160103 – So I Gather

Yr C ~ Christmas 2 ~ Jeremiah 31:7-14

Let’s start with a ridiculously simplified quick history lesson: King David united the 12 tribes of Israel. His son Solomon instituted a tax to build the first temple. The 10 northern tribes didn’t like it. Solomon died and the northern folks asked his son for tax relief – they were denied – they said “see ya later” and the kingdom was divided.so-i-gather

The Northern kingdom was called “Israel” and sometimes “Ephraim” – and the Southern kingdom was called “Judah.” The Northern kingdom (Israel) was weaker and was frequently invaded and was eventually overrun. So, the Northern tribes were conquered and eventually “assimilated” by the invading culture. They were dispersed and marginalized.

The Southern kingdom lasted longer but it too was conquered and it’s people exiled. Jeremiah was a prophet (not a bullfrog!) during the time of Judah’s (the Southern kingdom’s) exile. Jeremiah has a well-deserved reputation as being a harsh, fire and brimstone, finger-wagging kind of prophet who doesn’t pull any punches. In this passage, however, we get to see his softer side. The prophecy we’re going to explore today is rooted in a gushing, overflowing sense of love. We’re starting at Jeremiah 31:7 but first listen to verse 3 to hear what the rest is built on.

Jeremiah 31:3 – God said, I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”

Or in The Message translation – God told them, “I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!” That’s our starting place today.

Just to start this new year off right, I’m going to remind you that the bible is written in a way to communicate to us profoundly true things about this Holy Mystery we call God, but because God is indescribable and impossible to nail down we tend to talk about God as a person.

For me, God is not ‘a person,’ but God is definitely personal.

For me, God’s essence and nature is love, so to say that God loves us is to try to express that we are constantly surrounded by and enfolded by God’s loving energy, God’s Presence.

For me, forgiveness language and reunion language is about us getting out of our own way and resonating with and harmonizing with the love that God’s Presence is constantly emanating – and when we do we experience shalom.

So, with all that in mind, built on God’s gushing declaration of love, let’s see what the invitation to reunion with God looks like.

7 For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.”

Jeremiah is talking to people who feel lost and defeated – people who had been overrun by circumstances not of their doing and beyond their control – which is how many of us sometimes feel! He’s talking to the remnant of Israel – to a group of people who once felt great and powerful and were on top and now they’re marginalized and scattered and have lost their power. (Are we the remnant of Christendom?)
Jeremiah says God’s message to these people is that they are welcome home any time they want.

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

Whether exiled, or scattered, or excluded, God promises to gather God’s people together and invites them home – yes, physically home to their land but also spiritually home to God’s Presence.
Notice that all are welcome – even the lame, the weak, the blind, children and pregnant women – all of whom had no status in their culture – not just the affluent and powerful and the leaders but everyone. Nothing can exclude the people from God’s love.

God says “you have wandered – so I gather.”
God says “you have divided – so I gather.”
God says “you have segregated – so I gather.”
God says “you have neglected – so I gather.”
God says “you have discriminated – so I gather.”
God says “you have abandoned – so I gather.”
God says “you have ignored – so I gather.”

God says “You have gone out of tune – so I offer harmony – a true tuning, a perfect musical frequency with which you can resonate and come into harmony with.”

Reunion doesn’t automatically wipe out all the ways we’re different – reunion in God celebrates all the ways we’re the same, including and especially the way we’re all loved by God, all empowered by God’s ways, all enlivened by God’s light, that we’re all God’s people.

9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

God is about gathering and leading – it’s not like God scoops us up and carries us, or transports us instantly like on Star Trek. The journey back to wholeness is sometimes long and arduous.
There will be weeping – especially as we come to realize that we’ve been squandering God’s offer of love by ignoring God’s Presence.
The blessing is that passages like this one remind us that God is the one drawing us home to God’s love, and God is the one loving us as we journey. The reward isn’t just the finish line (whatever that means) the reward is realizing we are not alone on the journey, we are not the ones driving the agenda – we are the ones being gathered and led.

