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(For use when Epiphany, Jan. 6, is celebrated on a weekday following the second Sunday after Christmas.)
Jeremiah 31:7-14

This is a passage of overwhelming joy and excitement as those who were formerly in exile now return home. They may be but a remnant (v. 7), but the joy is not diminished for reason of number. This is a joy and gladness worthy of heaven.

Today’s reading is part of Jeremiah 30-31, a section of the book called by some scholars the ‘Book of Consolation’ or ‘Comfort’. These two chapters might well have developed separately from other sections of Jeremiah. Now they stand in a specific place and speak to readers in a specific context. In his early ministry Jeremiah urged the people to expect a long period of exile (29:5-7). He also spoke of an end to that dreadful experience and a future return (29:10-14). The ‘Book of Comfort’ develops, in lyric form, the hope and expectation of 29:10-14. The exile has not been a time of failure for God in his purposes with Judah and Israel. Nor has it been a period of just marking time, waiting for the end of punishment so that the real work of restoration can begin. Rather, exile and the punishment it was seen to be for God’s people, have become the context for God’s work with his people and the arena within which their relationship will develop. After long oracles of judgment against Judah, now there come expressions of hope, newness and joy.

The pattern of this celebratory passage follows the historical experience of Judah. Judah mourned as it went into exile as punishment for its past activities (Jer 1:14-19). The prophet mourned with them (Jer 15:10-21; 20:7-18) but nevertheless sought to help his people face the realities of their circumstances. Now that has all turned around. There is not only hope for the people but the long awaited deliverance from captivity is becoming a reality, a present experience. There is more, however, than just an historical account here. While the story tells of earthly events, the language pushes us beyond them. It is the language of poetry, of deliberate exaggeration, that lets us see a reality that transcends those events. For example, those invited to celebrate the return to the homeland in the passage include those (v. 8) for whom a long journey poses many difficulties, if not impossibilities – the blind, the lame, and women either with new born infants or just now in labour – even these, in the poet’s language, will join in the joyous march. No one will be excluded. The language takes us beyond the mundane, beyond what we calculate as possible, and beyond the raw and painful events, to see what is possible in the world as God sees it. The language of the poet takes us to heights of joy, song and celebration that transcend the pain of experience. The language of the poet lifts the reader out of the place of hurt into a new possibility. In effect, the language shows us the new reality that God works in the midst of painful experience. It shows us what is possible with God.

In the metaphoric language of the poet, the wilderness is the place where God’s people experience God’s grace again. They have survived the sword, i.e. they have experienced the trauma of war and exile, and emerged from it. As was the case with the Old Testament readings leading up to Christmas this year, in today’s reading the wounds of the exile do not lie far from the surface, and the experience of joy in liberation is only felt through the knowledge of pain. This people sings its hymns out of the experience of hurt. There is no celebration of ‘God with us’ without knowing what ‘God not with us’ is like. That knowledge changes the shape of the celebration. It gives it both a substance and a resolution that could not be known otherwise. This is not to say in some flippant way that the exile was necessary, or that God uses suffering to teach people his ways: ‘no pain, no gain’. Rather, it is to recognise that the time of pain, brought on by the people’s past, now becomes the place where God is present to them, even when it seems God is absent. The celebration in today’s passage is not just because the period of absence has passed. It is a celebration of the presence discovered in absence.

The basis of the call for resounding joy is given earlier in the chapter, before today’s reading begins (vv. 1-6). It is the everlasting love of the Lord and his faithfulness (v. 3). The passage is a celebration of the faithfulness of God who remains with a faithless people in their time of pain. It is God’s resolve alone which grants this people not only hope but celebration. The God they discover in the time of exile is one who through his faithfulness and grace makes new life possible in the midst of pain and captivity. That is what is celebrated.

Finally, the newness and grace experienced by the people in their liberation flows out into the world around them. When they return they will experience the benefits of the land (vv. 5, 12). The bounty of creation is not just seen here in terms of the benefit for humankind. The replenishment and fruitfulness of crops and herds etc. was seen in ancient Israel as a blessing in and of itself, as a gift of life and newness granted by God. The fruitfulness of both humans and creation is a sign of the presence and blessing of God. Likewise the joy and celebration of the people at their own deliverance, crosses over into their joy at the time of harvest. Their worship incorporates not only their own experience, with its pain and thanksgiving, but also the life of the world. History and nature both occasion joy (and pain), and the two cannot be separated.

We read this passage with its wonderful expression of joy in the context of Christmas and the celebration of ‘God with us’ in Jesus. It is fitting that the Gospel reading this week is taken from John 1. In the midst of the telling of the ‘events’ of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Year C), we read today an account of the incarnation, the language of which deliberately takes us beyond the earthly ‘events’ in order to see another reality in them. Maybe Jeremiah challenges us today to be more attentive to the ‘poetry’ in the story of the incarnation, to that which takes us beyond the mundane to places where we see the newness of God working. In a world overwhelmed by the prosaic accounts of war and threats of war, of death and those who seek asylum, things that come with nauseating regularity over our TVs or radios, maybe we need to hear again the poetry in the incarnation. Maybe Jeremiah also challenges us to see that the joy of Christmas is truly an invitation to celebrate a newness that encompasses the whole of creation.

Psalm 147

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