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The season of Christmas

RCL Year C:

Second Sunday after Christmas

January 2, 2022

 

Highlighted Text: Jeremiah 31:7-14

Summary of the Text

In Israel’s tribal society, redemption was the act of a patriarch who put his own resources on the line to ransom a family member who had been driven to the margins of society by poverty, who had been seized by an enemy against whom he had no defense, who found themselves enslaved by the consequences of a faithless life. Redemption was the means by which a lost family member was restored to a place of security within the kinship circle.

Taken from The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra L. Richter Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Word of Consolation: Our text falls within a subsection of Jeremiah known as the Book of Consolation. (find more about the Book of Consolation here) Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” and his prophetic ministry is often filled with judgments against Judah. The book of consolation provides a stark contrast to much of Jeremiah’s ministry, as it foretells a time when Israel, God’s own people will rejoice and return to the promised land.

At this point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been destroyed by Assyria, though interestingly enough, this text seems to point towards a restoration of not just Judah, but the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well (two references, one in vs.8 “I will bring them from the land of the north,” and the reference to Ephraim, a northern tribe) provides evidence of who is in view here by Jeremiah.

The Remnant itself is a reminder of the harsh suffering God’s people will have endured before they are able to return home. Even for those whom God chose to return, they would certainly be missing close family and friends, whom for whatever reason, be it a lack of faith, adverse circumstances, or simply their own decision, will not return home. 

Like the exile for the people of Judah, when a true crisis hits, life is forever changed. We may wish things would go back to the way they were, but in reality, there is no turning back. When it comes to the COVID pandemic, there are probably ways in which life will never return exactly to what it once was. We can’t turn back the clock, and some, if not many of us have lost loved ones during this time. How do we face the suffering head on, and where might God be redeeming/restoring/renewing us in that experience? 

Who Returns from Exile: With that said, it’s interesting to see who God says explicitly will return from exile, that faithful remnant that will rejoice and “sing with joy for Jacob.” vs.7. It isn’t the strong, the well-connected, the powerful that Jeremiah notes will return to the promised land. No, rather it is the “blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor.” (vs.8)  In other words, God continues to make his name known not through the strong, but through the weak. 

Those who recognize that they don’t have it all together (the poor in spirit in Jesus’ words) and must rely on God to provide and protect them. For what is a home if not a place of sanctuary, a place of comfort and stability? The exile has demonstrated just how tenuous life can be, torn from their homes and driven to a place with unknown gods and cultures, a new world that they must attempt to navigate effectively without the familiar streets and homes and, above all, the temple, where they would go to experience God’s active presence in and among them.

The place where the high priest would make sacrifices on their behalf. All of these things have been taken from them. And yet, there is hope that God is leading them home, “besides streams of water” (a clear allusion to David’s 23rd psalm) and on a “level path where they will not stumble.” (vs.9)

Shepherd and Sheep, the Unique Relationship: This language, along with the next verse (10), compare God to a shepherd, the one who will “watch over his flock like a shepherd.”  The metaphor of God leading his people like a shepherd leading his flock is a well-known analogy of God’s care for his people. And while it may sound like a lovely, heartwarming metaphor, there is more to it than we might expect. Listen to these words from James Merritt: 

You won’t find a dumber animal than sheep. Dogs and cats can be trained, but you’ll never go to a circus and buy a ticket to see a trained sheep.

They have poor eyesight. They have no common sense. Left to their own devices, they’ll walk into a stream and drown. Sheep are prone even to walk off a cliff and plummet to their death. We are different from sheep in at least one way: we worry. Sheep are too dumb even to worry that they can’t take care of themselves.[1]

So sheep aren’t the smartest of animals, but there’s even more to the shepherd/sheep metaphor. As Ken Bailey points out in his excellent book The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, a sheep has no natural defenses. No claws, no sharp teeth, nothing to keep any predator from killing them, save the shepherd. And therein lies the great lesson of the prophets: our only true defense is in the God of Abraham and Isaac, the one who brought them up out of Egypt.

The one who parted the Red Sea and brought the twelve tribes up to the promised land. When we forget that, everything will be off. But this metaphor of God as shepherd says something else. It speaks to the unique relationship of love and care that God has for His people. As a shepherd leads his sheep to quiet waters, so God leads the remnant of Israel back to their ancestral home, where they will experience the fruits of returning home.

The Fruits of Homecoming: Verses 12-14 describe what it looks like for God to return his people back to their homes. There will be celebrations-banquets filled with food and dancing. In the New Interpreter’s Commentary series, Patrick D. Miller provides context to the celebration: 

Indeed, the banquet depicted in these verses may be understood as a great thanksgiving feast to celebrate the people’s deliverance by the Lord—only this thanksgiving feast goes on forever…The Lord’s redemption of Israel will constitute a new creation, a renewal of God’s provision for life.[2]

These are the fruits of a people who have returned home. They will “rejoice in the bounty of the Lord–the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (vs.12) 

God’s Redemption of His People: All of these things we’ve just discussed fall under the Biblical understanding of redemption. The quotation at the beginning of this guide gives great context to what redemption looked like to the people of Israel: a person or people who have become destitute and forced to leave their own land for one reason or another, either by becoming captured by an enemy or out of the desperation that comes with economic hardship.

