Oliver Cooper, living from the latter part of the 19th to the mid-20th centuries, wrote the hymn Saved, Saved at Last the first line of which is “Love divine is mine.” That pretty much sums up our passages for today during this Rally-Around worship service. The ancient Israeli people wondered when their salvation would come. They yearned for the Messiah God had promised their ancestors long ago. Salvation by their hundreds of commandments just wasn’t cutting mustard. No one could keep them all perfectly. They were anxious for the promised coming Messiah to free them from the heavy burden of the Law. That Law, all the commandments in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy given by Moses, was necessary to their salvation. Yet, it seemed to become too onerous a thing to bear, at least as far as their salvation was concerned. “Saved, saved at last” were not words the ancient people of Israel sang often.
The prophet Jeremiah, also known as the Weeping Prophet, was called by God at a young age to speak the Lord Almighty’s words to the people. Jeremiah was the son of a priest called by God around 626BC. It is important that we note, the Lord tells him he will not be abandoned in his ministry. Yet, the Almighty calls him to a very difficult task. Jeremiah develops a style that could be seen as a theatrical sermon-like scolding and threatening into the situation in which he lives.
Much of Jeremiah is written after the temple fell the first time in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, called Judah, in the city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah continues to prophecy after the people are conquered by their mighty enemy, the Babylonians, in the 5th century BC as you have heard Rodger and I mention in a few sermons lately about various prophets’ messages. The fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians is still rather fresh in the people’s minds. Jeremiah, in no uncertain terms, prophesied that the southern kingdom of Judah would fall and fall mightily, much like the Northern Kingdom did. At that time, he was very unpopular with the king, the king’s prophets who kowtowed to the king, and with the people themselves. No one wanted to hear all this gloom and doom. Still, Jeremiah was correct. The kingdom does fall into the hands of the Babylonians and Jerusalem is destroyed, becoming a desolate land.
It is now that the people are taken into exile as captives and only a small remnant is left in the land of the Southern Kingdom. The Babylonians actually offer Jeremiah the choice to go into exile with his people or stay behind. He chooses to stay behind. It is into this time of distress, both for those taken captives into exile and those left behind, that the chosen people’s ability to worship is hampered because without their great Temple in which they think God abides, they feel lost. Rodger explained this in a recent sermon that he gave from one of the prophets. The question becomes, for them, where is God now?
Jeremiah now sees the desolation and intensely laments as he continues with the doom and gloom. Yes, he is the woeful prophet par excellence. In fact, his name can by a byword for judgment, punishment, lament and doom. Yet into this downer of a book of prophecy, comes our passage. However, our passage is a beacon of hope, for Jeremiah explains that the Lord, Yahweh, will save this wayward people. And too, the temple, their place of worship, will once again be restored in Jerusalem. Our passage is a text of remarkable reversals. Jeremiah 31:7 “For thus says Yahweh: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” [vs 7] Next we find out that the Redeemer is going to bring them back from the places they are scattered in the world to their promised home. This message is a beacon of hope for a desperate and deserted-feeling people.
The image of God as shepherd gently herding the people back to the Promised Land, bringing them great joy as they raise their voices in praise, brings to mind the image of Jesus as shepherd. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, we read, after Jesus has come ashore from the sea, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” This is Jesus the great shepherd and that image picks up the hope theme found in our passage of Jeremiah. The Great Shepherd, God in Jesus Christ, leads us to the knowledge that we are “saved, saved at last.”
Our Gospel of John passage tells us who this Jesus is. He is the Savior and the Messiah long hoped for by God’s people. As a whole, John’s Gospel paints a picture of Jesus as full of grace and truth. He is God’s Word become flesh to live among us. It is God incarnate in humankind. This passage in John is often used during the Season of Epiphany as Jesus’ birth reveals God’s abundant grace. Jesus, described as “true light” in our passage, illuminates the lives of believers so granting us solidly grounded human reason, learning from divine wisdom, as a gift from God and pointing us to our heavenly God, at least as often as we are open to that reasoning.
This Johannian passage speaks directly to Jesus’ humanity. The human aspect of Jesus relates to God, as we do, through prayer. In good times and in bad, we rely on our merciful God. All believers must nurture that connection. It was the way the exiles and remnant of Jeremiah’s time continued to be connected to God. The connection with God through prayer reminds us of the agony Jesus goes through before he is arrested and crucified as he prayed to God to take the cup of this painful burden from him. Yet Jesus proclaims, “not my will but yours, O God.” He lets go of all control and gives it up to God. Likewise when we do that we too can say, “not my will but yours, O God,” and know with strong conviction that we are “saved, saved at last.” We know that message is eternal. It will not go away. We will forever be with God. That knowledge colors our whole world. Like this morning’s passage in Jeremiah, it gives us hope, hope in a dark and hurting world. This hope is a beacon of light for us as we are surrounded by lies, slander, arrogance, hatred, sexual, gender and racial/ethnic divides. No, we cannot fulfill God’s Law given in the Old Testament. However, we know that the Almighty came to earth to save us so that we do not have to rely upon ourselves to earn salvation. So we are reminded, once again, that salvation is a gift freely given and in that we can rejoice.
In the Gospel of John, the author is concerned more with the unique relationship between God our Heavenly Parent, and God’s only Child incarnate in the flesh of humanity. It is in that relationship that we too can be raised out of the doom and gloom to both be reminded and embrace that divine love as ours, leading us to life everlasting with our God.
It is into the joyful news, that we find in both our passages, that we are gathered here on this Rally-Around Sunday. We are reminded of why we once again resume so many programs, events, committee meetings and practices at this time of year. I can say with certainty that it isn’t to be further burdened in our busy schedules. It isn’t just so that we are doing something, anything. It isn’t because the co-pastors say we ought to do these things. It isn’t because we have to have something to do. We do this work because of the hope we find in the book of Jeremiah chapter 31, and the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus which reveals unbounded mercy. We become Christ’s hands and feet in the world as a response to God’s love and mercy. By this we once again acknowledge that which leads to our salvation and that it started with God’s Word become flesh to live among.
We act upon our ministries and missions because we are called by God to rally-around the work of this congregation in service to Jesus Christ. It is through our work, our committee meetings, our practices, our prayers and worship, our mission projects, and our events and activities that we truly become the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
“A young child is crouching over the sand, shovel in hand. Below her sustained yoga-like posture — knees bent, head hung low — is a sandcastle.” She has spent much time on her castle and is proud of it.
“Hours later, after high tide reaches its height and recedes, the child returns to the beach. Her castle has been reduced to an inexact mound. After a slight sigh, the child strikes her pose again and starts digging, dumping, and packing the wet sand.
(And so too) we build something beautiful in our minds or with our hands, and we hope our work endures. Then the tide comes in and rolls over us. And yet, hurricane season after hurricane season, trial after trial, setback after setback, we rebuild. It is what we do. It is also what God does” through us. [from Feasting on the Word commentary on John, chapter 1] Yes, we pick ourselves up, rally-around and joyfully state, “saved, saved at last so that love divine is ours!,” and continue on.
Rejoice, O people of God, and be glad! Alleluia! Amen.