Grounds for hope at New Year

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:(1-9), 10-18

 by Dr John Williams

 Introduction

As we enter 2009 are we not confronted by enormous threats to so much that know and hold dear? So much of what we know and fare familiar with is under threat of change.

We see increasing evidence of environmental damage to the planet by the way we are living. The largest biological structure on earth…the only organism that is discernable from space…The Great Barrier Reef…is reported to be at its tipping point …a point from which it is unlikely to recover and its future is seriously threatened because of climate change. (Use Slides)

The global economic order is collapsing around us. Banks and huge global companies are failing, governments are bailing out debt ridded enterprises and this has all happened within a few months.

Are we in a similar situation to what was happening to the people of Israel as Jeremiah wrote in Chapter 31? The end of the Jewish nation was at hand as the exile was about to happen…But Jeremiah wrote of a ne w beginning , a new hope based around God’s word that “I will be your God and you will be my people” and that God would turn their mourning into joy and gladness.

But perhaps we have become numb to it all. In a world overwhelmed by the prosaic accounts of war, death, oppression, starvation, environmental decay and financial ruin that come with nauseating regularity over our TVs or radios, maybe we need to hear again the poetry in the incarnation. Maybe Jeremiah also challenges us to see that the joy and celebration of Christmas is truly an invitation to celebrate a newness that encompasses the whole of creation. Thus Jeremiah was shining a light of hope when all around there seemed to be little ground for that hope.

So as we go into 2009 I want today to give us the opportunity to see that while there is much to threaten our security and challenge our comfort zones and make us fearful and perhaps angry or maybe depressed; the message in the texts for this Sunday (Jeremiah, Psalms, Ephesians and John) is one that God is faithful, God will not abandon his people and calls us to act to be part of his will to redeem his people and create a newness for the whole creation.

Context and Setting

This text is part of a series of closely related passages in which restoration and return from exile in Babylon is resolutely and beautifully proclaimed. Chapter 31 is the beginning of a collection of these restoration passages called “the Little Book of Consolation”

The time frame within which it is to be read in this context is clear. Israel is coming to the end of its existence as an independent nation. Since they had entered the land as escaped slaves and homeless wanderers around 1290 BC, they had occupied this land. And since the time of the beginning of the monarchy under Saul around 1100 BC and then under David and his descendants from around 1050 BC, there had been a political and spiritual nation of Israel. The early accounts in Exodus, Joshua, and Deuteronomy celebrated the marvelous ways in which God had led them into this land and enabled them to settle in peace and security.

But the later accounts in Numbers, Judges, Samuel, and Kings recounted how badly they had responded to God’s grace and leadership in the life of this nation across the centuries. Nearly from the beginning they had mixed the worship of God with worship of the fertility gods of the land, and had refused to allow God to transform them into his servants in the world.

The prophets, some priests, and a handful of leaders had tried over the centuries to guide the people into authentically being God’s people. There had been short times of renewal and progress. But they had never really fully embraced this God who had brought them into being and called them to be His people.

And so now, after all these centuries, the dire predictions of the prophets were unfolding. The Babylonian empire was expanding from the north laying waste to everything in its path. Israel was no match for its power, and as the prophets had warned. The nation would be destroyed and scattered.

Many of the people would die, many would be taken as captives into exile in Babylon, the temple would be destroyed, the monarchy brought to an end, and with it the hopes of a thousand years would be gone.

Sound familiar…the world we know is changing!

What does it mean for us?

As we approach another New Year there are so many elements in our lives that mirror the people in exile. We face pressing issues that are both personal and global.

We see bewildering change where economic and political circumstances change overnight. Our economy swings from one of rising interest rates and inflation to one of recession and falling interest rates over a matter of weeks. We see now evidence of recession and perhaps depression as global economies continue to degenerate. Huge wealth is created and lost over matters of months. Financial institutions and companies fall away overnight. Full employment is foreshadowed to turn quickly to unemployment. Superannuation income was sufficient yesterday but will not be tomorrow.

