God Is Still Speaking; We Just Need to Learn God's Punctuation

Jeremiah 32: 1-3: 1-3, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the LORD: I am going to give this ciy into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it;

Jeremiah said, “The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ Then my cousin came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.

 (Jeremiah 32: 1-3, 6-15)

Scott Peck started his book, The Road Less Traveled with that well-known first line, “Life is difficult.” This leads me to believe that if life is difficult for all of us it is because we have experienced some disappointment and unhappiness at some point in our lives. So, here are 3 questions for you to think about. Here is the first question: How many of you have felt that the unhappiness you were experiencing was so deep and so profound you were afraid it would last forever? My 2nd question is: How many of you have been pleasantly surprised to find that that unhappiness, deep and hurtful as it might have been, didn’t last forever…that a normal life could—and did resume for you? Here is the final question: as your unhappiness eased, and as you became aware of it easing, did you also become aware of a new sense of hope that bit by bit, parcel by parcel, replaced desperation? I’m not talking about the “gee, I hope I get ice cream for dessert”

kind of hope. I’m talking about the “only by the grace of God” kind of hope….the kind of hope that you KNOW is life-changing and is a divine gift beyond question. Hope and hopelessness are the themes of our scripture reading this morning. To better understand the hopelessness that sets the stage for our passage from Jeremiah requires a bit of background, so let me quickly recap the story that precedes it…..and as I do try to put out of your mind that this story happened 2500 years ago. Try to imagine this it’s taking place right now, that these are your issues, and maybe that will help the story come alive for you.

Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Babylon, or Chaldea, which is just a juggernaut of an empire. Judah, which is the southern half of Israel, is just a tiny, insignificant country, and to survive it’s pledged its loyalty to the juggernaut Babylon because if it didn’t, Babylon would destroy it and then absorb it, anyhow. Not a great deal for Judah, but common for its time, and at least under the rule of the Babylonians the people of Judah could live fairly normal lives. The relationship was very similar to that of the Soviet Union to its vassal countries before the fall of the iron curtain.

Zedekiah was the king of tiny Judah, and not an awfully bright man, so while  Nebuchadnezzar’s attention was turned to issues elsewhere in his empire, Zedekiah decided to secede. Babylon couldn’t have that because it sets a bad example and erodes its influence and credibility, and it might give similar ideas to other vassal states….so of course, Babylon marched on Judah, and destruction was imminent.

Jeremiah, our prophet and our hero, whom God said was born to be a “prophet to the nations”, told Zedekiah in no uncertain terms to cut it out, to get smart, let Babylon rule over Judah again, and everything would return to normal. Also, said Jeremiah, the people of Judah had to stop worshiping other gods and practicing human sacrifice…and come back to a right and respectful relationship with God. If both conditions were not met Judah, Jeremiah told Zedekiah, would be destroyed, its people killed or exiled, and life as they knew it would cease.

There was no wiggle room in that message from God. But because he was not a bright man, Zed refused…many times….to heed Jeremiah’s warnings. The message that Babylon was God’s instrument of punishment against God’s own people of Judah irritated Zed immensely…so….he imprisoned Jeremiah, and nearly killed him. Kill the messenger. It’s an old trick. With the Babylonians literally at the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah reminded Zed one final time that he had to surrender for Judah to survive…..and once again Zed refused.

So the die was cast: Judah would be destroyed, and the old life would end; all anyone could foresee was desolation, death and destruction. Faced with the same thing what would you see? It was a very, very hopeless situation.

This is where our passage for today picks up.

Although Judah is now facing certain defeat and hopelessness is everywhere God tells Jeremiah that he must nevertheless buy the land that his nephew will soon offer him. In accordance with God’s wishes, Jeremiah does buy the land…which he surely knew was just about worthless at that moment….and he buries the contract in an earthen-ware jar so that, in his own words, “it may last a long time.” Well, how long is that? Nobody knows how long; annihilation and exile could be forever, so spending good money on worthless land must have seemed like a fool’s errand even to Jeremiah.

