Sermon for 2 Christmas Yr C, 4/01/2003
Based on Jer 31:7-14
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,
pastor of Grace Lutheran Church
& chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
It is not uncommon for many people, this time of year (even though we’re still celebrating the 12 days of Christmas), to suffer from the “post-Christmas and New Year’s blues.” This is especially so for those who are suffering with chronic illnesses or who recently lost a loved one and continue to mourn their death. This time of year there is a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone to be jolly and joyful—which makes it even more difficult for those who are sorrowful and suffering from depression. Add to this some people’s sky-high expectations for “the perfect Christmas,” which no one can live up to, and we shall most likely be disappointed.
Sometimes we too might feel like the citizens of Judah and Israel who lived in exile under oppressive foreign rulers. In this context, the prophet Jeremiah speaks a word of hope and consolation. Actually, our first lesson today consists of a section from Jeremiah called by scholars “The Book of Consolation.” Jeremiah looks into a future time when the exiles from both Northern and Southern Kingdoms shall have a wonderful homecoming. They shall sing shout, proclaim and give praise to God for delivering them out of exile. Among those whom the LORD shall gather are: the blind, the lame, those who are pregnant and those in labour. Jeremiah, speaking God’s message, tells the exiles: “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations, I will lead them back.” (Jer 31:9a) After the prophet goes on to assure the people that the LORD will grant the returning exiles health and prosperity in their homeland; he then says the LORD shall reverse their grieving into rejoicing: “I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” (Jer 31:13c)
These words are also spoken to us who, at times, feel we are living in exile, suffering from grief, sorrow, illness, and other hardships. In such times, we too need a word of consolation and hope from the LORD. In the beginning of a new year, we tend to be in a more reflective mood—focussing on the passage of time, and what we do with time and time does with us. Do our lives really matter? Do they make a difference? How do we best serve our LORD and his Church? What word of hope and consolation is there for us? In times like these, we all need to be reminded of and encouraged by “the bigger picture.”
Martin Marty, professor emeritus of church history at the University of Chicago, recently wrote a millennial balance sheet on Christianity. (Here’s what he has to say):
From a handful of followers who first heard the teachings of Jesus to the 2.2 billion members of various denominations alive today, Christians were to be a force to heal and transform the world. And after 2,000 years of believing, Christians comprise 33.1 percent of the world’s population.
But beyond numbers, exactly how successful has this faith been? … If Jesus were to return to Earth today, would he recognize his teachings as preached and practiced by his followers through the ages? To answer such questions, friends or foes of Christianity would say, “Let’s look at the record.” What would a balance sheet turn up?
Any individual who has been lifted from despair to hope, moved from hate to love, or vaulted from doubt to faith is likely to judge the twenty centuries of Christianity as worthwhile. So would any company of believers who have been sustained in slavery, oppressed because of race or gender or class, and then…experienced liberation.
Anyone who has experienced healing, received solace when the candle burns low or the life of a dear one ebbs, or…been inspired or intellectually moved when the faith elicits art or makes sense will use that experience to do the measuring. 1
In our experiences of darkness and exile, we tend to forget or lose sight of this “larger picture” which Professor Marty highlights. Not so Jeremiah though, even in the deepest gloom and doom, the prophet exhorts the people of Judah and Israel not to give up, not to lose hope, not to forget the promises-the resolutions of God.
Unlike the feeble New Year’s resolutions that we humans make; God’s resolutions; God’s promises are kept and fulfilled. We might start off okay, good intentions and all with our resolutions, but within a month or so—if we last even that long!—we “fall off the wagon” and abandon our resolutions. We know from history that Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope and consolation did come true—the residents of the Northern Kingdom, Israel did return from their Assyrian exile; and the residents of the Southern Kingdom, Judah did return from their Babylonian exile. God did bless and prosper their work, their society, their nation again. Even today, amidst the dark, evil clouds of antisemitism around the world; God still has plans for the Jews, his Chosen People. They continue to be blessed by God and to prosper. They are, as Jeremiah puts it, “like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” (Jer 31:12)
We Christians are also related to our Jewish neighbours by virtue of Jesus our Jewish Founder and Messiah. We too have inherited the blessings of God and have prospered thanks to the grace of God. We, like the Jewish people, have lived in various kinds of exile, under hostile political powers. Yet, the Christian faith, just as the Jewish faith, has survived and even grown stronger, more mature because of this all—thanks to the trustworthiness of God who fulfills his promises. So, as we journey into this New Year remember these words of consolation and hope from the prophet Jeremiah; for with God all things are possible! For as Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed: “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, And hope without an object cannot live.”
Even in our darkest hour, we cannot live without hope. As followers of Jesus, may we move into another new year with the hope and consolation of our LORD. Like Jeremiah, may we too be messengers and bearers of this hope and consolation to our loved ones, friends and neighbours; as well as to the whole world. For our lives and our world are not destined to doom and gloom. Rather, we can live, as did Jeremiah, with the hope and consolation that God is still at work to redeem and save us from all forms of exile—including the powers of evil, sin and death. The world, the Church, and our personal lives are in good hands. God keeps and one day shall complete his resolutions. Amen.
1 Cited from: “A Millennial Balance Sheet on Christianity,” distributed by Religion News Services, Copyright 1999 MSNBC.com.