We see alarming evidence that our civilization is damaging the land, water and atmosphere of the planet and yet we see no or little evidence of effective global approaches to solving these huge environmental problems.

We still hear…

“We can’t do anything until somebody else moves first”. In orther words…”The boats filling with water and sinking quickly BUT I won’t bail until you start!

Can we build an economy that is not dependent on releasing large volumes of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere?

Can we find new economies and population levels that are in line with the capacity of the natural resources to provide without damage to the planets functionality?

In essence it is about food production under increasing population, damaged land, shrinking fresh water, dwindling oil supply, rising fertilizer and pesticide costs within a spectre of climate change. Essentially global agricultural production must be increased substantially to meet rising demand, but it must be achieved with a decreasing impact on the natural resources and environment at a time when the cost of energy will continue to rise.

Yet this is the world in which we are to be God’s people! We can appear fearful, lost, bury ourselves in denial, not be responsive to the facts, feel…what can I do, it’s all so complex, Can we just say… it seems so big and difficult…we could just give-up, say it’s hopeless. We can’t really do anything.

So if this is so… where as we enter 2009 do we find grounds for hope?

It is into that context that this passage comes. The word from God is that even though they had abandoned him, he has not and will not abandon them.

The language takes us beyond the mundane, beyond what we calculate as possible, and beyond the raw and painful events, to see what is possible in the world as God sees it. That’s our challenge to listen, to reflect, to dream of a world as God and the Christ might see it…imagine it.

The language of the poet lifts the reader out of the place of hurt into a new possibility.

In effect, the language shows us the new reality that God works in the midst of the painful experience. It shows us what is possible with God.

The governing concept for this text is “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. It always emphasizes the totally unearned basis upon which God extends the invitation to become His people. That invitation is always grounded in a revelation of who he is as God, always expressed in terms of grace and love

The concrete cause for this joy is clear. God is bringing back his people from exile! That means the possibility of a new beginning.

God will not abandon his creation…he call us to be his people and part of the new creation the new covenant that God seeks with his people.

How do we as human beings react to the announcement, even to the realization of the reality, of God’s grace actually unfolding in our midst in concrete ways? With the backdrop of the issues we must face?

Is it the response of those who have expected some action of God for so long that they have abandoned hope, and then are suddenly confronted with a newness that exceeds anything that they have ever imagined! Can we go into the New Year confronted by such an expectation?

This is the season of celebration in the Christian year in which we rejoice at the love and grace represented by the Incarnation. But it is also a time to begin reflecting on the nature of the community that is called into being by such an act of God in the world. We will spend the rest of the year reflecting and coming to terms with what it means to be the people of God, the community of Faith that God has chosen to create in the world….a world and creation confronted by huge global and personal pain.

While we still proclaim the nature of this God who has entered our human condition and revealed his heart in a manager, we also begin to realize that we are being called to respond.

Our response maybe a mixture of joy at the magnitude of the event that we are celebrating and the sense of new beginning that it brings, with a sense that this new beginning is going somewhere, and that it may just require something of us.

First we probably need to celebrate that joy together as a community in all its innocence and splendor. But now, as we stand so close to the event of the Incarnation itself, I think we are allowed for this brief time simply to celebrate, to bask in the love of the Father in all its radiance, to relax in the security of his grace. This text gives us permission, to allow the joy and praise and celebration of God’s wonderful gift of grace and love to be demonstrated shamelessly.

This is a childlike astonishment at the incredible love of the Father as he turns to the outcasts, the powerless, those who have rejected him, and again says, on no other basis than his own love, “My children!”

We will need to grow. We will need to learn what it means to be his children. We will need to learn how to be faithful and obedient. We will come to understand the terrible cost, for him and us, of taking to ourselves his name. But we will do so in the security of his acceptance of us.

