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Epiphany of Christ, Sunday, January 5, 2020 | 8:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“God’s power to reconcile and redeem is far greater than the power of evil and sin to destroy.”
William Stacey Johnson
Today is January 5, 2020, a date that is several things at once. It is the first Sunday of a new calendar year, a new decade, even. According to the liturgical calendar, though, which started a new year on December 1, the First Sunday of Advent, today is the Second Sunday of Christmas. Yes, December 25 was only the first day of Christmas, as you probably know, and so today is the second Sunday and the twelfth and final day of Christmas (cue the drummers drumming).
But today is also Epiphany Sunday, because tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany.
The lectionary—the calendar of scripture texts for worship we frequently follow--gives you two choices for today. You can choose the Epiphany readings, most notably the story from the Gospel of Matthew about the magi from the east following the star to Bethlehem. That’s the choice Pastor Joe made for this morning’s 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. It’s not—as you no doubt noticed—the choice that I made.
How to explain that? Well, the less charitable explanation of my choice would hold that I wasn’t paying very close attention, back on December 17, when I prepared the bulletin for this service and that I chose the second Sunday of Christmas reading without realizing that I could also choose the Epiphany reading. That’s a possible explanation.
But another possible explanation is that I was paying very close attention on that day one week before Christmas Eve—when there are four worship services, by the way, followed by another one on Christmas morning—and decided that actually the reading for the Second Sunday of Christmas was a better choice for this worship service on this day in this place.
I will leave the explanation to you.
However you account for the absence of wise men in the pulpit this morning, I will take these words from Jeremiah. Listen again to some of their more stirring phrases: “sing aloud with gladness”; “with consolations I will lead them back”; “they shall come and sing aloud”; “their life shall become like a watered garden.” These are powerful words addressed to the nation of Israel—also referred to as Jacob and Ephraim in the reading—some time during the fifth century BCE. They provide some of the most stirring, most comforting imagery in all of scripture.
This tone of consolation and comfort is rare for the prophet Jeremiah, who is often referred to as the weeping prophet because so much of what he had to say was tragic and foreboding. Jeremiah lived and prophesied during the time when Israel’s divided kingdom was staring down defeat and exile at the hands of the Assyrians in its northern half—sometimes simply called “Israel”—and Babylon in the south, Judah, where the capital is Jerusalem.
So much of what Jeremiah has to say in that time is disastrous. His commission as a prophet in chapter 1 includes instructions to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” The first thing the prophet records hearing from God is that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.” It’s a reference to the invading Assyrian army.
“For now I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, says the Lord; and they shall come and all of them shall set their thrones at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its surrounding walls and against all the cities of Judah.”
Jeremiah lived and worked in a time of impending disaster, and most of his words reflect that.
But not these words. These words from chapter 31 belong to a collection that scholars call the “Book of Comfort” or “Book of Consolation.” Three chapters in the middle of Jeremiah suddenly change tone and speak of hope in the face of calamity. Given the threat of catastrophe beamed to our TVs and phones practically by the minute—Iran, Australia, impeachment, the border, guns, the climate—these rare words of comfort—prophetic comfort—feel like a New Year’s balm.
Because what other answer do we have for the disasters we are facing at the start of the 2020s? Resolutions?
I don’t know about you, but I have soured on New Year’s resolutions. Just the idea that, on December 31, we need to pick something about ourselves we dislike enough to want to change and then express it as a resolution that we say we will keep for an entire year: I’m kind of over it.
I’ve actually come to rely each January 1 on a “yearly reminder” from Nadia Bolz-Weber, a minister and author: “There is no resolution that, if kept, will make you more worthy of love. You, as your actual self and not as some made-up ideal, are already worthy.”
Amen to that.
Sometimes we do need to make a change, though, not just individually but collectively. Jeremiah spends a lot of time recounting for his friends and neighbors and elected representatives all the things they did that got them into the mess they’re in. A lot of what presents as disaster at our gates is at least partly our responsibility. It got so bad because we lacked the resolve to make necessary changes before now, and if we don’t find some resolve soon it will only get worse.
This is why our worship includes confession that, in the words of today’s prayer, “we have pursued our own ends, our own desires, our own ambitions,” that we have lacked the resolution to pursue God’s ends, God’s desires, and God’s ambitions, and now we’re in a fix.
Yet even now there is some good news, some comfort from the prophet: our resolve—or lack thereof—is not the last word; when it comes to God’s desires for humanity, human resolution is not decisive.
To a people facing military defeat and forced exile at the hands of invading empires, Jeremiah offers not a list of things they should resolve to do to forestall, or even withstand, the coming disaster—“10 life hacks to make exile work for you!” No, the prophet makes a claim about what God will do. “I am going to bring them back” is the word of God through the prophet. “I will gather them.”
God’s resolve is decisive.
Eleven times in these seven verses God is the subject of a verb. Save, bring, gather, ransom, redeem, comfort: God has done, is doing, or will do all those things irrespective of the peoples’ resolve. The good news for today is that, at the start of a new year and a new decade, in the face of so much that looks like disaster, God is the subject of all the verbs that matter.
