Jeremiah 31: 7-14; John 1: 10-18
Today I want to reflect on our Old Testament reading from the book of Jeremiah, read to us in Farsi by Mojgan. The full text in English is on the insert in your leaflet.
Jeremiah had the misfortune to live through times of huge upheaval. A reluctant prophet, his vocation was to be the voice of God’s justice in proclaiming over many years the eventual downfall of the Jerusalem monarchy. He lived to see the destruction of the city and its temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and the deportation to Bablyon of the leading survivors. Jeremiah was not among them – he was spirited away to Egypt, where it seems he lived out his days – although there is no record of his death.
Today’s reading is from that more hopeful section of his prophecies termed the Book of Consolation, where he imagines the return one day of the exiles to the country God gave to their ancestors.
What struck me as I read this passage is its emotional depth. This is no triumphant returning army. Instead we are shown a company of young and old, bringing with them the blind and the lame, the pregnant, those carrying small children. And as this group moves slowly along the road they are patiently led by God who is their shepherd and their Father – one might equally say their mother.
This is a joyful community, yet their overwhelming emotion at coming home is expressed in weeping, consoled as they go by their God.
In this vision Jeremiah calls to mind Jacob and his homecoming. For me Jacob is one of the most relatable characters in the Hebrew Scriptures. The chipper younger brother, who tricks Esau out of his inheritance and flees when his brother swears that one day he will kill him; the trickster and entrepreneur, who builds his business in a foreign land by street-smart cunning and diplomacy. And yet hidden within this bravado is an emotional longing for home, and this is where God meets him.
So there is a struggle within Jacob, between his successful ego and a heart which longs for his home, to be reconciled with his family and with God. He gathers his tribe and sets out towards home. After a great struggle between rational fear of Esau’s promised revenge and the promptings of his heart, he crosses into his homeland. And the meeting with Esau, who comes not in revenge but in love, is one of the Bible’s great miracles – we read in Genesis chapter 33 and verse 4 that “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
This then is the God Jeremiah wishes to convey, the God who continues to love his people with an everlasting love, the God whose desire is for relationship, for a law written on our hearts, not in books, for the joy which comes from reconciliation, from coming home, and if tears flow in consequence, well, so be it.
Jeremiah’s powerful vision leads me to two reflections.
Firstly, it puts our Christmas story in context. I am reminded of the poem by Christina Rosetti, Love came down at Christmas. But Jeremiah reminds us that this is not the whole truth. For the love which is shown most fully at Christmas runs through the Hebrew Bible. This is perhaps one reason why the gospels draw out the connections between the Christmas story and earlier scriptures. This is a love which has been there from the beginning.
Secondly, I reflect on the nature of the relationship into which we are invited in the journey of faith. Here I find it helpful to use the distinction made by the political writer, David Goodhart in his book on the dignity of work – between Head, Hand and Heart – distinctions which can I believe also be applied to faith.
It is good that we use our heads, that we learn from scripture and church teaching, that we approach both with a critical mind, that we recognise contradiction, the evolution of understanding over time, that we are mindful of the risk of being drawn into error.
And it is good also that we use our hands, that we practice our faith in our lives, even in those times when our motivation falters, that we continue to do, and in doing are carried through by those around us.
But of the three, I am convinced that the heart is where, for our faith, the springs of everlasting water rise, where life is to be found. Faith is at its core for me an emotional response to a God who first loved us, a response of gratitude, extending out into worship, prayer, service.
In the final verse of our gospel reading we read: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
So the mark of Christ is his closeness to his Father’s heart.
And what is true of us as individuals I believe can also be applied to us as community.
Together we can share in a richness of head-knowledge, of skill with words. And we can combine our energies in work with our hands, as we do, in important, practical ways. But I suggest that the living centre of our community is when our hearts are reconciled, to each other and to God, when we come home, like Jeremiah’s returning exiles, like Jacob, a reconciliation expressed each week as we meet around a common table, when we are the body of Christ, when through him we draw close to the Father’s heart.
Richard Young (Rector)