The last bit of verse 9 needs more unpacking: God says “for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

Bible study time!
This is a strong theme in the Hebrew Scriptures – that the second born is the favoured one. In their culture they celebrated and lavished praise and power on the first born. The first born got all the inheritance and could give those born after as little or as much as they chose. To be second born was to always be lesser, at a disadvantage, and vulnerable. But not in the bible! Scripture repeatedly seems to bypass the first born in favour of the second.

Take Abraham – Ishmael was his first born, Isaac was second – Isaac was favoured.

Take Isaac – Esau was his first born, Jacob was second – and Jacob cheats, lies, and steals the blessing meant for Esau, and Jacob is still favoured!

Jacob himself had 10 sons with his 1st wife (and 2 concubines) – and 2 sons with his preferred wife Rachel – Joseph and Benjamin. While Joseph (yes, the technicolour dreamcoat guy) is more famous, Jacob’s favourite was Benjamin, the “second” born.

Joseph’s first born is Manasseh (ever heard of him? Nope!), his second born is Ephraim, and it’s Ephraim that’s favoured by grandpa Jacob (who was also the second born but favoured).

It’s a metaphor for empowering those with less power and showing that favour rests upon those not obviously favoured – which is how the nation of Israel has always understood themselves. They weren’t the most powerful, but they believed that God had chosen them above the powerful thereby making them favoured and powerful.

Now back to verse 9 – “for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

Remember, the Northern kingdom was called Israel, and sometimes called Ephraim. So Jeremiah is showing that God is welcoming home even the “wayward” “younger” brother – a theme Jesus picked up for the prodigal son story.

I think our natural default position is to see ourselves as second choice, as the forgotten ones, as the ones who have it tough while the others get all the benefits.

belovedBut God says, “Those who think they are ‘seconds’ and are out of my favour are actually like the firstborn – elevated to inheritance and status, just because.”
Because why? Because with God there are no firsts or seconds, just beloveds.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

In ancient times they believed that if you got conquered it was because you did something wrong to God and God was using the conquerors as God’s tool to punish you. You and I know that’s silly and that is absolutely not how God works, but that’s what they believed.
So verses 10 and 11 say that the one who scattered the people is now gathering them. And more importantly, it says that all is forgiven.
Now, what did the people do to earn that forgiveness?
Absolutely nothing. God just declares them forgiven – because God is love.
If you are standing in need of forgiveness today, know this – you’re forgiven! – because God is love.

12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

It’s a fresh start! As you come home to God you sing and rejoice. “They shall be radiant over the goodness of God…and they shall never languish again.” It doesn’t mean that there will never be hard times again, but that you’ll never face them alone again.

13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

Sounds like the best New Year’s party ever! Look carefully here – I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – like if you say “Yes God” everything is all sunshine and unicorns for you. Look deeper.

The promise isn’t that if you embrace God’s Presence you’ll get wealth and prosperity and abundant life – the promise is that embracing God’s Presence IS abundant life!!!

I’m going to say that again – The promise isn’t that if you embrace God’s Presence you’ll get wealth and prosperity and abundant life – the promise is that embracing God’s Presence IS abundant life!

Now does Jeremiah have anything to say to us today? Absolutely!

The North American Christian Church is, in many ways, in exile. Only a remnant remains from a once powerful and influential organization. God invites this remnant (that’s us) to leave the past behind and allow ourselves to be gathered together in God’s loving arms. It is a radically inclusive welcome – no matter what.

We, who may feel like we’ve been hard done by, by circumstances and choices, who feel like we’ve been marginalized and fallen out of favour while others get benefits – we “seconds” are told God loves us like we’re “firsts.”
But it’s challenging to change our ways and start the journey home.
We realize we’ve squandered and wandered in so many ways and we feel bad that we’ve lost the plot.
We don’t know how to fix it.

And God says, “You don’t have to fix anything – it’s all good, just come home, be on the journey, allow yourselves to be gathered. You don’t earn blessings and shalom, you just receive them.”

And when we begin to see this, when we notice, when we “get it” – it’s like a fresh start.
It’s like New Year’s Day.
And as we are warmed by God’s love and light we feel ourselves rejoicing, and we begin to figure out that this is what abundant life is really all about – that embracing God’s Presence IS abundant life!

And so Jeremiah’s voice echoes through the centuries and rings-in our New Year.

And God’s love gathers us in, and draws us close, and whispers to us – you’re my favourite.