YEAR A: EASTER DAY (alternate text)
Jeremiah was a prophet to Judah during the time leading up to the exile. In the early chapters of the book, Jeremiah laments over Judah and the coming defeat of Jerusalem. He warns the people of the severe consequences of their sin and disobedience, but they do not heed his warning. He also includes a striking personal lament over his life as an unwelcome prophet, speaking a word out of season. He sees his prophetic vocation as conveying the will and purposes of God as they unfold over time.
This alternate Old Testament reading for Easter Day is from a part of Jeremiah, chapters 30 and 31, known as the Book of Consolation. In these chapters, the tone shifts from warning and woe to the promise of restoration and renewal of life following the exile. For Jeremiah, this is not a promise of cheap grace, but a dawn that will only come at the end of a long, dark night.
Jeremiah sees the return from exile as re-configuring the heart of Israel’s faith. In Jer 23:7 and following, he notes that whereas previously the people had said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,’ following the return from exile they will know the Lord as the One who ‘brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ So both the exile and the gathering back are seen by Jeremiah as happening by the hand of God, with the return from exile eclipsing even the Exodus as a sign of God’s glorious deliverance.
In chapter 30, Jeremiah speaks of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which is echoed in 31:4, in which the virgin Israel is to be rebuilt. The image of virginity is used in contrast to the sullied woman to whom Jeremiah had compared the people in their going after other gods.
In 31:1, Jeremiah conveys the Lord’s promise that God will be the God of ‘all the families of Israel,’ drawing wide the circle of God’s people to include those in the north and south, and all those who have been in exile. The prophet uses the covenant formula, ‘I will be the God...and they shall be my people,’ echoing earlier promises of faithfulness to the people. God acknowledges the people’s hardships, and celebrates that having ‘survived the sword and [having] found grace in the wilderness,’ they are now to be restored to the land of promise. In v.3, the Hebrew word can mean that God appeared from far away or long ago; in the sense of the text, it seems likely that ‘long ago’ would accord well with the recital of God’s faithfulness to the people through time.
God reminds the people that he has loved them with ‘an everlasting love,’ with continued faithfulness. Implied in this is the assurance that even their apostasy cannot cause God to ultimately abandon them. This stands alongside Jeremiah’s earlier warnings that linked God’s judgment to the people’s behaviour. Here, even if they sin and are punished, God will in the end deliver them, not due to their deserving, but simply because God’s love for them is without limit.
In vv. 4 and 5, the prophet conveys God’s promises, using a repeated refrain, ‘Again...again...again,’ suggesting the restoration of celebrations not known during the exile. Again the city will be built; again, they will dance and make merry; again, they will plant vineyards, with the added blessing of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
In v. 6 the reason for this rejoicing is made clear; it is that one day sentinels will be able to call to Ephraim that the people can once again go up to Zion, Jerusalem, where the Lord their God is present. The rebuilding of the temple as the focus of God’s presence is implied in this call to pilgrimage.
Coming as it does at the close of Lent and Holy Week, this passage turns the corner from lamentation to joy. The passage from Jeremiah accords well with the gospel reading for Easter Day from John 20:1-18, as both readings bring the promise of a light that shines in the darkness, the unexpected in-breaking of joy when only death and exile seemed certain. In preaching the passages for today, the text from Jeremiah bids us praise God for the surprising resurgence of grace shown in the promised return from exile, and in the One who returned even from the exile of the grave, whose resurrection we celebrate this Easter Day.
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