It’s a beautiful passage – a new covenant, a God who lovingly takes God’s people by the hand, total and complete forgiveness.
It also doesn’t come out of nowhere – but at a time of total devastation and ruin, uncertainty and questioning God’s presence.
During the time when Jeremiah prophesied to God’s people, things were chaotic. The people had been conquered by a foreign empire, and their two most precious national institutions – the temple in Jerusalem and the monarchy in the line of King David – had been destroyed. The places where they had come to expect God’s promise and presence were gone. It was a time of loss and grief and uncertainty.
There was no ‘future with hope’ here.
Our namesake reformer, Martin Luther, knew something about uncertainty as well. As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton summarizes:
“[Luther] had been excommunicated by the church and declared an outlaw by the emperor. The bubonic plague had returned to Wittenberg, Germany. His 7-month-old daughter, Elisabeth, had died. Western Europe was under attack by the Ottoman Empire. Civil unrest resulted in the Peasants War, which was brutally crushed by the nobility. Luther lived in uncertain times.”
On top of all of that, Luther of course had no idea how his theological movement would turn out. In-fighting and violence among his fellow reformers was pervasive, and even Luther himself struggled with lifelong doubts about his faithfulness to the Word that he so vigorously defended.
Luther could hardly have imagined ‘a future with hope’ … much less a future in which his movement would have persisted so many years later in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in the Upstate New York Synod, and at St. John’s on Sand Creek…
In the midst of such uncertainty, Jeremiah prophesies to God’s people … a new covenant, a new promise … ‘a future with hope.’
If God ever shows up with a word of hope where we least expect it, it’s here. In the midst of destruction and hopelessness, we find these verses – part of Jeremiah’s aptly-titled ‘Book of Consolation.’ A reminder of God’s faithfulness, yearning to forgive, and enduring presence – still showing up, even and especially in the least-expected places.
On his better days, Luther still knew that truth as well. “A mighty fortress is our God…” resounds from the organs of Lutheran congregations everywhere this morning, Luther’s words echoing the psalmist’s ancient refrain: “God is our refuge and strength … the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
The hope of the psalmist is the same hope of Jeremiah and the same hope Luther clung to, when all seemed so uncertain. “The God of Jacob is our refuge…”
It is interesting to me the psalmist chose that particular title for God. The God of Jacob. Not the God of ‘Israel.’ It’s the same person, but before God changes his name:
Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob, who physically wrestled with God. Jacob, who by no means was perfect. So the God of Jacob is the God of a cheater and a doubter, the God of an imperfect – but no less faithful – follower.
The God of Jacob is our refuge. The God of the imperfect, the God of the devastated, the God of the grieving, the God of the angry, the God of the uncertain. The God of Jacob is our refuge.
This God of Jacob promises us ‘a future with hope.’
As we hear this Reformation Sunday text from Jeremiah, we hear also these words from this year’s generosity appeal – and on Intention Sunday, no less – centered itself on an equally promise-filled passage from Jeremiah:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
It is also no secret that the church – and this church – has been through a lot – a time of exile, one might say. From selling a beloved church building to moving into a smaller, but no less beloved, chapel, which was never meant to be a permanent home … and then a pandemic that no one saw coming but which left everyone gripped by fear and uncertainty for the future … and, on top of all that, a pastoral transition…
And yet: here you are. Here we are. A new pastor, a new and improved Reconciling in Christ welcome statement, a soon-to-be new building and space for new and reimagined ministry…
This is what it means to be the church of the Reformation: to trust in ‘a future with hope’ … in God’s promise to rebuild, restore, and renew … to bring life out of death.
This morning, we will make our intentions together toward this future. Perhaps still with some uncertainty, but also with trust and hope – trust in God’s promise and hope in God’s future.
Trusting in God’s abundant grace that has brought us this far by faith, we trust even still in that grace to take us forward, to ‘ventures of which we cannot see the ending’ – not knowing exactly where we’re going, but only that the God of resurrection is leading us.
People of St. John’s, on this Reformation Sunday, we are reminded of how the Spirit is calling us, shaping us, and re-forming us to be the church for this time and place. We are reminded of how we are in this moment being called forward and summoned by the God who made us and is our refuge.
That is a truth worth proclaiming this Reformation Sunday and every day – a truth that sets us free. Because of the undeniable truth that the God of Jacob, the God of Jeremiah, the God of Luther and all the reformers, the God of all who live with uncertainty, is our refuge, we are set free to keep on being the church.
To keep loving and serving God’s people the best way we can. To keep coming together as the people of God in new and creative ways.
Indeed, to live into ‘a future with hope.’