by Mike Clymer
January 4, 2009
You mourn, your cities languish. You offer up a cry, but no one seems to hear. You go to the well, but find no water. Dismayed and despairing, you cover your head. The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land. You are scattered, like chaff driven by a distant wind. This is your lot. Your shame can be seen by all, your adulteries and lustful neighings exposed. You hope for light, but it has been turned into thick darkness, changed to deep gloom. Your feet stumble on the darkening hills. Yet you remember that once, you belonged to God.
Ever felt like an exile? If you have, or you do, then the words of Jeremiah 31 may carry a special poignancy. Words from the Lord God Almighty: “He who scattered Israel will gather them and watch over his flock like a shepherd.” Promises of homecoming: “I will…gather them from the ends of the earth…the blind and the lame…a great throng will return.” Pledges of comfort and joy: “They will sorrow no more…[there will be dancing]…I will turn their mourning into gladness.” The promise of redemption. The hope of restoration.
Ah, Jeremiah. See, today’s passage is about as hopeful as Jeremiah gets. While other Old Testament books like Psalms or Isaiah are loaded with such comforting poetry and images, Jeremiah is known by biblical scholars as the “weeping prophet.” Chapter 31 is in the middle of about a 3-4 chapter interlude some refer to as Jeremiah’s “Little Book of Consolation,” because the rest of Jeremiah’s 52 chapters are full of dire judgements, warnings and condemnations. Lots of fire and brimstone preaching in Jeremiah. Lots of sadness and lamenting. In fact, Jeremiah also wrote the short book that comes right after this one in the Bible, and is called Lamentations. So Jeremiah, as you can imagine, wasn’t a well-liked prophet. He was always calling the people of Israel on their disobedience, warning them of destruction, and telling them “I told you so” when the day of reckoning did come. No, he wasn’t well-received or well-treated for that matter. (You can read more of the book to see what I mean.)
But here, in these verses today, Jeremiah is the bearer of good news for a change, with these words of consolation: “There is hope for your future.” The exiles will be summoned home. The tears will be wiped from their eyes. God’s people will be restored once again. They will be back where they belong. Things will be as they were intended. Now I believe that these words from the Lord, spoken by Jeremiah in this little “mini-book of comfort” to the dispersed Israelites thousands of years ago, speak to us today as well. They speak volumes to us about the nature and will of God, because in many ways this “Restoration” promised in Jeremiah 31 can be viewed as a microcosm of the entire biblical story.
Here’s what I mean: Many of us are familiar these days with the “zoom” feature on cameras or computer screens (or graphing calculators, like in my classes at school). Let’s imagine the whole Bible laid out before us like a single large wall hanging, and right now we are “zoomed in” on Jeremiah 31:7-14. If we “zoom out” one level from these verses so that now we can view the whole book of Jeremiah, we see them in context – a few hopeful chapters in the middle of a book full of judgement and lament. Israel is being lambasted by the Lord for their disobedience and sinfulness, they are suffering exile and destruction as a result, and there in the middle of the book are these promises of redemption, of homecoming. Now, if we zoom out even farther so that now we can survey a large section of the Old Testament, from the establishment of the kingdom of Israel all the way through the major and minor prophets, we find that this pattern in Jeremiah actually repeats itself, over and over again. God makes a covenant with Israel, the people break their part of the covenant and return to sinful ways, they suffer judgement in the form of exile and destruction, and then God acts to restore his people, to call them back into right relationships, to renew his covenant with them. Promises of healing, homecoming, joy and gladness are offered anew. Then, in a generation or two, the people of Israel fall back into disobedience and the cycle repeats itself, on and on, over countless generations and literally hundreds and hundreds of years – Yahweh continually, over and over again, offering restoration and redemption to his people, seeking to bring them back into proper relationship with their God.
