By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 9, 2023
Jeremiah 31:1–6 (ESV)
1 “At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.” 2 Thus says the Lord: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. 5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit. 6 For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’”
Two thousand years ago, a man was born. He was born to a woman who was barren and to a father who was a priest. His father, while serving in the temple, was visited by an angel proclaiming the birth of a son. This man did not believe the angel and as a result he was struck deaf and dumb for nine months, until the baby that his wife carried was born and named John. Everyone in the land knew of this story. They knew because the priest emerged from the temple that day and was unable to bless the nation. The people of Judah watched as this man grew, and when he left the temple and wondered in the wilderness, they took notice.
Two thousand years ago, that same angel made another visit. This time the messenger of God spoke to a young woman. This young woman was engaged to, but not yet married to a righteous man named Joseph. She was told that she would also bear a son, and that this son would be the cause of the rising and the fall of many in Israel. This young woman rightfully wondered at what was said because she was not yet married and had never been with a man. She wondered and yet she responded, let it be as you have said.
Again, this messenger visited a man. This time the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. Joseph was a decent man, and yet when he heard that his future wife was with child he was concerned. This was a time and place where children out of wedlock were not widely accepted, it was so taboo in this culture that Joseph held this girl’s life in his hands. Yet because he was a decent man, he decided that he would divorce her quietly. He would annul the engagement, to protect his honor. But when the angel visited him in his dream, he was told that Mary’s child was of divine origin. Joseph woke from that dream changed, and proceeded forward, embracing the opportunity God had given.
Two thousand years ago some people believed the impossible. A barren woman giving birth in her advanced years. A young woman, a virgin becoming pregnant and bore a son. A good man was willing to take the shame of society to raise a child of questionable origin. Every aspect of the stories we read in scripture seem impossible.
The man born of the barren woman grew. He went out into the wilderness and began to preach. He cried in that desolate countryside, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.” And people came from across Roman Palestine to listen. People began to wonder if maybe this man was the one. They wondered if John could be the Messiah they were longing for. John responded with a confident no. “I baptize you with water, but he who comes after me, whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, He will baptize with the Spirit and fire.”
The people listened to John. They listened because he had a family that they respected. His father was a priest, and his mother gave birth miraculously. They believed the wondrous story, even though it seemed a bit farfetched, because John stood before them. His dad was unable to speak for nine months and his mother was of advanced age to be giving birth. They wanted John to be something more, but John refused. He stood out in the wilderness and he proclaimed the religious leaders to be a brood of vipers. John often reflects the message of the prophets.
There is a constant cycle within the history of Israel. One of the first sermons I presented here at Willow Creek reflected on these cycles. I spent hours looking up each name of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. While I did this a theme began to emerge. The names cycled through praise of God, praise of the world, praise of technology, and praise of war. Then the names began to focus on a depressed state of being, names that cried out to God for help, and eventually returned with praises to God. Names carry a meaning. We may not always realize what we are saying to the world when we give a child a name, but they do hold meaning. Often the name that we have or give reflects our current state of mind and where our focus resides. When it comes to names, the culture surrounding scripture believed that names held power. They believed that the name given to an individual prophesied over that individual’s life.
Eve means life and she became the mother of all people. Adam means son of earth. Abram means exalted father, and God changed his name to Abraham which means father of a multitude or nations. Moses means savior, or delivered from the water and he became the savior of a nation and guided Israel through the Red Sea. And his sister Myriam means beloved of the sea. We could go through each name in scripture if we wanted, but I believe we are getting the point, but let us go back to John, God is gracious. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He cried in the wilderness, repent for the kingdom of God is near. Repent for God is gracious.
Our names carry meaning. My full name in some instances can mean ruler called by God to warn. My surname, like many comes from a family occupation and oddly I guess my family of Quaker pacifists is descended from military leaders that spent their time in towers to alert of impending invasions. But when we take a step back it holds a different message, a leader called by God to speak. One might make a case that I lived into my name, although this was not always my path.
