The Second Sunday after Christmas
Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31: 7-14
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.”
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.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations[a] 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.
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.”
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
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.
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.
- Jeremiah 31:9 Gk Compare Vg Tg: Heb supplications
“Hands Too Strong”
On this ninth day of Christmas, I’m not going to ask nine ladies to dance. What I am going to ask why we love Christmas carols so much. Sometimes, I think, it’s the melody. Other times it’s the memories. Many times, though, it’s the words.
For example, the third verse of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” hits close to home for anyone who’s gone through times of suffering or loss.
O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
There’s also a bit of profound theology nestled in the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
What is faith, after all, but the spiritual battle between hope and fear? And what is Christmas but the good news that in Jesus’ birth hope has the last, best word?
That battle between hope and fear is also at the heart of our reading from Jeremiah. “The Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”
The prophet doesn’t promise we’ll never face powers too great for us or hands too strong for us. What he does promise is that God will redeem broken lives with saving grace and love.
Not that it will be easy. “They’ll come with weeping, and I’ll lead them back with consolations,” God says. Jeremiah’s grand homecoming brings rejoicing, but through tears. Healing from trauma and loss isn’t easy. It brings pain as well as joy, hopes as well as fears.
Many today feel gripped by hands too strong for them. Some fearfully lash out with violence and hate.
In any normal time, a man driving an RV filled with explosives into downtown Nashville and exploding it on Christmas Day would be in the headlines for weeks.
These aren’t normal days, though, nor is this a normal time. Still, what happened in Nashville shows how unreasoning fear brings destruction and violence in its wake.
It looks like the driver of the van was part of an Internet conspiracy that thinks politicians and Hollywood stars are really lizards from outer space trying to take over the world. That includes the Clintons and the Obamas as well as Bob Hope and Justin Bieber.
Evidently, the driver also believed that 5G cellphone networks are used for mind control and can cause the coronavirus. So, he targeted the ATT building in downtown Nashville with his powerful homemade bomb.
That one deadly off the wall example shows how awash in fear we really are. Ava Hunter, writing in The Walrus, says fear takes many forms.
- Some fears are powerful and force us to act. “That car is going to hit me—I’d better move!”
- Other times we have this hard-to-pin-down fear that something just isn’t right. “I’m not sure why, but I don’t feel safe. I’m getting out of here!”
- There are fears that, if we let them, can spiral out of control. “The doctor said it’s nothing, but I looked online and I’m not so sure.”
- Finally come the minor, everyday fears we all deal with.” I’m going to pull this Band-Aid off and, boy, is that going to hurt!”
Much of today’s turmoil has its roots in the feeling that something is “off,” and we aren’t safe. The folks in Jeremiah’s time felt that way, too.
The prophet didn’t tell them to blow up a couple of city blocks. Instead, he urged them not only to live with hope, but also with expectant joy, trusting that God was still with them and would redeem them.
Author Angela Gorrell says that joy, like fear, comes to us in different ways.
- Retrospective joy is the kind of joy we feel looking back at times when we felt safe, content, loved, or happy.
- Restorative or resurrection joy is how we feel when once-broken things are made whole, or when things we thought long dead are restored.
We feel resurrection joy when we apologize to someone we hurt, when we reach a milestone in recovery or sobriety, when we piece back together a troubled marriage or reclaim a dream we once thought hopeless.
- Finally, there’s what Gorrell calls futuristic joy, looking to the day when beauty, meaning, and goodness all become part of our lives.
Jeremiah promised restorative joy, but of an especially gracious sort. In his vision, those gathered from the farthest corners of the earth will include the blind and the lame along with those who are pregnant, in labor, or have children.
That isn’t a list of the rich, famous, or powerful. It’s a list of those in Jeremiah’s day who were most vulnerable and most in need. Christmas takes that vision of hope and carries it further still, looking to a day when all things are made new, a future joy already present in the birth of Jesus Christ.
I’m guessing that some of us struggled to find joy this Christmas, coping not just with the fear and unease of our time, but also with the pain of not seeing family and friends.
God doesn’t wait for a perfect time or for perfect peace to come among us in Jesus. God doesn’t wait for pandemics to end or for every mess to disappear. God doesn’t wait because Jesus is born where and when people need him most.
Look at the Christmas story. God makes God’s home in the messiest of places, a stable, in the messiest of times, the era of the Roman Empire, and with the most ordinary of people, a teenage girl, her fiancé, and some dirty, smelly shepherds who stumbled in from the hills with an unbelievable story.
Jesus is born where we need him most not just at Christmas, but always. Jesus is born amidst our mess, in hard places, in life’s dark, desperate, lonely, and lost corners.
Jesus is born into places and times of exile, in the midst of people who feel far from home. Jesus is born among and spends his life with the most vulnerable, those with broken hearts and spirits.
God has become one of us and is in the middle of this mess with us, face masks and all. So, as we toil along life’s climbing way with painful, slow steps, we can still rest beside the weary road and listen for angel songs.
We dare believe that the hopes and fears of all the years, including this new one, meet in Bethlehem’s dark streets. For it’s there that a child is born, One who will ransom and redeem us from every hand and power too strong for us, including illness, suffering, and even death itself.