Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on January 3 2010.
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14
Jeremiah’s ministry took place seven hundred years before Jesus was born. His declaration, which Carolyn read earlier, is thought to have occurred in 722 B. C., and it finds the prophet and his countrymen in a world of hurt. The nation of Assyria, to the north of Israel, has asserted itself as the most powerful in that part of the world.
The king of Assyria is Shalmaneser (say that three times real fast!), and he is lusting for more land, more possessions, more power. It was a time and place in which the prevailing political philosophy was, “Do it to them before they do it to you,” and Shalmaneser was as good, if not better, than anyone else at doing just that. So, he has set his lustful sights on Israel, which shouldn’t prove to be too hard. Israel has been its own worst enemy. They have weakened their political situation by making bad alliances with other nations, nations just as weak as they are. All this has been against the advice of the prophets.
An analogy. I’m always looking for analogies… How about the New York Yankees? I only wish my friend Gerald Berry were here to hear this. He’s a huge Yankees fan, and he knows I’m not, so we have fun going at each other about the Yankees. Right now, because of their World Series win this past fall over the Philadelphia Phillies, Gerald has the upper hand.
It had been six years since the Yankees had won their last series, but for many decades they have been the dominant team in the Major League world. The other teams have tried to create more parity by such means as salary caps and all manner of other maneuvers, but to little avail. The Yankees, under the leadership of George Steinbrenner, and now his sons, have had the financial means to continue their dominance. If they want a good player, they just go out and get him – like North Little Rock’s A. J. Burnett – leaving the other teams in their dust.
Assyria is the New York Yankees of the Mediterranean world. Israel operates like the Kansas City Royals and should be an easy target for Shalmaneser. Yet it takes three years for his army to accomplish its purpose. Bad alliances or not, those Israelites always were a feisty bunch. But finally, Shalmaneser manages to overcome the capital city of Samaria. Shalmaneser, however, does not get to enjoy his bounty for long. Shortly after securing the city and raising his nation’s flag over it, the king of Assyria dies.
When you stop and think about it, it is not an infrequent occurrence. A person has a certain ambition in life, a lifelong dream, if you will. So he plans a project, and as soon as the goal is reached there is nothing else to live for. How many of us have known people who worked hard for many years and then looked forward to retirement, only to reach that point in life, then contract a fatal illness and die? It happens, perhaps, more often than we might think.
Upon the death of Shalmaneser, Assyria’s army returns home, taking many of the citizens of Samaria as exiles, and Sargon, who’s name is easier to pronounce, takes over the throne as king.
How do we know all this? Well, there’s evidence other than what we find in the Old Testament. In the early 1950’s an Assyrian tablet, called a cuneiform, was found in an archaeological dig. It was written, or dictated, by Sargon himself, and this is what it says…
27,280 people with their chariots and the gods they trust, as spoil I counted, 200 chariots of theirs I included in my army… The city of Samaria I restored, and greater than before I rebuilt it. Peoples of other lands I settled within it; my official as ruler I placed over them; and together with the people of Assyria I counted them.
We don’t know if these numbers included everybody or just the men. But we do know this. Over a period of about seventy-five years more than three-and-a-half million people were deported and exiled by the Assyrians.1
It is hard for us to understand the trauma of such an event. Imagine, if you will, parents watching as their children are taken away, never to be seen again. They would spend the rest of their lives getting up each day wondering if that might be the day they will be reunited with their children. Every time a caravan would enter the city, they would search to see if their children had come home. But their children never come home.
There is only one thing worse than despair, and that is despair that is tinged with hope that never comes to be fulfilled.
In 1943, during World War II, G. D. Taylor, a young Marine Corp captain from Russellville, Arkansas was steering his plane over the Pacific Ocean. We don’t know what happened, except that G. D. and his plane disappeared, never to be seen again. His widow, Frances, who was pregnant when she last saw her husband and raised their son alone, choosing never to remarry, for the next 59 years was unable to hold a memorial service for her late husband. Why? His mother never gave up hope that her son might return. Every time a car pulled up into her driveway, as Frances told me years after the death of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Taylor thought it might just her long-lost son coming home. Finally, on August 8, 2002, a memorial service was held with full military honors.
What would it be like to live every day with the hope that your child might return to you? To go to bed every night wondering if the next day might be the day? Is that what it was like for the people of Israel who longed for their children to be returned? To have hope but also knowing the despair that comes when hope results in nothing?
And one day, of all people, Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, says to the inhabitants of Israel, “I have a word for you, a word from God. Gather around and listen, for you will want to know what I have to say. Your children are coming home.”
