Missed Opportunities
Jeremiah 32:8
So Hanameel my uncle's son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the LORD, and said to me, Buy my field…

No person who understands, and still less he who values, life as a sacred opportunity of doing something for the world before he dies, but has often wished that he could overleap the bounds of the present and understand what the result of his action shall be, so that, with the larger experience of the future, he might go the better armed against the perplexing problems and conditions of duty which beset him in the present. If only we had the education which will come in the future, how we should be protected against the mistakes of the present! And thus we feel a certain impatience against time. Now, the incident recorded in this chapter suggests to us exactly that thought of the way in which time may rebuke our rashness and rebuke also our dulness. The incident which is recorded is a very simple one, but it is suggestive and significant. A certain sort of dream, as we might call it, passed through the mind of Jeremiah, then in close imprisonment because of the jealous anger of the king. Whatever else he was, he was a Jew at heart, and he had that capacity which was singularly, I suppose, possessed by the Jew — the tenacious love of the soil which gave him birth. It was a joy for him to think that the land which was given by God to his forefathers belonged in succession of family inheritance to his own kinsman of that day; and the dream crossed his mind that perchance that moment might come when he would have the opportunity of becoming the possessor of his ancestral heritage. That was his thought. It came to him as a dream; he describes it afterwards as the direction of the Word of the Lord coming to him. But it was not, I imagine, realised as the Word of God at the first moment of its approach: it was only a later circumstance — an actual incident which occurred in his life — which enabled him to see that the first suggested thought was, indeed, the Word of the Lord. Now, the first thought which naturally arises from a thing like that is this. We may act upon our first impressions, our impressions may be very strong, and they may be ready to link themselves with our natural ambitions, but it is not every impression that is the word of light, still less the Word of the Lord. Religion divides itself very often, if we were to classify it, into two families or types. It has often been made the subject of mere mental impressions. The presence of the Spirit, the consciousness of a spirit working within, that has been emphasised to such a degree that at last men, driven by their impulse or suggestion of some passing impression, have committed deeds of violence and wrong which the common conscience of humanity condemns. That is to say, early impressions, strong impressions, even impressions which jump with the spirit of what we believe to be right, impressions which wed themselves to our darling dreams, however much they may justify themselves by the exercise of our imaginative conscience, are not in themselves to be accepted as truly Divine suggestions. We must wait for the light of other circumstances. Authority in religion is never on the one side or the other; authority is never wholly within, nor yet wholly without. If it is wholly within, it is open to the declaration of being a mere subjective impression; if it is wholly without, it lays no weight upon the spiritual nature of man, and receives no response from his conscience. But, when there comes to us this which, on the one hand, links itself with our inner nature, and by its own commanding presence makes us feel that it is true, and brings to it also the verifying evidence of providential opportunity — then duty leaps up and can draw her sword, because she knows that she is not the victim of a passing impression alone, but that two things, the law without and the law within, have been combining within his life — then he may know that this also is the Word of the Lord. But if, on the one side, an accident like this may be taken to rebuke the rash impulsiveness of men who would act upon their own subjective impressions, it also, and I think still more strikingly, witnesses against our dulness, which fails to perceive the true significance of the incidents of life as they occur. It was an impression on Jeremiah's mind, and it was only afterwards, when the light of that later circumstance of Hanameel's visit occurred, that he perceived its full significance. "Then I knew that this was the Word of the Lord." Now mark that this experience is very true in our ordinary life. How often it happens that we have failed to realise the full value of our opportunities till later circumstances flash new light on their meaning! To take the simplest illustration which might come to our minds, you are in the midst of a crowd; you are anxiously looking out because it is a crowd where many of the celebrities of life are gathered; and after you have passed some one suddenly says to you, "Did you see him?" and immediately there flashes upon you the thought, you have been close to one whose name you have heard, whose works perchance you have read, of whom you have had the greatest desire to have some knowledge. Just then the after circumstance of the utterance of your friend flashes upon you the true meaning of this; you have been close to that greatness which you have worshipped, you have massed the opportunity. Or there are incidents in your own life. Have you never had some friend who in early life was your familiar companion? You played with him, studied the same tasks with him; and now life has diverged, and he has risen to greatness, and we remain where we were on the commonplace level of life. People meet us and say, "You knew him; tell me some incidents of his early life." But now the dimness of the past comes upon your memory, and all the anecdotes have dropped away; the multitude of other affairs has obscured your recollection. But then, by the light of this after greatness, you know you have been by the side of one who was possessed of conspicuous genius, one of whom you would say, "Would that I had husbanded those stories of the past; would that I had observed him, for his life would have a further meaning to me had I been one who had noted carefully the characteristics, the features of his talent, of his life." In other words, later circumstances are constantly forcing upon us the dulness with which we have confronted the incidents of life as they have occurred. And surely that is the common witness of history. What is the history of all human progress? What is the history of literary life? "Who killed John Keats?" has often been asked. To the men of his day he was but a raw youth, full of a kind of rude desire for poetic fame; but now we recognise the genius which lay there; we go back and say how true it is that the men of their day failed to recognise the glory of these men, have persecuted them, and let them starve, and afterwards have built their monuments. It is the same in the history of our Lord. You are not surprised that the same thing should be fulfilled in His life who was in all points as we are — tempted, yet without sin. We say, "If we had lived in those days our hand would not have been lifted up against that sacred life, we should have torn the crown of thorns from His brow, we should have welcomed His mission, we should have adored Him." But the men of that day did not see the beauty that they should desire Him. "Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil," were the words with which He was greeted. John the Baptist pointed out their dulness — "There standeth One among you Whom ye know not." But we forget that this may be true in us. Even in our midst Christ stands, and we fail to recognise Him. Why is it we are perpetually visiting with our severe criticism the dulness of the past, when we may be dull ourselves — dull to duty, dull to opportunity, dull to the meaning of the age in which we are living, dull to the very call of God, dull to the presence of Christ? Every duty, every opportunity of kindness, every incident of our life, if we are alive to see it in its brighter light, in its true significance, would never be deemed to be trivial and insignificant at all. When we begin to see light, when the light shall flash upon it, when the grave is opening upon us, this very flash of the circumstance which we call death may shine so back upon the trivial incidents of our life, that we shall realise for the first time that those commonplace things, those duties which I shirked, those things from which I turned away, thinking them of no moment at all — those also were the Word of the Lord. May I, then, ask you to observe the application of that truth, that time reveals to us our dulness in relation to certain aspects of our life?

