Favor in the Wilderness

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
    will find favor in the wilderness;
    I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
    and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
    and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
    and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
    on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

– Jeremiah 31:1-6

My family lived in Southern California during my high school years and one spring break we drove a couple of hours east, into the Mojave Desert. What we found was not a dry and desolate place, but a landscape with patches of green, soft blue skies, and bursts of wildflowers in every direction. After the winter rains, the desert wilderness was full of life.

The people God sent Jeremiah to found themselves in a wilderness. The Kingdom of Israel had splintered in two, and the Northern Kingdom had been carried into exile. Judah, in the south, was left uncertain and afraid about its future. Violent empires rose around them, threatening their existence. Exile seemed inevitable. And into this moment in time, God had his prophet Jeremiah remind his people of his past favor to instill hope in his future provision. There would be life and favor in the wilderness.

There are many ways to describe this collective moment in which we find ourselves. But maybe you’ll agree with me that, among its other characteristics, these weeks have been a wilderness. Not only is the pandemic ravaging our world, once again it is those furthest from our society’s power who suffer the most. Asian Americans have been scapegoated. Immigrants are expected to continue working so that the rest of us can shelter in place. Indigenous communities are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Here in Chicago, while making up only 29% of our city’s population, African Americans represent 70% of those who’ve died from COVID-19. This is a wilderness; a terrible and terrifying wilderness. It can feel God-forsaken.

Is it? The answer from Jeremiah to God’s splintered people was, No. In this wilderness you are not forsaken. Even here, even now, a there is a future worth living toward. On this Easter morning, on the other side of the crucifixion, I want to remind us that the same is true today. No wilderness can overpower our hope if it is established in Christ’s resurrection.

If we’re to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s two declarations in this passage. We need to hear his declaration about our past and his declaration about our future.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. These verses dance between the past and future. God says, “I have,” and “I will.”

[31:2] This is what the Lord says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” The sword recalls Israel’s flight from Egyptian captivity and Pharaoh’s army. After being saved by God through the parted sea, the people stood before the vast wilderness. From the frying pan into the fire.

We know this feeling today. If we make it through this catastrophic moment, then what? What about our job, our educational goals, our retirement? God’s answer to his people then, and to us today, is: There is favor in the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for favor is not about God being nice to us or giving us the things we think we need. Favor can be seen in that well-known blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God’s favor has to do with his presence, with his relational nature. The people had been freed from slavery into favor.

And rest too, according to Jeremiah. Enslaved people are not granted the daily and weekly rest for which our image-bearing humanity is made. And so to be granted rest, even in the wilderness, is a sign of God’s intentions. It’s a vision of flourishing humanity, no matter the circumstances.

God is reminding his people of the favor and rest he showed them in the wilderness. Their current events had made them forgetful. Where is God now? Why has God allowed this to happen to us? What future can we possibly imagine for ourselves?

Of course, we get this tendency. The more overwhelming our circumstances, the more forgetful we become. We want to get back to the way things were. But in their wilderness moment, God doesn’t have Jeremiah remind them of their normal days, or even their great days. Instead of pointing back to the days of King David or Solomon, God brings their memories to the wilderness: Pharaoh’s sword, the terror of the escape, the gaping wilderness before them.

Could it be that in our own wilderness moment God might ask us to remember our wildernesses of the past? That time you were sick, heartbroken, homeless, jobless, friendless, abandoned, alone. When we remember the wildernesses of the past, we also start to remember what God did.

And when we remember what God did, we start to remember who God is. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. [31:3] God is a verb and a noun: loved with love. God is love itself. His unfailing kindness is a covenant love; a never-quitting, unstoppable love. There is no human equivalent. This is why we remember those previous wilderness times.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. I showed you favor. I gave you rest. I loved you with an everlasting, unstoppable love.

Today we remember that when Christ took our sin to the cross, we could finally be at rest. Self-righteousness died. Striving for perfection died. Pleasing others, earning merit… all of our toiling died.

Today we remember Christ’s everlasting love. He loved us when we opposed, misunderstood, abandoned, betrayed, convicted, mocked, and crucified him. And on that Sunday morning his love sent the authorities scurrying and the demons fleeing; it sent Mary rejoicing and his disciples running with expectation.

On that first Easter morning, God’s everlasting, never-quitting love took back what the death had stolen. His love tore through dividing walls and ripped through curtains of separation. His love was an earthquake- raising the dead to life, loosing chains of oppression, shaking foundations of power.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is a power that makes this everlasting love a reality to behold. If we are paying attention, we will fall to our knees before this resurrected love. We will stammer and quake before it. Our knees will knock and mouths hang open. There is nothing tame or safe about the love of God. A love that led through a bloody cross is nothing to be trifled with.

