Jeremiah 31:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
31 At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3 the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”
We who have been on a Lenten journey have reached out Easter destination. Lent is, after all, a season of preparation, much like Advent. It is not a journey into infinity and beyond. There is an intended destination. If this isn’t the first time we’ve taken the journey, then we know how the story unfolds. We know that before we enjoy the glories of Easter, we must go through Good Friday. There is no Easter without the cross. The message of Easter is that death does not have the last word, especially when it comes to Jesus. Therefore, we can rejoice and even dance before God’s throne. The question is—does this message resonate with the world in which we live? Is it ready to welcome the message of Easter?
During the season of Easter, the lectionary offers readings from the Book of Acts in place of the Old Testament readings. While these readings from Acts are important, there is also the need to continually attend to the voice of the Old Testament, for it was the Bible of the Early Church, and we cannot understand the New Testament or the ministry of Jesus without consulting it. There is an alternative reading for the day from the Old Testament—Jeremiah 31:1-6. As you read Jeremiah 31, you may wonder about its connection to the Gospel readings or to Easter. At first glance, how does this reading enlighten us as to the promise of resurrection? The connections seem tenuous at best, but if we dive deeper perhaps we’ll find that connection.
The word of God, as delivered by Jeremiah, speaks to the concerns of a people living in exile. Jeremiah has witnessed the destruction of city of Jerusalem and the carting off of many of its citizens to a foreign land. He had been among those taken. Jeremiah was known to speak words of judgment on this people, but he also offered words of consolation and hope. In this reading, we find words of hope expressed. Jeremiah reminds the people of the wilderness, and how God had rescued the people from danger, including from the sword. This was an act of grace, an act that offers hope in a new situation that has the mark of a wilderness wandering. The first group of wanderers hoped they would gain entrance to the Promised Land. This group of wanderers hoped they could return to the Promised Land. Perhaps this is the hope Jeremiah offers to us this Easter season. We can take confidence in God’s grace, love, and faithfulness, that God will bring us into the Promised Land. While Good Friday may have ushered in a state of exile, it was not the last word. It is true that at his death, Jesus’ followers wondered what the future held. In his resurrection the vision of God became clearer to them.
At the core of Jeremiah’s message is the promise that God would restore the people of Israel. God would bring the nation back together. This promise may have been multifaceted, so that it might bring the exiles back home, but also reunite the two former kingdoms of Judah and Israel, so that God might once again be the God of all the people of Israel. This promise is rooted in the additional promise that God is faithful and loving! Is this not a word to he heard by us on Easter morning? Is there not a new day for Israel and for all the people of God? There might not be a clear resurrection theme present in this reading, but it does offer the promise of a new day and new life, even as virgin Israel will be built by God.
When Mary Magdalene went to the Tomb that first Easter morning, she entered her own wilderness experience. She had placed great hope in the Teacher, but now he was gone. All she could do was go to the tomb and grieve. When Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple followed her to the Tomb, after she reported it empty, they didn’t seem to have resurrection in mind as a possible explanation for the missing body. They didn’t fully understand what had happened, because this was not a normal experience. Only time and appearances by Jesus would change their focus (John 20:1-18). For the Exiles living in the shadow of Babylon, the prospects of returning home to Israel, so that they could plant vineyards and enjoy its fruit seemed outlandish, and yet this is the hope that Jeremiah held out for them. God will be the God of all the peoples of Israel. That is the promise held out before the people, and in time Jeremiah’s word will come true. The exile will end and the people will once again plant vineyards in the land.
What word then do we hold out before the world as followers of the Risen Christ? What promise do we offer? Could it be that despite all that we see around us—the war in Syria, the bombings of churches in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Europe, the constant presence of bigotry and racism in our land, homelessness in our cities—we can still find a word of hope in the story of Israel and its deliverance from exile? Could it be that through Christ’s resurrection we become heirs of that same promise?
Jeremiah declares God’s everlasting love and faithfulness, and does so even in the midst of seeming despair. Is this a promise we can take hold of? If we do, what will this mean for us? Can we dance before God, celebrating the new life we experience in Christ? John Holbert writes of Jeremiah’s Easter message:
Like Jeremiah, we need to look squarely in the face of the world’s ugliness and horror and hopelessness and shout, “Christ is risen!” because the God who raised Jesus from the dead loves us with an everlasting love and will always, always continue divine faithfulness to us. Perhaps a look at Jeremiah on Easter Day is not so irrelevant for a Christian, after all. [Feastingon the Word, p. 357].
Therefore, let us go to up to Zion, and dance before God, rejoicing in God’s everlasting love and faithfulness, which sustains us even in our times in the wilderness/exile. As we do, let us sing together: “Christ the Lord, is Risen Today!”
Attribution: He, Qi. The Risen Lord, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46108 [retrieved April 11, 2017]. Original source: heqigallery.com.