Jeremiah isn’t often known for hope and consolation. Indeed he has a reputation for being a miserable so-and-so. He’s usually portrayed as being mournful and sorrowful, forlorn and with head-in-hands. An Old Testament version of Victor Meldrew. An impression which is continued in the Book of Lamentations, which he is traditionally credited with writing.
In truth though Jeremiah just told it like it was. He saw issues and he voiced them. Not because he was negative – but because he found problems that needed solving. As someone here once said, today he would have made a good Project Manager.
And Jeremiah lived during one of the most terrifying periods for the Jewish people in biblical times. The destruction of the Temple of Solomon and of Jerusalem, followed by the start of the exile into Babylon, meant everything was turned upside down. Just like now, all certainties were gone. Jeremiah struggles to understand the implications of these tragic events. We see his anguish at the suffering of his people, his outrage at God for forcing him to speak such terrible words of judgement – but also his firm belief that the people of Israel will return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem.
In Jeremiah’s other book, the Book of Lamentations, we have a collection of 5 laments. This is poetry which reflects the suffering and dislocation that the people felt by all that had happened. The Hebrew word for the book translates as ‘Alas’, the first word of the first verse. And the book has come to be used as a lament for all Jewish catastrophes – past, present and future. It’s hard, difficult reading – but then it should be. These poems are about life, death and survival. In our present world of on-going conflict and of Covid, in settings of trauma or where we are unable to properly mourn those we have lost, or unable to see relatives in care, we need to grapple and engage with these texts to listen to, see and understand human grief.
Alas, there are no easy answers to these things. In the clip before the sermon, we saw a bombed-out school in Yemen, where the teachers hadn’t been paid for years and there weren’t enough of them for the crowds of resilient children eager to learn. We saw one of the stand-in teachers, Ahmed, a 9-year old boy, blind since birth. As they interviewed him, he flinched at the gunshots that you could hear in the distance. How do you begin to rationalise that? A modern-day Jeremiah would have plenty of material to write about.
Comfort and Optimism
Yet in the midst of all his anguish, Jeremiah was able to write chapters of hope, full of comfort and optimism. Chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah are called by some his Book of Consolation, by others his Little Book of Comfort. And that’s where our four verses come from today. You may know them better from Hebrews 8, where they are slightly re-worded.
And they overflow with faith for the future. “I will make a new covenant”, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”. Because the passage is re-used in the Epistle to the Hebrews we often see it through a Christian lens, that this new covenant means Jesus.
Written on the heart
But in its original context it meant something else. It may be a ‘new’ covenant but it’s more of an upgrade than something completely different. It’s still about the law and Yahweh remains the God of his people Israel. In the previous covenant the law was written on tablets of stone, or written and placed on door frames or foreheads or arms, or memorised and fixed by humans in their hearts and minds. But now in this new and improved version, God himself will write it on their hearts. They shall no longer teach other, as they were told to do before, because now all shall know him, from greatest to least.
So, it’s an astounding set of words in the midst of such darkness. A healing, forgiven, restored relationship giving hope for an apparently not too far-off future. For a people in exile, it gave some comfort amidst the despair. Words that we too can cling to. The Book of Jeremiah was written with a particular time and place in mind. But, just as with Lamentations, it transcends all that and becomes timeless. Giving hope for all who suffer, now and in the past. Hope for us here and hope for small children in Yemen.
And yet, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, of which Jew and of which Christian – or of anyone – can it truly be said that the law of God is written on their hearts? Which country, or town, or mosque or synagogue or church could really claim that no teaching is required because all know him from greatest to least?
The Book of Jeremiah doesn’t answer that dilemma. It points beyond itself to another response. It’s not to the church, or to you and me. It’s to Jesus. Now that is someone that we can look to as having God’s Law written on his heart. A life of perfect love and obedience. In him God took up the cross that is central to bringing all people to the point where they know him and love him, from the greatest to the least. It’s why the Greeks, in the Gospel story, wished to see Jesus.
Follow and serve
But to ‘come and see’ isn’t enough. Our Gospel reading is set just after the raising of Lazarus – and the authorities are busy plotting to kill Jesus. You can sense the tension building, the ‘what happens next’ after our story today.
And in the passage, Jesus says we have to ‘follow’ and ‘serve’ – and not just ‘see’. Follow him to the cross. If we do follow Christ then we will see him in places of poverty and hunger – both here and abroad, in place of sickness and war, of destruction and exile.
Perhaps we need to have our eyes opened to see Christ already at work – through Comic Relief and Marcus Rashford, through Women’s Refuges and Food Banks. Through Captain Sir Tom Moore and yes, through children in Yemen. You can make your own list.
And just like Jeremiah in Jerusalem, as we follow and serve, we should look for where wecan be bringers of optimism, hope and consolation – both to people like Ahmed and Khulood, far away in a bombed-out school, and to the people that we encounter every day in the communities in which we live. Amen
‘Jeremiah – hope and consolation’ was delivered by Ian Banks on Sunday March 21st 2021 to an on-line gathering from Bury, Heywood and Rochdale. It’s based on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.
- For the introduction to Jeremiah and Lamentations see Berlin & Brettler. (2004). Jewish Study Bible.Oxford: University Press.
- Also Knight, G. M. (2011). Frameworks, cries and imagery in Lamentations 1-5: Working towards a cross-cultural hermeneutic. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. P.213
- And Emmerson, G. (1994). Prophets & Poets. Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship. P.129