I have spoken often about my own journey of faith. I grew up in the Friends Church. I came from a long line of faithful followers of Christ from the Friends tradition. And my great great grandmother was a recorded Friends minister. I can look back through the generations and see a constant line of faith. Not all people can speak of this. When I was a teenager, I did not care. I did not want faith, I wanted knowledge. I spent years studying, I wanted to be an astronaut but when I realized that being born deaf would limit my ability to achieve that dream, I began looking to other places, and landed on crop science. The science behind genetic engineering was just emerging when I was in high school and I saw the great benefits in it. I know that this can be a divisive topic but stay with me. I wanted to use the knowledge I had, the intelligence I had to help feed the world by becoming a genetic engineer. I did not worry about faith, because I wanted knowledge and science. I attended worship with my family but for me at the time, it was culture.
This all changed around Halloween in 1997, my little sister died in a car accident. This left my mind, heart, and spirit spiraling out of control. On the outside people thought I was handling the loss well, but my inner life was a mess. In my grief I turned, I sought relief in the pleasures of the flesh and shortly after I was an unmarried father of a child. When I looked into the blue eyes of this boy just minutes old, it was as if twenty years of sermons and bible studies came rushing through my mind, and all at once understood love.
The next year I found myself on a plane flying to Ukraine, where I joined a group of college students teaching conversational American English classes and sharing my faith. While I was in Ukraine, God began to call me to ministry. A few months after returning, I sat in my pickup eating lunch and listening to a sermon on the radio, and in that message the pastor read about the conversation Jesus had with Peter shortly after the resurrection. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these.
When my sister died my life spun, when my oldest son was born the spinning stopped and God revealed His Love to me, when that pastor read those verses, a rush again occurred in my mind. It was as if Jesus was asking me if I loved wheat, sorghum, or corn more than him. And my answer was that I loved God more. That brought me to Kansas City. I came here searching. I wanted to follow God, yet I believed that I was not truly acceptable because of my past.
I came to this very Meeting. You did not judge my past, instead you encouraged me. You allowed me to lead a bible study among the young adults, and this was instrumental in the journey that took me into ministry. I then moved to southern Kansas, and pastored for seven years, and in 2010 my family came back to Kansas City again to minister here at Willow Creek. The place that encouraged my initial calling.
I share this because our lives are filled with cycles. History is filled with cycles. We move through life at times we feel extremely close to God and at other times we are a complete mess. If we rely on ourselves only, this will always lead to our own destruction. We as humans can justify any action, and we can also be derailed by actions.
Jeremiah, the Lord Exalts, was a prophet in Judah. His name of course has meaning, but he lived in a time and place where God was not exactly first in the minds of the people. His ministry largely focused on the pending destruction of Jerusalem. He constantly called them adulterous people, likening them to a wife that was unfaithful to her husband, or a rebellious son that refused to follow the wisdom of his father. John the Baptist and Jeremiah would probably have been friends had they not lived thousands of years apart.
Jeremiah cried out to the people that if they did not turn from the present course, they would find themselves in a dire situation, and his prophecies were fulfilled. The northern kingdom fell to Assyria, and for centuries the southern kingdom allied itself with this vicious nation as a vasal state. They remained independent but only in name. Eventually when Assyria’s strength failed, another nation exerted military might over the region and as the people rebelled against this nation, Babylon, their king entered the holy city and destroyed the very structure that defined the nation’s identity, the temple.
While Judah lived under Assyrian direction, they followed the faith of their overlords. As that power diminished, the king of Judah reestablished the worship of the Most High God. This gave rise to a religious nationalism. They praised God with words but did not follow with their hearts. They worshiped the temple and not the God that took residence in that temple.
This is a story that cycles throughout the recorded history within the pages of scripture. The son of the earth and the mother of life turned from God when their desire for wisdom became greater than the desire for a relationship with God. Then the daughters of men brought pleasure to the sons of God and tradition would say the sons of God gave them forbidden knowledge. Knowledge of war, magic, lust, and manipulation. They used this knowledge, and it threatened the very earth to the point God had to preserve it through a flood. The cycles of praise to God, praise of the earth, praise of humanity, praise of technology, praise of war, despair, cries to God for deliverance, and returning to praise of God. They cycle continues and Judah was amid this cycle, they returned, but not fully. They worshiped the works of human hand instead of God. They were caught in praise for technology and this praise led them to war and destruction.
