This man engaged in a kind of pachyderm profiteering. He took his elephant everywhere, offering a hundred dollars to anybody in any city who could make the elephant do two things: the elephant must jump and shake his head up and down, for the man alleged at every city on the tour that elephants could not be trained to jump, nor be trained to nod their heads up and down or backwards and forwards.
On one particular leg of his grand tour, he was in Ashtabula, Ohio. There, before the whole crowd, he cried, “I’ll give a hundred dollars to anybody who can make this elephant jump or nod its head from side to side or up and down.” For a moment nobody took him up on it. At length, however, a man in a three-piece suit stepped out of the crowd, right in front of the elephant. He opened a slick leather attache case, reached down into it and pulled out an inch-and-a-half roofing nail and a slingshot. He walked around behind the bewildered elephant. He put the nail in the slingshot, pulled it back and shot the elephant in its posterior. The elephant then leaped upon his trainer, who was then taken to spend the next twenty years in a hospital.
The decades rolled by and the man was finally well again. Since he knew no other way to make a living, he looked up his same old elephant and began once again the same old tour, making the same old boast, “A hundred dollars to anybody who can make this elephant jump or nod its head up and down or from side to side, because elephants can’t be trained to do that.” Just as he made the offer that had left him convalescing for twenty years, a very familiar-if-older man stepped out of the crowd in a beautiful three-piece suit with a slick leather attache case. He opened it and took out a slingshot and an inch-and-a-half roofing nail. He held it up to the elephant and said, “You see this?” The elephant suddenly nodded his head (up and down). “Do you want me to do it again?” The elephant nodded his head (from side to side).
I like that story, for it bears the grand implication that elephants never forget. Jeremiah, in this story, takes a grand step in favor of the great God who cannot forget His covenants with His people. What He promises will be so.
I. Hope When Life Is Under Siege (
What do we do when life is under siege? In this tale of God’s remembrance, the Bible says, “The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem” (
In smaller ways we try to become what we demand of God; people of our good words, who keep every threat or promise to our own children. I once told my daughter she could not date until she was sixteen years of age. She got a date when she was fifteen and three-fourths: “Dad,” she said, “can I go to the Christmas Prom? This real good-looking guy asked me.” (Though it’s beside the point, we never really agreed on who were the “good-looking guys.” Back in those days I thought most of the people she thought were good-looking were all acne and scruffy tennis shoes.)
“But,” she insisted, “This hunk invited me. Can I go?”
“What hunk? Are you sixteen?” I asked. I knew she wasn’t sixteen, and wouldn’t be until February. She also knew she wasn’t sixteen.
“You know I’m not sixteen,” she protested.
“Well, I guess you’ll have to wait until next Christmas,” I consoled. “Maybe someone else will ask you.”
Well, she was really steamed. She looked at me and said, “Dad, do you really believe in the second coming of Jesus?”
“Sure I believe in the second coming of Jesus,” I said, puzzled by the sudden turn in the conversation.
“Dad, I just hope He comes back before my birthday in February and you have to live all through eternity knowing I never had a date.”
She was, of course, trying to get me to vary from my stable, unvariable word. Jung once said that our neuroses are usually substitutes for legitimate suffering. I know now what he meant. When we don’t have a real problem we’ll make up any problem just so we can feel bad and complain a bit in life.
Viktor Frankl, a brilliant Austrian psychiatrist, once had his practice in Vienna. In the midst of his mighty successful career, he and his wife would quarrel about all kinds of things. Nothing ever quite went right in their nearly-perfect marriage. But then came the day when German S.S. troops knocked down his door, arrested him, and took him and his wife on cattle cars to Auschwitz, Poland. One twenty-four hour day in Auschwitz convinced him he had never had a problem in his life. We mostly honor neuroses till we get an honest-to-goodness problem.
