Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18
These are three tour de force texts this Sunday.
Any one of these readings could be the material for a long sermon series, and here we have all three on the first Sunday of 2016. I suggest we bask in their glory for a bit, relish the richness, celebrate the language, ponder slowly each verse of each one and allow yourself to be immersed in the beauty of God’s Word. Spend some time underlining the verbs and imagine their impact on your life, on the life of your congregation, on the life of the world. Here is a smattering from Jeremiah, Ephesians and John:
- Be radiant
Read carefully through each text again and make note of other words that jump out at you, words perhaps like firstborn, father, shepherd, flock, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, glory, grace, truth, love, holy, blameless, children, garden. The list seems endless, a theological wordbook that could be explored for days on end. The challenge this week is knowing how to draw some boundaries and pick a direction because there are so many rich themes to explore.
There are a few concepts that stand out because they overlap in Jeremiah, Ephesians and John. Picking up on the notion of revelation and response would be a good bet. All three contain the revelation of God’s glory and goodness, glory and goodness remarkably directed toward us, that elicits our praise, singing and joy. A Sunday lifting up God’s goodness and our overflowing thanksgiving is always in order.
Another theme well worth exploring is that of being gathered, brought together through God’s grace and made God’s beloved children. Given the polarization so prevalent in our culture, it seems fitting to lift up the unity won for us in Christ and the love granted to us through God’s grace.
I am currently reading “The Christian Imagination, Theology and The Origins of Race,” a thought-provoking book by Willie James Jennings. I commend it to you. In the introduction, Jennings talks about “the Christian capacity for intimacy and why Christians have been so unable to enter fully into this marvelous gift given by God’s Son to the world.” He goes on to note that he does not want to talk in terms of reconciliation: “I am convinced that before we theologians can interpret the depths of divine action of reconciliation we must first articulate the profound deformities of Christian intimacy and identity in modernity.”
Jennings names how throughout the history of Christian mission, too often the identity of those being evangelized was pressed to conform to the identity and culture of the evangelist, an “inverted sense of hospitality.” That history has caused the deformity of Christian intimacy and identity, the very intimacy and identity detailed in the three lectionary texts for the second Sunday after Christmas. This isn’t easy territory to navigate, but it is a journey that must be taken if we are to get to the watered garden together.
God desires the intimacy and community of one flock with one Shepherd, one family gathered together, adopted children in a single household, but we often distort that vision. The tension is evident in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. John 1:10-11 demonstrates our inability to accept God’s great gift from the get-go. All of those verbs, verbs of God’s actions and our responses, get replaced with ones of our own making. We replace gathered with scattered, blessed with cursed, speaking with silence, giving with taking and on and on. It is painfully easy to see proof of our distortion of God’s vision — read the paper, listen to the radio, watch the news, review some session minutes, attend a public meeting — our ability for a genuine intimacy that demonstrates God’s reconciliation is limited at best. But our words are the final Word, right?
Jennings concludes his introduction with this sentence, “Yet Christianity marks the spot where, if noble dream joins hands with God-inspired hope and presses with great impatience against the insularities of life, for example, national, cultural, ethnic, economic, sexual and racial, seeking the deeper ground upon which to seed a new way of belonging and living together, then we will find together not simply new ground, not simply new seed, but a life already prepared and offered to us.” I suspect a life filled with those verbs from Jeremiah, Ephesians and John, verbs like ransomed, redeemed, comfort, rejoice, bestowed, obtained and made known. The hope that presses us forward will certainly lead us to a place of peace, justice and, yes, reconciliation.
Clearly we aren’t there yet, but surely with the coming of Jesus Christ we know where we are supposed to go and we can trust God to get us there, even if the journey requires traveling through the wilderness to get to that Promised Land. This week sing, praise, proclaim and testify to the grace upon grace that God has bestowed upon us through the Word made flesh. Make known the source of our true identity and God’s vision of intimacy, confess that often we have not seen or heard rightly and then seek to live the new life in Christ we’ve been given.
- The word for “to gather up” in Ephesians 1:10 is only found one other place in the New Testament, Romans 13:9. The verse in Romans notes that all of the commandments are “summed up” in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” How does having all things gathered up in Christ relate to the summing up of the law?
- There is an ecstatic quality to all three of this week’s readings: over the top language, a run-on sentence in Ephesians, words repeated. Do we ever have that kind of quality in our language about God? How about out worship? What examples do you have?
- The imagery of being gathered in or gathered together is powerful. Many churches celebrate “homecoming.” Does your church celebrate such an occasion? How is it marked? What is that experience like for those gathered together?
- The language in all three of these passages is poetic. How might the liturgy and even the sermon for this Sunday reflect this poetic language?
- The Presbyterian hymnal, “Glory to God,” has an entire “gathering” section. Take a look at the hymns contained there and consider how they might help interpret this Sunday’s texts. For example, read the lyrics for hymn 401, “Here in This Place.”
- Here is a prayer from Iona used when people joins the church. It can be found in “The Pattern of Our Days,” edited by Kathy Galloway.
When you cross the borders of the desert and head for home, you do not want to turn back. What you are heading for is a place of belonging, a place where you can lay your body down. Everything inside you is running — you have run away often — but this time you are running for home. You will still be yourself, still be restless sometimes and afraid, but what beckons you now are the bonds of loving and, when all is said and done, (and sometimes there is too much saying and not enough doing) living where your life belongs is coming home. Welcome to the family.
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