Posted by: HAT | January 5, 2015

“Future Perfect”

brook and paved pathway in leafless woods

A smooth path by a brook of water

Hi, Gang!

I have done a lot of preaching on the Second Sunday After Christmas, which is a popular day for regular pastors to take a vacation, and yesterday was one of those at my church. It also would have been my father’s birthday, which made the words of the text of the day – Jeremiah 31:7-16, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob …” – even more meaningful.

Here is the full text (with a little bit of modification from the NRSV):

Jeremiah 31:7-16
(7) For thus says the HOLY GOD:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the first of the nations;
Proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O HOLY ONE, your people, the remnant of Israel.”

(8) See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
And gather them from the farthest edges of the earth,
Among them the blind and the lame,
Those with child and those in labor, together;
A great congregation, they shall return here,

(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.

(10) Hear the word of the HOLY ONE, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
Say, “The One who scattered Israel will gather them,
and will keep them as a shepherd a flock.”
(11) For the HOLY GOD 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 HOLY ONE,
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 never languish again.

(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 give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the HOLY GOD.

(15) Thus says the HOLY GOD:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
(16) Thus says the HOLY ONE:
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the HOLY ONE.
There is hope for your future, says the HOLY ONE
Your children shall come back into their own borders

Here is the sermon, “Future Perfect”:

Who wouldn’t look forward to the future the prophet Jeremiah describes? It sounds great. Perfect, even. There is plenty of everything: food, drink, flavor – I’m thinking about the olive oil here – and everyone is in a good mood, dancing, happy, like a big family reunion. The priests have plenty of rich food, because people are bringing so many offerings of well-being to the God of Israel, and those were the source of the priests’ rations in those days, so the people themselves must be doing well. If Jeremiah were writing today, he would probably have used a different example. Clearly, the idea here is to describe an ideal future back in the promised land, in terms the people would understand. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that perfect future that God is going to bring about?

Even the way to it sounds pretty idyllic: brooks of refreshing, no rough terrain, plenty of company. Just being on the way would be an improvement in a lot of circumstances.

The only problem with this picture seems to be the timing. Because this announcement of the future redemption of Judah, of a people who have been flung to the farthest edges of the world, is coming … before any of this scattering actually takes place. So Jeremiah’s prophecies of “consolation” are being delivered to people who are first going to go through something terrible – in today’s terms, it’s like their homes are about to be destroyed by missiles and bombs, mothers and fathers are about to be separated from their children, a lot of people are going to die, either in warfare or of starvation in the long siege of Jerusalem, and then the survivors are going to be marched hundreds of miles to a foreign land where they will have to stay for at least 60 years.

John Calvin says this prophetic word is given to encourage the people through this very difficult time ahead: it’s there to tell them, look, as bad as things get, something better than this is coming. Plus, it’s given to remind them that even when God seems punitive, God always has people’s ultimate good in mind. And because God is always working for the people’s good, there is never a time that the people themselves are working for nothing rather than something, it’s always true that repentance and faithfulness to God’s word are the way to something truly positive. So Jeremiah’s word probably is more encouraging than not, but at the same time, it seems like it would be hard for the exiles not to wish they were the people on the way back, out of exile, instead of on the way into it.

And then, if we had been among the historical remnant that returned to Judea in 539 BCE, we might have thought that God had … kind of over promised. Because things were not that perfect; in fact, things were a lot less than perfect. Sure, people were “back home,” for those who actually remembered it as being home – that is, for people who hadn’t been born in Babylonia. But when it came to the crops and the livestock, “radiant” was definitely an overstatement. There was a lot of cleaning up to do, and not a lot of resources to do it with. We might think of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Haiti after its massive earthquake, as more recent scenes that would give us some idea of what that time was like for the returnees.

And as for the young women rejoicing in a “victory dance” – which is the dance mentioned in verse 13, it’s a word for the kind of dance women would dance after a victory in a battle – the Judeans are hardly the victors in ancient near eastern international relations. Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylonia and the Judeans along with it; then Alexander the Great conquers the world, including Persia, and the Judeans along with it; then the Romans conquer the world, including the successors of Alexander, and the Judeans along with it. None of this makes the Judeans the “winners” of history. In fact, it’s this less than perfect Judean situation that helps explain why people were waiting for a Messiah around the time of the first Christmas – the one we are still celebrating on this 2nd Sunday after Christmas.

As we know, from the gospel readings of last week, that Messiah arrives!

But – to be entirely honest, which we ought to do in church, aren’t WE in this room, ourselves, still waiting for that perfect future, too? Sometimes we may feel a little like it’s Christmas morning, all the presents have been opened, and we didn’t get exactly what we wanted … we smile, we’re polite, but inside we’re a little disappointed. (This happened to me this Christmas. I asked for socks. And we got all the way around, opened all the presents, and … I got socks. But somebody else got prettier ones.)