What is it about God that is so precious? Is it not his unchanging nature and undying covenants? His word is so immutable that all of our little neuroses which we sometimes substitute for real problems must be laid against the day when we really have a problem and therefore really need a steadfast, unwavering God. When our particular lives are under siege, in that moment we look again to Jesus Christ dying on Calvary. With His blood, He purchased our hope. If you would become a friend of God, make yourself a minister of hope.
I remember a few years ago when a man from our church was in the hospital having “exploratory surgery.” What a terrible term that is! When they cut him open, they found his entire thorax area full of cancer. He couldn’t be healed. Nothing could be done. I was sitting there with his wife when the doctor came out to tell her that there was nothing which could be done for her husband.
I suddenly had miles of resentment toward this doctor who rather brusquely acted as though he didn’t really have time for her. There she sat, sobbing, hanging on every word he said. And he turned brusquely to say, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more that I can do.” And she said, ‘But … but … but,” crying out for any word of hope. While she was stammering for just a thread of hope, he turned on his heel and walked out of the room. I don’t know why he was in such a hurry, but I could see her heart bleeding as she reached, first to him and then to me.
Like her brusque, unfeeling physician, I didn’t know what to do either. I also didn’t know what to say. But I could talk of Jesus and tell her what I’ve told so many, so often in those kinds of situations. I could say to her that somehow the only hope we ever have in moments when we’re terribly in need is to know that there’s a God, and that God knows our every heartache and He cares about us. I could and did tell her that God reaches out like a prophet spending his last seventeen shekels to buy a parcel of ground in a doomed city to say, “I love you.”
II. Hope When You Spend All to Buy a Future (
I recently visited a man in the liver transplant ward at the hospital. He whispered to me, following a rather successful transplant operation, “You know, if anybody would have told me some years ago that I would have spent my last $175,000, every dime I had, to buy somebody else’s liver, I would have said, ‘That’s crazy. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t jeopardize my family and my wife.’ But you know, I just needed the hope.”
Think about the evangelistic services of our church, week by week. We don’t just come together here for mere worship or just to sing little songs or listen to our fine orchestra or choir. God forbid! We’re a people engaged in the rite of believing there are reasons to get up in the morning and go on living. We are the merchants of hope!
There are some of you here who have a husband or a wife who promises you time and time again, “I’ll never drink again.” Even as the promises are made, you know they will all be shattered by Thursday or Friday night. Those same promises are but the broken fodder of their fallen intentions. You live in this hell of forgiveness and retraction, and you dare to hope and yet can’t. You cry again and again, “What am I going to do?” You’d spend anything for an inch of hope.
And what of your beautiful children? They grow so fast and suddenly they’re fifteen. Those babies too soon are perched on the edge of the nest. You’ve always dreamed they would live so much better than they seem to be. Then one night the police bring them home and tell you they were caught purchasing marijuana or buying a little crack. And even as your heart begins to break, the hell emerges and you begin to live in the spiraling chasm of a thousand broken promises. You scold them and they promise and retract; all of life seems a lost abyss of human weakness. Oh, how we need! We need! And what are we looking for? One reason to go on! Hope!
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says; Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time (
In the middle of military terror, a piece of paper –a real estate deed — is sealed in a clay jar. The war rages around this little clay jar that contains the only symbol of hope there is.
How were the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered? In 1948, according to some accounts, some little boys were throwing rocks into openings at the base of some basalt cliffs in the Dead Sea area of Palestine. When they threw in one rock, they heard an immediate cracking and breaking sound. It was a clay pot! Scientists came back with them, climbed up and, peering into the opening, they discovered the first of the Qumram caves. Around the broken clay jar were many jars which were sealed and unbroken.
What was so special about those clay jars? They had been sealed two thousand years ago! Like Jeremiah’s jar, there was something immutable about the promises of God sealed in those caves. God said to the prophet, “Put the deed in a clay jar. I want people to know that when I make promises, I keep my word! Buy that piece of ground, Jeremiah, for it will be a testimony for years!”
By contrast, how fickle are human promises. I just copied down a few this week. Listen to some of these brash statements.
