Say Yes to Life, Just the Same

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1 Peter 1:3-9
Jeremiah 32:1-15

Nine months after their wedding day, Victor and his wife Tilly were sent by the Nazi’s to a concentration camp in Auschwitz. For the next three years Victor would spend time in 4 concentration camps. During those three years his wife, his mother and his father died in those camps. But Victor Frankl survived.

In 1945 after he was liberated from a concentration camp near Dachau, he wrote a book he called in German, Say Yes to Life, Just the Same sometimes also called, “Say Yes to Life, In Spite of Everything.”He wrote it in nine days. When the book was translated into English it was given the title, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It has now been translated into 24 languages and more than 12 million copies are in print.

I like the first title, “Say Yes to Life, Just the Same”- for it speaks not only to our search for meaning in the midst of suffering, the title serves as an affirmation of faith… of hope in the midst of despair.

Perhaps that would be a good subtitle for our passage today: “Say Yes to Life, Just the Same” because the conditions were just as despairing for the people of God in Judah. Just as Jeremiah had long anticipated, the superpower Babylonian army came aggressively against the city of Jerusalem and against the state of Judah.

As Walter Brueggemann described it:“ Since their first incursion into Judah in 598 BC, the Babylonians had exercised (powerful) control over the city and the state, but this more recent assault on the city reported in Jeremiah 32:1-5 was the decisive finish of the state of Judah and (those living in the city). In short order the city was destroyed, the temple razed, the monarchy terminated and the last king, Zedekiah, carried away into exile…”[1]

This is the situation that Jeremiah—the prophet of God is left with at the time of the siege.

So, What do you say when people are grieving, living in deep despair? . This was their 9/11 on steroids.What might Jeremiah say to them now?  “I told you so!” “You should have listened to me! You made your bed and now you are going to have to lie in it… you have to suffer the consequences of your faithless actions…”

What might Jeremiah say? Would Jeremiah the weeping prophet just cry along with them in sympathy?

No.

For if it is true that a prophet is called to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted… the time was long over to pour on more affliction to their grief… which would only lead them deeper in despair.

No, there was a new word coming from the Lord through Jeremiah… Jeremiah was going to seize this opportunity of “destruction, disaster and displacement”[2] and use this as an opportunity to offer hope for his people. Jeremiah is crying no more.

Instead, look what he is doing. He is making a real estate deal! Did any of these verses sound familiar? “Deeds, multiple copies of everything, money going this way and that, and lots of ‘terms and conditions’”   [3]

He has been directed to buy the family farm in his family home of Anathoth.

This village was just north of Jerusalem that is right in the path of the advancing army!

The Lord tells Jeremiah that his cousin Hanamel is going to make an offer you should not refuse even though you get the sense that he is trying to unload this worthless piece of property on a family member:  “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours”

To everyone who heard about the deal it sounded crazy. “Hey, Jeremiah, if you like that deal,  I’ve got some land in Syria for you to buy… I’ve got a deal on creek side property in Colorado near Estes Park…. How about a house or lot in Detroit?”

To everyone, but Jeremiah and the Lord it was crazy. For Jeremiah and the Lord, however, it was a message they were sending to people living in despair… a message that though the past looked finished and gone… though it looked like the best days are behind… though the present was a living hell… and it looked like God was done with them once and for all… Jeremiah and the Lord have a message. There is still hope. Life is not over. Say yes to life, just the same.

That’s what Victor Frankl wanted us to learn from his experience. As you may remember, he was a Jewish psychiatrist who was taking note of how people responded as they lived in the death camps.

He said, as some faced their despair, some became brutal. Angry. Mean.

A lot just gave up. Many prisoners lost all hope, and without hope, lost their spiritual hold on life. A prisoner simply refused to get dressed… refused to get up especially when they lost their dreams of liberation. There was one Sr. Block Warden who had a dream that their cruelty would end with liberation on March 30th. As that day approached, it became clear that this would not happen. On March 29th, he had a high temperature. On March 30th he lost consciousness and on March 31st he died.

A lot of people held on by saying if they hold on, they could get their hopes back… so if they stayed alive, their health, family, fortune, and position in society—those things that had been their hope would be restored. But on the actual day of liberation, so many found that it was different than what they hoped for… many went into deep depression… because it was different… they became disillusioned.

Only a few prisoners kept their full inner liberty and retained inner strength that raised them above their outward fate. Only a few people stayed kind and kept their inner peace and liberty.

And Frankl wondered “why?” – Which became the reason he wrote his book.