But it is eternal evidence that you are loved with an everlasting love. This love has raised you from death into life. This love is transforming you from the inside out. This love has brought near the kingdom of God, pushing back the shadows of our rebellious world.

It’s a strange request to make on Easter, even stranger during a pandemic but would you remember a previous wilderness? Remember God’s loving-kindness. His rest. His favor in the wilderness. Don’t let today’s wilderness make you forget about God’s yesterday favor in the wilderness.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we also need to hear God’s declaration about our future. Our Passage begins: “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” [31:1] These are a splintered people and this is a promise of reunion.

God reminded his people of their past; now he points ahead. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. [31:4] But what, precisely, does this mean? Well, God provides three characteristics of the future promised to his people.

God’s future will be joyful.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. [31:4b] This is a spontaneous joy. It’s not the pre-planned excitement of a birthday party or a holiday. There is simply joy in the air.

God’s future will be marked by justice. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. [31:5] Samaria was, at that time, occupied. So this is a picture of reunion, but not only that. The people tending the land will also enjoy its fruit. No sharecropping here. No enslaved people toiling for someone else’s benefit. No undocumented immigrants forced to work for subsistence wages. Those who steward the land will enjoy its fruit. There will be no lack in God’s future.

And God’s future will be full of worship. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. [ 31:6] Like Samaria, Ephraim was occupied territory. So this too is a vision of reunion, but it’s not a return to normal. Worship is not coerced in God’s future. It does not compete with idols or ideologies. It does not turn a blind eye to injustice. The worship in Jeremiah’s vision is whole-hearted. It is the purpose of a people reunited.

Now, an obvious question for a people in the wilderness who are hearing God’s vision for the future might be: Do we have to wait for these things? Are we to sit around until this future arrives? The answer is provided a few chapters earlier, in Jeremiah 28, when God invites his people to begin living into this future now. For a people in the wilderness, God provides a vision of joy, justice, and worship. It’s a vision that can be lived into in the wilderness.

This is a challenge for us. In the wilderness we want to return to normal. But God is calling us forward into something new. A lot of us can’t wait to get back to normal. But I’ve seen your normal – and mine – and I don’t think it something we should settle for.

On this Easter morning, we might also remember that Jesus didn’t come to return us to normal. Jesus didn’t battle the devil in the wilderness to bring us back to normal. He didn’t confront the religious and political powers to bring us back to normal. He didn’t drive out demons, heal blind eyes and diseased bodies to bring us back to normal. Jesus didn’t raise little girls and old friends from the dead, he didn’t give himself over for betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, mocking, and crucifixion to bring us back to normal. He certainly didn’t storm the gates of hell or ascend to the heights of heaven or raise with nailed scared hands and a sword pierced side or trample the head of sin, death, and the devil so that you could get back to normal!

Israel needed to hear God’s declaration about the future while they were in the wilderness, not so they could dream about the good old days but so that they could build for God’s new day. Please don’t settle for normal when God has done something new. As N.T. Write puts it, “Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.” (Surprised by Hope, 67)

The resurrection is a future word bursting into our today wilderness. Behold, I am making all things new! A word of joy, justice, and wholehearted worship. The opportunity of this wilderness season isn’t about your old normal; it’s about the new creation accomplished by the resurrection of the Son of God.

Can I suggest that your desires for normal are not strong enough? They are faint shadows of the desires you were made for. You were made for joy. You were made for justice. You were made for worship. Let those small desires open you to the real thing: new creation streaming into this sick and weary world; breaking into our sadness and grief; redeeming our losses.

When we hear God’s declaration about our future, we understand that nothing in this wilderness can overpower our hope.

In the wilderness, God speaks to his people’s past and to their future. Remember your previous wildernesses. Did I not give you rest? Did I not love you with an everlasting love? Did I not show you loving-kindness that could not be overpowered by anything in the wilderness? I will build you up again. You will dance with joy. You will plant with justice. You will gather in worship. Reoriented by these divine declarations, the people’s hope is restored. For it becomes clear that with God, there is favor in the wilderness.

I know some of us are tired, sick, and despairing. Does the message of Easter ring hollow in the wilderness? Then let the let the despised and rejected one draw near. Let the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief draw near. Let the despised one; the one who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases; the stricken, afflicted, wounded, and crushed one draw near to you today.  He knows the wilderness. He has suffered the wilderness. And he will walk through this wilderness with you.

Turn your face to the one whose countenance is always upon you. Look to him today. He has won your future. His new creation, one day to be fully realized, is even now growing in the wilderness.  

24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” [Numbers 6:24-26]

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