You can’t accuse the Old Testament prophets of not being specific enough when it came to describing the blessings of God’s salvation! Sometimes believers today content themselves with generic or generalized descriptions of felicity in “heaven,” sometimes not advancing in their views of the New Creation much beyond the wispy, cloudy, ethereal realm that New Yorker cartoons evoke each time they want to depict someone’s standing at the pearly gates or otherwise having an afterlife conversation while perched on a cumulus cloud somewhere. The only exceptions to this sometimes come in over-sentimentalized funeral eulogies (and sometimes over-sentimentalized funeral sermons!) when the dearly departed is depicted as enjoying a wonderful, never-ending golf game on fairways free of sand traps and water hazards.
But not so prophets like Jeremiah. As Larry Rasmussen noted years ago, in the Old Testament it is sometimes difficult to distinguish salvation from good old fashioned highlands agriculture! And if the prophetic vision is correct that the day will come when we will beat swords into plowshares (and, in Neal Plantinga’s memorable depiction, when we will turn howitzer tanks into John Deere garden tractors), the reason will be because in God’s good salvation, we will turn from the warfare that destroys the earth and go back to our first, best vocation as imagebearers of God: earthkeeping, tilling the soil, making things grow and flourish.
God did not create robots. God did not create insensate beings made of wood or plastic. God created fleshy images of the divine self, people with taste buds, senses of smell and touch and sight, people with feet that could dance and with spirits that could soar under the influence of good food, good drink, and good company.
And so when it comes to depicting the salvation of our God, folks like Jeremiah cut loose. Their descriptions of the goodness to come sounds like a review of a Harry & David catalogue, like a tour through a Williams Sonoma store, like a down home Christmas with Mario Batali. And let’s not tell our doctors or cardiologists, but the priests of the ensemble get promised the fattiest portions of the beef roast, too—the stuff literally dripping with flavor and good marbling.
Why does Jeremiah frame it up this way? Was it because he made the mistake we sometimes make of equating salvation with just the life we already know but made larger? A colleague of mine says we do sometimes make that mistake: we assume that God’s love is just like our love only bigger. But what if we take the Bible seriously and realize that most of the time, God’s love is actually of a different quality altogether and that what we need to aspire to is that kind of love, not just our garden variety love made larger.
Good point. But is that what Jeremiah is doing here? No, I think not. Yes, when it comes to imagining the blessings of God, we all reach for what we already know. But in this case the things we already know are themselves also already the blessings of God in creation. The salvation God offers us in the Christ who was born at Christmas does not take us out of this world but immerses us more deeply into it. Indeed, isn’t that why the Son of God came down here as opposed to transporting us out of this world and into a realm completely unlike anything we’ve ever known? Isn’t this the vision we get even at the end of John’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation when the dwelling of God is said to come down, to descend, to this world?
We can go too far in all this, of course. These visions of dancing, of drinking, of eating do not give us a license for now to engage in gluttony or over-drinking or other over-indulgences of the flesh. It’s fair to assume that when God makes all things new through Christ Jesus the Lord, although our abilities to enjoy this creation may not be less, they will be properly constrained. But the point for now is that God is, as God has always been, deeply invested in our flourishing, in our joy, in our dwelling delightfully in the cosmos he crafted.
Christmas is over and the New Year has begun by the time this Year C Old Testament text crops up. If anything, it’s a time when most of us are tightening our belts to get back to some austerity, some dieting, some propriety after a few weeks of holiday abandon and revelry and over-indulgence in sweets and treats. That’s fine. But let’s not forget that in the end, the salvation of our God will make us merry, joyous, and full of good cheer as we together enjoy the benefits of our God’s wildly fruitful creative imagination.
Near the end of his Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis comes close to approximating the vision of Jeremiah 31 when he imagines the children and animals arriving in “The New Narnia.” It looked strikingly like the old Narnia they had always known but was, somehow and in its every detail, more vivid, more real, more substantial. Every blade of grass seemed to mean more and was a deeper green than any green anyone had ever seen.
Even average pears plucked off a tree were so juicy and flavorful as to make even the best pear they had ever had in the old Narnia seem dry and woody by comparison. And as if that all were not enough, the invitation kept coming to explore this new Narnia, to go higher and deeper, to continue to plunge farther and farther into what looked to be a never-ending abundance of wonder.
Something along these lines is what prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah envisioned for not just Israel’s near-term redemption but the longer-term salvation of all things. The world of the New Creation will not be some Martian moonscape or some cloudy, wispy realm the likes of which we’ve never before known. It will be strikingly familiar but endlessly rich and fascinating in every way. We’ll never tire of exploring its wonders and we’ll never run out of wonders to explore.
Such is the vision of the New Creation that is made possible by the Word that was made flesh, the One and Only of God who came here, full of a grace and a truth that ensures we now will receive grace upon grace forever.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2016
Jeremiah 31:7-14 Commentary