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The Death of Hope:
Good Figs and Good Friday
A homily for Good Friday from Jeremiah 24:1-10

Dennis R. Bratcher

Jeremiah 24:1-10

After Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoikim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Israel, the craftsmen and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision:

Behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs like first-ripe figs; but the other basket had very bad figs, so rotten that they could not be eaten. And the Lord said to me, "Jeremiah, what do you see?" I said, "Figs, good figs which are very good; and bad figs which are so rotten they cannot be eaten."

Then the word of the lord came to me: "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard the exiles from Judah, the ones I have sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. I will set my eyes on them for good and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and will not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a new heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart.

But thus says the lord: Like the bad figs which are so rotten they cannot be eaten, so I will treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth, for a reproach and a proverb, for a taunt and a curse among all the places which I will scatter them. And I will send upon them sword, famine and pestilence until they shall be totally destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their fathers.

I. Jeremiah's mission

To begin to understand the significance of Jeremiah's vision of the two baskets of figs, we must first know something of Jeremiah's mission and the times in which he lived. Jeremiah had been preaching some 40 years, for God's call had come to him as a young man. For 40 years he had been proclaiming the same unchanging message. The commission of Jeremiah is told in chapter 1, the confession by Jeremiah of what he understood to be God's message to the people:

1:10 Behold I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms to pluck up and break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.

This was the essence of Jeremiah's commission: two-thirds doom, to pluck up, to break down, to destroy, and to overthrow; and one-third hope, to build and to plant.

II. The message of judgment

But what would he break down and destroy? To whom was he to address this seemingly out-of-balance message of destruction? God's own people! Jeremiah's own people! It was Jeremiah's God-appointed task to proclaim judgment on the people of Israel, the consequences of 700 years of trying to live life on their own terms apart from God.

God had created them as a people, had loved them, had guided their history, had made a personal covenant with them when they were nothing more than a bunch of ragged, hungry escaped slaves wandering in the desert. God had given them a land in which to dwell and had expected faithfulness in return.

But they had continually rejected him and had not responded to his love with faithfulness. And if that were not enough, they had worshipped the gods of the Canaanites, Baal and Ashtoroth, gods of wood and stone!

2:13 My people have committed two evils. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters to hew out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Jeremiah had pleaded with them:

4:14 Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem that you may be delivered. How long will your wicked thoughts lodge within you?

And he had warned them:

9:11-13 I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals. And I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.

And people will ask, "Why is this land ruined, laid waste like a desert?" And the Lord will say, "Because they have forsaken my law which I gave them, they have not obeyed my voice...but have walked after the stubbornness of their heart...Call the mourners that they may come and wail, "Death has come upon us."

But the sad part is that the people had refused to see anything wrong. God had warned them through prophets and servants of God for 400 years that He would not always be patient with their idolatry, with their half-hearted worship of God.

But they thought their "religion" was enough. They thought it was enough just to be called the "people of God." They thought it was enough just to go through the motions of obedience to God. They thought the externals were enough. They thought God's patience meant they God was soft on commitment, that he was easy on sin. They thought they could handle themselves. And they though they could handle God.

Jeremiah went to the temple one day and tried to shake them from their false security:

7:2ff Hear the word of the lord all of you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the lord. Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words saying, the temple of the lord, the temple of the lord, the temple of the lord.

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely and offer sacrifices to Baal and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name and say, We are saved?!"

But they did not believe Jeremiah. There were many other prophets like Hananiah who saw nothing wrong, who believed that God would forever defend the people as long as they went through the proper motions of being religious. They were crying "Peace, Peace," because of a too shallow understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. But Jeremiah understood that there was no peace, at least would not be for long!

Jeremiah continued to proclaim the plucking up and breaking down, the destroying and overthrowing that will come at God's hands. In 23:19, just before our passage, he declared:

Behold the storm of the Lord has gone forth in wrath and will not turn back until He has performed the purposes of His will!

III. The judgment carried out

Of course, Jeremiah was right, and not the prophets who cried "peace". The Babylonian armies came the first time in 597 BC, captured Jerusalem, looted the temple, took King Jeconiah as a prisoner to Babylon, as well as most of the government officials and the skilled artisans and craftsmen of the country. The Babylonians would return some 10 years later and completely annihilate the nation, level the Temple, and obliterate the nation from existence. (For a historical summary of this period, see Zedekiah and the End of Judah.)

IV. Jeremiah's vision

But before that happened, after the first invasion by the Babylonians, came Jeremiah's vision of the baskets of figs. This vision falls between the two invasions, after the first defeat but before the final catastrophe.

What is especially significant about the vision of the basket of figs is that this is the first time in the book of Jeremiah, the first time in the 40 years of recorded preaching of the prophet, that he has preached a message of promise. This is the first time that Jeremiah has talked about building and planting since he revealed in the first chapter that that was part of his commission:

6b I will build up and not overthrow them, I will plant them and not pluck them up.