Yet as Jeremiah spoke of the destruction, he looked beyond. Again, he says. “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, o virgin Israel. Again, you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria’ the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit.”
Jeremiah is not just saying that Judah will return but all twelve tribes. Even the ten tribes lost in Assyrian carnage, will be brought back to fellowship with God.
The word, Again, is used three times in this poetic oracle. We do not always see this simple word as holding importance, but in this instance it does. It is a word of repeat, or extension, it is a word of redemption and renewal. Judah again returned to the land. For four centuries Judah lived in the land, for four hundred years the people of God returned from exile and again inhabited the land of promise. But there is a problem. Judah is not all the tribes, the southern kingdom only represented two of the twelve. The exile remains for the majority of Israel. It remains even to this day because the ten tribes were dispersed among the nations. The ten tribes were dissolved into nations, yet the term again applies.
Jesus was born of a virgin two thousand years ago. He was born into a time and place and everything about his birth was culturally questionable. John’s family was honored and Jesus was questioned. The people of Judah were focused not on the heart but appearances. And John saw that in them when he called them a brood of vipers. They very much reflected the people of Judah during the time of Jeremiah. John watched as Jesus approached and said, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
Jesus was rejected by the faithful among the culture. Everything about him and his ministry threatened the stability of the established culture. They focused on themselves, their traditions, their manners, and customs. They looked at their own establishment and technologies of various sorts instead of the heart of the nation. John called them a brood of vipers. Jesus was rejected because it was better for one to die than to lose the nation. We cycle through this again and again.
Jesus was rejected, he faced an unjust judgement of false accusations, he suffered under the tyranny of ideology, was executed, and was buried. He faced all this with and for us. We are also treated with injustice, at times. Occasionally we can be caught up in ideology instead of humanity. There are moments where we demonize an individual, as we celebrate the nation. Often, we are with the people condemning Jesus. We too are caught in the cycle.
Yet Jesus came and lived among us. He ate with the sinners. He touched the untouchables. He spoke to those who were unaccepted. Even the Greeks and the Syrians came to speak to him, and Jesus welcomed them. Jesus welcomed the nations, and the nations found grace in the wilderness. Judah remains in spiritual exile because the ten lost tribes have yet returned. They are lost, but through Jesus they are found. Jesus came to reverse the curse and stop the cycle. He showed us what true life with God is, as he lived his life. Jesus then provided the means of that life for us, through his death.
We often focus on the death. It was his death that provided atonement for the sins of the world. The hymns we sing often carry the refrain, “we are washed in the blood.” This is not incorrect, but incomplete. Jesus died with and for us. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, that the wage of sin is death. Jesus, the one sinless man, bore those wages even though he did not deserve nor earn it. We all will eventually die. It is a somber reality, but it is true. We inherited death from our first parents the son of the earth and the mother of life. Yet Jesus is with us even in death, he was buried in a tomb separated from the living. But the story does not end there.
Again! Again, we can have life with God. Again, we can have joy. Again, our sorrows will be turned to merrymaking. Again!
“At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel,” He is the God of the lost and the found, the scattered and those that remain. “And they shall be my people.” Jerimiah told Judah that they would be separated from the land of promise that they would face Spiritual death, but…again. Again God will build. Again God will restore innocence and hope. Again!
Jesus the child born in questionable circumstances, grew to be a man rejected by his very people, crucified and left in a cold stone tomb. A man that lived a life loving the very people that would eventually kill him. He laid buried, yet God said again. On the third day Jesus emerged from the tomb, and in doing so he ripped the keys from the grip of death and hades. And as he did this, he reversed the destruction caused by the folly of mankind.
I stand here today proclaiming life after death, because I believe the seemingly impossible story. I believe because I have experienced the sorrow, rejection, and the wages of sin. I proclaim this impossible story, because I have experienced Again! I am not the man I was twenty-three years ago, because God has taken all that I have experienced and rebuilt and reformed it for something else. He has fulfilled in me the prophecy of my own name and has given me a new direction. I am a leader called by God to proclaim the impossible story of hope. I am called to encourage us all to become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. I like each of you am touched by the hope of Jesus. The hope of Again!
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