“Now for the whole story”
Sunday 2 December 2018
The Readers’ Digest Magazine was established in 1922. It had the admirable aim of making articles from other sources available to the magazine’s large readership. The price paid for this resource was in the fact that the articles, and later books, were condensed to make them more palatable to busy people. Whenever that sort of editing takes place, something of the original genius of the author is bound to be lost.
The same is true when the Lectionary readings provide us with an edited text from the Scriptures. That is what has happened with the reading from Jeremiah this morning. We have been given only three verses, 14 to 16, and have missed out on the context provided by the whole of the 26 verses which make up chapter 33. We have been short-changed a little.
At the beginning of chapter 33, we are told of the words of the Lord who is the creator of all things. In the first instance, God is letting the people know that they are going to be punished for their wickedness. The very houses of Jerusalem that were cannibalised to provide materials to shore up the city walls will be filled with dead bodies by the Chaldeans when they break through. But then, almost instantaneously, the oracle changes as the Lord promises recovery and healing.
Vv7-9 I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the prosperity I provide for it.
The prophet then twice refers to the utter desolation that Jerusalem and Judah finds itself to be in and how the Lord will transform it.
Vv12-13 Thus says the Lord of hosts: In this place that is waste, without human beings or animals, and in all the towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks. In the towns of the hill country, of the Shephelah, and of the Negeb, in the land of Benjamin, the places around Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah, flocks shall again pass under the hands of one who counts them, says the Lord.
I love that last phrase – flocks shall again pass under the hands of one who counts them. Sheep will have shepherds. They will not be roaming wildly about as seems to have been the case during the years of the Exile. The Lord is going to restore all things to how they should be.
Then comes our reading from the Lectionary. Not only will the city and the land be restored, but a new king will arise. One in the line of David. God has not forgotten his promise made through the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 7. V11 Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house…V16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Just after our reading today, this promise is repeated. V17 For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel.
The chapter continues with the Lord emphasising two times that all of this will come about and a descendant of David shall again sit on the throne. And each time, the same magnificent image is used.
The first time it is expressed this way:
Vv20-21 If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken, so that he would not have a son to reign on his throne and my covenant with my ministers the Levites.
The second time it is expressed this way:
Vv25-26 Only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David and not choose any of his descendants as rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and I will have mercy upon them.
If we wanted to be a bit more prosaic, we could probably say: As sure as night follows day. That is the sense of these images, but how much more powerfully Jeremiah has expressed it.
So what is my point here? What I want to emphasise is the breadth and scope of God’s action which is encapsulated in this chapter 33 of Jeremiah. Reading only verses 14-16 is limiting ourselves to the Readers’ Digest condensed book edition.
How much more graphic is the whole. It is the story of a people who are completely devastated. Their cities, lands and livelihoods are a waste. They destroyed some of their own houses to try to shore up the defensive walls, but to no avail. The Chaldeans filled their wrecked houses with the bodies of the dead. And this was all because of their wickedness and foolishness in turning from the Lord and dabbling with foreign Gods.
But despite how wretched things have become, and despite the blame that belonged to the people of Judah, the Lord is going to turn things around. Despite all the appearances, the lord will bring his people back to a life of some normalcy. Sheep will be tended. The City will be rebuilt.
Not only that. The Lord is going to do something even more spectacular and undeserved. He is going to reinstate a descendant of David on the throne. Even though the people have not kept their end of the covenant, the Lord is going to do what he said he would do.
And don’t take this promise lightly! The Lord is so serious in his intent that night and day would have to be put out of kilter for his promise not to be delivered. He is absolutely serious. And in the midst of their devastation, these things will come about.
We know that God has been true to his word. We know that he has sent his Son, Jesus of Nazareth to be the new David, the one to shepherd his people. We know that Jesus has initiated this new kingdom of God in the world. And we believe that he will return and make all things new and hand the kingdom to God who will be all in all.
During Advent, we reflect upon these comings of the Davidic king – firstly, as a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years or so ago, secondly, his return to finally make all things right and establish for ever the kingdom of God, and thirdly, his coming into our lives each and every day in the things we do, the people we meet and the times we spend in prayer.
I commend for your further reflection chapter 33 of the Book of Jeremiah.
Fr Allan Paulsen