1. First, the circumstances of the presence of God. We are often disposed to say that our lot in this century is cast in what we may call unfavourable circumstances for faith. Splendid miracles no longer happen. May not the presence of God be as real amongst the ordinary conventional aspects of our daily life — in the sun that rises and sets, in the harvests that are sown and reaped? And may it not be also that the hour might come upon us when the light from some new combination of circumstances might so flash upon our present or our past life as to reveal to us "God was there indeed"?

2. Or take it with regard to what we may call the providential circumstances of life. Have you never felt that your burden in life is a larger one to bear than your neighbour's? We think that others who go cheerily through the world have less affliction than we; we wish we could change with them. But suppose the Lord Almighty did meet you, who understands exactly the conditions of flesh and blood, who knows those special conditions which you have inherited through the long succession of your ancestors, if He were to come to you and say, "I am about to bring upon you this sorrow — you will lose pecuniarily, or you shall have this illness, or that true one shall be swept from your side; I ask you to bear for My sake, My child, this burden; and if that measure your strength, I know exactly what you can bear; and I know also the sweet and the glorious bounty of grace which shall come to you in the bearing of it." Not one amongst us with the face of God's strength looking into ours, and the smile of God encouraging us to patience and fortitude, would ever bear to shrink from the burden; we would gird up the loins of our mature to bear whatever it was — sorrow, bereavement, loss. But that which we would do if God so spake to us is surely that which we might lucre the faith to do — seeing that later circumstances may just flash upon us this revelation — "It was God, indeed, who brought that burden upon me." That loss, that bereavement, that sickness — were brought by the loving hand of God, who sought to help you through the discipline of life into a better and truer faith and spirit.

