God Will Bring Us Into a New Year | Jeremiah 31:7-14 | January 2, 2022

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.


The New Year begins much like the last year. We gather in masks as COVID surges again, and most of you are watching online. We have learned to live with this plague, and vaccines make life bearable. But it still feels like a long exile from the life we hope to live. Human beings are made for community, like herd animals who draw safety and happiness from being together. We long for the simple pleasures of coffee hour, potlucks, kids going to school, and being able to visit people when they are sick without fear. When will this exile end?


I chose to preach from the lectionary text of Jeremiah this morning because it expresses the longing and hope for good news. It is the hope we need, but it is not a slim hope of positive thinking or empty promises. Jeremiah offers a hope that has passed through grief and loss and brought us to a deeper meaning, a sense that God still has a purpose for our lives. Today’s text in chapter 31 comes after a long and largely fruitless career as a prophet. Jeremiah was called as a prophet around 620 BCE and has been the prophet of doom for over 30 years. He is that guy who has been walking around the streets with a sign proclaiming “The End is Near,” and people just tune him out and dismiss him. Jeremiah is not a conspiracy theorist or plagued with paranoia. He is very clear about the problems. Greed and corruption of the leaders lead to poverty and affliction for the poor. Hubris on the international stage is draining resources. The nation has broken the covenant with God and has become immoral, corrupt, selfish, and heartless. Such a nation cannot stand.


Jeremiah is full of depressing stuff. It reads like Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein’s books about climate change, trying to lay out the clear case of what is ahead. McKibben says we have about $30 trillion of oil in the ground, and we need to leave there, or the climate will become dangerously unstable. Yet they are dismissed as naysayers who say it will kill jobs and economic growth. (As if tornadoes, wildfires, and floods don’t kill jobs and economic growth as well as people.). Jeremiah had the piercing honesty of Joan Didion, who unmasked the false myths we live by and tried to get us to look honestly at our world. When I started seminary, Dr. William Holiday, my Old Testament professor, had just finished the definitive 600-page commentary on Jeremiah after 30 years of research. He went through two years of depression and wandered the campus with his shoulders stooped, carrying the weight of his life’s work. I worked in the Andover Newton mailroom for a summer, and the radio was tuned to the Iran-Contra hearings. He would pop in every day and deliver his jeremiads about the Reagan Administration. (By the way, the word jeremiad literally means to speak like Jeremiah.)


Near the end, the prophet walked the streets wearing a wooden ox yolk to illustrate that Israel would soon be conquered by Babylon and live under its yolk. One of Jeremiah’s distractors, from the “Akuna Matata. Don’t worry, be happy” faction, grabbed the yolk from his shoulders and broke it, saying that God would not allow this to happen because God is faithful and will watch over us. Jeremiah said that Babylon’s yoke would be made of iron and not so easily broken. When Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 587 BCE, Jeremiah was in jail, and the Babylonians freed him. He chose to go into exile in Egypt.


You need to know all this to understand the power of the hopeful words here in chapter 31. After 30 years of not being heard, after every terrible thing came to pass, amid exile from Jerusalem, Jeremiah now says:


He who scattered Israel will gather them And will watch over his flock like a shepherd.


They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord— They will be like a well-watered garden, And they will sorrow no more. 13 Then young women will dance and be glad, Young men and old as well.


I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.


Chapter 31 is called “The Little Consolation.” It is so hopeful and gracious that many biblical scholars don’t believe Jeremiah wrote it. They think it was a redaction 30 to 50 years later when an editor decided that Jeremiah’s rants needed a better ending. Even Professor Holliday, who studied Jeremiah for 30 years, thought it wasn’t likely that Jeremiah wrote this. Everyone must get through an editor on the road to publication. Editors are often right and make the story better. I sometimes wish they had edited out more of Jeremiah. I think that even if Jeremiah didn’t write these exact words, he could have. It was within his capacity to both tell the God’s honest truth and still feel a deep passion for offering comfort and hope amid distress.


We must hold together the whole of Jeremiah’s text, no matter who wrote what parts. It helps us do two things as we keep them in paradox. We can grieve the things that should be grieved and face a hard truth with honesty; while also looking at the world with hope and wonder and letting our hearts experience joy. You don’t have to bury your head in the sand to have peace of mind. As the Apostle Paul urged in Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” Making room for both joy and sorrow is not only a marriage vow; this work will be essential to be resilient in the new year.


I noticed Jeremiah refers to moving from sorrow to joy four times in our text.


With weeping, they shall come, and with consolations[a] I will lead them back,


I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.


I hear permission to grieve and attend to sorrow. Jeremiah assumes people feel sorrow, and this is natural given their circumstances. He is not telling them to stop being so sad or cheer up. He isn’t chastising them for lack of faith. He proclaims that God has heard them and will bring them back into joy. Note that Jeremiah doesn’t tell people it is their job to feel better. They aren’t supposed to manage their emotions more effectively. Joy and gladness are the works of God. The transformation is a gift of grace, not a human accomplishment. We grieve when we have lost what we love. Only divine love is large enough and strong enough to bring us back. Falling apart is part of the spiritual journey. Jeremiah says that God meets us and brings us back to our joy.


Joy is a gift of God. We can’t manufacture it, but we can work at being open to joy meeting us. There is so much anger, frustration, and despair in the world right now. Things are falling apart. We can’t get what we want, so people are belligerent towards customer service, sales clerks, and restaurant workers. Many people are quitting these jobs, making it even more frustrating. I think this rising belligerence is a failure to grieve and a failure of gratitude. I understand we are all frustrated. I get it; we are trying to build a house. Our bank called 17 appraisers, and everyone was too busy. The $9 PVC pipe is now $67, and kitchen cabinets are back-ordered 20 weeks.


I’m anxious and frustrated, and it’s a real drag, but what good is my misdirected anger? It’s a miracle we can build a house during a pandemic. Every part we need, everything we buy in a store, our life essentials, come to us because somebody must go to work and be more at risk to COVID. The spiritual journey in a time such as this is moving us through stages, from anger and frustration to sadness and sorrow for everyone at risk, leading to more empathy and a sense of gratitude.


I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.


That doesn’t mean our house will be built on time. It does mean I will look to God’s grace. We will get through this, and joy will find me. Things will likely still fall apart for a while, maybe a long time. But the sun will rise and set, and each day will have beauty to see, so see it. Babies will still be born; there a great books to read and love to be shared.


Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. God will meet us along the way in both circumstances. Welcome to 2022. Same old problems, but God’s mercies are new every morning. Comfort, comfort my people. In this New Year, may the living God meet us in joy and in sorrow, and may God fill us with light and life. Amen.

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