What is the change? What has caused Jeremiah's shift in perspective?

The answer is in verse 1. God's judgment has already begun. Exile has already begun. God's threat was no longer just a threat but was becoming a reality. God was in the process of sweeping away their false security, their pretensions to righteousness, their shallow commitments. The end was coming very quickly.

Why then the two baskets of figs? What is God telling Jeremiah in this vision? What is the difference in the two groups of people represented by the two baskets of figs?

First, we need to realize that "good" and "bad" here have nothing to do with righteousness, they are not moral terms. One group was not more righteous than the other; Jeremiah has already established that by his preaching. What, then?

We, given our human perspective, would think that the hope for the future of the people would lie with those still in the land. But NO! Those are the ones God rejects; they are the bad figs. Why? Because they are the ones who still have hope, human hope! They still have the temple in which to take refuge. They still have an earthly king on the throne. They still have the old ways to follow. They still have the false securities. They still have the distorted view of God as the maintainer of the way things are (no matter how bad they are). They still think there is a way out without going through the punishment of God's wrath on sin. They still think that they can make it through. They still have hope, the hope of earthly systems and security, a hope grounded in their own righteousness, and so have no hope.

Why are the Exiles the good figs, the ones chosen by God? Why are the ones who have been taken from the land into a foreign country the ones who will be built and planted in the land? Why does God choose the Exiles? They have no temple, no land, no posterity, no promises, no country, no future, no hope! Jeremiah had offered no hope beyond punishment, no promise that spanned the Exile. God, through Jeremiah, had simply said "Enough!"

But into the midst of their exile, God simply says, "I will." They are the good figs, the chosen of God, precisely because they have no hope. When hope is gone, when all dependence on human security, on human structures, on religious institutions, on self, when all human hope is gone, then God can be God.

When life is totally out of human control, when there is nothing human left on which to depend, there can be no question that deliverance comes from God! Into their hopelessness and despair God comes with his "I will!"

6-7: I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them up and not tear them down, I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord. They will be my people and I will be their God.

God chose to reestablish relationship with them, again to choose them as his people, not because they deserved His favor, not because they had earned anything, but simply because God is God, an act of totally unmerited grace. God later provided the exiles with the opportunity in a new exodus from Babylon to begin again as the people of God. Hope had died and God had a people with whom he could work because they knew they had nothing of their own.

Ezekiel 37 is a very similar perspective coming from about the same time as this passage in Jeremiah. Ezekiel described a vision of a valley of dry bones that represented the nation of Israel. Their dreams, ambitions and future were scattered over the floor of the valley like so many dried and bleached bones!

The people cried, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is dead." "We are lost because we can do nothing." But God told the prophet that He could bring new life into the bones, he could resurrect that which no longer exists, because he is God. When human potential comes to an end, when our possibilities become impossibilities, when hope is dead, God can be God!

V. Exiles

The good figs are the exiles who have nothing left but God! God loves exiles, because in exiles God has people with whom He can work. Exiles know that events and the future are not in their own hands but in God’s.

Exiles are stripped of all fašades. They are forced to abandon all pretensions to piety, all false securities of religion and stand naked before God. Exiles are forced to realize that on their own they have no potential, no future. And so they have potential. It is not a possibility that comes from their own strength or abilities, but a potential that comes from God!

Exiles have no permanent security. Exiles are vulnerable! But God loves exiles. They are ready to let God be God. They are ready to receive Him as He is; they are ready to commit their future to Him because they realize they have no future apart from God. They can see His mercy and love because they are not blinded by human treasures, goals, security, or strength.

Exiles are a good risk. Exiles are ready to receive his transforming power through the Spirit. Exiles have no hope; so they have hope. Exiles are open to the healing power of God; they yearn for the Spirit to heal their broken humanity. And God is faithful; not because he has to, but because He has so chosen. Exile is the death of human hope. But exile is victory for God and the beginning of true hope.

VI. Lent and Exiles

This year, let us think about Good Friday and Easter Sunday in terms of Exile. Sometimes in the excitement of the Easter season, amid the ads for new clothes and the celebration of the return of Spring in the symbols of bunnies and chicks and spring flowers, we lightly skip over the season of Lent and the events of Holy Week.

If we think about the season at all it is most likely to hit the high points of Palm Sunday with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Easter morning with the triumph of the resurrection. And then it is easy to forget the long and troubling journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, to forget the week of ever growing darkness as Jesus plod patiently but resolutely toward the cross.

Sometimes in our eagerness to celebrate the joy of the resurrection we forget the alienation, the rejection, the loneliness, the grief of Jesus, the despair and the confusion of his disciples as they journey toward Calvary together. We often do not realize the awful reality of the darkness that descended around the cross as Jesus breathed his last. We too easily forget the death of hope that those disciples felt to the very depth of their being, as they watched the expectations of a thousand years die before their eyes!

