Second Sunday in Christmas (observed)
Darkness is everywhere. It is not pretty. For many of us, life is more difficult with each passing day. We wonder how we will get along today, and we are frightened about what tomorrow holds. Perhaps it is the sudden uncertain nature of our world. Perhaps it is simply the time of year. We are only just emerging from the darkest period of the year just now, and to some, that is depressing in and of itself. Friday’s paper indicated that we had gained 12 minutes of daylight since December 21st, but I suspect that that’s cold comfort to some. And really, what time is it in the world right now? It is certainly not a good time, is it? Things are really messed up. We yearn for good news, or nice news, or encouraging news, but it does not seem to come. All is dark, all is broken; all has the potential to create fear and uncertainty in our hearts. And we wonder, can any good come from all of this, especially if it is so easy to list so many things that are wrong with our world? What we desperately seek is some kind of word of hope, some assurance that as the world devolves around us that God is still in control, and that God still cares for tiny, troubled, seemingly insignificant creatures such as ourselves.
The good news, of course, is that the Scriptures pound that reality into our heads and into our hearts every time we take the opportunity to encounter God’s word. We are not insignificant. We are reminded, especially at this time of year, that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son into the world to live among us, to experience all of the joys and the sorrows that this world can dish up. And suffering…all of us have suffered far more than we have imagined that we might. And yet, the very Son of God chose a path of suffering and pain and death that we cannot fully comprehend, in order to give us the promise of eternal life. These things we know. And yet, in the midst of our own personal darkness, we find them sometimes difficult to believe.
Our passage opens this morning with a stunning affirmation of promise and hope. “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.” This is a promise beyond all human reckoning, and, as the rabbis are fond of saying, the rest of this passage is only commentary. God has consistently kept this promise throughout all of human history, and God is affirming this promise with every breath that we take.
But sometimes commentary is necessary. Jeremiah is writing to a people who have been completely demoralized. They are living in utter darkness, without any hope at all. Their once mighty nation has been over run by the invading armies of Babylon, and those who were not killed, or captured to live as slaves, have run away to the uttermost reaches of the then known world, and they are living as refugees. Nothing is good that is, except for these words: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tamborines and go forth in the dance of merry makers.”
Here’s the scoop. The people of God exist because of God, and because of God’s love. They in no way exist in and of themselves. They are not a self-sustaining community. And the exact same thing is true for us as God’s children. Thomaston Baptist Church is not a self-sustaining community. We exist only as an outward decision of divine love. It is God’s love that has given us birth and it is only God’s love that will sustain us. I love it that God calls his people “virgin Israel”. The blessed irony is that they have been anything but virginal. They have been horrendously unfaithful to God. It is their chosen path of unfaithfulness that has gotten them into this mess in the first place. But hear this: God’s love always overcomes the sin of unfaithfulness. God’s love restores, God’s love recreates, God’s love forgives and God’s love builds up. The prostitute that God’s people have become remains the virgin in context of God’s everlasting love. This is remarkable, but true. This is a promise of great hope for all who struggle with issues of unfaithfulness of any kind.
And so there’s going to be a great regathering of God’s people. They are going to be able to return to their own land. And here’s something about the promise that I think is really awesome. When the people return to the land, they are going to plant and harvest crops. In an agrarian society, the planting and harvesting of crops was literally the life of the people. They understood the cycle of seedtime and harvest to be a sign of God’s faithfulness to them. But in time of war, the first thing that invading armies did, was destroy the crops. This was an emotional attck that cut to the very hearts of the people. It meant that there would be no harvest. It meant that all of their loving labors were lost. All of their hard efforts came to nothing, and their futures had become insecure. All of us like to see the fruits of our labors, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. We understand the sense of loss that that brings. But the promise now, is that God’s people will again see and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Their future will be secure.
This passage celebrates God’s promise with much rejoicing, singing, and merry making. That’s a good thing, especially for God’s people who truly believe that they have nothing to celebrate. But before I finish this morning, I just want to briefly point out a couple more of the elements of this promise of glorious restoration.
When God regathers his people, a key portion of those who will be regathered are those who cannot fend for themselves, and who, in times of crisis, are the ones who are often left behind. And they are left behind because they represent a burden. Jeremiah specifically mentions the blind, the lame, those with child, and those in labor. These are people that God cares deeply about, and so should we. In more modern times we could add to this list, for there are many in our society who are left behind or ignored, some intentionally. It is a well known fact, I hope, that all persons are welcome in this house of worship, all persons, regardless of who they are, or what messes they have made of themselves, are welcome to find sanctuary and escape and refuge and safety and peace in this place. It is to our credit, that we have recognized and accepted God’s call in this area of our ministry. This brings hope and peace, and it fulfills God’s promise to those who struggle with broken lives.
The last thing that I really want to point out in this passage this morning is a bit more subtle, but it is there. In verse 10 God says, “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 [keeps] a flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.” That is, to me, a clear reference to the coming of Jesus Christ into this world. Jesus is the guardian and shepherd of our souls. Whatever may befall us, we are safe forever in the loving arms of Jesus. Come what may, through the power of Jesus Christ our shepherd, we have been redeemed and ransomed from the clutches of the evil one who is too strong for us to resist on our own. That’s a part of this promise of hope that has been gloriously fulfilled
And with that, the passage closes with more singing and more rejoicing and more dancing, along with a promise that one day God will transform our sorrow into joy. But go home today with this thought from the very end of verse 12: “…their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” Psalm one, verse three says this, in reference to the faithful: “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their lives do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” One day, during his ministry, Jesus encountered a woman whose miserable reputation had turned her into someone who had been left behind in her world. And this is what he said to her as he sat with her by a well: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
That lady, who graces our sanctuary in a spectacular way, is a constant reminder to us that God has fulfilled the promise of hope in a most magnificent manner.