Saved | 2nd after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

7 The LORD proclaims:

Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation.

Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!”

8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth.

Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here.

9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back.

I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.

I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.

 

10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands:

The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.

11 The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.

12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.

Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more.

13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in.

I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.

14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD. (CEB)

Saved

We don’t often get to hear the Scripture readings for the second Sunday after Christmas Day. Usually, we move the readings for the Epiphany, which is fixed on January 06, to this Sunday. We do that, often, because Epiphany is an important holy day for the church. We celebrate the moment when Christ was first revealed to the Gentile peoples on Epiphany. That’s us, by the way. Anyone who is not Jewish is a Gentile. Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi arriving to meet the child Jesus and presenting the Son of God with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Epiphany celebrates that these Gentiles recognized the Son of God for who he was: a similar recognition, by the way, to that of Simeon and the prophet Anna (Luke 2:25-38). At the temple, when Jesus was a mere 8 days old, Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaimed, “…my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 CEB). The prophet Anna praised God and began to speak about Jesus to everyone in the temple who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Epiphany is one of my favorite holy days. Not because it marks the end of Christmas, but because it happens to be my wife’s birthday. But officially, as of today, Christmas is not over yet. That’s why the Christmas tree is still up, the sanctuary is still decked out in Christmas greens, and the Nativity scene is still front and center. Technically speaking, the Magi should still be on their horses because we don’t celebrate their arrival at Jesus’ house until tomorrow. (Yes, horses. We don’t know what they rode, but Persians were horse people. The Magi might have ridden elephants for all we know).

Yet, before we get to Epiphany and the Magi tomorrow, we have more Christmas to celebrate today. The text from Jeremiah points to why Jesus came into the world. It reminds us of God’s promise to redeem and restore in the midst of brokenness, homelessness, exile, and suffering. With the birth of Jesus the Christ, a new age began: an age of grace and God’s mercy that are with the human race in a new way (c.f. Hebrews 1:1-2). The manger of Emmanuel in Bethlehem points to the cross in Jerusalem on which the redemption of the whole world was accomplished.

When you think about the situation at hand, Jeremiah must have sounded like a nutcase when he preached these words. The northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off into exile by Assyria long ago, and now Babylon was in the middle of its program of conquering and carrying off the people of Judah into another exile. Jeremiah either spoke these words right before or during the exile of Judah. The Judean world at this moment was one of abandonment, dispersion, defeat, and exile, and here was Jeremiah preaching about God’s care, redemption, restoration, and homecoming.

Anyone might ask how or why Jeremiah was able to do that. The Judean kingdom was ending—the kingdom and nation of people God said belonged to God; the kingdom that was supposed to be under God’s divine protection. How could this prophet speak of singing and dancing, which were expressions of joy? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt through the sea, Miriam and the women of Israel took up tambourines and danced in jubilation (c.f. Exodus 15:20). When David took the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he danced before the Ark with all his strength. But exile is not a time for dancing.

When the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off its holy utensils and treasury, the dancing stopped. The book of Lamentations tells us, “Elders have left the city gate; young people stop their music. Joy has left our heart; our dancing has changed into lamentation” (Lamentations 5:14-15 CEB).

Psalm 137 recounts how the captive Judeans could not even sing because of their distress. “Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137:1-4 CEB). How can anyone sing songs of joy when there is no joy? How can anyone dance when there is nothing to celebrate?

The kingdom was being torn down around them. All sense of security for themselves, their families, their people as a whole, was demolished. You really have to read Lamentations to get a sense of the horrors that the people went through. In addition to the terrors of being conquered and ravaged by invaders, they were being carried off into a foreign land as captives of a conquering empire whose hand was too strong for Judah to withstand. How can Jeremiah call people to sing, let alone to sing joyfully?

Jeremiah’s message was one of intense hope. It definitely wasn’t about what was reality at the time he spoke, but about what was possible through God. And not only what was possible, but what would yet be! It begins with a call to worship, which is an invitation given by God. Sing joyfully… Shout… Raise your voices with praise… call out, “The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:7 CEB).

The prophet declares that God will bring the people back from all parts of the Earth. The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob. That hand, which was too strong for the people, is powerless to withstand the Lord. The assembled masses include the most vulnerable members of a community who would embark on any journey: the blind, the disabled, expectant mothers, and those in labor. These are the people who would require some assistance along the way.

God will sustain the whole needy delegation of people by leading them on easy paths, smoothed so the people don’t stumble, and alongside quiet streams. It’s a scene of homecoming filled with peace and serenity. God will keep the people safe as a shepherd watches over their flock. And when the people get home, God will sustain them with abundance. The gifts of grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds are images of richness and well-being in the Scriptures. So is the image of a lush garden.

Under God’s care, the life of the exiles will be like a well-watered garden that never wilts. It’s a return to a garden like Eden, where people flourish, and where crops and livestock thrive. Joy and gladness supplant grief and sorrow, and there is dancing again. There is a newfound joy that can only find expression in dance. “The young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them” (Jeremiah 31:13 CEB).

The Hebrew of verse 14 suggests the priests’ lives or, possibly, appetites will be saturated with fat and the people will be satisfied with good things. As everyone knows, saturated fats taste the best, and recent medical studies have shown that they might not be as bad for you as previously thought. And, if the studies turns out to be wrong, there’s always Lipitor.

(Don’t take medical advice from a pastor).

Two verbs, in particular, require some attention because they’re rich in theological and covenantal meaning in the Bible. The Common English Bible translates verse 11 by saying, “The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are” (CEB). The New Revised Standard Version, however, uses the more familiar religious-ish terms ransomed and redeemed, and puts the verse in the present tense: “For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (NRSV).

Ransom or rescue conveys a sense of liberation. God ransomed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (c.f. Deuteronomy 7:8, 9:26, 15:15). When Saul’s son, Johnathan, unknowingly broke his father’s solemn pledge, the soldiers of Israel ransomed his life when his father intended to put him to death (c.f. 1 Samuel 14).

Redeem or deliver includes a sense of a person’s obligation to members of their family. Boaz redeemed Ruth along with the field of Elimelech by purchasing the field from Naomi (c.f. Ruth 4). Jeremiah redeemed a field in Anathoth by purchasing it from his cousin Hanamel (c.f. Jeremiah 32:8).

Both of the words, ransom and redeem, are used to describe the liberating acts of God. Here, the words are used to describe another kind of Exodus: a glorious and joyful homecoming from exile and oppression in another foreign land.

There is something incredibly persistent about God. Even tenacious. One thing God says over and over in the Scriptures, in one way or another, is: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (c.f. Genesis 17:7, 17:8; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Psalm 50:7; Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:27; Hosea 2:23 [compare 1:9]; Joel 2:27; Zechariah 8:8, 13:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3, 21:7). I found that phrase six times in Jeremiah alone, and twenty-two times from Genesis to Revelation. And that was just a quick search.

God’s grace is coming for us because God intends to save us. No matter how we’ve sinned. No matter what we’ve done. No matter how we’ve squandered the gift of grace or misused the abundant life with which God has drenched us. God loves us, and the word of Jeremiah reminds us that God refuses to give up on us.

God is our hope. God is our help. God is our present. God is our future. God is our home. Through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us. And God will never let us go. Even when we feel like our lives are little more than failure, fatigue, deficiency, and hopelessness, God is with us, and God will not let us go.

The story of Christmas—this coming of a child born in Bethlehem—is the story of our God’s tenacious love that will not quit on us no matter what, and our God’s absolute determination to be our God. We will be saved because God has declared that we will be God’s people. That, my friends, is reason enough for a song and a dance and a shout for joy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay