“Hope Without Gloss”

“Hope Without Gloss”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
January 3, 2021 

Clarke Smith is a 9-year-old from Beverly Hills, Michigan who was interviewed by the local news about his thoughts on 2020. He responded that it was “Like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine.” 

In mid-December, a number of the children in our church joined in for their final Wednesday night Zoom together. And at one point, one of our volunteer leaders asked the children if they had anything fun they were going to do over the Christmas break. A hand shot up, and one of the children said, “Our whole family – kids and adults – we are going to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve.” 

“Oh…very exciting.” 

“Yes, we want to be sure to see that 2020 goes away.” 

Promptly, there was a shared laughter and other kids started chiming in that this was a good idea. They wanted to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. They wanted to see 2020 be on its way. Because, honestly, we all wanted to see that. 

And now that we are in 2021, a recent meme I have seen around the internet sums up the sentiment well: First Rule of 2021: Never Talk about 2020. 

We are eager to move forward, rightly so. And I think, then, there is a part of us that is so deeply encouraged by the fact that Jeremiah chapter 31:7-14 is one of the lectionary Scriptures for this very first Sunday in the new year. 

Hear again some of what is proclaimed there: 

“See, I will gather them from the ends of the earth…” Oh, to be gathered. Yes, there’s a 2021 promise. 

“For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” Amen to deliverance from powers and sin and structures and viruses so much bigger than any one of us. Now that’s a 2021 promise. 

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion…” An image of people gathered together shouting even – dare I say singing – together with joy. Now, that’s a 2021 promise. 

Now, we recognize these promises in context are speaking to the people of God who’ve been exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian Empire. And while we have not nearly known that kind of displacement, we’ve most certainly known a kind of exile from much of what we used to know. A kind of being put outside our normal definition and rhythms of ‘home’ for an extended period of time. 

And as pastor, part of me wants to stop here and simply declare unto the exiles the Jeremiah 31 truth: 

  • This is the year of gathering. 
  • This is the year of redemption.
  • This is the year of singing.

Turn the page of 2020; put it in the past. For this is 2021. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Except…those promises are most definitely true, but as we draw closer to the passage itself we find that it is a different kind of hopefulness than we might expect. 

Right at the outset of our passage, actually, it becomes clear that the joyful gathering is not just one, big wonderful party: 

“Make your praises heard and say, ‘Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.“’ 

“Make your praises heard…” AND (at the very same time) say, “Lord, save your people.” 

So… 

  • Are you calling forth praise or petition? 
  • Are we in a good place and so we sing or is it really quite bad and so we need your salvation?
  • Or is it somehow both at the same time?

The passage then continues in this paradoxical vein. 

We read that God promises to gather God’s people from all the places they have been scattered… 

“among them will be the blind and the lame…” 

It does not say that among them will be those healed of their blindness. Those now able to walk. The blind and the lame are gathered into this hope…still as the blind and the lame. 

“Sing for joy…save us.” 

Also, among those being gathered are “expectant mothers and women in labor.” Earlier in Jeremiah, the image of a woman in labor is the image used to describe the pain Israel is experiencing as Babylon overtakes and exiles them. 

We read, for instance, in Jeremiah chapter 4: 

“I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, 

a groan as of one bearing her first child— 

the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath, 

stretching out her hands and saying, 

Alas! I am fainting; 

my life is given over to murderers.” 

In Jeremiah, the woman in labor is primarily a painful, gasping, pleading – even broken image. 

And so again, Jeremiah does not say that among those gathered into this new hope there are women with their newborn babies – and mother and child are doing great. It is women in labor. 

“Sing for joy…save us.” 

“How good to know the Lord is doing a faithful and wondrous work among us…and but also the limps and aches and griefs from our time in exile (or perhaps before) are still so real, and we need you.” 

A couple of weeks ago I came across an article exploring why A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to prove so popular year after year since it first aired in 1965. The article explored a host of possible reasons, but two reasons proved most prominent: 

Foremost, the music. As the theme song for the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the producer decided to use a single called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” from this Jazz Album by Vince Guaraldi. 

“It’s a song,” the article observes, “that comes over you in a powerful way, somehow expressing the way that melancholy and happiness can combine into an intense emotion.” A song capturing at once the melancholy and happiness, the bitter and the sweet – and yet in a way that is most essentially hopeful. 

And that really is so perfectly appropriate to the Charlie Brown Christmas story because it’s a story that is yes, fun and ultimately uplifting, but it also does not gloss over or around the sadness, the loneliness, the dejection that is real for so many – sometimes all the more so at those special times of the year. 

You listen to “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (Or “Linus and Lucy” as it is called on the soundtrack) and really the entire soundtrack, and you hear how the sound masterfully captures that complex but oh-so-true both/and. 

