For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter Day – Jeremiah 31:1-6
Jeremiah is not known as one of the most cheery or celebratory of the OT prophets, apart from that bit in chapter 29 which well-meaning people write on cards to you about God knowing the plans he has for us, a passage we might send a lot less if we consider what actually panned out for Jeremiah! But amidst the doom and gloom there are passages of hope which shine out, and todays OT lectionary reading is one of them, and it seems appropriate for this day of celebration, muted though it might be this year.
In fact all the OT prophets have to juggle the twin themes of judgement and salvation, of punishment and restoration. In our passage the people whom God has loved with an everlasting love are the same people who have survived the sword. The words of hope and future blessing in v.4-5 are spoken to people oppressed, exiled and far from home.
This tension, between judgement and promise, is one which Christians today have to negotiate too. So what does Easter Sunday have to say to us about it? Maybe there are three things in particular that it will not let us believe in.
It will not let us believe in cheap grace. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was to lose his life under the Nazi regime in Germany, coined the term to mean ‘the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’ In other words we celebrate the triumph of Easter through the lens of the cross, knowing that the resurrection is the way of salvation for those who understand their desperate need of a Saviour, and who commit themselves wholeheartedly to him from this day forward. Jeremiah’s words of hope come to those who know punishment, and are living with the consequences of sin.
It will not let us believe in a vengeful God. The fact that the prophets had to cope with both the anger and the mercy of God witnesses to this. Punishment is never something God does, and certainly not what he enjoys doing: it is simply the consequences of disobeying and rejecting his will. We do that all the time, of course, and sometimes we pay the price, but his perfect will is never vengeance or retribution, but rather forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Today we celebrate, in the words of the Christmas carol, ‘God and sinners reconciled’.
It will not let us believe that this is all there is. This morning I woke up to the news that a very good friend had just died from Covid-19 – the first time the pandemic has really come that close to our family. In the announcement of his death I was struck by the phrase ‘He is more alive now than he has ever been’. Resurrection opens the gates of glory to all who choose to walk with Christ through them, and while we might read Jeremiah’s promise of eternal tambourine-playing as a picture of heaven (I so hope that it isn’t!) there is both a present and a future power to the truth of the resurrection. There is nothing that can’t be undone by God, no situation too powerful for him to turn around, but, as the young men in the furnace realised, if not, there is still eternity.
This is a very strange Easter Day, but our resurrection hope is for far more than a return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible. Indeed there are many things I hope will never be normal again. Our hope is eternal, and, like Job, even if he slays us, yet will we hope in him.