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The 2nd Sunday of Christmass, 01/04/2015

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:7-14, by Samuel Zumwalt

“Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
    ‘O Lord, save your people,
    the remnant of Israel.’
Behold, I will bring them from the north country
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
    and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’
11 For the Lord 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 Lord,
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 languish no more.
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 feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the Lord.”.




            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


            What a joy it is to celebrate together the gift of God’s Son in human flesh, the Word of God who tabernacles among us full of grace and truth! What a joy it is to be no longer distracted by the wider culture’s hijacking of Christmas! While others were acting as if the Christ child appeared suddenly sometime Thanksgiving night as a Black Friday Walmart greeter, we were actually keeping Advent.  We remembered that you don’t pick up a baby at a cabbage patch, you actually have to wait and to prepare for the child’s birth. It’s called pregnancy. It takes time.


            While others put on their musical extravaganzas, which may or may not have been about Christ, our musicians were preparing for the Lord Jesus’ birthday celebration. While some were only talking about Jesus and singing about Jesus on Christmas Eve, we were actually receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. That’s the meaning of the word Christmas – Christ Mass, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in honor of His birth in human flesh.


            If your anti-Catholic upbringing bristles at the use of the word “mass” in a Lutheran church, I recommend you read the Augsburg Confession, the first Lutheran document in the Book of Concord.  Philip Melancthon begins article 24 with these words: “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence.” Celebrating the Christ Mass is indeed very Lutheran! Martin Luther wrote a Latin mass and a German mass for use in 16th century German churches. But I digress.


            On this 11th day and 2nd Sunday of Christmas, our texts remind us of the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. Because of His birth in human flesh, Christ is our window into the Father’s heart. This One through whom all things were made has been born to suffer with us and for us in order to destroy the ultimate power of sin, death, and evil. By His rising from the dead, we are assured in Holy Baptism that we, too, will be raised to eternal life with the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As St. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians, so now we rejoice in the gift of our Savior’s death and resurrection: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7).     


            And so today we are free from cultural distractions to celebrate the birth of the Messiah!




            The older you are the more likely that Christmas is bittersweet this year. The sweetness includes, of course, the lovely special music, the familiar carols with rousing trumpet and organ sound, the beauty of the parish church on Christmas Eve, the joy of Christmasses remembered as we saw the children’s excitement, and the kneeling together with uplifted hands at the altar. How sweet it was to see the many who answered your invitations to worship with them on Christmass!


But the bitter accompanies the sweet, doesn’t it? The news from around the world and even locally was difficult to hear and troubled those who heard it. Yes, many were able to travel to see loved ones or to have loved ones here with them, but some were not able to go away for Christmas Day; we felt the distance from loved ones profoundly. In some instances, the bitter part of Christmas was caused by the bitterness of a divorce and even child custody issues. For many more, the bitter part of Christmas was the awareness that no car, airplane, bus, or train could get us to our loved ones or them to us, for they have left this life. We feel their absence!


Jeremiah has a good word indeed for us in chapter 31 this day.  He offers a vision of restoration and renewal as counterpoint to whatever bitterness afflicts us. The prophet points us  to the sweetness of God’s saving work. And the prophet says this to those who are world-weary and sick of being captive to present fierce enemies. Without knowing the exact time of God’s deliverance, Jeremiah dares to hope in God’s future, and you can dare to hope in it as well. You can dare to trust God. You can indeed shut out all those cultured despisers of God’s promises. There is a great day coming when the Lord will gather His scattered people and bring them home rejoicing all the way! Dare to hope!


Remember despair is not God’s creature. It is born in hell. Because it is not of God, it is thus both chaotic and doomed. God’s mockers who shout loudest and laugh most cynically, spewing high-sounding nonsense, have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, and are unwilling to hope for anything but their own self-indulgence. Some have a pathological need to shock others like flashers on a big city street. Some are addicted to the sound of their own voice and take pride in their capacity for iconoclasm. Some have such a large empty place within, that no amount of alcohol, drugs, pleasure, or pain can ever fill it. They don’t understand they are doomed to restlessness as long as they persist without God. Yes, some are so wounded they seek to inflict their pain on others as punishment. They don’t even believe healing is possible.


