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Third Sunday of Easter
Jeremiah 32:36-41; Psalm 33:1-11; Revelation 5:1-14; John 21:1-14
It is difficult for us to believe promises. So many of the promises that are made to us by others are not fulfilled. Some are small, like when I promise to spend time with my children but let the demands of adult life keep me from them; some, are larger, the promises made that cannot be kept. “It is all going to be ok.” “You will get through this.” “You will get better, this sickness cannot beat you.” “I will never lie to you.” “I just want what’s best for all of us!”
Promises are easy to make, but hard to keep, and harder to believe. We live in an age where, increasingly, our leadership is particularly hard to trust to keep their promises. Politicians promise all kinds of things they either aren’t capable or aren’t willing to do. Church leaders abuse the people they are meant to care for and lie to protect themselves. And so, because so many have failed us, so many promises have been unkept, it is also hard for us to believe God’s promises, of life, goodness, blessing. If you have suffered in life, fallen short of your goals, failed, been bullied or oppressed, abused, or neglected, you likely have also doubted the promises of God. But the message of Jeremiah this morning, the Word of the Lord to the Israelites facing the destruction of their nation and scattering of their people, is also the Word of the Lord to us: God has promised unending abundant life.
We have to understand the severity of the people of Jerusalem’s plight to understand the depth of God’s promise here. They had, over the course of many, many years, departed from the path God had set before them. God had made them a promise to keep the land of Palestine, if they obeyed the Law that guaranteed life and prosperity to them. They did not. It says earlier in the chapter, they not only turned their faces, but their backs on God; their ancestors had made a promise to obey, but each successive generation had broken it. And these weren’t arbitrary laws; they were reflections of God’s own nature, applied to the broken and struggling context of human civilization. In other words, they lead to life, because they were good, though not perfect; they were the best that could be accomplished or striven for in the darkness of the ancient world. Besides, the simple letter of the Law was never the point; it was the heart of the Law, which is to love God and love your neighbor, for if you fail at those, all your sacrifices are abominable. Even though God gave life-giving instructions to them, they rejected them. Star Trek analogy? Want a perfect world, better to work for it than not, but still unattainable without the eradication of the one thing we can’t: sin.
And so, God let them have their way, and the result of pursuing life the way the empires of the world do. The people rejected the way of life, and embraced the way of death, and so a greater empire was coming: Babylon. Their country and their city would be taken. They would die in multitudes. Suffering was about to be their portion. This is what living like the world results in. The pursuit of power, greed, envy, and violence, practiced as an individual or as a people, will result in the same, and those who live by the sword will die by it. The people of Jerusalem chose to live in evil, rejecting humility and love and selflessness, and so bringing hate and violence down upon themselves.
Into this darkness, this hate, this despair, comes the promise of God. The people would be dispersed throughout the world, but God would bring them home; they will be safe; they will be given one way, one heart, to live for and to love God; God will do good for them, and they will not even have the capacity to reject God. God enters into human darkness and dispels it, saying, “I will bring you home, and I will not abandon you. Forever.” And God’s promises do not fail, because God does not fail.
Yet, we have more to do here, because if we stop there, we miss the actual meaning of this text. In its literal sense, it here tells us of a promise to the people of Judah, facing destruction thousands of years ago. But in reality, from our stance on the other side of the coming of Jesus Christ, the true meaning is clearer, deeper, and more expansive. In other words, this means what it means to the original hearers, but it also means more.
Through Christ, we know that it is not just the people of Jerusalem who have gone astray; we all have. We all do, as St. Paul’s says, “the very things I hate.” We all break promises, hate, and destroy. And we all, every one of us, faces Death. We are they who will die, and nothing changes that. Our bodies will grow weaker, suffer from sickness and injury and age, and we will die.
We are the far-flung ones. The human race, scattered across this planet, all against one another, and Christians in particular are often victim to powers in the world beyond fighting. And we are the ones who will be brought home. Home is not someplace that a political leader creates a utopia, or an untouched wilderness where we can escape other humans. Home is the very Presence of God, a New Creation where this world and the heavenly are married, brought together. There, we will be safe. There, violence and greed will have no place. There, all of us will be one, and never again will even Death have sway over us. This is God’s Promise, spoken by the Father through Jeremiah, ratified in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and signed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
That is the God we humbly and, in our stumbling way, seek to serve: the God who will rejoice in doing good for us, that says we will be God’s people, that will never draw back from doing good for us. This is a promise without condition, purely out of God’s love. It is guaranteed.
Humans break promises. And in our suffering, it is easy to believe no promise can possibly be true, or guaranteed. But God demonstrated that when a promise is made, it will be kept, by the fact that Jesus Christ the Son of God willingly went to the pain of death, so that he might rise again and defeat Death once and for all. This Promise was written and guaranteed in blood and a suffering shared with us in our humanity. This Promise will come to be. Not just in a limited way written here, but beyond: a promise made to all people, gathered to their home in the Presence of God, and all our suffering left behind as we too are resurrected to wholeness and life, for ever and ever. Amen.
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