Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican
Date: January 3, 2021
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147: 12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14 & John 1:1-18
Prepared by Henry Friesen
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
My sermon this morning is based on the words of the Lord given to the prophet Jeremiah and recorded in chapter 31. I have given it the title: There is a Future
Several weeks ago now I saw a political cartoon that I thought so clearly captured the feeling of what the past year has felt like to me. The cartoon was of two boxers inside a boxing ring. One of the boxers was a huge fellow with broad shoulders, great big muscles and a large set of boxing gloves. The gloves looked strangely like the microscopic images of the coronavirus particles that we see time and again on TV or on websites and in news articles. You know, the round ball-shaped image with what looks like mushrooms or small suction cups sticking out of the round surface – that is what the boxing gloves looked like on the big boxer; he was clearly the winner. His opponent in the ring was very small in comparison; he had small gloves, a terribly bruised face and a battered body. The boxing match has been very one-sided. What made the cartoon so vivid for me was that on the back of big boxer was the number 2020 while on the back of the small boxer was simply “the world”.
The cartoon caught the sentiment that I suspect many of us are feeling: the year of 2020 has beaten us badly. We have felt and are still feeling bruised and beaten up. Of course not everything has gone bad but there have been enough news items about hospitals at capacity, health care workers burning out, old people in nursing homes suffering and dying, lockdown measures being enforced and a general fear or hesitancy of personal contact with other people. The bad news has seemed relentless. If you are like me, sometimes you feel as if you can do all that is being asked of you: you can stay at home; you can wear your masks when you are out and about and you are OK with connecting with family and friends via email, phone, FaceTime or Zoom calls. But sometimes, sometimes if you are like me, you are tired of it all and feel like that small boxer in the boxing ring: bruised and beaten up.
When Jeremiah spoke his prophetic message to the people of Israel he was not doing so because a pandemic had surfaced in Jerusalem; something else less specific but just as destructive and debilitating was present among them. As a nation Israel was in big trouble. For years and years the faithfulness of their worship had diminished. They had increasingly become a selfish society in which the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged had taken a backseat to getting ahead in life and lining one’s own pockets. This demise in what Jeremiah calls “righteousness” had been going on for a long time but in the days of Jeremiah the prophet, the end of nation as an independent country, stood before the people as a stark reality; the Babylonians were literally outside the city gates.
In order for us to get a better sense of Jeremiah’s message in Chapter 31 which is our OT lesson today, I think it is helpful to go back to the earlier parts of the book. The earlier chapters in Jeremiah describe a different situation and call for a different response. In chapters 2-4 the prophet’s message was one of repentance; of turning around from the way they were living to a way that was more in line with God’s commands to worship him and to live honest and righteous lives. Clearly the option was that there was still time to avert a disaster for the nation; they need not be the victim of a hostile takeover by a foreign power. The Babylonians were NOT at the gates yet.
In order to paint the picture more graphically and make God’s warning clearer, the messages of Jeremiah in chapters 5-10 describe the disastrous effects of an invasion – it would take an incredible and horrific toll on people’s lives he suggests. Oppression and death would be the result. By chapter 13 the prophet speaks of exile as the final end of this path that they were on. In chapters 15- 28 God, through Jeremiah goes between telling the people the reason for their current predicament and describing the future in stark terms. It was not a pretty picture at all and it is hardly surprising that every now and then in the book, we have this picture of Jeremiah himself suffering. He is overcome by the harsh message God asks him to communicate. Sometimes he feels sorrow and pain for his nation and at other times, he faces the rebuke of those who do not believe he is saying what God wants him to say and/or tell him to stop giving all the negative messages.
By the time of this message in chapter 31 it is very close to the year in which the first major wave of the exile took place 586 BC. Things had deteriorated even further – injustice was all around, idol worship was prevalent and the poor were neglected. A political cartoon that could have appeared in Jerusalem at the time Jeremiah gave this particular message might have included a boxing ring with two boxers inside it. 586 BC would have been printed on the back of the bigger boxer inside that ring and the word “Israel” on the back of the small, bruised and wounded figure cowering against the ropes on the far side of the ring. It had been that kind of a year for Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem. Realistically there was no future for the nation or at least none that the King and his administration could establish that was anything resembling a healthy and free kingdom – the end was in sight.
But interspersed between these tough messages in chapters 1-30 are prophetic words of hope such as is found in chapter 23 and then again in chapter 31, our text this morning. You may ask as I did when I read over Jeremiah’s words in this chapter, how in the world can there be hope when it is all but certain that the Babylonians will breech the city walls and destroy the city and kill many of the families and our children and leave the rest in dire straits?
This is a legitimate question and I want to suggest some answers that come out of a study of the text and its context but before I do, I want us to look at what exactly the message or the prophesy here in chapter 31 actually says.
