Jeremiah 31: 7-14; John 1: 10-18
The first reading this morning is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah – the prophet whom we know as the one who always has a half empty glass, who appears to only be able to see doom and gloom. His name has become a shorthand for the pessimistic people we come across; those people we can be quick to label as Jeremiahs, and then equally quick to dismiss because they aren’t saying the things that we would like to hear.
Jeremiah is one of the Hebrew Bible’s major prophets. Not only is this book a significant piece of writing but he is thought to have authored, or co-authored, the books of Kings and Lamentations. In the first chapter of this book, we are told that God put his word into Jeremiah’s mouth. The word, that was then communicated by Jeremiah; the word that the people didn’t always want to hear; the word that didn’t always sit easily; the word that held them to account, reminding them of the times when they had chosen to turn away from God. The word that reminded them of their collective responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their community.
In many ways, we’re not terribly different from the people of Israel. We find ourselves looking for the shepherd to point us in the right direction, to help us stay on the right path, we’re wanting someone to tell us that things are going to be different. We want the problems, and the solutions, to be someone else’s responsibility.
We find our tribe and, to a large extent, we stick with it. By and large, that’s what had been happening with the exiled people of Israel. They stuck together, trusting – at least some of the time – that one day things would be different. They stuck together in adversity, presumably encouraging one another that one day they would find the promised land, that one day the persecution and endless travelling would stop. I wonder whether people had effectively stopped listening to Jeremiah – assuming they would know what he was going to say, the warnings that they had heard many times before. But this morning we’re reminded that, like most of us, Jeremiah wasn’t actually 1 dimensional. He has something different to say in this morning’s reading, his focus has changed.
What we read this morning is from a section of the book known as the Book of Comfort, or Book of Consolation. The voice we heard this morning isn’t the voice we assume we will hear, this morning’s verses bring a message of hope, a promise of change. Even Jeremiah, in the midst of thousands of gloomy words, heard God saying something different, responding to the prayers and hopes of the people.
The message is for the remnant of Israel – it’s not aimed at the great and the good, the kings or the leaders of the people. This is about change and hope for those who have survived, regardless of the shape they are in. It’s a message for the blind and lame, for those who are weeping and in need of consolation. It’s a promise to God’s people regardless of who they are and how unimportant they might consider themselves to be.
There’s a resonance with the Scripture that we have heard over the past couple of weeks. The story of the Incarnation, the gift of God’s own son to redeem troubled humanity. The clear message of Christmas is that Jesus came as a vulnerable child, born into a hostile world where the rich and powerful used and abused their power; born into a world where people continued to devalue the humanity of others. He was born into a people who were still looking for the voice that they could trust, the voice that people would feel able to rally behind and to bring real change into their lives.
I wonder how much has changed. Our world is one where people are looking for the voice that will bring real change into their lives. Our world is one where power is abused, where the most vulnerable people are neglected, where the humanity of others isn’t always valued. Just think about some of the news stories over recent weeks. Desperate people drowning; children failed by the people who should have been caring for them; women frightened to be out alone; people in hiding because the Governments they worked for haven’t done what was necessary to ensure their safety. We wring our hands and tell ourselves and one another what a bad situation it all is. We can be quick to become those stereotypical Jeremiahs.
This morning, though, we’re reminded that Jeremiah had more to say than we imagine; more to say than perhaps his people were ready to hear. And we’re reminded that God continues to have more to say. The word was made flesh… the word that was put into Jeremiah’s mouth is now made flesh, the incarnate word has come into our world and dwelt among the people of first century Palestine as it continues to dwell among us. The word becomes something more than words; something more than guidance or advice – it takes on human flesh and becomes both words and actions. We don’t just hear what God has to say, we see and experience the ways of God in the incarnate son.
This is the God who becomes fully human, who lives and breathes and laughs and cries. It’s the full incarnation of the God whom we glimpse in Jeremiah’s book of comfort. And at the same time, it’s the incarnation of the God who uses Jeremiah to remind the people of the right way to live.
The baby in the manger may well be soft and cuddly. We’ve sung the sentimental carols that welcome the vulnerable child. But that child’s purpose is to show us the nature of God; to guide and shepherd us onto a path that just might change the shape of human interactions. That child grew into the man who brought us the wherewithal to turn mourning into joy, to bring comfort to all of God’s people.
Our world is one that is desperately seeking that comfort. Our world is one within which some people have turned so far from the ways of God that they commit atrocious acts of violence and cruelty. Our world is one where a narrative of doom and gloom is very easy to find.
Within that context, our task is to bring an alternative narrative; to offer a different take, to hold onto the message of hope that we have heard. Hope for a different future. Hope for a change of direction. Hope that God’s word might be heard and received in all the world.
It’s not easy to go against the crowd, to be the outlier whose perspective is counter cultural, but if the church doesn’t take on that role, then what is it doing? What would it be for?
And the church isn’t some authority figure out there putting words into our mouths, the church is only you and me – we are the only ones who can grapple for those words of comfort and hope and who might just find the courage to share them.
We are no more one dimensional than Jeremiah – we just may need to remind ourselves of that from time to time.