At New Year we get lots of people making prophesies about what will happen in the coming twelve months. Jeremiah 30-33 is known as Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation. The first two chapters are full of prophesies of promises made to the Northern Kingdom. These verses offer really good news to a people longing for some when things looking bad.
They’re words of hope and restoration; a message of joy and praise. But there’s a catch, they’re not a statement of fact. It’s an oracle, a promise yet to be fulfilled, a description of things hoped for. Jeremiah is ever hopeful and his message is delivered to a people sorely in need of hope, who’ve suffered long in captivity and eagerly accept any prophecy of divine promises of release and restoration. A prophecy of hope is also what many in our society are looking for, those whosometimes feel hopeless about the challenges confronting them in their lives and communities.
These verses are addressed to people who’ve survived the devastation of being overrun by the various conquerors of their nation and offer assurance of God’s enduring presence that will ultimately bring about their restoration. They’ve suffered devastating loss in their personal and family lives, in their religious and societal way of life and to their culture.
Remember that I said there’s a catch. The Northern Kingdom, to whom they’re addressed was swept away into exile in the 8th century BCE. The promises in chapter 31: “again you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” and “the sentinels shall call in the hill country of Ephraim,” weren’t fulfilled for them, their land was forcefully repopulated by the Assyrians and they never returned home. Indeed, most folk of the Northern Kingdom died in exile in Syria and Babylonia.
As the Covid pandemic has rumbled on, we’ve been hit with many prophesies ranging from “it’ll all be over soon and we can return to normal by Christmas” to “there’ll be huge numbers of cases/deaths unless we stop doing x or y or z”. Most of these have failed to be fulfilled and I think that we’re getting used to that and taking some of it with a pinch of salt.
Failed promises can be difficult to face, especially when these are made, not just to the population at large, but to specific groups of people: the blind, the physically disabled, and women in their third trimester. These promises are made to the grieving, to people who’re overcome by “hands too strong for them,”. Jeremiah’s not kidding when he says: “your hurt is incurable…there is no medicine for your wound, no healing for you”. It’s not hyperbole when Rachel refuses comfort because “her children are no more”, just her reality.
Although this kingdom and it’s people disappeared from history, their words and their poetry was preserved, leading to many reuses of it. In a sense “failure is just material waiting to be recycled”.So hopes that emerge from failure can bring new life to others.
Tuesday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents and it’s Matthew who uses this failed prophecy to suggest that Rachel’s weeping refers to the children in Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod, mappingpresent grief onto an earlier sense of loss.
But we can’t be satisfied with the idea that people die and suffer so that their hope can be recycled for others. While there’s quite a lot that can be done with failed hope, what about the people of Jeremiah’s time, the people to whom he prophesied. What happened to those women in their third trimester who hoped to return home but never came back?
In asking this question, we’re not alone. The book of Tobit is about an 8th century Northern Israelite who was exiled to Ninevah. The story focuses on two folk who tried to do what was right by God but things never turned out, Tobit and Sarah a distant relative. They both feel despair and a desire for death. Tobit’s sends his son and his dog on a journey with a relative who turns out to be an angel in disguise and which ends in his meeting and marrying Sarah. So our question, “what becomes of these people?” connects us to the ancient author of Tobit who wondered the very same thing.
This desire to follow the lost is precisely what Jeremiah did with his Book of Consolation. The failed hopes for the Northern Kingdom may have served as reading for Jeremiah while in jail. So in wondering about the lost, he used his imagination, shaped by God’s hopes for those people, to write a new book in solidarity with them. His Book of Consolation is actually his “Letter from a Jerusalem Jail”.
Even during his incarceration, he didn’t adopt a simplistic hope that God would make everything better and would restore some sort of ‘normality’. Jeremiah was maybe the ultimate skeptic, when you compare him with his contemporaries who just preached hope and protection.
Jeremiah’s willingness to be skeptical and a big helping of imagination, gave him the power to see beyond what was happening. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry”.
God is concerned even about the weakest among us. The blessing of God isn’t a sign of worthiness. God’s compassion and justice extends to all and promises the hope of God’s restorative justice to those who’ve been brought low by any and all circumstances of life. The promises of God delivered through the words of the prophet transcend time and place and gather all people of every time and place into the ever-present grace of God that offers fullness of life to all.
We see exactly the same message in the prologue to John’s Gospel when we read:
“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 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.”John 1:12-18