Text: Jeremiah 31:7-14
May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace. May you know God’s abundant grace—grace upon grace. May you know that you are God’s beloved. May your mourning be turned into joy. May you feel God’s comfort. And may you be satisfied with God’s bounty. Happy New Year!
What could possibly be a more beautiful text to begin a new year than Jeremiah 31? Verse after verse, it is saturated with promise and fulfillment; with gladness and abundance; with joy and life. Listen again to the imagery:
“…their life shall become like a watered garden…young women will rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old will be merry…their mourning will be turned into joy…they will be given gladness over sorrow…all the people will be satisfied with God’s bounty.”
The exiles to whom the words of Jeremiah 31 were addressed were a scattered, weary, and vulnerable people. The assurances of God’s faithfulness, spelled out in images of bountiful food, flourishing gardens, safety, dancing, and gladness, provide a picture of an overwhelming and over-the-top grace. Straight paths, deep consolation, and special care for the most vulnerable suggested a road home shaped by a generous welcome and tender care—especially for a people who had been in exile, who knew the realities of suffering and struggle.
I have an older friend with whom I often visit and share the burdens of the world. On my visits with her, our ritual is to discuss all the problems of the world and of Pullen Church. Once we have adequately solved all those problems, our conversation will inevitably turn to the people we know and love who are sick or struggling. As we near the end of our ritual, my friend will let out a deep sigh and say, “There is just so much suffering and sadness in the world.” And she is right. People we love dying of cancer. Family members struggling with depression. Stories of children abused and beaten. State budgets that ignore the mentally ill and the disabled. The injustices of war, environmental genocide, homelessness, and hunger. The persistent societal ills of racial prejudice, homophobia, bullying, and greed. There is so much suffering and sadness in our world; and sometimes it can simply feel and be overwhelming. And sometimes, when looking in the face of it all, all we can do is sigh and acknowledge that it is real and present.
Our lectionary text this morning seems an unusual one from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah, who lived just before and through the time of Babylon’s conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, is usually associated with messages of doom and destruction, messages concerning the end of the kingdom, and the defeat of the city. In fact, Jeremiah’s name even has become something of a tag for those who tend to look on the gloomy side of affairs. Certainly, a message of doom is a major focus of the long book of Jeremiah. It is, however, not the whole of Jeremiah’s message. From the very beginning, Jeremiah has a two-sided message. The book of Jeremiah begins with these words:
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
To pluck up and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.”
From the first chapter, where Jeremiah is called and appointed a prophet, his message is two-fold—one of suffering and destruction and of hope and promise. To be sure, destruction in this book is difficult and painful, involving enormous loss, death, and grief. However, no matter how painful it is, in the fullest expression of Jeremiah’s message, destruction is never to be seen in isolation. No, Jeremiah reminds us of a God who is with us—who is in our midst building anew, plucking up in order to plant.
The message of hope for the future, inherent in Jeremiah’s writing, is never stronger than in the “Book of Comfort” or “Book of Consolation,” that comprise chapters 30–33. In these chapters Jeremiah looks beyond the situation of exile and destruction to a hopeful future, the future of a restored covenantal relationship—a relationship between God and humanity that is marked by gladness and joy; by hope and promise; by goodness and bounty and abundance. Jeremiah 31 is a joyful passage, with a vastness of imagery capturing the hope that Jeremiah sees for the future. It is a joy and hope based on God’s action in gathering, leading, and caring for the people, especially those most vulnerable—the blind, the lame, the forgotten, and the marginalized. To be clear, this is not an image of a conquering army gaining their city and kingdom back again through force, to rule as they did before. No, this is a people profoundly changed by their experiences of loss and of exile. It is a lost and vulnerable people being gathered by their God, and finding their delight in their God.
As we go into this New Year, Jeremiah invites us to ask a simple yet profound question. How do we stay present to the sufferings of our world—to the injustices that persist—to the sufferings and struggles in our own lives while at the same time live into the joy and bounty of God’s grace? How do we turn our mourning into joy? How do we accept God’s comfort when in exile? How do we let gladness wrap around our sorrow? How do we live satisfied with God’s bounty? Can we, indeed, choose to be happy while still remaining present to the world and the suffering in our world and in our lives? And if so, how?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but I do have an idea for us to consider as we go into this new year. I, as much as the next person, can feel the burden of all the suffering and hurting in our world. And sometimes, I can feel that sense of hopelessness and of being lost and overwhelmed. When you grieve the death of your mother, I grieve too. When you worry about your grandchild having surgery, I worry with you. When I listen to a young woman who is undocumented living in this country rage about the fact that she cannot attend college, I rage with her. When one of you is told by your family that you are not welcome home because you are gay, my heart breaks with yours. My own demons and struggles and sufferings can sometimes overwhelm me to the point of forgetting God’s bounty of grace and love.
When I first started out in ministry at Greystone Baptist Church working with Alan Sasser, he took me with him one day to make hospital and pastoral visits. The first visit we made was to an elderly man who had just had one of his legs amputated. The second visit was to a young man who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given a few months to live. And the last visit that day was with a woman whose marriage was in trouble—her pain was palpable. As we transitioned between each visit, my mentor could tell that I was struggling. At the end of the day as we returned to the church, he turned and said to me, “Nancy, you can’t take on every person’s suffering. All you can do is be a witness to their suffering and pain and offer comfort and hope where you can.” In the years that have followed, I have often recalled his words—all you can do is be a witness. But it hasn’t been until lately that I have understood them—that is, what it means to be a witness.
Being a witness is about being present and attentive to someone else—to see their pain and joy; to hear their questions and experiences. When we “take on” another’s pain or suffering, then their pain and suffering can very easily become about us. But if we stay in the place of being a witness, we are able to stay more fully focused and present to the person or situation before us. In my early years of ministry I thought that in order to fully empathize with someone else I had to enter into their pain or suffering with them or take it on as my own. But what I have learned is that when I don’t take on another’s pain or the pain of the injustices in our world I am better able to stay present and respond more effectively than if I just become enmeshed in the situation. I have learned that being a witness allows me to be more fully present to what someone else might be feeling and then from that place offer a word of comfort or hope. Being a witness frees us from trying to “fix” it all. When we are able to be a witness, it opens up space for us to see a possibility that the one who is suffering or mourning cannot see.
At the heart of who we are to be as a church, and as community to one another, is to be a witness—to be present to the pain and suffering of each other and our world; to be attentive and pay attention to where people are struggling and to where the injustices of our time prevail. But being fully present means that we also maintain connection to ourselves, our own joys, and our place in the larger picture. When we are present in this way, as witnesses, we can empathize with the pain of others, AND we can offer new possibilities and new ways of seeing to those who are hurting. As witnesses, we can extend God’s comfort and grace where there is mourning. As witnesses, we can more fully offer our voice to God’s faithful and steadfast love. When we act as witnesses we truly can be both present to the sufferings and injustices in our world and live into the joy of God’s grace and bounty. Jeremiah reminds us that exile and suffering and joy and promise are not distinct steps along a linear path; rather they co-exist, contrasting, enriching, sometimes confusing us. Our work, as the church and as people of faith, is to live into both: not waiting for the pain to end, but offering comfort and the promise of joy in the midst of our exile.
What could possibly be a more beautiful message to begin a new year?