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, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 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.
Jeremiah 31:7-9, excerpt from 31:7-14; lectionary for Sunday January 3, 2021
When does the new year start? When the clock counts down to midnight — voices joining the last ten seconds before the ‘ball drops’? When the explosions of neighborhood fireworks (illegal), have ended, another 15 or 20 minutes past that? Or does the new year not really begin until after sleep has set its bound around the old year, newness coming not with the clock but with the dawn — however late and low the light appears. Although even then…. Is morning itself sufficient, or is the first cup of coffee a necessary measure for eyes to open and see the day?
We’re in January, now. The ‘new year.’ Yay.
When does the newness begin? And how? And when and how do we know it?
‘Sing aloud with gladness,’ says the LORD. Really? The exhortation to song seems tone-deaf to the mood of the year, a command difficult to fulfill. It seems an odd fit for Jeremiah, as well, prophesying as he did so horrifically of judgment and of end.
‘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 ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’
Glad songs and shouts of praise and demands for salvation.
Commentaries and translations note the difficulty in verse 7. It would make more sense if the songs of gladness were of salvation already realized rather than salvation for which the singers still cry. Why sing when it’s incomplete? When the hurt has not been healed, the wounded continue lame, the blind still need leading. How is it possible to sing gladness and — in the same phrase — demand saving? How is it possible to sing aloud while weeping, to walk and to plead and to not stumble on the way? How resolve the contradiction of the proclamation that the LORD will gather Jacob home, that the people will be radiant over God’s goodness, and that the LORD already has ransomed and redeemed, and that we — hearing the words of Jeremiah to whom the word of the LORD came — are called here and now to ‘Sing aloud with gladness … and say ‘Save, O LORD, your people.’
‘Save, O LORD, your people.’
When does the newness begin?
I’m not immune to the idea of New Year’s Eve. I watch the crowds on TV: the lights and the energy and the thrum of anticipation that rises as the hour grows near. I know the falseness of the thought that a critical tick of a clock will suddenly transform the world (Cinderella and her pumpkin coach at midnight notwithstanding) — but even if the the basis is a fictional construct (this particular measurement of time rather than that one), there is something real behind it. Time does turn. Night’s dark does give way to day. Now that we’re past the winter solstice, each day’s light lasts a tiny bit longer than the one that came before. There is truth in the claim that time turns on into new. The mistake is not claiming that newness is, nor longing for that newness in our lives. The mistake is misunderstanding what it is, or imagining it as something we can grasp rather than something we are given, even something that grasps us.
Maybe this is why this passage is set as a text for Christmas.
Birth comes through the world broken open.
‘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. I will give the priests their fill … And my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,’ says the LORD.’ As if newness begins with recognition of what’s been shattered. As if newness begins with the awareness of mourning and sorrow, of insufficiency and lack. With the acknowledgement of what we’ve suffered and of what suffering we’ve caused. With the admission that we cannot save ourselves.
This text does not deny the reality of a broken world, a suffering people, creation groaning. It’s not all shining delight. The way is walked by blind and the lame and the laboring. Supplications shall be raised along with the song. ‘With weeping they shall come,’ the LORD promises. Last week I read news stories of those who received the first doses of COVID vaccine and found themselves weeping. Their tears came as surprise, a belated reaction to all the tears that had been swallowed of necessity, pressed down until it was hard as rock within, there being no space nor energy to spare in the midst of so much suffering.
Weeping signs the pain that could not be allowed until the promise had broken in. Hope cracks the stone, new-seen as seed. The seed shows its seam; a hint of green unfurls.
‘Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’
Newness begins as we cry out for it. Even while our eyes are still confused by exhaustion and by gloom. Even before the coffee. Even before the dawn.
Newness begins now. In gladness sung to the one who can save, demanding the salvation that only that one can give.