The very first thing that jumped out at me as I studied the verses of our OT Lesson this morning was this: God is going to act. I noticed 4 clear statements that outline his actions:
1 – He is going to bring them – that is the people of Israel – from the land of the north and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth (vs 8)
2 – He says “I will lead them back; I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble… I will gather them as a shepherd keeps a flock… ” (vv 9-10)
3 – then speaking about the people he says “they shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord…” (vs 12)
4 – and finally “I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow” (vs 13)
The word “will” or “shall” have two meanings; they have the sense of something in the future: this or that will happen in the future. The second meaning for the words “will” or “shall” is the sense that something really is going to happen. There is no maybe or perhaps or wishy-washiness about these promises. It is the eternal and everlasting God who is speaking and making these promises; He is totally trustworthy, He is powerful and fully able to accomplish what He says He will do. The people can count on that.
The second thing that I noticed in the verses of our text today is that there is something for the people to do because of these promises and because of who is making these promises. Verse 7 says they are to “sing aloud with gladness and to raise shouts and to give praise” to God who will save them. Verse 10 says they are to both “hear the word of the Lord and declare it to the far regions of the land.”
In other words, they were literally to say things out loud and in public about what God would do – this was not a private matter but something that needed to be spoken by the people themselves. In this way the truth of the message would become more fully integrated and become more real to them.
The Bible is full of similar instructions: the Psalms for example frequently command the people to “sing to the Lord”, “to bless the Lord”, “to give praise to his name,” etc. Speaking these truths about God and praising him out loud and together confirms in our hearts the words that we declare. Our regular liturgy in our church gatherings includes a healthy measure of speaking out loud the things we both believe and affirm. This is important.
The third thing I noticed was that this message is for a time in the future, a time after the trauma of the exile. Unlike the situation in which Jeremiah gives his first prophetic messages, the time for averting a huge defeat by the nation and a time of exile, had passed: it was now a given that it would happen. So you might ask: well what good will Jeremiah’s message about a future do when the reality of a Babylonian invasion and an exile is an assured future?
We might ask ourselves the same question: what good is there in this message of hope when we are already in the midst of a pandemic?
This is a fair question. God, through the prophet speaks words of hope even when the immediate situation shows no signs of anything hopeful. So why?
Let me suggest a couple of reasons. Firstly, just like Israel, we need to look past the immediate difficulties; we need to look for a future when the pain and suffering will be over. We do not do so because we deny the reality of our current suffering but because it is necessary, at times, to see things in perspective: we will not always be in a pandemic; we will live more normal lives at some point. We can of choose to keep our eyes fixed on how bad things are but the prophet is saying: look to the future when God will bring about a huge change in your fortunes and your future.
Secondly, reminding ourselves of the promises of God in our present situation,helps us to bear what it is we have to bear during the difficult time we are in. We bear up under the pain after surgery and faithfully do those painful exercises because we know it will be better for us in the future. We endure the pain of separation more easily when we know we will be re-united with loved ones. Then too we find it easier to be vigilant about physical distancing, wearing masks and staying at home when we are convinced that this time will pass and a new time of freedom will come. It is easier to bear the pain of suffering and loss when we know that God will bring comfort and bring us gladness once more.
Let me close with a story that illustrates how hanging in there with hope, can bring a wonderful result. This story is one of the most heart-warming Covid related stories that I have followed – it involves a young family in Abbotsford. The mother, Gillian was in her 3rdtrimester of a pregnancy when she contracted the Coronavirus and had to be hospitalized. Her condition was so severe that she was put on a ventilator and into a coma in order for them to take the baby by caesarean section. After a week or so, her husband Dave was able to take the baby home while his wife remained in a coma, in the hospital. At that point I can imagine the husband’s sense of the future was pretty grim; a single parent with two children – one an infant – and a partner in a coma.
I don’t know what all went through Dave’s mind during the weeks his wife was in the hospital but I have to believe that he clung to the hope that one day his wife would come out of her coma and be able to return home. I can imagine how hard it was but I can also imagine that he kept thinking about the possibility of a good future.
Well, it happened; Gillian came off the ventilator two weeks before Christmas and was able to finally meet her newborn son, Travis, on the weekend of Dec. 12-13. On Christmas Eve, she went home.
“It’s a very surreal experience to wake from a month-long coma, when the last thing I remember was going to the emergency department having trouble breathing and texting my husband that they were going to keep me in for a few days,” Gillian said. “Waking up, no longer pregnant, but to know our sweet baby boy joined the world and was healthy was such a relief and blessing.”
Gillian said the “outpouring of kindness” that the family received during their ordeal “reinforces that there is much goodness that surrounds us.”
For me this story illustrates so clearly the fact that “there was a good future” in store for this family – of course it is not without its complications as Gillian has a long road toward full health ahead of her. But it is this kind of future that God invites us to proclaim, to sing about and to pray for – with God there is always a future. Amen.