Mercy, hope amid trauma

September 7 — Jeremiah 30:1-3, 18-22; September 14 — Jeremiah 31:31-37

Sep 1, 2014 by

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This quarter’s first four lessons come from what has been called Jeremiah’s “little book of consolation” (chapters 30-33).

Grimsrud

Grimsrud

The book as a whole powerfully asserts that the terrible trauma the Hebrew people faced when Babylon destroyed their nation came because the political and religious leaders had led the people away from the shalom of Torah and toward idols, injustice and violence.

For Jeremiah, the fall of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah was not a sign that the God of Israel had been defeated by Babylon’s gods. To the contrary, the destruction confirms God’s presence. From the start, the people were told that God’s blessing had to be accompanied by faithful living — to turn away from faithfulness would lead to judgment (see 1 Kings 9:6-9).

In the midst of lament and critique come these four chapters of hope. As we reflect on this message of God’s compassion and healing mercy, and on the promise of restoration, we should not lose sight of the context of brokenness and trauma.

Our three passages (30:1-3, 18-22; 31:31-37) each contain marvelous promises. The people of Israel, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah — long sundered — will be united, restored from captivity and re-established in the promised land (30:3).

The people, reduced to only a sorrowful few, shall be made “many.” Though they had been overwhelmed with grief, God will bring them into thanksgiving and merrymaking (30:19). Instead of being ruled by foreign emperors, “their prince shall be one of their own” (30:21).

The people will be forgiven, made whole. Their nationhood is as firmly established as the sun, moon and stars. They shall all know God, “from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34).

The key term that runs throughout these verses is “my people” (30:3, 22; 31:33). This refers to the covenant God made with humanity and specifically Abraham’s descendants. The fundamental reality, even after the generations upon generations of refusing to live as God’s people, is that this covenant remains in effect.

The message of Jeremiah is that the people chosen by God to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12) cannot defeat God’s promise by their rejection of God’s ways.

We would misread Jeremiah, though, to think of these wonderful promises in isolation from the trauma that brought them forth. The message about God’s expectations and promises did not change from when they were originally expressed in Genesis and Exodus.

The hope for a renewal of the covenant — the “new covenant” spoken of in Jer. 31:31-37 — is for a new empowerment to follow the heart of the commands, the core message of Torah. Jeremiah reports a renewed commitment from God to empower faithfulness, not a new decision to decide that faithfulness no longer matters.

These promises, certainly meant to encourage Jeremiah’s audience in the midst of their trauma, remain powerful and hopeful — but also challenging. They raise many questions.

How do we understand the promise of a return to the land? How do we as Christians relate the promises here to the life and message of Jesus? And how do we think of the relationship between present-day Judaism and Christianity?

Let me suggest one clear message: Jeremiah means to reaffirm the truthfulness of the teaching of Torah, not overthrow it. At the heart of Torah is the call to love God and neighbor. Whatever return to the land and whatever new covenant might be intended by the promises here, they only have validity insofar as they empower such love.

Ted Grimsrud is professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.


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