It almost sounds like a prediction, doesn’t it? Maybe these hopeful claims about God’s resolve for the good of the world are based on some rare ability unique to a prophet to see through the present calamity into the future and to predict a better outcome than seems possible.
The way we talk about prophecy in the Bible could make you think that.
Fast forward 500 years or so to the story of the magi we’re not hearing today from Matthew’s Gospel. When he hears that the magi are looking for the child born “King of the Jews,” King Herod becomes alarmed and consults Jerusalem’s chief priests and the scribes about where the Messiah is to be born, and they tell him, “In Bethlehem of Judea.” And why there? “For so it has been written by the prophet.”
It’s as if the prophet predicts the future.
There is a certain intellectual comfort in regarding words of prophecy as holy predictions. They don’t seem likely, but they’re a lot more pleasant. Maybe the prophets of our time are the inspired experts who make unpopular prediction and are proved right, the way Nate Silver predicted the 2012 presidential election with almost 100 percent accuracy (don’t ask about his 2016 election prediction) (“How Accurate Were Nate Silver’s Predictions for the 2012 Presidential Election?” Forbes, 7 November 2012; projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast).
Is Jeremiah Nate Silver? Can Jeremiah see something nobody else can? I mean, that the lives of people about to be trampled into dust and marched into exile will become “like a watered garden” and that they “shall never languish again”: are those predictions? That young women—who face particular and unimaginable terrors in military conquests—will “rejoice in the dance”: is that a prophetic forecast? That God—who feels so absent in the midst of so much suffering—“will turn their mourning into joy, comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow”: is that Jeremiah’s inspired guess?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s his hope. There is something baldly hopeful about predicting an outcome that is at odds with the evidence and with probability, isn’t there? There are times when faith—more than expertise—calls us to push our chips in on a bet that feels implausible, even foolish, and to side with hope over despair.
So it does not seem likely to me, for example, that the many divisions we are experiencing right now as a country—along lines of income and wealth, lines of race and gender, lines of political and cultural identity—are going to get better. It just doesn’t feel plausible most days.
And yet I believe that faith calls me, calls us, to remain open to implausible predictions of things getting better. And I’ll admit that feels risky and vulnerable most days. It feels safer to hide behind “realism.” But then I see the prophet pushing all his chips to the center of the table on a bad, bad hand, and I think there has to be something to that.
The prophet’s bet might be prediction. It might also be promise.
You see, a prediction seems technical. But a promise feels personal.
A prediction proved attests to insight. A promise kept attests to character.
When a prophet makes a prediction, they speak for themselves. But when the prophet utters a promise, she or he speaks for God, the Lord.
A prediction asks you to observe; let’s see what happens. But a promise pleads with you to trust, to commit yourself to the outcome you hope for.
Promises inspire action, and so faith expresses itself in action. The actions of our faith are expressed in worship.
Take sacraments as an example, Baptism and Communion. Sacraments are enacted promises. James K.A. Smith describes baptism as “the sign that God is a covenant-keeping Lord who fulfills . . . promises even when we don’t.” Communion, too, enacts God’s promises, even these promises from Jeremiah, to bring us from whatever circumstance or power has exiled us, to gather us from the farthest places, and to prepare a place for us, one broken body, a great company made whole in the breaking of one bread.
The very language of our worship is promise, too. We sing God’s promises. Seventy-five instances of the word occur in our hymnal, hymns like “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” and “Standing on The Promises.” “Prediction” is in only one hymn, and that reference is to “threats of dire predictions,” hardly positive.
Faith is born of a promise, and the community of faith is sustained by that same promise, though all the facts on the ground should point to disaster. It has always been thus. It certainly was thus for the exiles addressed by Jeremiah.
“The promise,” explains Walter Brueggemann, “is to turn exile into homecoming, to turn ‘scatter’ into ‘gather,’ to turn death to life.” And all of this “looks to the inexplicable power of [God] to create a newness; it does not refer to the facts on the ground whereby that newness may appear. That is as yet unclear.”
It strikes me that those conditions—disastrous facts on the ground and the way yet unclear—are almost necessary preconditions for a promise. In claiming these promises today, the Second Sunday and the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Epiphany Sunday, the first Sunday of the decade, we are well justified.
As were those magi. Their way was most definitely unclear; they were following a star, of all things. And none of the facts on the ground (!) supported what they were doing. Yet they were led by the promise of something that would change everything.
The hymn has it right: “’Tis now fulfilled what God decreed, ‘From Jacob shall a star proceed.’” But these “eastern sages,” to use the hymn’s phrasing again, have no stake in such a claim as a resolution or as a prediction; they are better thought of as the “nations” addressed by God in Jeremiah’s prophecy than as the people who are its subject. Yet there they are on that road, and it is a straight path, and they do not stumble. They are following a promise, because that promise is breaking down the barrier between the subjects and the objects, Them and Us, God and humanity, facts on the ground be damned.
May we find ourselves on that straight road with them, and may our feet never stumble.