The days are surely coming…We can’t go back.

(I preached this sermon in response to Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33. You can find the video of the sermon and worship service here.)

Take in the events of the last 12 months.  We live in a time of great and rapid change as well as upheaval.  We wear masks most places we go – not that we have gone to many places in the last year.  

For most of us, just over a year ago the word Zoom was probably only associated with sports cars.  And now we zoom pretty much everything and with everyone.  There’s even a term for too much zoom – zoom fatigue.  

We’re in the midst of a pandemic that drags on, although we seem to be moving in the right direction now thankfully – we’ll see if that holds up.  As of yesterday, there were over 539,000 Covid-related deaths in the US since this started last March.  These Covid-related deaths made 2020 the deadliest year on record in US history – far outpacing our normal number of deaths each year, and even deadlier than years in which we were consumed by wars, which cause a higher than normal death count. 

We’ve had a contentious political season that culminated in a violent assault on the capitol that left five people dead as well as lingering deep divisions in the nation. Will those divisions heal?  I don’t know.  

We’re struggling as a nation with white supremacy and toxic nationalism – do we acknowledge that these things exist, that they are a serious problem, and that many people’s lives and families have fallen victim to them or do we ignore these things because we are uncomfortable talking about them and think that we aren’t affected by them – that they are someone else’s problem or not real?

That’s a lot of stress in one year.  Any one of these things on their own is stressful.  But combine them and you have a recipe for long term mass trauma.  

That’s what we are experiencing – trauma.  Trauma by definition is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.  It is emotional shock following stressful events that can cause serious lasting effects in people who experience it.  People deal with trauma in a variety of ways.  Not always healthy. Trauma impacts our sleeping and eating, our mental health.  It impacts our work.  

It can drain us and fatigue us and prevent us from doing anything.  It can make us feel like we are in a mental fog and can leave us emotionally numb.  It strains and sometimes breaks relationships.  And it can cause other health problems that show up in a variety of ways.  

Which is why I want to focus on our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  The Interpreters Bible has this to say as an introduction to Jeremiah.  “Jeremiah lived in an important transitional period in Near Eastern history.  He witnessed the fall of the Assyrian Empire, and the rise of the neo-Babylonian Empire under a Chaldean dynasty.  He saw his own country lose its political independence and become a Babylonian province.”  

In other words, Jeremiah lived through a mass trauma with the people of Israel.  When we get to chapter 31, which we read this morning, the Israelites have been conquered by the Babylonians already.  The VIP’s of Israel have been exiled from Jerusalem to other parts of the empire.  The people struggle to survive.  The temple has been destroyed. They blame their ancestors who broke the covenant established at Sinai for their fate.  Their trauma just drags on, without an end in sight.  

The Interpreters Bible has this to say about Jeremiah the prophet: “He helped his fellow countrymen to survive the crises through which they had to pass, and to find new foundations on which to build their faith.”  Did you hear that last part – Jeremiah helped them to find new foundations on which to build their faith.  The old ways were broken or destroyed.  The temple was in ruins.  The priestly class gone.  

It’s in light of this that we hear the prophet speak the words of God – “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.”  That’s beautiful.  

Jeremiah, it is often said is trying to draw people back to God.  But not really.  We don’t go back, ever.  We can only go forward.  What has happened in the past is in the past.  

As much as the people of Israel would like to recreate a unified kingdom, with that first temple and all that went with it – those days are over for them.  But all hope is not lost.  In fact, it is in the destruction of the kingdom that God moves forward and promises something greater than what existed before.  The people of Israel can’t go back.  

And we can’t go back either because everything has changed.  It doesn’t matter if we like it or not.  It’s reality.  The culture, the context, world events, values, and most importantly people – it’s all changed.  We are changed.  For us, it would be the same as trying to re-create the church of several decades ago.  In order to do that, we’d have to have the same people as before (someone is going to have to bring back the dead and what happens to anyone who has come since that time?).  We’d have get rid of the bypass that is Route 11 that has changed traffic patterns and amounts of traffic.  And more than that, we’d have bring back the Cold War and Blue Laws.  If you are retired, you’ll need to get back to work too – the same job your retired from, with the same technology.  Better hand in those smart phones too.  And all the great advances in medication.  Better change our houses back too.  And we’ll have to figure out how to reverse the aging process so that the youth look and act the same as it did back then.  

