Written by L.J. Roche
In 586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid a siege on Jerusalem. He destroyed the city and the temple, and he sent most of the inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Roughly fifty years later, in 538 BC, King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
The prophecy of Jeremiah takes place during the time the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon. According to Jeremiah, the exile was God’s way of punishing the Israelites for not following God’s commandments. In particular, Jeremiah accused the Israelites of not helping the poor and of treating the most vulnerable people unjustly.
The Israelites believed that God had given them their land as part of their covenant with God. They also believed that God was connected to the land of Israel, which made their exile all the more difficult. By being separated from their land, the Israelites also believed they were separated from God, and could no longer experience God’s love and protection. They had, perhaps, come to assume that God existed to serve them, rather than the other way around.
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.”
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.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations 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.
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.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
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.
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.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.
We can imagine how excited they were to hear Jeremiah’s prophecy, that they would return to their land, where God will look after them. Everyone will return, including the strong and the weak. They will weep and pray for God’s help along the way. Jeremiah describes the people as ordinary humans, with their share of joys and sorrows. They enjoy feasting and dancing, but they are just like us, not insulated from the challenges life often poses.
Jeremiah paints a picture of prosperity and hope. Such an image is welcome even to us reading these verses today. It is easy to feel like an exile when we limit our contact with another and isolate ourselves from COVID. It’s easy to feel like God is far away, in our pre-COVID past that we miss so much. This makes Jeremiah’s vision of hope all the more important for us to hear.
The return of the Israelites provides a witness to God’s faithfulness. The journey may be difficult, but Jeremiah describes the destination as well worth the effort. Once there, the people and their priests are blessed. This passage shows us that although people may stray out of a relationship with God, God will keep God’s covenant and be like a parent to God’s people.
God offers the Israelites a new beginning. God’s love reaches out to all exiles – whether they are slaves with Moses in Egypt, Israelites living with Daniel in Babylon, or anyone who misses the comfort and safety of his or her own home.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the creation of a way for us as Gentiles to enter into a relationship with God. On this second Sunday of Christmas, Jeremiah reminds us of the joy of homecoming: Jeremiah says that God will “lead us back,” and “turn mourning into joy.” Jeremiah says God will comfort us and replace our sorrow with gladness.
God promised to gather the Israelites and restore them to their land. But God also called upon people of Israel to be the people of God. I believe, when we read this passage today, we are also being called to be the people of God. In our relationship with God, and I mean as each one of us in an individual relationship with God, God wants us to work with him. All we need do accept God’s invitation, join with one another in this time and place, as well as with the Israelites of long ago, to be the people of God.
There are many ways we can do that. We can make vaccines available to everyone in the world, we can address the causes of climate change, we can take a look at how our economy sends billionaires into space while billions of people live in poverty. We can be kind to our neighbor. For each of us there will be a different priority. But whatever we choose, it will be acceptance of God’s invitation to be one of God’s people.