Do you remember when it was that Shalmaneser overtook Samaria? I will remind you; it was the seventh century B. C. Jeremiah’s ministry took place more than a century later, and the children of the exile have not yet returned home. Many of the Israelites have gone to their graves never having seen their children again. With them were buried their hopes and dreams of a glad reunion that never came to be. And now Jeremiah — Jeremiah, of all people — opens the door to what they have longed for so many years.
This is the way The Message puts it…
Watch what comes next:
I’ll bring my people back from the north country
and gather them up from the ends of the earth,
gather those who’ve gone blind
and those who are lame and limping,
gather pregnant women,
Even the mothers whose birth pangs have started,
bring them all back, a huge crowd!
Young women will dance and be happy,
young men and old men will join in.
I’ll convert their weeping into laughter,
lavishing comfort, invading their grief with joy.2
The people are not to wait until their children come home before they begin the celebration. They are to believe the prophet’s words — which are not really his words but God’s words — and to take a wait-and-see attitude is to show a lack of faith. God wants his people to believe and to celebrate in anticipation of what God has promised them. It is true, it is really true, that most of the fun is found in the anticipation.
Let me illustrate what I mean. It’s time for you to buy a new car. The old one just isn’t dependable anymore, and you’re afraid to drive it across town, much less put it on the open road. You’ve gotten used to not making payments, and hate the thought of going back to them, but you know you’ve got to bite the bullet and do it. Despite the hit you’re going to take in the pocketbook, you have to admit that you’re getting a bit giddy about it.
You’ve gone to several dealerships, kicked a few tires, listened to the slick talk of the salesmen. You’ve gathered the brochures and read them front to back, cover to cover. You’ve even gotten on the Internet and done some research there, or read a few copies of Consumer Reports just to see what they know. You’ve calculated how much the payments will be and how much you’ll have to put down. It’s for certain they’re not going to give you much of a trade-in on your old clunker, so you have to plan very carefully.
Finally, the moment comes and you do the deal. You drive your new baby carefully off the dealership parking lot, hoping that the other drivers on the road will look your way with a bit of envy. You take a good, long sniff and luxuriate in the new-car smell. You begin to dream of how you can accessorize it a bit and make it even better. You vow you’ll change the oil every 3,000 miles, rotate the tires, and even put a tank of premium in it every once in awhile just to let it know how special it is to you. Yessiree, you’re proud of your new wheels.
Now… fast forward a couple of years, and where are you? You need to wash your car, but, frankly, you’ve got other things to do. It’ll wait. How ’bout that oil change? It needs it, to be sure. In fact, it’s overdue. Oh well, you’ll get to it eventually. The new-car smell is long gone and so is your infatuation with what is no longer a new car. Why is that? It is true that time tends to diminish one’s enthusiasm for what is no longer new, but there’s another reason. It is because most of the fun was not in having the car or even in getting the car. The joy was in the anticipation. Now, what once was your new “baby” is just a means of getting from where you are to where you want to be.
Am I not right?
That is also why the real celebration of Christmas is during the season of Advent. Once Christmas Day comes and you’re with family and friends, you become more reflective and thoughtful. It is the anticipation of Jesus’ birthday that makes you want to celebrate, even more than the actual birthday itself.
Did you see the article in last Sunday’s paper about how Christmas is a prolonged season in Europe? They really do celebrate the twelve days of Christmas – beginning on Christmas Day itself – while we only sing about it. Our celebration takes place before the big day, when we are still anticipating.
Jeremiah knows the value of anticipation, so he calls upon the people of Israel to begin celebrating now… not when the exiles come home, but now when they still are anticipating their coming. And he wants them to do it if for no other reason than that to do so shows their faith in God.
Shout for joy at the top of your lungs…
says the prophet.
Announce the good news…
Raise cheers! Sing praises. Say,
‘God has saved his people, saved the core of Israel.’3
Not ‘God will save his people,’ but ‘God has saved his people.’ God is in the anticipation, and that is cause for celebration.
Do you see Jeremiah’s point? If we wait until the “right” moment comes for us to begin to celebrate God’s blessings, we miss so much in the meantime. And, we show our lack of faith. The time is now, to take joy not only in the blessings God gives us, but to celebrate in anticipation of what God has yet to do through us. Why? Because God is in the anticipation. We are to celebrate who we are right now, with the anticipation that we will become even more, even better, with God’s leadership and grace.
Anticipation is a wonderful gift, but it takes real faith to receive it. Unless we believe — really and truly believe — that God will deliver on his promises, we have nothing to anticipate.
So what are you anticipating this morning? For yourself? For our church? Do you believe in faith that God has something truly remarkable in store for us? If so, let’s believe that the time is now to celebrate God’s grace in us.
Father, give us a spirit of anticipation and celebration as we ask you to guide us toward that which is yet to be. In Jesus’ name we ask this, Amen.