We sing about it and talk about it and even testify about it. Yet we sometimes forget, or do not really understand, the significance of this most important season of the year and this most important week of the year that reaches its crisis today on Good Friday, and then waits for the final climax on Sunday.

To claim only Easter as our point of reference and forget Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives and weeping over Jerusalem is to exalt victory over compassion.

To hear only the startled shouts of joy from Mary Magdelene as she discovers the empty tomb and forget the bitterness of her tears as she stands with Jesus' mother and hears him say, "It is ended!" is to lose sight of the reality of the death that made new life possible.

To remember only the wonder of the men as they walk with Jesus to Emmaus and forget the fear of the disciples as they walk with Jesus to Jerusalem is to exalt Christ the Victor over Jesus the Sacrifice.

To focus only on the empty tomb and forget Jesus washing the disciples' feet as he teaches them what servanthood means is to exalt Christ the Lord over Jesus the Servant.

To think only of the joy of Easter sunrise and forget the dark agony of Good Friday is to exalt the divine Christ over the human Jesus.

To celebrate the light of Easter morning without first walking in the darkness of Holy Week is to confuse triumph with hope!

To ignore the season of Lent and Passion Week is to lose sight of the human face of God, is to push the humanity of Jesus into the background. To do this is to risk losing sight of some of our most important contacts with Jesus.

For we, too, are human. We emphasize the divine side of Jesus, the resurrection and heaven, because we long to be delivered in some way from this world. We do not like the world much, with its evil, pain, suffering, poverty, death, injustice, war, struggle. The world is much too human!! We long for something better so we focus on the triumph and heaven.

But we do not triumph yet! We still live in a very human world. We have confused hope with triumph. We can have hope, but we cannot yet claim triumph.

We cannot have hope by blindly mouthing the words, by going through the motions. We cannot have real hope by simply celebrating on Easter Sunday. We have hope that is more than wishful thinking by traveling the dark road with Christ toward the cross. We have hope only as we stand with the disciples beneath the cross and witness the death of hope, as we watch our hope die.

For, you see, Jesus too was an Exile. For as on those exiles in Babylon 600 years earlier, on Jesus fell the full consequences of sin, not just the sins of a people or a nation but the sins of the world! As Jesus hung on the cross and his life slowly ebbed away, hope slowly died: the hope of an earthly kingdom, the hope of a renewed nation, the hope of a new life, the dreams of a thousand years, all died. The end of human possibility, the end of human initiative.

But with God, endings are not always endings. Sometimes endings are new beginnings. That ending provided the possibility of a new beginning because, like Jeremiah’s exiles, without the ending there could be no beginning. Into that death of hope God comes with his grace and says, "I will," a resurrection of hope, a resurrection of possibility by a new creative act of divine grace and love in the resurrection of Jesus.

VII. Modern Exiles

Perhaps we need to become exiles. One can be an exile without ever leaving the land because an exile is simply one who has nothing left but God. Perhaps we need to strip ourselves of everything on which we might depend to work things out in our life. Or allow God to do it. Maybe we should have the courage to pray that God would put to death all human possibility in our lives, that we could stand stripped of all human alternatives, possibilities, pretensions and initiatives; to stand as exiles before God.

Maybe we should have the courage to see all of our humanness, all of our human goals, plans, ambitions and hopes as so many dried bones scattered on the dusty floor of our lives! To become exiles. Because God loves exiles. Exiles are ready to let God be God!

As we move through the season of lent, let us not rush too quickly to Easter morning. Let us remember what it means to be Exiles. For Jesus, it meant standing outside Jerusalem and weeping because they did not understand. It meant showing love to enemies. It meant washing feet as an act of servanthood. It meant suffering and dying on a cross.

He still says, "Follow me." Oh, I know that Jesus died for us as an act of redemption.

He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities,
The chastisement for our peace fell upon him,
And by his scourging are we healed. (Isa 53:5)

But that does not mean that we can have the triumph of Easter without walking the path with Jesus to Good Friday. Because he does not say, "Follow me and watch me die." He says, "Take up your cross and follow me."

Let us come to Easter Sunday in two days joyously to celebrate the new life and hope we have in the resurrected Christ. But let us celebrate because we have walked the road to Calvary with Jesus these two days. Let us have hope in Him because we have taken the path of exiles this Good Friday and so have become the basket of Good Figs, who have nothing, who have no strength of our own, no hope in ourselves.

This Easter, let us be Exiles. In my hand no price I bring. Simply to the cross I cling.

We will leave here in sadness, and we will walk in darkness for two days. But we leave here with the hope of a third day. We leave here weeping for our exile, because we have no hope in ourselves. But we know that while weeping may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. It is Friday. The night has come. And we wait for morning.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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