I will be preaching on this text at a local congregation this Sunday (well, I’ll be there virtually anyway). I will post that sermon on Saturday for those who are interested. It won’t be quite so much from the “sidelines” this week. You’ll see some of this study in that sermon.
I’m also using this week as a chance to walk my text study people through the thought process I use in moving from an Old Testament text into the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a favorite preaching task for me, and I’m grateful for the seminary training I received to prepare me. The class was some like Old Testament Proclamation of the Gospel, taught at Wartburg Theological Seminary by Dr. Frank Benz. We relied on Hans Walter Wolff’s great little book, The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. That class is still my guide for such sermons.
And now, on with the text.
Just as I wouldn’t omit the first half of John’s prologue, so I would omit the first half of Jeremiah’s poem in this reading. So, I encourage you to read verses one through six in worship in order to give the full frame for the prophet’s words.
I encourage you also to read all of chapters 30 and 31 if you plan to preach on this text. These chapters are often called Jeremiah’s “Little Book of Consolation,” because they break from the relentless bad news of the prophet and give a glimpse of the hope to come after the Exile. “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you,” the LORD says to Jeremiah in 30:2. “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors,” the Lord continues in verse 3, “and they shall take possession of it.”
The pain of the Exile, which doubles men over like women in labor (30:6-7), shall come to an end. The sense of abandonment on the part of the exiles is devastating, but the catastrophe shall end. The LORD shall cure the incurable hurt and heal the grievous wound. The exiles will return home to a rebuilt city and a restored monarchy. Enemies shall be punished, and all will be set right.
Of course, this will be good news for the survivors, as we read in the opening verses of chapter 31. Even though the LORD’s people have been faithless, the LORD has remained faith with “an everlasting love.” So, we come to today’s text. Verses 7 through 9 paint a picture of the restoration and return of the exilic remnant, gathered “from the far parts of the earth.” The weak and the vulnerable shall join the procession and shall not be left behind.
This good news is then announced to the nations. It is the great reversal which turns mourning into joy and gives gladness in the place of sorrow. That’s the end of our lectionary text, but the words of the prophet continue. The work of rescue and redemption is not yet completed. After all, Rachel is still weeping in Ramah for her children who are no more. She refuses to be comforted by the news. But her tears are not the final word.
The LORD hears the pleas of Ephraim and the cries of Rachel and will surely have mercy. There is still much to be worked out. People still have to account for their actions. But the days are coming, we read in the familiar verses of Jeremiah 31:31-34, when a new covenant will be crafted. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
“Adversity does not build character,” said James Lane Allen, “but reveals it.” This is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the oft-cited line from Nietzsche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The first reading for this second Sunday after Christmas comes from people who know all about what wants to kill us. Their homeland was invaded and conquered. Their cities and farms, their homes and schools, their temple and capital were destroyed. They were scattered in exile among the nations. Many of them would never see their homes and homeland again.
Adversity reveals character, all right. But it reveals God’s character, not just ours! In the midst of the distress, disruption, and despair, there is a declaration of hope – “for I have become a father to Israel,” God tells them, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Adversity reveals our cracks as well as our character. Jeremiah’s people know all about the cracks.
Their world became so fractured and fragmented that it fell down around their ears. Their greed separated them from one another and left the vulnerable to die in the dust. Their lust for privilege separated them from their own humanity and blinded them to the political realities around them. Their worship of self turned them away from God and left them hungry for a meaning they could not make on their own. Their pursuit of empire left them naked to the games of world power, and they lost.
Jeremiah’s people had their hearts broken – first down, and then open. When their hearts were broken open, then God’s light could shine into their hearts. It’s not surprising that the most vulnerable lead the redemption parade – those far from home, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. They come weeping for their losses and singing with joy. The vulnerable are the first to lose their illusions of invincibility. They are the first to recognize God’s rescue and redemption.
Jeremiah promises that hearts broken open are hearts made new. The law of God’s love will shine through us and into a world wrapped in darkness. If we let ourselves be cracked open by life, the light will shine through us. If we let our hearts be broken open to love, we will grow and learn and flourish.
I believe that congregations that see where they’ve been broken open to the future will find new joy and gladness in the journey. I pray that Christian communities will celebrate our cracks and choose to be broken open to God’s grace and love.
References and Resources
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].
Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.
Wolff, Hans Walter. The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1973.