Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2021
Jeremiah 31:7-14 Commentary
It takes so long for Christmas to get here. We wait and wait through the long season of Advent for the coming of the Lord. Then in one day we celebrated his coming, and we’re done. No wonder many non-liturgical Christians simply ignore Advent and spend a month celebrating Christmas. Such a miraculous event deserves more than a day of joy.
Which is precisely why so much of the Christian world celebrates the Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas itself (though some wait until the day after) and lasting up to Epiphany when the coming of the gift laden Magi is celebrated. These Twelve Days of Christmas are known to the secular world only through the inane song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which increasingly grand gifts are given by my “true love” on successive days, culminating with twelve drummers drumming, but always returning to “a partridge in a pear tree.”
On this second Sunday after Christmas, just 2 days from the end of the Christmas season, we preachers have an opportunity to help God’s people celebrate the gift of the Christ child by enumerating the gifts we have received through his coming. In Advent, we sang,“O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel….” Our text was chosen for this Sunday because it celebrates “ransom” and “redemption.” And it reminds us of the gifts God’s people will be/have been given through that redemption.
Of course, this text was not about Christmas in its original writing. It was written/spoken to Israel in Babylon. Some of Israel had been in captivity about a hundred years when Jeremiah gave this prophecy, others not quite that long, but all of them “mourned in lonely exile there.” But here God calls them to sing God’s praise and shout for joy, even as they plead with Yahweh to “save your people, the remnant of Israel.” Those mixed emotions reflect the reality of exile through all of history. We are called to praise and prayer, to celebrate in advance because we are so sure of God’s promises.
To help us rejoice, the prophet lists the gifts, beginning with the main one: ”I will bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the ends of the earth.” This is what every Jew and what every human wants—to be back home with the whole family. Even those least likely to make the long journey home, “the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor,” will be brought back by God—not just a few stragglers, but “a great throng will return.”
It will not an easy trek, so they “will come with weeping and they will pray….” It is not clear whether those will be tears of repentance for the sins that landed them in exile or tears joy over their return. And we are not told whether their prayers will be filled with praise or petitions. What we do know is that returning home with the whole family is always an emotional event. But God promises to get them safely there, leading them “beside streams of water on a level path.”
Those echoes of Psalm 23 introduce us to the central theme of this text, summarized in the dual identity of the God who will bring his children home. Verse 9 says that God will do this “because I am Israel’s father, and [Israel] is my firstborn son.” Verse 10 promises that the God who “scattered Israel… will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” The use of such tender names reminds God’s sinful, scattered children of the special place they still occupy in God’s heart. He may have sent them into exile, but he never stopped loving them.
And now, says verse 11, he will “ransom” and “redeem” them. The future tense of the English translation is what scholars call a “prophetic perfect” in the Hebrew. This future event is not just a possibility; it is a certainty. The word “ransom” has the sense of paying a price to secure the release of prisoners or hostages or kidnap victims. Of course, that term is used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ (see I Tim. 2:5,6 especially).
The word “redeem” is a legal term well known from the story of Ruth, in which Boaz served as “kinsman redeemer” for Ruth and her mother-in-law. By marrying Ruth, that redeemer protected them, secured their place in society, and established a new family. The connection to Christ is too obvious to merit explanation. In sum, God promises to ransom Israel from bondage and restore its status as the covenant family of God. What a tremendous gift from a loving God!
Not only will the Father and Shepherd change the existential and legal status of his sinful and scattered children, but he will also change the conditions of their daily lives. Here a torrent of gifts comes pouring from God’s gracious hand. The words “bounty” and “abundance” sum it up. Life will be an unending banquet of blessing—“grain, new wine, oil, the young of flock and herd.” Life will be fruitful and satisfying, for “they shall be like a well-watered garden.” The disappointment and sorrow of the past will be no more.
And, as in the secular song, there will be “ladies dancing and lords a leaping.” The overwhelming tone of life will be unbounded joy. “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” God’s ransomed and redeemed children will experience a total reversal of fortune, as God renews his generous provision for a good life. “My people will be filled with bounty, declares the Lord.”
The Twelve Days of Christmas are circled on the liturgical calendar so that God’s children won’t rush away from Christmas, their gifts forgotten and abandoned in the closet of the past. On this Second Sunday of Christmas, let’s haul those gifts back out and remind ourselves how good God has been to us at Christmas. He set us free and brought us into his family. And he has showered us with gifts that change our daily lives.
As was the case with Exiled Israel, life is a mixture of singing God’s praise and begging for his help. His promises are sure and his redemption is an accomplished fact. But we still wait for the complete enjoyment of all his gifts. Christ has come and he is coming again. Because of that, the dominant tone of life should be one of joy, joy, joy.
A more creative person than I might be able to use the secular song to highlight the spiritual gifts of Christmas. Can you find parallels in the text to the ridiculous gifts of that song? I can think of one immediately. The recurring theme in that song is “my true love sent to me.” That’s what happened at Christmas; our “true love,” our Father and Shepherd, sent life changing gifts to us all wrapped up in The Gift.
Hearing the promise of restoration and reversal even before the disaster of the Exile enabled Israel to rejoice even in sorrow. Imagine how today’s victims of hurricanes and wildfires and pandemic would feel if they were absolutely guaranteed complete reversal of their losses even before those losses actually occurred.
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