What was the difference? He said,“Life in the concentration camp tears open the human soul and exposes its depths nad foundations. And what is the foundation?

He said, “What I would tell people (because he counseled people in the camp) is this: Life only has a meaning if we have hope and a meaning that suffering and death cannot destroy. Remember that someone, somebody is looking down on you from heaven—a friend, a wife, a spouse, or God, we must not disappoint them.”

He is saying, “what really is the foundation of your personality… it is what you are living for… your future… what your future is like completely determines how you handle your now…[4]

So, If you make as your ultimate hope any finite object, what is suffering but the stripping of those things and you will not avoid suffering… and if those things are your ultimate hope, you will be a shallow person, living with disappointment…

So, if we make our health our ultimate hope – (and I’m not arguing for laziness here)—but who are you when you are old… when health ultimately fails…

If we make our spouses our ultimate hope, we are in trouble—even in the best of marriages, because we will die …

Or if we make our children our ultimate hope… and invest ourselves in their success—who are we when they leave home?

If we make our careers our ultimate hope, we are in trouble because many lose jobs and even if you don’t, one day you’ll retire and who are you then?

If we make our ESPN culture our ultimate hope: pouring time and money for the purpose of entertainment and sports to the sacrifice of everything else… so that sports and entertainment become your number one priority in life– so that when your team loses you are literally led into depression… then we are in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, as you know,  I love to see my team win, but if I’m depressed about a loss for too long, then it seems to me that something is not right.

If you make politics your ultimate hope… and your joy or sorrow rises or falls based on the success of your party–  need I tell you that you will be disappointed…

Unless you get a spiritual reference point… unless you are grounded in a hope that is beyond these lesser gods… then you will not be able to handle suffering which is a stripping of these things…A concentration camp, you see is only a focused experience of what we all experience if we live long enough… we lose it all.

That’s what had happened to God’s people in the time of Jeremiah… they had lost it all…

But what Jeremiah wants to tell them is this: they may have lost everything temporal, but they had not lost God. Which is the meaning behind the symbol. Jeremiah wants to remind them that in spite of outward circumstances… the steadfast love of the Lord remains… Jeremiah’s hope was rooted in his experience that God was the God of steadfast love.

It was not misguided. It was not naïve. His was a hope that was born out of his own personal suffering. During his years of being God’s messenger, everything had been stripped from his life. He understood suffering but he also experienced the steadfast love of the Lord… which allowed him to see beyond… to live in hope…

He was able to say, “yes to life, just the same”

That’s what Sr. Robert Shirley must have believed. Over the door of an English country church is an inscription written in the 17th century at the time of a great English civil war between the Royalists and the Puritans. It was ugly. The inscription reads:

  “When all things sacred were throughout the nation either destroyed or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church whose singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst of times, and hoped them in the most calamitous.”

“To have done the best things in the worst of times, and hoped them in the most calamitous.”

Sir Robert built a house of prayer in the middle of the carnage of a brutal civil war, except in the minds of the historians, that war is long over, long forgotten.

Yet that church still stands, and you can see it today, a monument to the courage to hope… a statement of faith in the steadfast love of the Lord to see us through the worst of times.”[5]

To find hope, sometimes you have to look for signs and symbols amid seemingly hopeless situations.

Even better, you become a messenger of hope like Jeremiah: you become  the sign of hope in difficult situations.  For him, it meant buying a piece of property… for us at the Kirk, it is our involvement in any number of missions and ministries—like WIHN or KOALA –you name the mission and I’m hear to tell you, it is our symbol of hope to people who are living in despair.

This is what the new pope was saying even before he was pope. As Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, he worked among the slums in Argentina… he tripled the number of so called slum priests… he opened new chapels for them…he paid to repair soccer fields in their neighborhoods. He visited them frequently, arriving alone on a bus.

Recently, Pope Francis telephoned a drug rehabilitation center that was celebrating its fifth anniversary and left this message: “Don’t let them steal your hope.”

Don’t let them steal your hope. That’s what Jeremiah was saying. Don’t let the Babylonians steal your hope.  No matter how bad it gets, don’t let anyone steal your hope… God is not done yet.

Remember, the God of the exodus… the God of the exile…remember the God of crucifixion is also the God of resurrection… will never leave us without hope or without a future.

In the midst of despair we always have a choice: choose hope. Say yes to life, say yes to God… just the same.

Amen.  

 


[1] Great Prayers of the Old Testament, p 68ff

[2] ibid

[3] Michael Lindvall comments

[4] story and seed of insights from a sermon on Hope by Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC

[5] Peter Gomes sermon , “The Courage to Hope”

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