Perhaps some of Jeremiah’s hearers were at that place where they were afraid to hope. Perhaps they were like Charley Brown from Peanuts afraid to hope that Lucy would finally allow him to kick that football. Perhaps they had been disappointed so many times they expected more of the same. Because they expected so little, they could not fathom God’s capacity to make all things new! And maybe there’s even a bit of that in me and you today. Is it possible? Is it so?


            When I was in high school, the Edwin Hawkins Singers recorded that gospel hymn, “O Happy Day!” Based upon an old British hymn, the Hawkins version repeated over and over again: “O happy day! O happy day! When Jesus washed my sins away!” And then the chorus crescendoed into: “He taught me how to watch, fight and pray! And live rejoicing everyday!”


            I have to tell you even bigots were moved by that hymn. Even atheists were moved by that hymn. Even the frozen chosen who couldn’t find the 2nd and 4th beats were moved by that hymn. And when I hear that recording it moves me to tears, because it says the Light is shining in the darkness. The darkness won’t ever be able to comprehend it or snuff it out! Dare to hope!


            If like Israel you’ve lost heart along the way and long to be gathered by the Good Shepherd of the sheep, dare to hope! If you’ve felt your life being choked out of you by hands too strong for you, dare to hope! If you’ve been weeping and crying out for mercy, dare to hope! If you have been languishing, and sorrowful, and dry and worn out, dare to hope! God has not forgotten you, and He will not leave you in that sad and broken place. Dare to hope!


            When you find yourself losing ground and sinking, think about this. In 1941 despite Adolf Hitler’s relentlessly evil and megalomaniacal attack, Winston Churchill said: “Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in...Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill was saying: Dare to hope!



            The tyrant Herod was so terrified of that tiny baby in Bethlehem’s manger, he tried to destroy Him. But he could not. The old enemy who led the angry cry, “Crucify him,” tried to destroy Him. But he could not. For no one and nothing will ever be able to destroy Him. Dare to hope! Why? For Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! And when He washed your sins away in Baptism, it was a happy day! But it wasn’t just one happy day for you or your family. It’s the promise of that brand new day to come that can sustain you and me along the way every day. O happy day! And so we watch, fight, and pray. We live rejoicing every day! O happy day! For Christ has promised and He will keep that promise to make all things new! Dare to hope!




            When Christ was born in Bethlehem, it was the beginning of the end. The Lord God in  flesh like ours did what we could not and can not. He lived the perfectly obedient life we couldn’t and died the perfectly innocent death we can’t, so that we might be rescued, bought back, brought back, and freed from Satan’s tyranny. A lot of people don’t believe that, because they will not dare to hope! They settle for too little. They remain stuck and don’t even know it. And so Christ has taught us to watch, fight, and pray, and live rejoicing everyday. Because if people can see what is possible in us, they can begin to yearn for something more than they have.


            Brothers and sisters, dare to hope! When you’ve been your own worst enemy, dare to hope! When you get knocked down, dare to hope! When you do or say stupid things and sheepishly have to apologize, dare to hope! When you get sorely disappointed, dare to hope! When your heart gets broken and you weep big tears, dare to hope! When this world holds less and less for you, dare to hope! For when you were baptized, and when you were marked with Christ’s cross, and when you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, Jesus did wash your sins away. And He does it day after day. Which is why we repent, watch, fight, pray, and live rejoicing everyday! For He has redeemed us lost and condemned sinners with His own precious blood!


            In a moment, the Lord will invite you to the altar to be satisfied with His goodness given in the host and the cup. It is, as we often sing, a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the promise of Jeremiah’s beautiful vision coming true when we share with all the people of God of every time and place the abundance of God’s life and love forever. Dare to hope, dear ones! Dare to hope!      


            In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dr. Samuel Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

[Check out “O Happy Day”