Jeremiah 31:7-14 (ESV)
7 For thus says the Lord:
“Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’
8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
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 keeps his flock.’
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
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 be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.
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.
14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may be filled with joy knowing you will satisfy us with your goodness through your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We celebrated Christmas recently. It may seem like a long time ago, but I pray you were all blessed as you celebrated the incarnation of our Lord – the Word-made-flesh.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, as part of your celebrations, you all indulged a little over Christmas or New Year’s as you feasted on some tasty food. If you did, most likely you would have had some leftovers, you know – the ‘Remnants of Christmas past’.
Perhaps you’ve been finishing off Turkeys, Hams, Christmas puddings, and any number of delights which have a habit of making the belly swell through excessive calories and lazy days. As time goes on, you may have needed to get a little creative to use up the leftovers before they go off, or before everyone is sick of the same food!
Another reason you may want to finish off the leftovers is that you know the remnants, the leftovers, and the scraps may start to go off. The previously tasty and delicious food changes to be something we tolerate, and then becomes something unwanted, unhealthy, and discarded.
But why do I talk about Christmas leftovers?
Well, because the bible reading today is preached to the remnants, the leftovers, and the scraps of Israel. It’s proclaimed to the black sheep, the ostracised, the excluded, the shunned, and the unwanted.
You see, they were once part of the holy people of God whom God went to great efforts to free from slavery so that he might bring them into his Promised Land, but now, as a result of their disobedience, they were exiled, kicked out, carted away, and left to rot far away from family, friends, and even from their God as they could no longer worship him in his temple.
Now, even though these words are proclaimed to the remnants of Israel and doesn’t seem to apply directly to you, it may also depend on how you perceive yourself or how others might perceive you.
For example, it could be you’re considered to be popular, fit in well with others, and are often surrounded by family and friends, but maybe you’re not.
Maybe you feel like a black sheep and often feel left out or ostracised. Maybe you feel shunned, banished, ignored, detested, or out of favour with friends or family. Maybe you feel you don’t quite fit in and aren’t as liked as you wish. Even as a congregation, parish, or State, you might feel uncared for or isolated. You might feel as if you only get the dregs left over from other people’s spoils.
And, even if you don’t feel like this, it could be you have family or friends who feel, or act, like they’re on the outer and are often the subject of rumour and lament.
In a sense then, this text is written to all the black sheep who feel punished or banished by others, or even by God.
It might surprise you how many people feel like they’re the black sheep and don’t feel welcome by their own families, friends, or even their own worshipping community.
There are many reasons some of you feel this way:
- It could be because something was said to you, or about you, which made you question the way people perceive your worth.
- It could be a difference of opinion you’ve had with someone which seems to force a separation between you.
- It could be something you did which makes you feel ashamed or unworthy, especially as you compare yourself with those around you whom you value and respect.
- It could be something was done to you by someone else which troubles your sense of worthiness.
- It could be you’re hypersensitive to any disapproving frowns or vocalised judgments because of a fragile sense of self-worth.
- It could also be because you’ve banished yourself because of your own sense of disapproval or judgment.
Now of course, theologically, none of us are truly worthy, and so we all stand equally condemned by God because of our sinfulness. None of us deserve to be part of the family of God. So, in effect, we’re all exiles and excommunicated from God because of our sin, but we come here because we believe we’ve all been made worthy and holy through faith in Jesus Christ.
However, in our moments of exile, of banishment, of exclusion, or separation, and ostracism, we might relate to the exiled community of God’s people who were being spoken to by God through the prophet Jeremiah.
These people were troubled because they felt left out, shunned, and judged – not only by those who were still living in Jerusalem (who could still worship in relative peace, and who may have thought they could keep on worshipping because they’re ok with God), but they may have also felt detested and cold-shouldered by God. They felt God had let them down, chased them away, and had chosen not to bless them.
But what’s the message God speaks?
God says you’re to sing aloud with joy, praising God by saying: ‘Lord, save your people, the remnants!’ You’re to look with faithful expectation God will save his leftovers, the scraps of humanity.
He promises he’s going to gather all his people from the furthest places on earth. No matter what dark cave you want to crawl into, and no matter how you’re perceived by others, God says he searches for you in order that he might gather you as a precious and highly valued member of his family to be where he is.
Even those who normally can’t travel because they’re blind, lame, or heavily pregnant – they’ll also be gathered. It doesn’t matter whether you feel broken, feeble, depressed, or burdened. God searches for you in order to bring you home to him.
God himself will lead his people as you pray for mercy. He’ll lead you beside streams of living water – water which cleanses and nourishes you.
The streams of the waters can be likened to the waters of baptism which cleanse you of your sins, refresh you with his washing of forgiveness, adopt you as God’s holy child, and join you to Jesus himself who carries you in his body to his heavenly home.
These waters not only wash away your own sins, but they cleanse you from any unrighteousness done toward you in order to purify you and make you holy and innocent. God won’t let any unrighteous acts leave you abandoned and excluded. God washes you clean and brings you into his presence.
Even if you feel picked on or abandoned by God, then, like the people he once scattered among the nations, he’ll gather you into his arms in order to restore you to fullness and wholeness – not only for your own sake, but for the sake of the whole community. He wants the whole flock of his wayward sheep to be reconciled into a newly restored and wholesome community. Black sheep, white sheep, brown sheep, and coloured sheep are all gathered and welcomed by God.
The whole community, including you, will be filled with joy. Not because of your own goodness, because you’ll never be good enough, but because of the Lord’s goodness.
He loves you – warts and all. He chose to gather the scraps of humanity to be his own people.
It’s like loving the discarded leftovers from Christmas so much, he chose to grab them out of the bin and restore them to their former glory through the power of his loving mercy.
And that’s what he does for you. Even though you might sometimes feel unwanted and discarded, he wants to gather you to himself, restore joy and peace to you, and reinstate you into his holy community.
You experience a taste of this here on earth as you feast on the grain and wine of his Son’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper and through the oil of the Holy Spirit, but the fullness of this joy and peace is reserved for you in heaven where you get to gather around the Lamb of God and feast on his goodness.
It’s only in the goodness of the Lord, where the troubled, the lonely, the depressed, the young, the old, the mourning, and the cast out remnants, will have their joy and peace restored through faith.
Your joy isn’t restored by dwelling on your own unworthiness, or on what others have done to you, or on what you’ve done, or on your fears or desires for human approval and love, but your joy is restored by dwelling on and trusting in the Lord’s goodness, the Lord’s compassion, the Lord’s mercy, and the Lord’s steadfast love for broken, imperfect, scared, and scarred people like you and me.
I don’t know how you view yourself or how others view you. It could be you feel useless, unworthy, sorrowful, sad, depressed, ashamed, unwanted, or like a discarded remnant. The good news is: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is for you too.
You are the people God comes to save.
You are the people he loves.
You are the people his Son Jesus died for.
You are the people he forgives.
You are the people he washes clean in the waters of baptism.
You are the people he restores.
You are the people promised to be received into his eternal kingdom.
You are the people he wants to gather around himself to feast on his Son’s body and blood in perfect fellowship.
You are the people he wants to see rejoice and be glad for your Lord comes to gather you and reinstate you as one of his own dearly loved children.
You are the people who will experience his joy, comfort, and peace through faith in his promises.
Therefore, by faith in your loving Triune God, may …
…the peace and joy of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.