It’s a new year and the theme “Gladness for Sorrow” (as recommended by my denomination’s worship office for this Sunday) sounds ideal for that. Of course, maybe it’s just easier to look back over the preceding year and remember only the bad stuff. Good things did happen but let’s face it, 2013 will not go down in history as a stellar year.
Here in the USA there were tornadoes in the Midwest and floods in the Colorado Rockies–and that’s just for starters. Our political system reeked of hyper-partisanship and assorted craziness in Washington as well as locally. Millions are still unemployed or underemployed (a situation that the US Congress chooses to do nothing about). Elsewhere there were typhoons/hurricanes in the Philippines and India. A brutal civil war raging in Syria. Terrorist threats and activities popping up here and there. Hunger. Repression. Oppression.
Yes, I think we’re all ready for a new year. I suppose next year at this same time we’ll be saying pretty much the same thing, just changing the details and locations. Anyway, not a bad time to reach for the prophet Jeremiah and read his words as recorded in chapter 31:
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord. –Jeremiah 31:7-14 NRSV
The first audience for these words, the people of the Kingdom of Israel (aka the “Northern Kingdom”), were faced with serious and potentially devastating prospects: annihilation by the powerful Assyrian army followed by forced exile of those lucky enough to still be alive. The first thing to note about these hope-filled words from the prophet Jeremiah promising not only rescue but a glorious future is that it didn’t turn out that way at all! The nation would soon be overrun by their conquerors, their cities and towns leveled, and the people themselves scattered into forced exile in far-flung corners of the Assyrian Empire while other subjugated people would be brought in to settle the land. The 10 tribes of Israel would never more dwell in what was considered their Promised Land.
Some biblical critics have used this “failed prophecy” to not only debunk Jeremiah’s ministry but, sometimes, the Bible as a whole. This stems from a misconception that the primary function of the biblical prophets was to foretell the future. But while the Hebrew prophets sometimes got future things right, more often what they were about was “forth telling.” That involved discerning the divine word in a particular situation and charting (or at least pointing) a way forward. It was a momentary stop on a much longer journey–in this case, in the presence of God.
Jeremiah’s words, originally offered to the besieged people of the Northern Kingdom, would be adapted for the similar situation of the people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, when they faced defeat at the hands of the Babylonians (who themselves had defeated the Assyrians) and forced exile to its capital. But unlike his contemporaries who promised only hope and protection, Jeremiah allowed his prophetic imagination a wider scope. Because of that he could offer these words to his fellow Judeans, some of whom had already been sent into exile before Jerusalem’s final destruction:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. –Jeremiah 29:5-7
The ability to look beyond the present situation is the mark of a true prophet. And so, at a time now when it’s all too easy to throw up our hands at the supposed futility of doing anything about the way our world works (whether that be about politics, commerce, social needs, or changing climate), Jeremiah’s words ring true: Look to the welfare (“betterment”) of the places where we find ourselves, know that God is with us in these endeavors, and proclaim that as disciples of Christ Jesus we are on a journey ultimately to the kingdom of heaven on earth.
- Jeremiah’s Mission (etsop95.wordpress.com)
- First Thoughts on the Lectionary: January 5, 2014 (newellhendricks.wordpress.com)
- The Tears of Jeremiah (knittedtogetherbygod.com)
- Jeremiah and the ruin of Freedom (sjmarch.wordpress.com)
- Advent 3 Sermon – Jeremiah (rootedradical.wordpress.com)
- The Resolution: Returning to a Heart of Worship (praisedrums.wordpress.com)
Just realized you forgot to send a gift to someone? You’re in luck, because my book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is now discounted at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.