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)
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