3. Lastly, I would ask you to see the light which that thought throws upon the suggestions of duty — duty, stern daughter of the voice of God. If that has any meaning, it has a claim upon your life and mine. But what I ask you to observe is this. We never realise the splendour and the significance of the duties which are laid upon us, when measured by our own small life; they seem so trifling. Look for a moment at the prophet. That which he did might, from one standpoint, be said to be merely the desire of a man to possess some landed property, merely the wish of a man that he may be in the possession of his ancestral heritage; but when the opportunity came he said, "This suggestion is the Word of the Lord." For his action was no longer a commercial action done between himself and his kinsman; it became then a great action, typical, representative, manifesting to Israel the real attitude of strength with which Israel should confront its dangers. Like the old Roman, it was the purchase of the land while the enemy was in possession which gave dignity to his action. The Roman by his action said, "Though the enemy be at the gates, I do not despair of the welfare of the republic." Jeremiah's action said more: "I do not believe that one rood of the sacred soil shall ever permanently be in the possession of the enemies of God"; and it was the splendour therefore, the significance, of the action which was flashed upon him at the moment when the opportunity of the purchase came; and that which was once a dream is become a reality. And he could therefore prove to the people the reality of his faith in the hope and in the destiny of Israel. The meaning and the significance of that action none of his countrymen could gainsay, because he was ready to venture his money. That is the spirit of it. Every duty costs something: it costs some trouble, some pains, some thought, some money. Duty, whatever is in your life, is not always an easy thing, unless your nature has been celestialised, and duty has become a delight. But that, after all, belongs rather to the higher levels of life than that commonly apportioned to humankind. Would duty be less noble if duty were easy? Is it not precisely because the steep up which you climb is rocky; because you must sometimes fall, and climb on hands and knees ere you can get to the height where the light of God is shining; because it means the expenditure of fame, money — whatever it is; because the duty is shirked — that therefore the duty is noble? It does cost something; and the man who talks glibly about duty, but is never ready to pay the price of his duty, to purchase his duty by the laying down of some present price, either of money or of time — that man, whatever else he may say, does not believe in the splendid imperative of duty, he does not believe in the voice of God behind it. If I want now to correct the dulness of my eyesight and be illumined by that light which will enable me to perceive that the Divine light is there, which will enable me to hear in every call the voice of the Lord, what shall be my best means of achieving this? Let the past illumine the present; go back on your life and observe it. You now can perceive exactly where it was you missed your way, because you now know that, if you had done this or omitted to do that, if you had not been the victim of that delusion, you would have been in a different position- You see now that that voice at your side was indeed the voice of the Lord. Let the past illumine the present. Do not treat duties as trivial and commonplace, because as your present life illuminates your past life, and shows you how God's voice has been in it, so the future may illumine the duties which appeal to you to-day. We often say that the dead are canonised in our memory. When they pass away with their greatness, they seem to move from the crowd of men and march with stately steps, and take their place in the great banquet-halls of those whom memory holds illustrious and dear; and from out those banquet-halls they look down with eyes brimming with reproach, because we do not value them as we might. So our duties, canonised by the light which the present throws upon them, march stately before us; they take their place high above, and there are reproaches in their eyes; and the future will have reproaches like this, if we do not perceive the voice of the Lord at our side. The real thing which dims our eyes is the limited light we bring, measuring all the incidents of life by self. Bring in the larger light. Why, that old Roman brought in the larger light, when he saw in the purchase of the land not his own private gain but the welfare of the republic. He saw his duty in the larger light of the well-being of the men and women about him. Let in the light of other men's interests, let in the light of the welfare of those about you, and then you cannot say that the duties are insignificant, then their voice will be to you the voice of humanity's need, and you will see a dignity in obeying it. Look upon every action of your life, not in relation to self or to the men and women about you, but in relation to God. Let in that larger light. Then every action of yours has its transcendent significance; then His Divine voice appeals to you; then you say, Every habit I contract, every word I speak, every opportunity I miss, may be a Divine opportunity slighted, the Divine voice turned back upon."

(Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: So Hanameel mine uncle's son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the LORD, and said unto me, Buy my field, I pray thee, that is in Anathoth, which is in the country of Benjamin: for the right of inheritance is thine, and the redemption is thine; buy it for thyself. Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.

WEB: So Hanamel my uncle's son came to me in the court of the guard according to the word of Yahweh, and said to me, Please buy my field that is in Anathoth, which is in the land of Benjamin; for the right of inheritance is yours, and the redemption is yours; buy it for yourself. Then I knew that this was the word of Yahweh.

Purchasing by Divine Command
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