It’s not until the last sentence of today’s passage that God’s intent for Judah becomes at all clear. God says “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Suddenly, in those 11 words, God turns what had been a dark and bottomless well of despair into a tunnel that has a light at the end of it. HOPE! Hope for the future, hope for the return, hope that they might be a people again, and hope for a right relationship with God. In effect, Jeremiah’s purchase of the land is a down payment on Judah’s future…a foretaste of the promise, and the certain knowledge that God still cares about them, and still speaks to them. I think God has a fine, and well-defined sense of the dramatic….of good theater….because God does this kind of radical reversal many times in the Bible,

moving us from desperation to hope: when things seem darkest, God offers a candle. For example, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, laughs at God’s promise that she, in her 90s, would bear a son. God’s response was to produce Isaac, along with the question: “Is anything too hard or too wonderful for me?” It occurs again when Mary questions the angelic messenger about God’s ability to affect a virgin birth. The angel says to Mary: “…nothing will be impossible with God.” God moves people from utter despair to hope yet again when Jesus dies and is resurrected. “At those critical points in these stories, when the future seems utterly bleak and without any hope whatsoever, the God of wonders breaks out of the assumed constraints to create a future of blessing and hope, of restoration and good.”

This story is about God’s marvelous ability to create a surprising future; it’s a story of God’s grace at work to create a total reversal of our present reality and supposed future. The text doesn’t use the word “grace”, but that’s exactly what’s being offered in Judah’s future: the unmerited free act of God to create in our hearts, and in our reality, a new life, a new way, to draw us back to God when we have been unwilling, or unable, to do it on our own. This isn’t new; it repeats itself time after time in the Bible. It’s not new; it’s just constantly being re-discovered.

Approximately 6 years ago The United Church of Christ adopted a new motto:

GOD IS STILL SPEAKING. Maybe you saw the commercials they put on television at the time. But the motto….frankly, it’s like those sermon titles you see on outdoor church boards that say things like: “when God calls will you pick up the phone?” OR “Jesus is coming; look busy.” You know what I’m talking about. Kind of hokey. BUT there’s a punctuation mark in this new motto that redeems the entire it and makes it relevant: it’s a huge comma, which is taken from something Gracie Allen said years ago: NEVER PUT A PERIOD WHERE GOD HAS PUT A COMMA! This turns a hokey saying into a profound statement. Never put a period where God has put a comma. Doesn’t that just about summarize God’s action in the world? God teaches many things, and apparently correct…and better…punctuation is one of them. Many of us have been taught that God stopped speaking to us when the Bible was closed to any additions around 390 AD. But, for me, with this new lesson in punctuation God stops being only a God of the ancient desert and of a people who were scattered 2000 years ago. This simple change in punctuation makes it clear that God can still speak to us because commas offer pause, not stop….they offer light, and hope, where periods offer finality and often dark permanence I’ll be honest………I’d like it a lot…I think…if God spoke to me more directly, like God spoke to people in the Bible, because belief, and understanding of what God really wants of me would be so much easier….maybe. But I do take comfort in the fact that even the people God talked to directly still put periods where they shouldn’t have. Jeremiah certainly did. The Hebrews with Moses did, when they thought they’d die in the desert, and wanted to go back to Egypt as slaves…so did Sarah, Abraham’s wife, when she said she’d never have children….so did the apostles after Jesus died…..they all punctuated their future with periods, not with commas. But in each case God turned their perceptions of a dark future into hope, into promise of  something better.

Never put a period where God has put a comma, because God is still speaking.

Has there been a time where you punctuated your life with a period rather than a comma. I’m sure we are all guilty of that….many times guilty of that. My husband tells the story of his transformed relationship with our daughter. He deeply loved our daughter, Annie, from the moment she was born, and his respect and admiration for who she was and what she stood for had only grown as she’d matured. In many ways Annie was one of his heroes…..always had been….but for many years, though he loved her and admired her, he often didn’t like her, they were like opposing lightning storms, crashing into each other with flashes and thunderclaps and white heat. In my view they were too much alike to get along. he despaired for years of ever having the kind of relationship a father wants with his daughter….and somewhere along the way, he says, he put a period into their relationship: this was the way it would always be. That prospect often brought him to tears. But….somewhere along the way…about her junior

year in college….God re-punctuated them, God quietly…so quietly…replaced the period of finality with a small comma of possibility, and their relationship began to turn around. I’m very grateful to tell you the small comma of possibility has become a large comma of actuality, and they have…now….the kind of relationship John always dreamed of.

In the scheme of things this might seem like a small example of God’s grace, of God’s comma, but you cannot tell me that God isn’t still speaking, and you cannot tell me that this isn’t the good news. If there’s a lesson here, and I think there is, it’s that we must be patient; we have to be aware of, and appreciative of, the quiet and small changes that improve our lives; and we have to believe that God can change our bad times to good because…I believe…God just loves to correct our sentence structure…that God likes the possibilities of commas just a whole lot better than finality of periods, because they allow God to keep speaking to us and keep surprising us. And I pray that in our lives we all find those commas, and hear God’s still-speaking voice, and that we feel the grace and the hope that comes from it. AMEN.