The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST
AND ON EARTH, PEACE,
GOODWILL TO ALL. AMEN.
Calvin Miller tells the story of a first-grader in a rather counter-cultural community – maybe it was right here in Eugene. This little boy came a few days late for the beginning of school. His teacher was pleased that his parents had filled out all the appropriate forms, including putting his name on a nametag around his neck. Still, though the teacher was used to names like “Sea Foam,” “Precious Promise,” and “Peek-a-boo,” she was startled by the name on this small boy’s tag, ” Fruitstand.” She went with the flow, though, and throughout the day it was, ” Fruitstand, would you like to color a picture?” ” Fruitstand, it is time for recess.”
When it was time to put the children on the buses that afternoon, she said, “Now don’t you worry, Fruitstand, the bus driver will know where to drop you off because all of the parents write where their child should get off on the back of the name tag.” Turning over Fruitstand’s nametag, she found the word, “Anthony.”
Anthony or Fruitstand – no one is forgotten or lost. One of my favorite movies of the last two years was Lilo and Stitch. We learned the Hawaiian word, Ohana, in that movie, a word which means, family, which means, no one is forgotten or left behind. The message of Christianity is Ohana – we are God’s family and God will never forget us or leave any of us behind. The message of Christianity is that whether we be Fruitstand or Anthony, God knows our name, God knows and loves us as our heavenly Father.
Today’s first lesson is one of the clearest passages in the Scripture of joy after sorrow, merriment after suffering, homecoming after exile, being found instead of lost.
Like the second part of the book of the prophet Isaiah, this chapter of Jeremiah, is much different from the rest of the prophet’s book. Most of Jeremiah foretells judgment and wrath. The ten northern tribes had already been sent into exile and were lost to history in their Assyrian destruction. The people of Ephraim (which is another name for the northern kingdom of Israel) dispersed; the people of Jacob (also the northern kingdom of Israel because remember Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he wrestled with the angel) killed or exiled and lost. The northern kingdom of Israel was no more; nothing at all remained.
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The message of Jeremiah was that Judah, likewise, would be destroyed and it was. Jerusalem was sacked and the king blinded and sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah himself fled to Egypt. God’s Word is both Law and Gospel. God is not mocked and sin and evil will be avenged. The people of Israel and Judah had sinned. They turned after other gods and followed Baal rather than Yahweh. They mistreated the poor and lowly and neglected God’s Word.
We can only understand our passage of joy and gladness in the context of the entire book of Jeremiah – and the first part of the book of Isaiah – which proclaimed God’s Word of judgment upon his people. We are uncomfortable with the judging word and don’t want to hear it either. William Willimon, preaching professor at Duke University, writes in A Cloud of Witnesses :
When I was serving a little church in rural Georgia, one of my members had a relative who died… The funeral was in a little hot, crowded, off-brand Baptist church. Well, I had never seen anything like it. They wheeled the coffin in; the preacher began to preach. He shouted, fumed, flailed his arms. “It’s too late for Joe,” he screamed. “:He might have wanted to do this or that in life, but it’s too late for him now. He’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can’t now. It’s over… “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!” Well,” continues Willimon, “it was the worst thing I ever hear. ‘Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family’?” I asked Patsy, my wife, on the way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that,” I said. She agreed… “Of course,” she added, “the worst part of all is that what was said is true.”
The message of the prophets to Israel and Judah was of God’s judgment upon sin and wickedness. It was judgment on those who mistreated the poor, who acted unjustly, who neglected God’s Word. But Isaiah and Jeremiah also spoke the word of grace to those who had been judged and were repentant. God’s final word was not destruction and sorrow but redemption and consolation and joy. God does not forget the covenant made with the ancestors or the promises made with God’s people. God’s last word is life in all its fullness and salvation. No one is forgotten or left behind.
Jeremiah proclaimed God’s promise of homecoming:
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 back. It is a message like that of Isaiah : Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees, say to those of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance with the recompense of God He will come and save you’… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
God promises that sadness will turn to joy and exile to homecoming. And all people will be part of God’s salvation – those of weak hands and feeble knees, the blind and lame, those with child and those in labor. All are part of God’s family. No one is forgotten or left behind.
Norman Vincent Peale once interviewed Capt. Jeremiah Denton who was a POW in North Viet Nam during the war. He told Dr. Peale that he thought it was good for the prisoners to have experienced what they had. In prison, all human support seemed taken from them. They were forced back to the knowledge that they had only one thing, and that was God. And they found that God sustains. Captain Denton said he was tortured for five days and still couldn’t speak. So he was tortured for another five days. Finally, when he could no longer bear the pain, he said, “Dear Jesus Christ, dear God, take me. Take over. I can’t handle it anymore.”Suddenly he felt flowing over him a blanket of comfort. It enveloped him and, he explained, “From that minute on, I suffered no more pain. I was as comfortable as though I was sitting in a plush automobile.” It was the mantle of God’s comfort.
These men came back and told us that God sustains in every hour or pain, sorrow and suffering. God sustains and comforts. That is the message of Jeremiah. There is no denial of pain and suffering and loss. Our text acknowledges the weeping but promises consolation. Yes, God sent the people into exile but also proclaims, “He who scattered Israel will gather him and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” Though the people were on the isles, the coastlands far away – this was truly the ends of the earth in ancient understanding for no one knew or still knows what happened to the people of the northern kingdom, Jacob, Ephraim, Israel – God find them and call them and bring his people back to reclaim their land and receive the gifts God was offering.
And God would give them every blessing. God still gives us every good thing. The text includes earthly blessing:
They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain and the wine and the oil
and over the young of the flock and the herd,
their life shall become a watered garden
and they shall never languish again.
God does not despise the good things of this earth that the Lord God has created. God will bless with material blessings but the blessing is also a spiritual blessing of comfort and joy in the Lord. God would be the father of his people, the shepherd of his flock.
We are still in the Christmas season. We celebrate with joy the birth of Jesus, God’s Son. We praise God because through Jesus we too have become God’s own people, the sheep of his pasture. God has become our heavenly father. Those of us who were far off are now called to come near the throne of grace. But as Madeleine L’Engle the noted author writes,
“The story of Jesus’ birth has been oversentimentalized until it no longer has the ring of truth and once we’d sentimentalized it, we could commercialize it and so forget what Christmas is really about. It should be a time of awed silence, but it has become a season so frantic with stress that the suicide rate mounts alarmingly and for some people death seems preferable to the loneliness and alienation of Christmas.”
What a terrible thing to think that the birth of the Prince of Peace is celebrated with depression and anxiety and the feeling of loss. There is pain and sorrow, and it is felt perhaps most strongly now at the holidays. We are still waiting for God’s fulfillment. We are still longing for the exiles to come home, for those of weak hands and feeble knees to feel the strength of the Lord. We are still waiting for the maidens to rejoice in the dance and the young men and old men to make merry. Our mourning has not yet turned into joy or our sorrow into gladness. We have not yet marched to Zion or rejoiced on the mountain of the Lord. We await Christ’s coming again to bring the fullness of salvation. The day will come when we will be gathered together, young and old, rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, able and halt to sing God’s praises for the wondrous things God has done. We will shout for joy and sing praises to the God of our salvation. Not one of us will be lost or forgotten or left behind. Amen.
—Copyright 2004, James Kegel. Used by permission.