Just beyond the ending point for this particular Old Testament Year C reading is a rather striking line in Jeremiah 23:7-8. Anyone who grew up hearing the Ten Commandments—as well as other Old Testament passages—read on a fairly regular basis in church or at the dinner table knows that one of the most famous catch-phrases in the Hebrew Scripture is the line referring to the Lord their God that says “. . . who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The Exodus, and its premiere fact of God’s gracious act of bring his people from slavery to freedom, was (and, to a certain degree, for the Jews still is) a hallmark of religio-ethnic identity. The Exodus continues to exercise a powerful pull on the contemporary church, too—just think of how vital the image of confronting Pharaoh was to the Civil Rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century. Even the title of a major work on the Civil Rights movement evokes the Exodus: Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters.
But in Jeremiah 23 God predicts a day when a new king would rule over a new people. What’s more, that new people would be drawn from every land into which those covenant people of God had scattered as a result of God’s punishing cataclysm for the faithlessness of the people. But according to Jeremiah, that re-gathering of God’s scattered people would be so much greater than the original Exodus from Egypt that the day would come when people would no longer refer to God as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” but instead would say that God was the one “who brought Israel up out of the lands to which they had been banished.”
As catch-phrases go, though, you get the feeling this one never caught on or stuck the way the familiar line about Egypt did. Maybe that’s because the end-result of the people’s return from Babylonian exile never resulted in the glory and splendor that attended the days of David and Solomon. Despite the 40-year hiccup of wilderness wanderings, the original Exodus ultimately resulted in a political kingdom of significant glory and wealth and splendor. Not so the “exodus” from the lands of the diaspora. As a recent Lectionary reading from Haggai reminded us, even when the people under the leadership of Zerubbabel got around to re-building some kind of modest Temple, those who were old enough to remember the former splendor of Solomon’s Temple could but weep to see what had come to take its place.
And that just generally seems to sum up what happened to the people in those post-exilic times. Before long, Israel would also become occupied territory again, and would essentially remain that way for centuries to follow. Yet again and again in places like Haggai and now in this week’s reading from Jeremiah 23 God reassures the people that really, honestly, no kidding, all of this would lead to a better day, a better king, a better kingdom. God was going to build a new people and raise up a branch from the line of David to become a king like no other. “The Lord our Righteousness” would come and would be great.
It’s just that on the physical, literal face of it all, that didn’t seem to happen. Christians, however, have a different view. We think it did happen and that the better king did come. It’s just that he came in diapers and ended up being glorified on a cross (see this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke 23). Both the king and the kingdom he established were of a different nature than what David and Solomon had once established but at the end of the cosmic day, its glory really did (and does) outstrip gilded buildings of stone and cedar. Salvation came, not just to Judah but to the whole world and if the way in which it came was surprising, so finally is the reach of that salvation to all the peoples of the earth.
For Christians today, it really should be the case that the way we celebrate the Reign of Christ—the way God used the Holy Spirit of Pentecost to establish a Church and a Kingdom that knows no boundaries or limits—really should outstrip the Exodus from Egypt as well as most anything else you could ever name.
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The United States is a nation obsessed with big things. McDonalds and other fast food chains draw people in with the promise of being able to “Super Size” your meal. Seven-Eleven gives not just Slurpees but what they call “the Big Gulp,” one of the largest fountain drinks anywhere. Better yet, there was the Super Big Gulp and at one point the Extreme Big Gulp was served in a cup that looked like a NASA rocket booster and contained 54 ounces of soda (that’s 1.3 liters if you are curious and if it is a non-diet soda, you are looking at about 700 calories of pop).
If you can put the prefix “mega-” in front of something, it is a good bet it will become hot. Megastore, Megaplex, Megamall, Megachannels, and yes, Megachurch–all such monikers flag places that people assume they should check out because if they are that big, they must be successful and if they are successful, they must be the best at whatever it is they do. This mentality infects our thinking so much that we end up feeling sorry for small businesses, for the tiny country church, for those who can afford only the modest-sized vehicle, the cracker box little house, the one-quarter carat diamond engagement ring.
Hence the focus of business, and also of churches, is growth. But you don’t grow things simply by hoping for the best. To grow the economy, to grow a business, to grow your ministry requires due diligence, savvy marketing strategies, the investment of a lot of time and energy and capital. Success comes from hard work alone, failure from doing nothing. Or as one old saw has it, “People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.”
All of which makes Christianity a tough sell. At least that’s what the gospels tell us. If you gather together all of the parables of Jesus that had to do with the kingdom of God, generally speaking what you will discover are words to the effect that the kingdom, though the grandest, boldest, brightest reality of them all, will nine times out of ten look small.
The kingdom of God is over and again that small thing that all-but gets lost in the hubbub of the wider world. The kingdom is not advertised on some glitzy neon sign towering over Times Square but rather it’s the treasure buried in a field. It’s not an expensive jewel displayed under plate glass and bright lights at Saks Fifth Avenue but it is the pearl of great price that someone just happens to stumble upon in an unlikely place. The kingdom does not call attention to itself like a marching band coming down the street with brass and drums blaring but is instead the yeast that disappears into the larger lump of dough, the tiniest of all seeds that vanishes almost the very moment it hits the soil.
The kingdom of God—and the One who rules over it as the King of kings—really is the greatest thing ever. Jeremiah predicted it. We now live it. But as it was for the Israelites long ago, so for us: we sometimes feel underwhelmed unless we can have the Holy Spirit keep our spiritual vision sharp and clear.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2022
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Commentary