For those who want a change from the Gospel
Last after Trinity – Jeremiah 31:7-9 (Related)
At first sight we might be surprised to find such an upbeat passage in the middle of the OT book which has become the byword for miserable complaint. But this brief section, from 30:1 to 31:40 has been called ‘The Book of Consolation’, and provides a respite from the gloom and a glimpse of the coming restoration. Jeremiah himself is living in the devastated city of Jerusalem, while many of his compatriots have been exiled to Babylon. But the words here suggest that perhaps he has a wider vision. The term ‘the ends of the earth’ might just suggest the distance from Jerusalem to Babylon (around 700 miles), but may also mean that Jeremiah’s scope is not just on those recently deported from the Southern Kingdom, but also those captured 100 years earlier by Assyria, who had become completely lost in space and time. And of course he is also addressing those with him in Jerusalem who have lost friends and family. So these words of consolation might be directed at all who have lost others, and who long for homecoming.
We today have lost people. Some have been lost through death, and while even secular funeral officiants tend to shy away from saying ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead’ and express vague hopes about dancing with the stars or whatever, people often ‘like to think’ about some kind of meeting up with lost loved ones. But there are other losses too. Friends fall out with one another. People angrily leave our churches, or they just drift away silently. Family feuds split people apart. Voting ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ divide previous friendships. In so many ways we might hope for homecoming and restoration, but find it hard to see how that might happen.
Earlier in the book (7:16, 11:14, 14:11) God had forbidden Jeremiah from crying out to him or praying for the people, and they themselves were told neither to cry out in pain or to feast and rejoice. Silence was the order of the day. Yet in spite of that the cries break through from time to time. We Brits might be good at suffering in silence, but it is not the natural human thing to do. This passage, though, begins with commands which go the opposite way: ‘Sing with joy’, ‘shout’ ‘make your praises heard’. At last the ban on demonstrative emotion is ended, and the cries of the people can once again be heard. I wonder, in any given congregation, what pain lies buried and secret, what losses go unmourned, only to break through very occasionally only to be quickly buried again. If we were encouraged really to shout out both our pain and our joy, what cacophony might ensue?
So this passage invites us to consider whom we have lost, how we might mourn them, and what hopes we have of homecoming. For Christians even death itself promises restoration: the bereaved Martha knew that she would see her brother Lazarus again, just a bit sooner than she expected. Christian funerals are rarely the unremittingly bleak events of those for people with no faith and no hope. But in other ways we might long for homecoming, as the father longed for his prodigal son to return, as Jacob yearned to meet again with Joseph, as so many today hope against hope for their children, lost in so many ways.
What is encouraging about this passage is the sense that if God alone knows where these lost people are, he alone is capable of bringing them home. They might be at the ends of the earth, literally anywhere, but he does know, and Jeremiah foresees a time when he alone will bring them back. They will be vulnerable: like the prodigal son the people envisaged here are broken people, blind, or lame, or in pain, not to mention the emotional scars of their experiences of exile. God will put all the required accessibility aids in place for them, as all good churches do, and will refresh them with streams of water, something which they will not have seen too much of in the Iraqi desert. But why is God doing all this restoration? The answer comes in our final verse: because of relationship. He is their father, and they his children, and like a good father he too aches for homecoming.
As I consider this passage, I can’t help but think of those I have known over the years who have lost that relationship with God. People once on fire with the Spirit have now drifted away from any desire to have anything to do with God. Church decline is not just because of the death of elderly members, but also due to the drifting of the young. Whether it is shallow roots, the joys and cares of this world, or the snatching away of the Enemy, many are lost from our churches, quite apart from those who have never been there in the first place. Perhaps this passage encourages us to cry out for homecoming for people we know like that.