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Grief Invaded By Joy
A sermon based on Jeremiah 31:7-14
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Let me share some bold introductory words from our first lesson. Before we explore the context of these words, however, help me out. When you hear these words, ask yourself, "when could I imagine myself saying those kind of words?" Ready? Here goes . . .

Shout at the top of your lungs!

Raise cheers! Sing praises!


When would you use those words? Churchly types would probably pull out all the stops on those rare moments that border on the miraculous-like holding the winning ticket in the New Jersey Lottery. Some might shout such kinds of words on the final day of work. Yes! Retirement and motorhomes, visiting the kids, catching an hour extra snooze, no more departmental meetings! Joy! Whoopah! For me, I rolled down the window on Rt. 278 at 65 mph. and yelled a whoop of relief when I completed my final comp. Whoopah! Hooray!

Others of us, no doubt, are less reserved and more extravagant with these praise band lyrics. We’re shouting them percussively, rhythmically, and keyboardily every Sunday in bold, off-the-wall PowerPoint presentations. Veteran parents have even been known to utter these mysterious words-when the last one pulls out of the driveway headed for college; and at least one grandparent has been heard to utter such praisely whoopahs following her 14 year old grandson’s awesome movie as Dumb and Dumberer. Shout at the top of your lungs . . . hoorah, you grandparents and you retirees! Raise cheers, you lottery winners! Whoopah, you empty-nesters! Sing praises!

But context has a way of changing everything. Take the very place where these words are found: Jeremiah 31. Behind all of the whoopah and praise proclamation you’ll find a very different context. The whole book of Jeremiah is a kind of a docu-drama that God has produced; it could be called "My Broken Family," written and produced by God. God plays the role of lover and God’s community plays the supporting role of the beloved.


ACT I: a man and a woman love each other. They agree to get married and there is great hope for a large family that will encompass the world. Lots of love and deep passion is there for each other. Whoopah! This is going to be one of those rare, beautiful marriages. But surprise! Not long into this wonderful marriage one of them seeks not one, but many other lovers. They all vary, sometimes she rendezvous with her lover at a secret location. But eventually she is undiscriminating with her affairs. The lovers, of course, aren’t really human beings. Lovers that drive a wedge between community and God-at least as far as Jeremiah is concerned-is the worship of anything other than God. God’s beloved community has given allegiance to every god in the neighborhood. Anything that works, you know. Israel’s lovers came in the form of idolatry, in the form of not showing justice to those who were bent and broken. And not speaking truthfully. Those, among others, turned out to be God’s beloved lovers. And so Act I ends tragically and sadly. There is no place. There is no context to shout, raise cheers or sing praises.

I know people who are stuck in Act I of God’s play. They’ve known some health and goodness of God in a relationship that God has invited them to enjoy. But at present they cannot shout at the top of their lungs. Nor do they live a life of praise or cheer. It’s not just about a relationship with God, it may be what’s actually happening to them that deflects them from the care and presence that God offers. For some people, life is more pits than cherries; a new year is more uphill than down.

If you’ve ever experienced a messy, painful divorce you feel like doing almost anything else than raising cheers. When you’re a kid who gets jerked in and out of schools nearly as quickly as the seasons change, because you’re a preachers kid-a PK-you have little to cheer about.

When you’re a inmate and caged away in a 15 by 15 gray cubicle and you’ve got to pull another five years for a stupid choice you made, you cannot be expected to be joyful.

And what do our whoopahs mean to an old lady left behind? They’ve left her in a low-cost, minimal care home to gradually fade away from family memory. She sits in her room-the TV is on non-stop; her roommate sits in a stupor hunched over, held in by velcro straps. She could live for a month from the joy that a single half hour visit can bring. But it never comes. So she sits there aging by the week looking out the window from her prison.

We all know about Act I in God’s play. We’ve known God’s presence and experienced God’s joy. But we’ve also made choices that have brought brokenness to God’s family. And we too, like the old lady, have looked out at our life and wondered about the direction of our life from our prison.

Israel, however, is stuck ACT II: The Exile. God, the passionate, but spurned lover is deeply wounded by the unfaithfulness of God’s beloved and so with much pain, God cuts the beloved community off. Cut loose to pursue her own lovers. It brings exile. Assyria invades her borders. The people up and leave as prisoners. And so Israel languishes for generations as strangers away from home. So ends Act II.

Getting home can be challenging. Benjamin Franklin must have felt some of that away from home loneliness. He had been away in France for nearly five years in an effort to broker an alliance between France and the American colonies. Trying to get France on board as a financial and military ally was costly. He lost the friendship of his own son, a royalist. But perhaps an even greater loss was that he did not get home in time to see Deborah, his wife, for that one final time. She died of a stroke before he returned and he was left with only memories of his lifelong companion.

Getting home can be hard to do sometimes. But home is not just where the heart is. Home is the gift of God. God is about providing a home and a family for us earthlings. And its not just limited to some spiritual realm. God promises us a home and that is the place where there are possibilities of life.

As one person has said,

. . . the return to the land long ago promised is a return home, and it is a return to the place of security the place where the means to life can be found. That is a reality in Scripture, and it is one that people in our own time have known in hope or in frustration of hopes, from Jews deported and murdered who sought and found a home, praising God for it, to Palestinians who have lost a home as Jews have found one, to any number of peoples around the globe who have been forced out of their homes. Jeremiah reminds us of the centrality of the need for place and the longing for home in human experience and, even more, of the intention of God to fulfill the need and the yearning.

God begins ACT III with the Whoopah that we began with and which signals a new beginning and direction in God’s docu-drama: Welcome Home. God now speaks powerful, creating words of hope and vision to a community that languishes in a foreign land. God speaks life into death and strength into weakness. "Come," God says, "you who are limping, you who are ready to give birth, those who are weak and heavy laden; Come!"

What is so amazing about this passage is that God speaks ACT III while his supporting actress is still stuck in ACT II! God says "I will lead you out of your stuck-ness and bring you into a new place." And even more amazing is this bold shift of characters. Up till now God has been a jealous lover and the community God’s cherished beloved. But now God says, "I will accomplish these great things for you, because I am your Father and you are my children." Holy character shift! God now calls out as a loving heavenly father to his children.

Thus in Act III, God’s children, God’s most cherished possession-human beings-will come home in joy and laughter; they will dance and prosper. God doesn’t say that God will first bring on the hardened soldiers to cordon off a tenuous peace; instead God says that among the first back home will be an entourage of blind and lame, of mothers and those already having labor pains. The use of the image of pregnancy suggests that God’s people have a future ahead of them and with it new hope will be born.

Where are you in God’s docu-drama? What is God speaking to you in this New Year? You may be stuck, like so many religious and non-religious people in earlier Acts of the drama. But listen, God is calling you! In Jesus Christ, God invites, welcomes, calls out, and proclaims the whoopah of reconciliation. Now is the time to come back. To come home to a new adventure with the God who never wavers in the passionate love and faithfulness of our lives.

It’s not that God wants us to affect joy. But to let the One who is the source of all joy, satisfaction, love, and forgiveness live within our very personalities. Such transitioning may be awkward if never attempted, but increasingly we churchly types and clergy types are experiencing renewal from this God-initiated, God-filled yielding of our lives to God.

At our invitation, God still walks into our prisons, our pain, our frustrations, our anger, our unforgiveness, and powerlessness and turns our lives into well-watered gardens. So hear the good news that God proclaims on this day: Shout at the top of your lungs! Raise cheers! Sing praises! For God your shepherd will turn your mourning into joy and give you joy for your grief. Amen.