I write this blog post on New Year’s Eve.
Battle scarred by this year past you may be tempted to party like there’s no tomorrow. You may want to rip off your mask, hug a room full of strangers, drink till you stagger, and scoop your chips in one big, communal bowl of avocado dip.
Instead, take a tip from the good tradition of the church. In the bleak midwinter listen to God’s Word that is chosen for this season to help us take the harsh cold and deep darkness of life honestly and seriously so that we can party as we should—so that we can refresh ourselves for taking better care of this world God has put us in.
Our first lesson for this Second Sunday after Christmas is just such a Word, fitting just such a feast time in the darkness. Jeremiah 31:7-14 was obviously written by someone who knows the score. Before it invites celebration this Word paints a vivid picture of the worst this world can dish out. It’s all part of being a “scattered” people.
Jeremiah writes to exiles. He conveys an oracle from God that portrays what it means to lose—to suffer—to be marched away to a far off land.
Being scattered is all about the physical suffering of going blind, stumbling along rocky roads on legs that give out, with your screaming child at your side; or to realize you will be left behind to give birth under a bush by the side of the road.
But, when you are scattered, the psychic wounds are even more unbearable than the physical ones. You have given yourself up to the hard truth that your life is not yours to manage. Stronger hands of powerful people, or the invisible clutches of illness and accident grip you tight. And so you languish, the oracle says in verse 12, using a Hebrew word that means to melt away.
But this oracle invitation to the party sounds a bitter note as well. It is meant to be a kind of gloat for all the nations that are aligned against Israel:
“He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
Being kept together by a Good Shepherd is definitely something to party about. But what of the initial scattering? This is future good news, but what of yesterday?
This oracle speaks from within the world of the Hebrew Bible where, as Amos 3:6 says, nothing happens in this world unless God has done it. Nothing is beyond God’s control, and when God scatters, it is for the deeper purpose of deterring us from our self-destructive tendencies. Hosea teaches this lesson with the image of a loving husband hemming in his unfaithful wife. The left hand builds walls to turn her around while the right hand invites her along the right path of faithfulness.
That Old Testament perspective can certainly afford a sort of comforting assurance. But then the Gospels tell us an even deeper truth: God does the gathering and the keeping safe—it is the evil impulse of Satan to strike the shepherd and scatter (see Mk 14.26-27), or to sift us like wheat (Lk 22:31). The Christ prays for us and works to hold us close—to lose none of us (John 16:31-33; all of chapter 17; and 18:8-9). When we see gathering, it is God. When we see scattering, it is Satan.
So, instead of partying like there is no tomorrow, or living carelessly and shouting “YOLO,” we are encouraged here to throw the mourning of today into reverse—to shout God’s praise, rejoice, dance, and make merry.
A good recipe! Not because 2021 will be so grand, but because the long road ahead is one we will walk with the Good Shepherd beside us. Therefore the way of losing ourselves to serve one another is the way of the full future ahead.
Our recipe for this party must be honest, yet faithful. We know 2021 still looks dark. The virus is accelerating exponentially. Too many people are carelessly forgetting about the simple steps of mask wearing and social distancing. The vaccine distribution is ponderous. Nevertheless, the Shepherd God is always gathering; and the recipe of the greatest party of all is to open ourselves to that Spirit of gathering—of caring for one another and for our home planet earth.
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