“Nothing will ever separate us…. We’ll probably be married another ten years.” (Elizabeth Taylor, five days before announcing her divorce from Richard Burton in 1984)
“If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” (Dr. W. C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, 1954)
“Direct thought is not an attribute of femininity. In this woman is now centuries … behind man.” (Thomas A. Edison, 1912)
“I don’t need bodyguards.” (Jimmy Hoffa, one month before his disappearance in July 1975)
“Dewey is sure to be elected.” (Drew Pearson, October 14, 1948)
“I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead.” (Tom Pettit, NBC correspondent, January 1980)
“The United States will not be a threat to us for decades — not in 1945 but at the earliest in 1970 or 1980.” (Adolf Hitler, 1940)
“I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle the matter by lunch time.” (Napoleon Bonaparte, at breakfast with his generals on June 18, 1815 — the morning of the Battle of Waterloo)
“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)
“Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his face and not Gary Cooper.” (Gary Cooper, after turning down the role of Rhett Butler, 1938)
“That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?” (Rutherford B. Hayes, 1876, on the telephone)
“I think there is a world market for about five computers.” (Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943)
“Man will not fly for fifty years.” (Wilbur Wright, 1901)
“Few predictions seem more certain than this: Russia is going to surpass us in mathematics and the social sciences…. In short, unless we depart utterly from our present behavior, it is reasonable to expect that by no later than 1975 the United States will be a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” (George R. Price, former Manhattan Project physicist, 1957) (Preaching, September-October 1990)
The word of man, indeed, his very history, is so unsure.
By contrast, have you ever thought about God’s word? Jesus said in
A few years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, a young man took his date with him on a motorcycle ride. They were going from Fort Worth to Dallas, out for a lark on a pretty summer evening. As they were riding down the freeway, the driver of a big semi truck in the left-hand lane, not seeing them, pulled into the couple in the right-hand lane, and in an instant destroyed them both.
The accident was immediate and furious; all traffic instantly stopped. The young man’s legs were severed, as was one of his arms. His fiance was also fatally injured; one of her arms was severed. Word of the accident spread and those who knew them and their Christian walk were stunned by grief. The church which had lost this beautiful young couple mourned their deaths.
It really wasn’t until a couple months later that anybody made much sense of it, when a young man showed up in a local church for membership. Those who welcomed him into the church asked for his testimony and why he was taking such a sudden step to become a member.
“You know,” he replied, “a most cataclysmic event happened in my life just a few weeks ago. I was driving my car behind a huge semi truck. The driver of the truck didn’t see two motorcyclists in the right-hand lane and pulled his semi truck literally over the top of them. When the accident occurred, I pulled my car over and ran back to see if there was anything I could do. I found this young couple caught in the agony of dying. The girl had her arm completely severed. I soon found the boy who had been on the motorcyle and both of his legs and one of his arms were gone. He clearly could not live long. I just didn’t know what to do. I leaned forward and said to the young man, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’
“The young man said, and I quote, ‘No, there’s nothing much you can do to help me. I’ll be dead in just a little while. But there’s possibly something I can do to help you. Have you ever asked Jesus Christ to become the Lord of your life?’ In that moment I realized how stupid and foolish my whole life had been. I knelt by this dying man and committed my life to Jesus Christ. He died before the ambulance got there. But as a result of the hope I discovered that night, Christ is going to get the rest of my life for as long as I live.”
You see, the promises of God are always a word of hope. When I contrast every human promise that has failed and fallen away, I’m always grateful that when I pick up the Book, I can trust it. I’m drawn to God’s covenant time and time again by understanding who Jesus really is. And I understand what Paul meant in the unfailing, unfading word of God when he says, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be” (
Whatever happens in this life, there is hope. When all my dreams are under seige, I remember the deed sealed in a clay jar. And as I trust in His enduring promises, I wake each morning with this confidence that makes all life possible: “It is always right to hope!”