And my sense is that if Jeremiah 31 had a soundtrack, you could do a lot worse than Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas jazz…because it is clear the prophet is calling forth in the same breath praise and petition, joy and cries of desperation. 

Indeed, it is obvious that those aches and griefs are so real for the people of God that even as these blind and lame and expectant travel unto their reunion we read in verse 9 some are bringing a heavy dose of minor chords into the mix: “They will come with weeping. They will pray as I bring them back.” 

I so want to declare to you today that we have made it to 2021, and the strike of midnight three nights ago has cut us asunder from all forms of turmoil, trial, grief, injustice, exhaustion, anger, or pain that we may have known this past year. Or previous years. 

I think we want this kind of promise in so many facets of life: 

  • If we just get on to the next relationship we can leave that mess of that relationship and those years behind. 
  • If we can just get onto a new job, new endeavor, the new position – we can leave all that stress, those dynamics, those issues behind.
  • If we can just shift here in the church into the next thing, the new thing here we can leave behind any of the unresolved tensions, the old hurts, the old issues. Or we can just find a new and better church then…
  • If we can just get the right politicians in, then…
  • If we can just get the vaccines deployed we can leave behind this nightmare and move forward.
  • If we can just shut the door of whatever ills may have happened in exile and never think on it – we will be great moving forward.

But the promise of God is not the negation of all of our past pain and grief; the promise of God is to meet us in our wounds and gather us with our wounds. 

We do not move past them or beyond them; we move with them and that is the only way unto the redemptive gathering – and healing. 

“They will come with weeping…” With ready acknowledgment of the pain or the wrong or the hurt… 

Was not Jesus himself raised from the dead…with visible scars? 

Not a pristine body of perfection with no semblance that anything dire or awful even touched him. Oh no…He is raised with the scars fresh and visible. The past pain, the past injustice it is not glossed over, covered over, or stuffed down…it is quite visibly part of the redemption itself. 

To be a people living in the promise of resurrection is to be a people who are being gathered together…with our blindness, our limping, our aching, our weeping in whatever forms they were known in exile. 

And so… instead of leaning into 2021 hoping it goes so well we never need even think of 2020 again…let me invite a different posture. 

Let’s pick up 2020 once more and hold it up to our heart’s assessment. 

Let’s be sure and name clearly and genuinely our reasons for gratitude. 

And then also… 

Where has that year or that which unfolded in that year left a mark? Opened a wound? Deepened a wound? In what ways small…what ways big…what ways little…what ways quite significant has grief or pain or loss or evil been known? Been known for you…for the church? For the nation? For this world? 

True hope, biblical hope is not found by running from the pain, refusing to name the wounds, acting like all is well…rather, true hope if found by recognizing where we’ve known the aches and pains and where we do know the aches and pains… 

…because those always are precisely the spaces in which the Lord meets us. And raises us with the scars. 

The wounds really are central to God’s re-gathering story, the redemption story. Often, actually, the wounds become the central conduit unto the next chapter God has for us. 

Bottom line: the soundtrack of biblical hope is far less easy pop and far more Vince Guaraldi, the bitter and the sweet flowing together in a complex, memorable redemption. 

Speaking of…the second thing the article points out that makes A Charlie Brown Christmas so enduring is this: there is a wonderful simplicity in the message. The essence of Christmas is stripped down from all the lights and the stuff and the pomp and circumstance…and you have Linus on stage reading from the Gospel of Luke chapter 2. 

Same, the picture of hope Jeremiah paints is not one in which the nation of Israel is assured a return to great power or military might or the splendor and freedom of great riches. Or even a return to the great Temple and religious life just as it was previously. Power, influence, money…they are not there as part of the promise. 

What we hear is far more stripped down to the essentials: 

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; 

(Then young women will dance and be glad, 

young men and old as well.) 

they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord— 

the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,” 

Those are the three, staple areas of Israel’s agriculture. 

The picture of this re-gathering of the people is one in which the whole place coming to life at its most elemental level. The place where they plant and cultivate, eat and drink as they share a table. Every generation – with their limps – they will dance. 

I don’t know all the various kinds of 2021 hopes or goals or dreams you may have or even we as a church may dream of. 

But I am confident of this: 2021 shall be a year in which the wise among us will walk forward acutely aware of the wounds and scars we carry as individuals, as a church, as a society from our time in exile…and rather than just tucking those behind us and out of sight…we will recognize that actually it is there, right there in the weakness, the hurt, the grief, the injustice, the failure…right there that our scar-ridden meets us, embraces us, and brings us to table alongside the wounded of every generation. 

And if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that that simple gift of gathering at the table with our beautiful and broken siblings of every generation – that is in fact among the most sublime of all gifts. 

May we know such grace…wounds and all. 

That is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert