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January 4th, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Christmas 2,  (RCL - year ‘C )
Readings:    Jeremiah 31:7-14 *
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14 *
John 1:(1-9), 10-18

"Gathered Together..."

Throughout his life Jeremiah saw dramatic change in the fortunes of his country. By the time he was around, The people of Israel had split in two - the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, not unlike the situation in Ireland today. The Southern Kingdom was also known as Judah, the Northern Kingdom was also known as Israel. Jeremiah was called, for most of his life, to prophesy to the people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and he prophesied to them through thick and thin. He was there when King Josiah’s reforms brought a religious revival to the Southern Kingdom, and he was there after Josiah’s death, when the people returned, en-masse, to paganism. Jeremiah prophesied to the Southern Kingdom right up to 587 BC when Jerusalem was captured and the people dragged off to exile in Babylon.

The people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been dragged off into slavery many years before Jeremiah’s birth. But as a boy, Jeremiah had lived near the border between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of Israel had been on his doorstep and the cries of those being carried off into slavery by the Assyrians had been too close for comfort. The land had now been taken over by a cosmopolitan mix of races from all over the Assyrian empire. How Jeremiah longed to see that land filled once more by the people of Israel - a repentant people of Israel, walking closely, once more, with their God. And how Jeremiah longed for the two kingdoms to be united once again, as they had been under King David.

So Jeremiah utters a word of prophesy to the people of the Northern Kingdom - the words we heard read for us earlier on, and what words!

Jeremiah had heard all the stories about the people of Israel being dragged off into slavery - to Syria, to Assyria and to Babylon, and he had seen for himself the people of Judah being dragged off into slavery in Babylon. He had seen God’s people scattered to the four winds and yet his prophesy is about God bringing them all back together, just like the vision of the bones being put back together, so Jeremiah has a vision of God bringing the people of Israel from the four corners of the earth and reuniting them as one nation, serving God, as a witness to all nations. He had a vision of vast camel trains coming across the deserts, converging on Jerusalem, bringing the people back home. The people of Israel would live their lives as the community of God’s people - like a beacon to the world - attracting all the nations to worship the God who can do great things and inspire his people to such love and service.

The people of the Northern Kingdom had been in exile for about 120 years when Jeremiah uttered this prophecy - they had begun to lose hope. The people of the Southern Kingdom had been in exile for about 12 years, and they had begun to lose hope. New songs were being written - songs of despair - “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

And to people who had begun to lose hope, Jeremiah has these words: “Celebrate and sing for Israel; the greatest of nations. Offer praises and shout, “Come and rescue your people, Lord! Save what’s left of Israel.” They had sunk to such a state that they no longer even bothered to pray or to ask or to shout at God - “Come and save us!” - they had given up on God, they had given up on their future. “Now is the right time,” says Jeremiah, “Now is the time! Call on God now, ask God to come and save you!”

Jeremiah knew that he was talking to a people who had become used to being battered about by the winds of change over which they had no control. Jeremiah knew that he was talking to a people who were used to the idea that their destiny was purely in the hands of the superpowers - the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Persians... they had become used to the idea that they were simply pawns in a much bigger game. And Jeremiah reminds them of how it really is - that God is the one who is really in control. Nations come and go, superpowers rise and fall, but their God is unfailing and will never let them go. I don’t know what would have been on the list of hopes for the people in exile as a new year dawned in 600BC, I guess it would have been quite a conservative list, a make-the-best-of-it list, a don’t-expect-too-much-and -you-won’t-be-too-disappointed kind of a list. That was not he kind of new-year hope list that Jeremiah offered to them as 600BC dawned. This was his list:

31:8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here. 31:9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. 31:10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock." 31:11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 31:12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. 31:13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 31:14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

A word of caution, though. It wasn’t for another sixty years that what Jeremiah had said began to come true. How many years would it have been before you had given up? Perhaps, for each one of us, the new year should be about reminding ourselves that our God is faithful, that our God never will let us down, that God is in control. Maybe our lives are not so different from theirs.

Jeremiah saw a people who had begun to lose hope Jeremiah saw a people who were scattered - like strangers in a foreign land Jeremiah saw a people who felt powerless to change anything

I wonder if that’s what you sometimes feel like as a Christian in the 20th Century? If so, then Jeremiah’s words are for you too. God is in control. He will gather us together as a shepherd gathers his flock. We will live as his children - in love and peace and with hope and joy in our hearts - so that all who see us will wonder, “Who is this God that they worship? Who is this God whom they call “Father”? Can we be his children too?

Seven hundred years later, and a man is in prison writing a letter. His name is Paul and it’s a letter to all the churches. A copy is taken to the church at Ephesus and some of the letter was read to us earlier on. In the letter, Paul celebrates the life of the Church - the community that God has brought together and called “The body of Christ”, the kind of community that Jeremiah always had in mind - but opened up beyond Jeremiah’s wildest dreams. For this is a community now spread across the whole world and embracing all nations and cultures, men and women, slave and free, old and young, black and white. In Christ there is no East and West, in Him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

And from his prison, Paul is writing words of great hope for the future. Like Jeremiah he is writing about God gathering together. But this time it is not just the Jews from the four corners of the world, Paul has a vision of God gathering together all things in heaven and on earth together under one head - Christ our Lord.

The Greek word that Paul uses is anakephalaiosasthai. It was used of gathering things together and presenting them as a whole. Greek practise was to add up a column of numbers and put the sum at the top - anakephalaiosasthai; it the word was also used for the summing up of an argument - showing the relation of each part to the whole - anakephalaiosasthai; it is also used in Romans 13:9 for the summing up of all the commandments in the one demand of love - anakephalaiosasthai. So Paul has three things in mind: restoration, unity and the headship of Christ.

All things were created in Christ, but through sin endless disorder and disintegration have come into the world; but in the end, all things will be restored to their intended function and to their unity by being brought back to the obedience of Christ. God’s eternal purpose, revealed in his Son, is to restore the whole creation to find its one head in Christ.

Paul writes with joy at this eternal purpose of God, and he writes with confidence because he can see it happening. Even from his prison cell he can see the church at work in the world engaged in God’s eternal purpose of reconciling the world to himself. Because, you see, this is now new-years pipe-dream, it is God’s eternal purpose. And if it is God’s eternal purpose, then it is the purpose of the Church - to be constantly engaged in God’s Mission to reconcile the world to himself, God’s Mission which was summed up in the birth and life and death and rising again of his son Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the world in which we live it is the task of the church to bring all things into a wholesome relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul says “all things”, and he means “all things”! He means the whole of creation - spiritual and material. It is our task to be involved in God’s mission to bring all things into a wholesome relationship with God through Jesus Christ: Money, Power, Politics, Culture, Relationships, Race... not a single part of our lives, not a single part of our world, not a single part of God’s creation is exempt from God’s great Mission to gather in and to reconcile to himself.

This is not a a conservative new-years-hope list, a make-the-best-of-it list, a don’t-expect-too-much-and -you-won’t-be-too-disappointed kind of a list, this is none other than a hoping and a praying and a working for the Kingdom of God list. And Paul can make this list from his prison cell, and we can make it here in Hartlepool in 1998, not because of who Paul was or who we are but because of who God is. Amen.