Maybe Jeremiah challenges us today to be more attentive to the ‘poetry’ in the story of the incarnation, to that which takes us beyond the mundane to places where we see the newness God is working. In a world overwhelmed by the prosaic accounts of war, death, oppression, starvation and financial ruin that come with nauseating regularity over our TVs or radios, maybe we need to hear again the poetry in the incarnation. Maybe Jeremiah also challenges us to see that the joy and celebration of Christmas is truly an invitation to celebrate a newness that encompasses the whole of creation

The people in Jeremiah sing its hymns out of the experience of hurt. There is no celebration of ‘God with us’ without knowing what ‘God not with us’ is like. That knowledge changes the shape of the celebration. It gives it both a substance and a resolution that could not be known otherwise. This is not to say in some flippant way that the exile was necessary, or that God uses suffering to teach people his ways: ‘no pain, no gain’. Rather, it is to recognise that the time of pain, brought on by the people’s past, now becomes the place where God is present to them, even when it seems God is absent. Is this not where some of us stand as we ponder this New Year?

The celebration in today’s passage is not just because the period of absence has passed. It is a celebration of the presence discovered in absence.

The basis of the call for resounding joy is the everlasting love of the Lord and his faithfulness. The passage is a celebration of the faithfulness of God who remains with a faithless people in their time of pain. It is God’s resolve alone which grants this people not only hope but celebration. The God they discover in the time of exile is one who through his faithfulness and grace makes new life possible in the midst of pain and captivity. That is what is celebrated.

That is why it is important to us today. My thinking is that our time has much that is common with the context from which Jeremiah speaks.

How and why can we approach the New Year with hope?

How can we face a New Year with hope when the evidence of resolution for many of the issues that confront us is not evident?

We see this again at both a personal level and at global scales

God is faithful, full of grace, seeking us out, seeking to be our God and for us to be his people… God will not abandon us either as our redeemer or as our creator. Our God and the God celebrated by Jeremiah are both our redeemer and our creator.

Because of these we can go forward first celebrating and rejoicing that God is with us but then challenged to be his people and act. Act at the personal level and at the community and global level.

We can do this because God will not abandon his role as both our redeemer and creator. God is working here to create a people.

There is emphasis in Jeremiah passage on bringing together diverse groups into a unity. These remnants are not yet a people. They are only scattered, disorganized groups and families with no unity and no purpose. This great new work of God unfolding in their midst is for the purpose of taking these scattered individuals and family units and forging them into a people. God’s people. They will be given a purpose and a mission that only a people can carry out.

We sometimes get so caught up in the individualism of our culture that we are tempted to think that the return from exile, or the Incarnation, is for us individually. There may be a valid place for some of that in the joy and celebration mentioned above.

But unless we place that in the context of the creation of a people, a community, we have misunderstood what God is about in this event.

The Incarnation, no less than the return from exile, is not so much about individual salvation, as important as that might be, as it is about the creation of a redeemed community of Faith that can be the people of God in the world, the firstborn people of God, with all the responsibility that entails.

Our celebration, our joy, should be as a community, always, even in the midst of our dancing for joy, with the knowledge that there is more to come, that God has created this community for a purpose.

Here at KUC we seek to be “Creating a loving, nurturing community growing a deeper faith in God through Jesus the Christ”. We believe God has called us to be that community to be his people in the world that is confronted by some huge issues which must be resolved and solved. But we can go into the New Year with much hope, a sense of joy, peace and love.

We can go into the New Year confident that God will not forsake his creation or his invitation to be his people. God will turn our mourning and pain into joy as God lives with us and empowers us to act and be part of the action as God redeems his people and renews the whole creation.

Today we celebrate and bask in God love. For the basking is to renew our spirit, strengthen us, heal us, forgive us, and empower us for the journey with our living God. For tomorrow, we know there is work to be done!

But we go grounded in hope.

As it is God’s world and God’s love for the whole creation has no bounds.

John Williams

4th January 2009

Acknowledgement

The author is grateful to both:

Dennis Bratcher, See at http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearA/ABCchristmas2ot.html#Jer31

Howard Wallace, See at

http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/ChristmasB/Christmas2.html

For access and use of material and the insights gained from both resources.

 

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