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January 3, 2010
Jeremiah 31:7-14

This passage seems an unusual one from the book of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, who lived just before and through the time of Babylon’s conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, is usually associated with messages of doom and destruction, messages concerning the end of the kingdom, and the defeat of the city.  In fact, Jeremiah’s name has even become something of a tag for those who tend to look on the gloomy side of affairs. Certainly, a message of doom is a major focus of the long book of Jeremiah.  It is, however, not the whole of Jeremiah’s message.  From the very beginning, Jeremiah is given with a two-sided message.

‘See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
To pluck up and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.’
                        (Jer. 1: 10)
This is from the first chapter of Jeremiah, where he is called and appointed a prophet, and this two fold message is at play throughout the whole book.  Destruction, in the book of Jeremiah is difficult and painful, involving enormous loss, death and grief.  However, no matter how painful it is, in the fullest expression of Jeremiah’s message, destruction is never to be seen in isolation.  God here is destroying in order to build anew, plucking up in order to plant.

The message of hope for the future inherent in Jeremiah’s writing is never stronger than in the “Book of Comfort” or “Book of Consolation,” chapters 30–33.  At this point Jeremiah looks beyond the situation of exile and destruction to a hopeful future, the future of a restored covenantal relationship. This is especially expressed in Jer 31:31-34.  The passage set from Jeremiah for this second Sunday after Christmas (Jer 31:7-14) is drawn from the heart of the Book of Comfort.

The passage is an oracle, or saying from God.  It conveys a message of hope and of promise.  It is addressed first to God’s people, variously called Judah and Israel (vv. 7-9), then to the nations (vv. 10-12) and finishes with a summary description of rejoicing (vv. 13-14).

In the first section (vv. 7-9) the people are called to praise God, who is leading the people back, gathering them together.  This leading and gathering by God is presented using two central images, that of the shepherd, and that of the Exodus. The shepherd image is present in the concept of God gathering the people. It is evocative of the shepherd gathering the lost sheep, and in God’s leading by water, and in straight paths (v. 9; cf. Psalm 23 and Isa 40:1-11).  The Exodus imagery is invoked in v. 9 where God becomes ‘a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.’  This image of God as father is not common in the Old Testament and only emerges late in Israel’s history (Isa 63:16; 64:8), but it is evocative of Exod 4:22, where God names Israel as his firstborn son.

This combination of imagery suggests the return of the people of Israel/Judah from exile in Babylon. The returning community, however, is a very different one to that which was carried off into exile. The exile itself is described at a couple of points, see for example 2 Kgs 24:10-17. There the concentration is on the king, his family, the palace officials, and all of the treasures of the king’s household which were taken off to Babylon.  The focus is on wealth, and on the powerful of the kingdom. However, where Jeremiah is envisaging the return, there is a different focus. Those who will be gathered from the farthest parts of the earth include especially the blind and the lame, those with children, those pregnant, and those in labour. This is not a list of the rich and famous, or of the powerful. It is a list of those who are most vulnerable, most in need. There is no mention of the wealth of the land, and no mention of a ruling or elite crowd at all.

In the second section (vv. 10-12) the nations are addressed, and Jeremiah’s double message is powerfully expressed. The God who scattered Israel, with gather Israel again – the exile does not mean the end of the people, or God’s ultimate abandoning of them. God will again gather the people, and will continue to love and rescue the people of Israel and Judah. The image of the shepherd is made more explicit here (v. 10) but again, the shepherd is not the only image. God is one who ransoms, or redeems the people – as a close relative can buy back one sold into slavery for debt (v. 11). Water, and the image of abundance that it brings in this dry land is the final vision for this time of return. The passage concludes with a summary of the rejoicing of the people, with dancing and joy, and an end to mourning and sadness.

This is a joyful passage, with an explosion of imagery capturing the hope that Jeremiah sees for the future. It is a joy and hope based on God’s action in gathering, leading and caring for the people, especially those most vulnerable. This is not an image of a conquering army gaining their city and kingdom back again through force, to rule as they did before. This is a people profoundly changed by their experiences of loss and of exile. It is a lost and vulnerable people being gathered by their God, and finding their delight in that. It is the message proclaimed in the babe in Bethlehem, adored by shepherds and wise men alike.

Psalm 147

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