The first reading that we heard this morning proves that Jeremiah has an undeserved reputation as a prophet of doom and gloom. There is even a type of literature named after him — a jeremiad — that is given to writings that emphasize the wrongs in society and forecast doom. But the passage we heard is anything but frightening; it is an announcement of good news and an assurance that even though bad things were happening, God was going to use those events for good. Jeremiah was not a prophet of doom and gloom, he was just honest about what was really going on around him. Jeremiah was just telling the truth, and it is to our advantage to listen to him, just as it would have been to the advantage of his listeners at the time.
We really can’t blame his audience for branding him as a man of woe and putting him into prison. We don’t like to listen to the truth of how hard life is, just as they didn’t. Their country was falling apart and being invaded by foreign powers. The popular prophets of the time were the ones who were pronouncing victory for Judah and defeat for everyone else. They were popular, but they were wrong. Jeremiah knew that Judah was no match for the empires competing for their land, and he knew that part of the reason for that was the fault of the people of Judah. They had turned away from trusting in God to trusting in the false gods of wealth, politics, and military might. They were soon to be conquered and sent into exile, but God was going to use that tragedy to make them stronger in the end. That horrible experience as a conquered and exiled nation turned them away from the misunderstanding that their status as God’s chosen people meant that they were God’s favorite people, and taught them the truth that God had chosen them not to be superior to everyone else, but instead had chosen them to bring the good news to the surrounding nations that all people are God’s favorites as his adopted children. If the tragedy of defeat and exile had not happened, the true understanding of their mission would not have occurred, and the entire world would be a worse place.
There is some argument as to whether or not God allows or even makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons or to test our faith and make us stronger. I sure don’t know about that. What does seem more certain is that God uses the bad things that occur to our eventual advantage, even though sometimes we are so involved in the tragedy that we can’t see that fact. Knowing that God uses everything, even the pain and grief in life, for our good does not make the pain and grief go away, or dismiss it as a passing phase or as an illusion. Bad things really do happen, and evil really does exist, unless you are a philosopher and want to argue about what the word “exist” means. We know that bad things happen to all, because bad things even happened to Jesus — God in our midst. The gospel story this morning tells about the time he was left by his family in Jerusalem as they traveled back home from a festival. To a twelve year old boy, being lost and abandoned in the city is a truly frightening thing, even though it was an accident, and even though he put up a brave front to his parents when they found him. That wasn’t the only bad thing that happened to Jesus, as we know from his later years; he was betrayed by friends, tortured, and executed. Just because those things happened to God in the flesh does not make them any less real or bad, in fact, it would seem to make them more real and painful, because God is the most real thing in the universe —everything else exists through God’s existence.
None of those painful things that happened to Jesus were good, but they were all necessary for his life and for ours. God turned them into a resurrection that gives hope and meaning for our lives. We can be assured that God knows our pain and grief, and suffers along with us, since Jesus was not spared any of it. We can also be assured that God will use those tragedies to help us in ways we could never imagine, such as resurrection. We tend to think of the birth of a baby this time of year, but we need to remember that the birth was only the beginning of a process of resurrection. That resurrection is the goal of all of us, and there will be pain and grief on the road there, but God has gone before us, in order to be with us on the way. We don’t need to either pretend that the road is not difficult, or that it is impossible to travel. We need to be like Jeremiah, acknowledging the trouble ahead, while also announcing that God will bring us through it better than we were before.
We are all chosen by God, just like Judah in Jeremiah’s day. But that adoption as God’s children does not mean that we are better than anyone else, it means that we are chosen to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to all of God’s other children. Our second scripture reading from the letter to the Ephesians mentions a few things that are our destiny as children of God: wisdom, enlightenment, hope, and glory. Those things grow in us even as we go through the pain and grief of life. No one will be spared difficulties, but it is up to us to choose how we will react to them: either allowing them to make us bitter and closing ourselves off from God and our neighbors, or offering them to God to use as tools to change us into more open and loving people. It is not easy to choose the path of resurrection, but it is certainly better than choosing the path of ultimate death. May we follow the baby whose birth and growth we have been celebrating these last few weeks, and who has opened the path of glory for us. May we not pretend that all will be well on the way, but may we also never forget that all will be well in the end. Our God has gone before us and is with us on the way. AMEN