Return and Rejoice – Lectionary 01/03/2021

Jeremiah 31:7-14

 For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

Sermon Text

            Sympathy is something we need to feel more often for the prophets and predecessors in the faith that we read about in scripture. Oftentimes we see them in the glow of stained-glass windows and figurines on our mantle pieces. Renaissance painters and iconographers throughout history have made them soft, almost otherworldly figures. They have lost their flesh and blood, their sorrow and hardships, their raw joy and piece, in exchange for gilded and comfortable visions of easy lives in the light of revelation.

            Few figures are as worthy of our sympathy as Jeremiah. Often called “The Weeping Prophet,” Jeremiah is noted for his continual honesty about how he views the prophetic call placed upon his life. He is not excited by being a vessel for God’s word. It causes him pain, it pushes him out of his comfort zone again and again, and it results in him being cast out from his people, imprisoned, and sent into exile, among many other indecencies. Jeremiah, one of the most upfront of God’s servants, is consistent in bemoaning both his position, and the position of the people he must preach to.

            The book of Jeremiah itself is roughly divided in two. The first half focuses on the various prophecies that Jeremiah received from God. These are given some framing in terms of when they were preached, who was king during that time , and what prompted God to give the message, but the book presents them without much narrative backing them. Jeremiah does not have much of a story in this section, just a string of prophecies given historical setting. The second half captures Jeremiah’s interactions with Kings, Governors, and his biggest concern and greatest critics – the people of Judah. At the turning point of the book, our scripture comes in. As we read the promises of God’s redemption, we find God turning from the mystical realm of divine prophecy to the easily seen reality of the lives of the faithful.

            As we have established, Jeremiah was not exactly happy with his role as prophet. He describes God’s words as being like a fire that burns in his mouth and nose, it churns his stomach to bring hard messages to his people again and again. He is tired, he is in pain, his eyes are swollen from constantly weeping, but still, he persists in prophesying. Why would anyone do that? We can talk of faith and we can talk of obligation, but when we get down to it, what could motivate a person to suffer so much? There has to be something other than divine coercion here, a passion sitting on Jeremiah’s heart that is greater than any pain he might suffer.

            The answer is found in two places, the first being God’s continual relationship with Jeremiah. While we tend to think of God as a static force in creation, issuing edicts with austerity and power, Jeremiah intimates a more personal and affected deity. The language of Jeremiah’s prophecies, so neatly organized in English to be words either of the prophet or of God, are actually scattered between the two in surprising ways. One moment Jeremiah will mention his pain, and then God will echo that even the Godhead is in pain thinking of Judah’s suffering. Jeremiah can take so much pain, in part, because God is experiencing it alongside Jeremiah. God wept with the prophet, God felt the pain of speaking hard words, and of churning anxiety. The eternal God of all creation loved the people of God enough to hurt alongside them.

            Secondly, God kept something important buried within Jeremiah’s prophecies. In the midst of a great deal of doomsaying, of forecasts of impending disaster and declarations that the people had simply gone too far, there was always a faint glimmer of something stronger than all that. That glimmer was Hope. The furtive and impossibly elusive thing that keeps all of humanity going. Hope that somewhere amid the turmoil of a chaotic world there might be something constant. In all the hurt of the people, the prophet, and of God – Hope alone sustained the tenuous bonds of their covenants.

            Our scripture captures the raw joy of the people being told they are to return home. They will be able to dance and sing again, to gather together and to sing the praises of God. The world which feels at times like God has abandoned it will someday be returned to an orderly state. There will no longer be the threat of empire or of disease or violence, only the perfection of God and God’s people living beside one another. There will be a return to security and peace that might even be better than what the people were to lose.

            I say, “Were to lose,” because this prophecy is given as the final one before the more biographical section of Jeremiah. This suggests, at least as the book is written, that this prophetic hope is given with another twenty or so chapters of prophecy to go. Jeremiah still has to confront the false prophets who tried to sell easy answers to the people, the officials who would abandon him, and the people who would spurn his warnings.

            We associate the good notes of life as something we put at the end of a narrative. We want happy endings and to build up to something good. Saving the best for last is not just an expression we use; it is a lifestyle we live by. Yet, as often happens, we see in scripture a subversion of how we would write the story. Scripture gives us a high point in the middle of the narrative of Jeremiah’s life when there is still a great deal of hardship ahead. Interestingly, the book of Lamentations, another book we traditionally associate with Jeremiah, does the same thing. Chapter 3 speaks to the hope of God restoring Judah, and then goes into the difficult work of processing trauma and of mourning.

            We are at the start of a year which we see as a chance to overcome the past year. However, we are really and truly in the middle of our most pressing danger. The pandemic which pushed us into the strange places we have found ourselves in is only halfway over based on our current projections. Beyond this, many of us are in the midst of personal problems that do not end simply because the calendar has turned over.

            For all of us, hope is something that comes in the midst of hardship. We can sit and wait for the moment that we suddenly find ourselves in more hopeful circumstances. Something good will come eventually, but it could be a very long time. Alternatively, we can embrace the paradox of our life – that in the middle of disaster, of pain, of broken heartedness, hope does not cease for even a moment. To borrow from John 1, our scripture from last week, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

            In the same way that Jeremiah continued his work despite how difficult it sometimes was, we can continue to live a hopeful life within our own troubles. We do not deny that we face hardships again and again, but we do not let them overtake us. We lean on one another and God when we cannot stand on our own, we look to the horizon which offers us redemption. We know that the present troubles cannot last forever, and the good things will return to our life in due time.

            Look around and find those things in life which you can celebrate. Look around and find all the troubles you cannot help but worry over. Take these in your hands and understand the way that they exist together. The goodness of life reminds us that the troubles are finite, limited in their scope. We will see brighter days; we will see the face of God in the land of the living. Our mourning will turn to laughter and the hardships that threaten us will be replaced with gentle roads leading us home. Home, not a single location or building, but the peace which comes when we are contented in God’s provision and God’s lasting love for us.  Rejoice, for we are on the road home. – Amen.

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