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Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Our passage from Jeremiah opens with five imperatives. Through the prophet, the Lord exhorts Israel to sing aloud and to raise shouts in gladness, to proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” The images in this small segment of Jeremiah portray a divine regathering of God’s scattered people. But we miss something of the impact that these images intend to elicit if we narrowly keep our eyes only on these two verses. The tone and imagery of restoration and regathering lose their significance and their power when we fail to contextualize them in the circumstances in which the people of God find themselves. 

Jeremiah’s ministry and the book that bears his name reflects and responds to the political crises surrounding the last days of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel.[1] The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been defeated by the Assyrians. By the late 7th century, the Assyrian’s political power had been reduced to rubble and the Babylonians, under the governance of Nebuchadnezzar, had risen as a major political power to the north of Judah. To the south, Judah had to contend also with Egypt, who used the small kingdom of Judah as a buffer against the political and military pressures of Babylonian imperial conquest and expansion. During this time, the kings of Judah vacillated between alliances with these geopolitical powers, evoking military response from Babylon which led to several rounds of deportation. The first occurred in 598 BCE, when Babylonian forces moved against Jerusalem and deported Jehoiachin, the king’s son, and the prominent citizens of the city. The second occurred after Babylon dissolved Judah’s existence as an independent political entity, incorporating the small kingdom into a governorship that was accountable to the Babylonian empire and its political ambitions. 

The prophecy of Jeremiah was not simply a narration of political these events, nor does it give a flat, one-dimensional political analysis of what Judah was experiencing. Rather, Jeremiah interprets the events of his day through a very particular theological lens shaped by the covenant born out of the Sinai tradition under Moses. This was a tradition that made a direct connection between Israel’s social and political practices and their obedience to the covenant stipulations as they were outlined in the book of Deuteronomy. Within that tradition, there is a correlation between Israel’s faithfulness to the covenantal terms and Israel’s political standing: political prosperity was “proof” of Israel’s obedience and political turmoil was “proof” of Israel’s disobedience. But Jeremiah’s covenantal interpretation of what was happening also challenged the very tradition that provided his lens – Israel’s fate and God’s actions could not be understood through a simple retribution scheme. The poetic imagery throughout Jeremiah’s prophecy affirms another, seemingly contradictory, theological claim: that the consequences of violating the covenant stipulations would not, in fact, be God’s last word because God is not driven by retribution but by a pathos that belies God’s own yearning and desire to be in relation with Israel. 

These two aspects of Jeremiah’s prophecy push against another powerful source in his contemporary moment, which was undergirded by an ideology that claimed God’s promises of perpetuity about the temple system and the monarchy were irrevocable, leaving both the religious and political institution exempt from the covenantal consequences of disobedience. In other words, the politico-religious establishment assumed that they were invulnerable to any divine judgment. In affirming the centrality of the covenant promises and sanctions, Jeremiah challenges the social, political, and religious claims of the royal-temple establishment. 

If we were to read the first 29 chapters of Jeremiah with this background information, it would seem to read strictly as a prophecy of doom and gloom. But throughout that portion, we also find those clues that Jeremiah gives us that suggest the old covenantal system was also inadequate because it failed to take into account God’s own pathos, God’s own desire to be the people of Israel’s God. The retribution scheme of the Sinai tradition could not contain the God who established the covenant. Jeremiah sees God as both faithful to the covenant terms and free to act outside the rigid boundaries and strictures of that tradition. And it is here, in the juxtaposition of God’s desire and the covenant tradition that demands retribution that Jeremiah is able to offer a new, imaginative construct of hope, when the “fortunes of Israel” would be restored. Those who had been scattered would be brought back. The re-establishment of Judah and Israel is promised, and they will return to the land of their ancestors. The judgment of God, experienced as political chaos and displacement, would not be God’s final word to God’s people. And so we find ourselves today in a portion of Jeremiah that is commonly called the “Book of Consolation or Comfort,” in which Jeremiah casts a new vision, a vision of a people restored; a vision of a people who are led back to the safety of God’s fidelity and faithfulness. Jeremiah poetically casts an imaginative future that is grounded not in the fantasy of the powerful but in the very nature and character of God’s unconditional love. 

Throughout the course of Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation,” the prophet is eager to help the people displaced by exile to once again recognize that their identity as God’s people is contingent on nothing less than the faithfulness and power of God. He insists that the historical circumstances of the exile will not obliterate the existence of God’s people because God’s fidelity to the covenant will ultimately and forever lead to new possibilities that intend to reshape and reorder both the despairing present reality of exile and displacement.

So, what are we to do with this passage that proclaims the unmitigated power and longing of God to be in relation with God’s people? As I’ve thought about this question over the last week, I have been reminded of the experiences we’ve had over the last 20 months. We have experienced the dispersion and displacement of a society closed to anything non-essential because of a global pandemic. We have had to learn new ways of thinking about how we, the people of St Paul’s, are defined by God’s word when our normal ways of expressing that reality was an impossibility. And we have, to some extent, experienced also a return, a restoration of sorts – though, we cannot say that we have all returned (we are, indeed, still missing so many of our community not least of which are the children). 

What message might Jeremiah have for us today, on a cold and windy October morning? In our progress toward “return,” are we coming home with the expectation that things will continue as they had in the times before we were displaced? Or, are we open to new possibilities of meaning, to new possibilities of gathering, to new possibilities of existence that are characterized not by the old systems and structures of our common life but by the possibilities that are wrought by the God who has no limits?

As we continue to experience this strange evolution of “return,” will we limit what we conceive as possible to the standards of human capability and achievement, or will we hope, will we trust, that what God has envisioned for us moves beyond the scarcity of human accomplishment and opens up to us the fullness and abundance of life that God desires for creation?

 

[1] I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann’s treatment of Jeremiah in the following works: 

A Commentary on Jeremiah (William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998) 

The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 2018: 40th Anniversary Edition)

 Out of Babylon (Abingdon Press, 2010)