Hopeful expectation

October 4th, 2019

Jeremiah 31:27-34

We love to count and rank events, people, athletes, books, and so on. It seems that just about any time I turn on ESPN or wait in line at the supermarket, I am bombarded with rankings and comparisons. Countless bookstore shelves and Internet pages are filled with sundry “Top Ten” lists. It’s not all that different when we come to the Bible. Many of us probably have a life verse, a verse that stands out and influences much of what we do, and that’s okay. And I think if we read the Bible carefully, we find that there are certain stories or characters that just stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of importance or impact. This is not to diminish the lesser-known, more minor elements, but there is no denying that certain parts of the biblical story give meaning to the rest and inform how the subsequent narratives are read. We would certainly argue for Jesus as number one on our list of “Top Ten Bible Characters,” but without previous events and figures (for example, creation, Abraham, the Exodus, and David), the narratives surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus wouldn’t be nearly as rich or meaningful. In fact, the four Gospels ooze complexity and meaning primarily because of that history. Jesus’ own self-understanding was greatly influenced by his understanding of his own religious heritage.

Another event that should probably be in our top ten, as you might guess based on the lectionary’s last two sermons, is the Exile. It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Babylonian exile for the people of Israel, for their theology, and for their future. The fall of Jerusalem fundamentally challenged the predominant view of the 325 Promised Land and Israel’s place in it. The destruction of the temple led prophets and priests to think in new ways about how God is present with the people and what authentic worship of the Lord looks like. The tragic failure of the Davidic royal line prompted the people of God to lament their circumstances and vehemently protest their situation. They looked inward, outward, and upward for explanations and answers to painful questions about the nature of suffering, hope, and divine presence. We remember from the readings two weeks ago that part of this painful search for meaning and truth includes authentic lament and truth-telling. Last week we encountered the need to live in the present, the here and now. This week’s readings offer another crucial component of exilic life: hopeful expectation.

As devastating and traumatic as exile is, there is still a word of hope. The same Jeremiah who told the exiles to settle down is now telling them they will resettle and live anew. In fact, today’s Old Testament reading occurs in the midst of a discussion of how this future will look. Jeremiah employs a host of images to convey this beginning, this hope. For one thing, this hopeful expectation looks to the future by understanding the past and the present. The odd thing about hope is that it never ignores the past or present; rather, hope pays close attention to life in honest and open ways. Hope doesn’t need to be kindled on bright days, but on stormy days and during dark nights. In fact, hope is a truthful commentary on the here and now, a prophetic thought that looks to a new dawn, but it is no sugarcoated, fuzzy notion.

We may see this pretty clearly in today’s reading. Did you notice God’s blunt remarks concerning the people’s current status? “I have actively watched over you, my people, but not in ways you might have hoped or thought.” Now that sounds good. I like the sound of that as a follower of God. This spiritual path I’m on isn’t always easy, but it’s good to know that God is watching out for me. But God wasn’t done: “I have watched over [you] to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil” (Jeremiah 31:28). What kind of watchman does that? That’s not the kind of shepherd we want—certainly not the kind we think we need. The promised “coming days” are just around the corner, but they don’t erase a difficult past. Looking to the future means understanding how we arrived. Hopeful expectation means admitting that our present condition needs redeeming and that we are powerless to make it happen. Even in the midst of great evil, plucking up and breaking down, being overthrown and destroyed, even in the midst of all that, God is present and at work. This knowledge is an indispensable ingredient of life in exile; this is a part of living away from one’s true home.

But God isn’t done speaking in this passage. Destruction and evil aren’t the last words. Notice also here the powerful verbal images to describe the “coming days”: sow, build, plant, and forgive. These are all anticipatory verbs pointing to a new beginning, a new chapter. Hopeful expectation understands that the future begins with the digging of a hole for a seed or with words like “I forgive you.” Yet hope, and all the expectation and anticipation it carries, never really gets ahead of itself. Strong trees don’t grow up in a year; troubled relationships don’t heal fully overnight; new habits are not formed in a day. No, a small and vulnerable beginning is a common theme in all these verbs, and that’s just how hope works—that’s just how God works. That’s probably just how most of our top ten biblical stories begin. If we see nothing else here, we see that hopeful expectation never lets go of the possibility that salvation can come to us in the most unexpected ways: on an ark, in a basket floating in the reeds, in exile, in a stable, on a cross, out of a tomb, or in a small but committed community of people who dare to bear the name Christian. Amen.

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