So, Christmas is finally over, I mean really over. The visitors have all gone home, the tree has been put back in the box, the decorations are down in the basement, and the gifts, well, the gifts have been celebrated, enjoyed, used, broken, returned, or forgotten.
But the Lectionary says, “Not so fast. Let’s keep our focus on gifts for another Sunday, this Second Sunday after Christmas.” The Lectionary uses this happy text from Jeremiah 31 to help us celebrate the abundance of gifts that flow from God’s gracious redemption. Indeed, the key word here is “bounty” or (what amounts to the same thing) “abundance.”
Of course, Jeremiah 31 is not about Christmas. It is about Israel’s return from Exile, which was, in fact, sort of like Christmas for the Jews. Maybe it was even better because it was so unexpected, not on their annual calendar of events. Indeed, Israel’s restoration from Exile was totally unexpected, because the Exile hasn’t even happened yet in the flow of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Yes, it has been predicted in chapter after chapter of Jeremiah’s prophecy, but here in 587 BC the destruction of Jerusalem with all its attendant catastrophes was still a year away.
Our text is part of the so-called Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33), a welcome break from the drumbeat of gloom and doom that pounds through the rest of the prophecy. Here it’s as though God says to his people, “I’ve been telling you that the worst thing you can imagine is going to happen to you. And you may think that will be the end of you. But I want you to know before it ever happens that I can redeem you even from that.” Even before the disaster strikes, God assures his terrified people that they will be completely restored.
Because they could not imagine the disaster, let alone the restoration, God paints a picture of their hopeful future using vivid images: a joyful throng marching through the desert on a level path surrounded by streams of water, a banquet overflowing with the best food and drink, a joyful dance with whirling maidens and stomping men, a garden filled with the bounty of the earth, and, best of all, their previously menacing God as their loving Father and tender Shepherd.
The dominant emotion in our text is joy, full throated joy commanded by Yahweh, their covenant God. “Sing for joy for Jacob, shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard….” It’s not clear to whom this command is addressed. One would think it is Israel itself, but Israel is spoken of as “they” and “them” throughout his passage. It would seem to be the “nations (verse 10).” As often happens in the Psalms, the very nations who are the enemy of God and his people are called upon to bear witness to what God will do for his own people and rejoice about that. Perhaps this a hint of the universal effect of God’s gracious redemption. Even though it starts with and centers on Israel, redemption is finally for the world.
Israel is called “the foremost of the nations (verse 7),” not because they are the largest and strongest, but because they are the object of God’s electing grace. They are now (in the eyes of the prophet) nothing but “a remnant” who need to be saved. But saved they will be, because Yahweh is “Israel’s father and Ephraim is my firstborn son (verse 9).” Because of his love for his sinful children, God will redeem them.
That redemption has two parts in our text: God will gather them from Exile (verses 8-11) and God will restore them to abundant life (verses 12-14).
The return to the Land of Promise is described in comprehensive terms. God will gather the remnant from “the land of the north (obviously Babylon) and from the ends of the earth (wherever they had been carried away or had fled).” Even those who are too weak or disabled will be brought back: “the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and (even) women in labor.” No one will be left behind because of their condition.
Yes, they will come with weeping for what they have been through and for what God is now doing. And they will pray along the way. It will be a difficult journey. But as he had done in the wilderness wandering centuries ago, Yahweh will provide all they need to make it home—”streams of water and a level path.”
Note that the emphasis here is on God’s gracious actions on behalf of his chastened remnant. In words that resonate with Psalm 23, God says, “I will lead them…. He who scattered Israel will gather them and watch over his flock like a shepherd.” And in words that echo God’s covenant promises to the Patriarchs, we read “Yahweh will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” To make it even more personal, Yahweh says, “I am Israel’s father….” What Israel cannot imagine, God will do by his grace—ransom, redeem, restore.
These last words about God are the words Israel desperately needed to hear, and so do we. When we go through hard times, even if we are assured that these troubles come from God and that God will finally make it all well, we wonder about God’s love. How could a loving God allow this, put us through it, even send it upon us? What kind of God does this kind of thing? Our text answers: the God who makes covenant, loves us as our Father, shepherds us with tender care, promises us redemption from the trouble, and (here’s where Christmas comes in) becomes one of us in every possible way, suffering and dying for our sins and our salvation.
What can that salvation amount to? Ok, God will ransom, redeem, and restore, but to what? What does a redeemed life look like? Or to put it bluntly, how can anything make up for the hell we’ve been through? What possible good can compensate for the bad I’ve endured? To put it in terms of Israel’s life, what kind of existence will Yahweh give Israel in the Promised Land after Babylon had destroyed everything back there?
Here’s where verses 12-14 speak so vividly. Israel will not come home dragging their feet and hanging their heads because life is so barren and the land so ruined. No, “they will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord.” Then come those images I mentioned before: a banquet, “the grain, the new wine and oil,” the flocks and herds abounding with young, a well-watered garden, maidens and men dancing for joy, the priests overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of sacrifices. God will reverse their fortunes completely, turning “mourning into gladness” and giving them “comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” In summary, “my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord. God doesn’t save just a little bit; he saves to the uttermost, “restoring the years that the locusts have eaten (Joel 2).”
We’ve just celebrated Christmas, when God in the flesh began the gracious work of ransoming, redeeming, and restoring a sinful world that had exiled itself from God. But, so what? What difference does it all make? The Epistolary reading for today speaks of all “the spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms” that we have in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14). This reading from Jeremiah spells out the blessings of redemption in very earthly terms. Put those two texts together and we have a tiny glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).”
What a timely reminder to keep thanking God for all the Christmas gifts we have received!
As I write, much of California is burning. Hopefully by the time you read this, that nightmare is over. Driven by historically fierce Santa Anna winds, wildfires have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres and burned down hundreds of homes and businesses. After the fires have reduced their beloved buildings to ashes, the residents return to… nothingness. “It’s all gone. Everything we worked for, everything that meant something to us, everything… just gone.” We see it after floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, bombings—people lose everything and they cannot image how they can ever put their lives together again. That was Israel in Exile. Babylon had taken it all away, even their God, who had clearly been defeated. How could life ever be good again, even if they got back to the Land? Only by God’s grace, as pictured by Jeremiah.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 5, 2020
Jeremiah 31:7-14 Commentary