Sermon by Stephen Linton 02.01.2022

St Mark’s    02/01/2022

New Year

Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14

Well, it’s January 2nd 2022, and I’m sure that a lot of people have already wished you a happy new year.   It’s a good traditional greeting, and no doubt well-meant.   But are we really expecting a happy new year?   Yes, of course there will no doubt be good times to come, perhaps family celebrations, or holidays, or anniversaries.   

But much of the year ahead looks uncertain.   It’s still unclear whether we will be back with restrictions on what we can do, and whom we can meet.  So some of those anticipated holidays or celebrations may not happen.   And news from home or abroad doesn’t look good either.  On-going wars. climate disasters, ethnic cleansing, poverty, corruption, sleaze, injustice, persecution of minorities, refugees, childhood abuse, mass shootings, attacks on women on our streets, terrorism, modern slavery, huge increases in energy costs….   Did I say, ‘Happy New Year??’

But our reading today from Jeremiah reflects circumstances that were even worse.   The year is about 580 BC.   The Babylonians have destroyed Jerusalem and taken most of the people into exile.   Jeremiah, who had warned the king and the people that this catastrophe was about to hit them, was left, with a small number of the poorest and weakest people, in a ruined city, from where they would soon flee to Egypt and where they would die.   The situation could hardly be worse.

Yet despite that Jeremiah, who had prophesied disaster and destruction, is now, in chapter 31, bringing a message of hope.   He is predicting that the exiles will, in due course, return to Jerusalem.   God, who had scattered them, as the only way to deal with their persistent rebellion against him, would now gather them and bring them back, and care for them in their own land.   There would be a joyful return, with celebrations, abundant harvests, and God’s presence as their God, and they as his people.

As we read this today, knowing that 70 years after Jeremiah’s words, groups of exiles would indeed begin to return, this message of Jeremiah doesn’t perhaps surprise us much.   But to those destitute people, having lost everything:  family, possessions, homes; their nation obliterated; about to go into voluntary exile themselves in Egypt, this prediction must have seemed like laughable nonsense.  

So let’s take a more detailed look at what Jeremiah had to say.   And first we note that the passage doesn’t start, ‘This is what Jeremiah says’, but ‘This is what the Lord says’.   In some way Jeremiah knew, and then passed on, what God wanted to say to that destitute and despairing group of people.   And it was a message of joy and hope.   They are not to despair but to praise God, calling on him to save the remnant of his people.   And to do so, knowing that God has promised to gather them and bring them back to the land.   And, we read, not just the fit and able-bodied:  among them would be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and some even in labour.   They would return, Jeremiah says, weeping, perhaps tears of repentance as well tears of joy, knowing that God was their Father and that they were his people.

And we can see that all this was part of God’s plan.   God says, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd’.   And there follows a description of what would follow:  abundant harvests, mourning turned into gladness, sorrow turned into joy.   And just in case they’d forgotten, Jeremiah ends these verses with once again pointing out where all these promises came from: he signs off, ‘Declares the Lord’:  this is what God has told him.

So what does all this say to us today, facing a new year with all its uncertainties, even if they are relatively minor compared to those despairing Israelites left in the ruins of their burning city?   Well firstly, we need to be listening to what God is saying today.   ‘This is what the Lord says’, begins Jeremiah.   ‘Declares the Lord’, he reiterates at the end of the passage.   There’s a challenge here both for preachers and for congregations.   We who have the privilege of preaching are not here to promote our foibles and prejudices, reading our cleverly worded homilies, and looking for your congratulations at the door as we leave church.   No, we have the awesome responsibility of seeking to know what God wants us to say.   And indeed, my prayer is that even when I don’t get that right, that God will still speak to the you, the congregation, in his own way, and not allow me to get in the way of God speaking to each one of us.   

And you as the congregation are not here to admire the preacher’s eloquence (or not), but to seek to listen to God speaking to each of you as an individual.   What does God want me to hear from him this morning?   What does he want me to take out of church?   How does he want me to be different this coming week?   How can I share his love with those that I meet?

So, in that context, what might God be saying to us as we set out into 2022?   Firstly, I suggest, that God is in charge.   We read here in Jeremiah that it was God, not ultimately the Babylonians, who had decreed the exile.   And that it is God, not the subsequent Persian kings, who would bring them back into the land.   And that it is God who will guard them like a shepherd and bring them the stability they need, good harvests and the chance to re-establish themselves as his people in the promised land.   And we too can affirm, at the outset of a new year, that our God is in charge, even when everything seems bleak.  

So, secondly, that God brings hope and joy, even in very difficult circumstances.   Hope for future protection and security and stability.   And that can still be true for us when we face ongoing difficulties.   We can face the new year with hope in a God who in charge and whom we can trust.

Was Jeremiah’s optimism justified?   Some of these things were fulfilled, when after 70 years in exile many were able to return.   And under Nehemiah and Ezra, they did rebuild Jerusalem and re-establish the life of the nation.   But in subsequent centuries other powers were to invade and rule their land:  Alexander the great, Antiochus Epiphanes, and the Romans would in turn become the dominant powers.   So was Jeremiah’s prophecy only half-right?  What was God doing during the subsequent 400 years?

Well, God was still in charge, and his plan was still awaiting fulfilment.   So in about 4 BC, we can’t know the exact date, there came about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, whose coming we have just celebrated and who would change the course of history for everyone, whether believers or not.   The coming of Jesus inaugurated a new covenant, a new relationship, and the coming of God’s kingdom.   That doesn’t mean that everything was suddenly put right.   When God came among us, he came as a vulnerable baby, not as a conquering king.   And Jesus came to show us God’s love, and to invite us to join his kingdom.   And it is in the expectation of the eventual triumph of that kingdom, when Jesus returns, that we live as Christians today in our world which is still at times a dark and dangerous place.   Many Christians in parts of God’s world suffer from persecution and at times terrorism and injustice.   And for us in the west, many in our society and media regard the true message of Christmas as irrelevant.

But our passage this morning still gives us hope.   God is in charge.   He is with us even in difficult circumstances.   In due time he will return and set the world to rights.   And meanwhile we simply need to trust him.   As we wait for the final triumph of God’s kingdom. 

And for you here at St Marks, 2022 is a very significant year, with the prospect of a new vicar and new members joining you.   There will be some changes, no doubt, and new challenges, for you and also for those who join you.   But, I hope, there will be a real sense of God at work.   For God is in charge, he is the shepherd who watches over his flock, not the bishop, not the vicar, but God himself is the chief shepherd who watches over us whether we are lying down in green pastures, walking beside still waters, or sometimes in the valley of the shadow of death.   There we fear no evil, for God is with us, to protect and comfort us.

Happy New Year!   Yes, that can be true when we go into it with God to guide us.   Let me finish with that poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, quoted so memorably by George 6th in 1940, in the darkest days of war:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown".
And he replied:
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way".
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

Let’s pray:  Father we face an unknown future in 2022.   Help us to trust in you, to allow you to lead and guide us through the changes and challenges that will face us.   Help us to know your presence with us, and the joy of serving you.   In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.