Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 29, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Commentary

Acoustics are so key.  How does a text sound?  Usually you need to pay attention to the context to figure that out.  But when you dive into the middle of a text like this lection, you can so easily miss or forget that wider context.  But remembering it can change the acoustics pretty significantly.  After all, taken by themselves, these three verses are lyric, hope-laden, redolent of promise.  In other words, they can be quite well savored on their own level.

But it helps to go back to the beginning of Jeremiah 32 to set the stage: Jeremiah is incarcerated in the courtyard of King Zedekiah.  He was placed there at the beginning of chapter 32, and the opening verse of this 33rd chapter assures us that he is still there.  The reason he had been placed under this kind of house arrest was because Zedekiah could not stand what Jeremiah had to say.  It was all doom and gloom, all defeat and destitution.  Zedekiah had had about all the bad news he could stand and so locked Jeremiah up in the hopes of also shutting him up.

Ironically it was only then that Jeremiah’s tone did pick up a bit.  In chapter 32 he was instructed to buy a field as a symbol of future hope.  At a time when all the real estate in Israel was at rock-bottom prices due to the fact that soon the whole land would be over-run by Babylonians anyway, Jeremiah bought a field as a way of saying that he believed—at the Lord’s behest—that they’d be back some day.  A day would return for God’s people when holding property in the Promised Land would make sense again.

Now in this 33rd chapter we get these promising words of prophecy about the Lord our Righteousness restoring the fortunes of God’s people in fulfillment of every promise God ever made.  But how different they sound in our ears when we hear them delivered by Jeremiah out of a context of suffering, of arrest, and delivered also at a time when Israel was teetering on the brink of national disaster and of a period of tremendous suffering and shame and tragedy.  Yet it is precisely out of this context that this message of restoration and salvation—and through that of hope—comes.

The Lectionary assigns this text for the First Sunday in Advent in Year C and pairs it with the gospel reading from Luke 21 and Jesus’ words of apocalypse that anticipate the end of history.  In a way, Jeremiah 33 finds Israel in a time of real apocalypse and not merely of a future occurrence.  And yet both passages look at such cataclysms and, without pulling any punches as to the severity of such things, nevertheless proclaim words of hope.  But then, aren’t those precisely the situations where one needs to find hope?

As we begin to celebrate Advent and then Christmas once again, we know full well that not all the forced Christmas “cheer” in the world can cover up or finally compensate for the gloominess and the raw tragedies of the surrounding world.  As noted in also the Gospel sermon commentary for this first Advent Sunday in 2015, this year we celebrate “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” under the shadow of ISIS and all the mayhem it is unleashing on the world (and all the counter-mayhem this is calling forth from the nations of the earth).  One needs to be cautious in terms of over-extending imagery or over-inflating things, but no doubt many of the people to whom we will preach across Advent and Christmas 2015 feel like they are enduring their own little apocalyptic period, their own personal and familial cataclysm.  They can identify with Jeremiah locked up in a courtyard from which he cannot get out.  They feel trapped, too, and all locked up inside a spiral of events that has devastated their ability to feel secure or to provide the basics for their own children.

It’s not easy to speak words of hope from such situations.  And it’s no mean trick to have the pluck to speak words of hope into such situations, either.  Coming from the outside with words of hope, we always risk triteness and a too-quick, too-facile attempt to make everything better in ways that end up making them actually worse.   Or we become guilty of appearing to wave away the real sorrows people endure with a Pollyannaish and pie-in-the-sky wishfulness that, again, may serve only to anger or alienate those who are hurting.

These risks are real.  Still . . . Jesus in Luke 21 tells us that the ultimate future really does contain a world of hope.  And Jeremiah in this 33rd chapter reminds us that even in the midst of life’s worst woes, even in a time of collapsing securities and the disorientation that always results, God has a word.  God has a plan.  God has a gracious set of promises that he will fulfill.   Destitution does not have the last word.  The tragedies that come do not define us ultimately.  God’s ways will not be thwarted by a bad economy, by unemployment, by disease, by outright poverty, or even by death itself.

No one in the church should ever want his or her pastor in Advent or at Christmas to come across as some trite purveyor of faux holiday cheer.  No pastor should try to be some Andy Williams or Donny Osmond type who flashes smiles and croons pretty melodies on some ecclesiastical equivalent of a Holiday Special as a way to paper over—or at least to distract us from—life’s sharp edges.

But what people should expect is a pastor who can lead the way in helping everyone look reality full in the face—not despite the fact that it’s “that holiday time of the year” but precisely because it is that time of the year—and even so speak God’s promises firmly, confidently, and in full assurance of God’s faithfulness—the divine faithfulness to his own promises that alone anchors our hope.  Maybe the example of Jeremiah can help.  These words in Jeremiah 33:14-16 are not meant to be isolated and emblazoned on some counted-cross stitch wall hanging with which to pretty up the den.  No, these words have a context, and in many ways that context is also our context now.

The acoustics of this passage change when you see that context.  The words deepen in meaning.  The same may happen for our own people today if only we, by God’s grace, can speak them aright.

Illustration Idea

Three years ago people on the East Coast celebrated Christmas in the midst of Superstorm Sandy’s recent devastation.  That year, in serious remarks he made at the otherwise silly national ritual of pardoning a turkey, President Obama mentioned a man he had met in a devastated area of New York.  Houses everywhere around this man’s house had been smashed by water, trees, or both.  This man’s own house had been riven by a falling 30-foot pine tree.  But as clean-up crews broke down that tree to remove it, the man saved the top 7 feet of the tree and planted it upright in his front yard as a kind of pre-Christimas Christmas Tree—as a symbol of hope.  He dug out a few surviving ornaments from his house.  Soon neighbors added symbols of the storm itself—surgical masks, battered coffee cups, and the like.  It was a sign of resilience, a sign of hope and of a desire to re-build in the midst of devastation.

As we begin Advent again, it’s maybe not too much of a theological stretch to suggest that what God did by sending his own Son here in human flesh was rather like that and rather like the plot of ground God had Jeremiah purchase.  In the midst of a devastated world, God carved out a piece of literal human real estate in the form of his own incarnate Son’s body.  It stood then and stands for us in heaven now as a sign of hope, of resilience, of a divine intention to take this sin-battered world and rebuild.


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