This second Sunday of Christmas the lectionary deviates from a passage from Isaiah for the Old Testament Reading and focuses on a passage from Jeremiah 31:7-14. This passage seems a bit odd at first, but it is a beautiful passage that provides joy and a calling for response to be the people of God.
The text is from the after the first deportation of the people of Israel to Babylon in around 597BCE. This passage that we come to today is powerful for the hearer at that time who would have been in a time of great instability and fear in life.
The people of Israel had abandoned God and the call to be the people of God. They found themselves in a cycle of apostasy where they would run after foreign gods and forget the goodness and deliverance out of Egyptian bondage of the one true God. Their deportation and the invasion of the Babylonians is evidence of the consequences of the choices the people made. The people expected that God would do something about the Babylonians, but this was not out of a deep relationship with God and understanding of who God is. Rather the people simply expected that God existed to serve them and all of their needs. They were under the assumption that the covenant was one where God always cared for the people no matter what they did or did not do. They were met with a rude awakening when the Babylonians invaded, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, the monarchy brought to an end, and all of their hopes washed away.
Jeremiah is typically a downer to read and so this passage seems out of character for Jeremiah to be so full of hope. This passage is evidence that although the people had strayed out of deep relationship with God and an understanding of who God is; God still kept the covenant and worked to gather the people (vs. 8) and be “a father to Israel” (vs. 9).
God is proclaiming a new beginning, again, for the people of Israel. Much like that of the new beginning for the people of Israel as they were delivered from Egypt. Save this important difference, the people of Israel exiled to Babylon had less of a reason to deserve a new beginning that the people of Israel in slavery in Egypt. This passage is so much more about the goodness of God, whose love reaches out to those that are enslaved (like the people of Israel in Egypt), to those who are foreigners in a distant land (like the people of Israel deported to Babylon), and to those who have turned their backs on God. God does not force relationship on anyone, but this passage oozes with deep invitation to relationship, joy, and response to a loving God.
Earlier in Jeremiah 31:4 the Lord says, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!” What a beautiful declaration that the people of Israel who prostituted themselves to other gods would be called a “virgin”! As we celebrate this season of Christmas it is also a great image as we see Christ born of the virgin Mary. God makes all things new. God redeems what the world deems unredeemable. In this passage God promises to redeem a people who turned their backs on God and restore them from their exile! That is a great reason to be full of joy!
This passage applies in a twofold manner for us on the second Sunday of Christmas. The first is that there is always room for joy! In the Jeremiah passage the joy comes from the restoration and deliverance of the people of Israel. The Lord declared in this Jeremiah passage that “I will lead them back” (vs 9) and that “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (vs. 13) In the season of Christmas we celebrate that Christ is born and a way has been made for any and all to respond in relationship to God! That is certainly something that merits joy!
The second is that we must realize that our response is part of the joy. The people of Israel would be gathered to God and be restored, but they also were called to be the people of God, pointing to God in all they said and did. We are called to respond likewise. It is subtle in the Jeremiah text, but the fact remains that God is creating a people. God continues to do so today. All we need do is respond and join in with our sisters and brothers throughout history as the people of God, the body of Christ, serving and loving this world.
May we, on this second Sunday of Christmas remember to be a people full of joy and also to be a people working to share the love of God with this world. Thanks be to God.