But if we zoom out still another level, all the way out to where we can scan the whole Bible now and view it as one – very long! – story, we see that the biblical narrative really is just that – the story of an Almighty Being, creating a world, creating humanity, for the purpose of relationship. And as sin, and all the poor choices we creatures make, threaten to separate the creation from the Creator, God acts to restore that relationship, to make things right again, like they were in the Garden of Eden. A cycle of covenant, sin, judgement, restoration, as God keeps calling, offering, forgiving, working with us, throughout the Bible, throughout history. There are commandments etched into stone, there are books and books of laws, there are floods and rainbows, there are sacrifices, there are wars, there is slavery, and there is exile, with the occasional homecoming (like Jeremiah 31) mixed in to restart the cycle. But we’re looking at the whole Bible now, and we see that finally God interrupts this Old Testament cycle by saying, “Enough! I am going to radically change my approach. I’m going to send my only begotten Son, to reboot the system, to redeem the whole kit and kaboodle, to usher in a brand new covenant.” That’s what we celebrated two weeks ago when we remembered that miracle in Bethlehem. But the work God is doing in the New Testament through Jesus is essentially the same work God was doing in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah – the work of restoration. It’s what God has been about since Adam & Eve made those first bad, bad choices in the Garden. It’s what I believe God is about, even today, the first Sunday of 2009, even here in Jubilee Mennonite Church. That’s the God we serve, and worship, and praise – the God that is constantly working to restore us, to bring us home, back where we belong.
That grand biblical story is encapsulated in another, more poetic way, in our other Scripture today, John Chapter 1. So let’s zoom back in now, but not to Jeremiah; rather, let’s zoom all the way back in to the Gospel of John in the New Testament. In Chapter 1 we read that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. We read that in him was life, and that life was the light of men, and that the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. In the world, but the world did not recognize him. His own did not receive him, but to those who did, he gave the right to become children of God. From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another, for the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The metaphors may be different, but I suggest the theme here, the story, is the same story of restoration promised in Jeremiah. In John, the light transforms the darkness, and life is restored. The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, transforms the law, and grace and truth are restored. In Jeremiah, mourning is transformed into joy. The exiles are welcomed home. We – all of us, each of us – are called out of the wilderness, beckoned to enter the promised land. Our Creator is the great Transformer.
It’s important to remember that this great story of restoration continues, even today, to play out on many different levels – from the individual to the congregational to the societal to the global to the cosmic. The Bible clearly depicts God reconciling ALL things, all of creation, to himself. God wants to restore EACH of us – me and you as individuals – to wholeness, and God also wants to restore ALL of us, collectively, to shalom, the state of corporate wholeness. We 21st-century American Christians are generally more tuned in to the concept of individual wholeness, since the individual is the center of our cultural paradigm. But it would serve God well for us to become more attuned to the restorative work God wants to do at the corporate level also. Institutions, communities, and nations need restoration and redemption, too. The biblical story is as much about the Lord calling groups of people back into relationship as it is about God calling individual persons.
There’s another significant aspect of God’s restorative activity for us to notice: It takes place within and among us, not always so much in the circumstances around us. Certainly in some cases, yes, restoration involves a change of circumstances. In Jeremiah, for example, the people of God are being promised a return to the land of Israel – an actual, physical homecoming. But even then it is worth noting many Israelites would have already suffered terribly and died in exile, or would be returning without loved ones who had. So the transformation of mourning into joy clearly involves something more than simply a transformation of circumstances. I think clues to this mystery lie, once again, in John chapter 1: The grace we have received through Jesus is the right to become children of God. It is the restoration of that relationship with our Creator that transforms us. Our spiritual exile is ended, though our circumstances may remain difficult. This is not a prosperity gospel! I’m sorry, but Jesus is not like the big red “EASY” button I recently saw depicted on a t-shirt that takes away all of our difficulties in life. In fact, the promise that our sorrow will turn to joy assumes there will be suffering and loss, doesn’t it? The call to return home assumes that we will find ourselves in the wilderness, that there will be times of exile. And the light shines where? Oh, the darkness is real, alright, but it does not overcome the light. This is a restoration gospel – God’s grace keeps calling us back to him, back where we belong.
The beginning of the New Year is a time when many of us make New Year resolutions, goals for improving ourselves in various ways in the coming year. But the first Sunday of 2009 might also be a good time to consider some New Year restorations. The difference between resolutions and restorations is that resolutions are things that I do; restorations are things that God does. Restoration has been God’s business – God’s passion, really – since the first chapters of Genesis. What transformations do we need this year? Our wilderness turned into a well-watered garden? The tears wiped from our eyes? Our path made level? Our darkness brightened? Our condemnation under the law lifted, replaced with the abundance of grace? Perhaps, simply, the chance to come back home? None of these are things we need to resolve to do. These are the things God offers to do for us. May we be open to God’s restorative work in our lives in this new year – each of us as individuals, and all of us, together. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Amen. Let that light shine in 2009.