All during Advent, we are reminded that we are waiting for hope, joy, peace, and love. But when we look around our war-torn and troubled world – or even our country, with its many conflicts and controversies – or even sometimes our own living rooms – “radiant” might not be the language we would use either; “victory dances” might not be how we would describe our behavior; “gladness for sorrow” might not be how we would describe what we feel. In real life, very often, our present does not look as perfect as that future Jeremiah describes. Which helps explain why we, too, can relate to how the people of Judea felt such a long time ago:

Who wouldn’t want to hold on to the hope of a perfect future? The only problem seems to be the timing – as in, when is this ever going to happen, and who exactly is ever going to see it? Because didn’t those exiles came back from Babylonia a long time ago? So when are God’s people going to have something to get radiant over?

We’re not the first people to have noticed that our present world does not feel much like paradise to most people. Our early Christian ancestors – the ones who followed what they called “The Way,” had noticed this, too. One of the things they thought it meant was that the exile Jeremiah was talking about symbolized an even older, even longer, exile than the Babylonian one; it symbolized an exile from God’s original paradise,
an exile that was characterized by separation from God,
a separation that had come about by losing sight of the fact that God is the greatest good ever,
a lost sight – a blindnes – that has led to all kinds of idolatry and its intrinsic futility, to self-centeredness and greed and to the injustice and violence that invariably accompanies those things;
a separation from God that is the self-imposed exile of the ruined human condition.

So Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, had arrived to open up the Way back to the paradise, the watered garden of real communion with real truth, real good, real beauty, back to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God.

And that Way was simply following God’s “instruction” or Torah, God’s Word, the same Word that had said “Let there be Light” and had created that original paradise in the first place; the same Word that had said “Let my people go” and liberated the first people of God from injustice and bondage; the same Word that had created a covenant with Israel that hinged on the commands to “love the Holy One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” and to “love your neighbor as yourself;” the same living Word that had always articulated the Spirit of God’s Wisdom and Truth; the same Word that had taken the form of human life in the person of Jesus, and that was, as John’s gospel says, “in the beginning with God,” the one that “became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld its glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.”

For those early followers of the Way, the Good News is that we know the Way; the Good News is that we are on the Way, the Good News is that we Gentiles are now part of that great congregation, along with those first people who received God’s instruction, we are among those children of God who are coming back to their own borders.

Just being on the Way is an improvement; just being on the Way changes things – how we treat one another, what we set our sights on, what we work for.

And with all due respect to Calvin, I think he was a little bit mistaken. I don’t think Jeremiah only gave people this word to encourage them about the future. I think he gave it to them to remind them that even when things were at their very worst – worse than I hope they usually are for the people in this room – even then, if they were following the Way of the Word of God, it would already be, in a very real sense, a way back, a way by brooks of water, at least in a spiritual sense, a straight, smoothe way, at least in an ethical sense. Because living according to God’s Torah, God’s Instruction, God’s Word, is going to be an abundantly satisfying way to live, no matter what is going on around a person.

So the good news, and it really is good news, is that we are already on the way. We are not just waiting for the return trip to begin – twiddling our thumbs in some cosmic Union Station. We are already on it, because as we understand it, the life of actively following Jesus’ teaching and example is the way … granted, there is weeping, but there are consolations; granted, we have our blind and lame moments – often, I realize, I am one of those people who can’t see what’s going on, one of the ones who lags behind, one of the people who feels weighed down by personal issues that I’m not ready to let go, sometimes, one of the people in crisis. But there are a plenty of us. On this way, we help each other. So we keep moving.

In fact, some of us – including a lot of Presbyterians – suspect that having people on this Way is an essential part of God’s perfect future. Having people on this Way is one of the things that brings about, by God’s grace, the rich, exultant condition of life that Jeremiah presented as the future of what God is doing in the world.

In grammar, there is a grammatical tense called the future perfect tense. It’s the tense we use for talking about things that will be all completed by some time in the future – so, for instance, “two years from now, my daughter will have graduated high school” is a sentence in the future perfect, and “a few months from now, my daughter will have gotten her drivers license” is another one, a little scarier.

Usually, there is a little bit of uncertainty associated with our use of the future perfect tense, like when people say “by 2025, scientists will have perfected clean coal technology and figured out how to make gasoline from vegetable oil.” Or, in New Year’s Resolution season, “by this time next year, I will have lost 15 pounds, quit smoking, paid off my credit cards, and read 12 books.” After all, events might prove us wrong. But when it comes to advancing towards the vision Jeremiah offered the exiles, we are justified, I think, in using that future perfect tense. Because not only do we know that the promises come from God, we know something certain about the present as well: that we are already on the way; that on this way, we are accompanied by the same Word that shaped this way from the very beginning; that the Way itself is the embodiment of all the things we waited for during Advent, the enactment, in every concrete situation, of hope, joy, peace, and love.

And when we have gone as far as we can go on this Way, when we have completely arrived – whatever words we use to name that time, whether it’s paradise, or the resurrection of the body, or as the author of Ephesians says, God’s plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things into Christ, we will find that God’s promises will have been fulfilled, and it will feel like perfect timing.

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