If you want to recreate the past, then we can’t have anything that we do today.  

We can’t do any that, nor should we.  Maybe it’s not about an actual going back.  Maybe we just want to re-create some kind of feeling that we had back then.  Maybe a sense of the church as a safety zone that kept the rest of the world and all of its problems outside the doors.  I get that.  There were many people who were part of the church decades ago that experienced the trauma of world war, the Vietnam war, racial violence and societal upheaval, Watergate and mistrust of government, and so much more.  

And life goes one. Other traumas rise up.  Sometimes it feels like we just drift from one set of traumas to the next.  And in the midst of that things keep changing.  And we try to figure it out.  

But remember, we aren’t alone.  The days are surely coming says the Lord.  But it’s not about going back to God.  It’s not about going back to this church building.  It’s not about going back to a feeling that we seek out and remember.  It’s not about going back to the way things were.  

It’s not about going back to the way relationships were.  I’ll tell you right now, When we step into this sanctuary for worship again, it’s just not going to be the same.  It won’t ever be the same.  Because everything has changed.  The building might be the same, but we have changed.  And once you experience something, you can’t ever unexperience it.  Once you see something, you can’t unsee it.  

So, what do we do?

It’s about moving forward towards God and with God, from where we are right now.  Towards and with Jesus.  It’s about recognizing this time and place, the context that we are in.  

It’s about recognizing the resources we have been blessed with and the partnerships and relationships that exist – both inside our church and in the community around us.  It’s paying attention to the needs that exist, again both inside our community and out in the community. It’s about listening to Jesus and what he calls on us to be and do as a community of faith, And to respond to that call faithfully.  To walk together in discipleship and service to one another and the community that Jesus calls us to.  It’s about Jesus coming to us where we are right here and right now, in new ways because Jesus has always been doing that and will always do that.  

God is always looking forward to the days that are surely coming.  Not going back to the days that surely happened.  

Because the days that are surely coming are days that draw us closer to God, to Jesus.  The days that are surely coming are the best days that are yet to come.  

Jesus told the crowd that was gathered and had sought him out – “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He could have easily said, the days are surely coming when I will draw all people to myself.  

Dr. Alicia Myers, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School wrote the following in her commentary on this week’s Gospel: 

“For John’s Gospel, therefore, it’s not enough just to come to Jesus or “want to see” him; we must have our ears unclogged and our vision corrected by the trauma that is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Jesus explains, we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life. This message is perhaps even more important this year, as we’ve all endured a time of pandemic and seemingly endless death. We may not be able to avoid the darkness, but we can, like those foretold in Isaiah 56, cling to Jesus’ promise that he will light our paths toward life.”

The days are surely coming says the Lord.  I have seen these days and I know you have too.  I see it when we gather for worship – yes, even and especially online.  I see it when we participate in the R3 renewal process.  I see it in the retreats that the R3 and Council did as we discern what Jesus is calling our congregation to be and do.  I see it how we take the blessing of receiving dozens of packages of adult diapers and getting them to people in need and sharing from that abundance with other organizations and churches.  

The days are surely coming says the Lord.  I hope for these days, and I know you do to.  The days when the pandemic will be over.  When we can gather with friends and family in person.  When we relearn how to do things in person.  When we aren’t feeling exhaustion and fatigue from all things associated with the pandemic.  When we can talk about something else besides the pandemic.  

The days are surely coming says the Lord.  I long for the days that are surely coming when all will be drawn to Jesus and what he is about.  When people will be drawn to Jesus’ grace and mercy and let go of fear and hatred because those are heavy burdens to bear.  I long for the days that are surely coming when all will be drawn to Jesus and what he is about.  When people will see the image of God in all others and let go of seeing people as something to be scapegoated and blamed or feared as an enemy or less than human.  When people will make decisions based on love and service to others and let go of how much it will cost.  When people will seek peace and let go of systems of violence, abuse, exploitation, and death.  I long for the days that are surely coming when all will be drawn to Jesus and what he is about.  

The good news is that those days are coming.  The best days are yet to come.  We are called towards Jesus.  Jesus draws us in.  The days are surely coming says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

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