Redemption, Sandra Richter notes, “means by which a lost family member was restored to a place of security within the kinship circle.”[3] This redemption always bears a cost for the one who does the redeeming, and therefore it’s no surprise why followers of Jesus would see a connection between Jesus and this idea of redemption. Jesus bore the cost, by ransoming himself in order that all who call him lord might  be rescued from their lostness. 

In this way, Jeremiah 31:7-14 provides greater contours of what redemption looks like for those of us who follow Jesus Christ. While initially referring to the faithful remnant of Israel (both the northern and southern kingdoms), the church of Jesus Christ carries on the legacy of that faithful remnant that cling to God above all other options. 

As J. Andrew Dearman puts it in the NIVAC Commentary series, “In various ways the New Testament claims the promises to Israel as promises to the church.”

Therefore, we too, like those waiting to return from exile, can hope in a future day where there will be dancing and celebrating, where God himself reigns as Lord of everything.

[1]  James Merritt, 52 Weeks with Jesus: Fall in Love with the One Who Changed Everything, Harvest House Publishers.

[2] Patrick D. Miller,  New Interpreter’s Bible OT & Apocrophya, Abingdon Press, 2001.

[3] Taken fromThe Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra L. Richter Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

We’re in the presence of a good story when the flaw that shatters shalom is also the doorway to redemption… Whether it be our own flaw or the sin of others, God uses the raw material of sin to create the edifice of his redeemed glory. The point cannot be overemphasized: your plight is also your redemption. The Bible assumes that its stories are also our story… We are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their stories are a paradigm of our own. Each of us is called, redeemed, and exiled – again and again.”

Dan B. Allender, To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future

Key Illustration

The Sheep Follow the Shepherd’s Call

During the riots in Palestine in the middle thirties a village near Haifa was condemned to collective punishment by having its sheep and cattle sequestered by the Government. The inhabitants however were permitted to redeem their possessions at a fixed price. Among them was an orphan shepherd boy, whose six or eight sheep and goats were all he had in the world for life and work. Somehow he obtained the money for their redemption. He went to the big enclosure where the animals were penned, offering his money to the British sergeant in charge.

 The N.C.O. told him he was welcome to the requisite number of animals, but ridiculed the idea that he could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the confiscated hundreds. The little shepherd thought differently, because he knew better; and giving his own “call”, for he had his nai (shepherd’s pipe) with him, “his own” separated from the rest of the animals and trotted out after him. “I am the Good Shepherd and know my sheep—and am known of mine.”

Eric F. F. Bishop, Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), pp. 297-98.

Additional Sermon Resources

Liturgical Elements

Isaiah 35:10

Now return to the Lord with joy and gladness.

Sing a song of redemption!

Let sorrow and sighing be no more.

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press.

Call to Worship

Adapted from Psalm 147

Leader: How good it is to sing praises to our God!

People: Great are You, Lord and mighty in power. You understand everything about each one of us. You heal the brokenhearted and bind up our wounds. You sustain the humble and delight in those who hold You in awe and put their hope in Your endless love.

Leader: Blessed are those who rely on God, who hope in God alone,

People: You uphold the cause of the oppressed and give food to the hungry. You set prisoners free, You give sight to the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down and broken. You watch over the ones who are new among us and sustain the fatherless and the widow.

Leader: Lord, show us this morning Your sufficiency, Your abundance, Your outstretched arms and our deep need to be infused and enthused with your Holy Spirit.

People: Great are You, Lord and mighty in power. You understand everything about each one of us. You heal the brokenhearted and bind up our wounds. You sustain the humble and delight in those who hold You in awe and put their hope in Your endless love.

Leader: Blessed are those who rely on God, who hope in God alone,

People: You uphold the cause of the oppressed and give food to the hungry. You set prisoners free, You give sight to the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down and broken. You watch over the ones who are new among us and sustain the fatherless and the widow.

Leader: Lord, show us this morning Your sufficiency, Your abundance, Your outstretched arms and our deep need to be infused and enthused with your Holy Spirit.

Prayer of Confession

We confess, loving God, that we are not a society of saints, but a fellowship of sinners. We are the forgiven, who still need forgiveness.  We are the redeemed, who are still being redeemed.  We do not compare ourselves with others; we compare ourselves only with Christ, in order that we may be humble in your presence, and in the presence of others. We are thankful, O Lord, that you have not given up on us, and that you are still not finished with us. Continue to shape us in the image of Christ, as we confess our sins in silence in his name…

Silent Prayer

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Submitted by Chip Hardwick

Assurance of Pardon

Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. In Him, we are forgiven. AMEN

Benediction

​​Hebrews 13:20-21 

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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