Sunday, March 25, 2012
31The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.
35The LORD proclaims:
The one who established the sun
to light up the day
and ordered the moon and stars
to light up the night,
who stirs up the sea
into crashing waves,
whose name is the LORD of heavenly forces:
36If the created order should vanish
from my sight,
declares the LORD,
only then would Israel’s descendants
ever stop being a nation
37The LORD proclaims:
If the heavens above could be measured
and the foundations of the earth below
could be fathomed,
only then would I reject
for what they have done,
declares the LORD.
This is the World of the Lord
Thanks be to God
The season of Lent is walking in the wilderness, mirroring Jesus forty days of temptation, and the ancient Israelites forty years before reaching the Promised Land. The Lenten wilderness is a spiritual wasteland that has no end in sight. But the prophet Jeremiah can see farther, and points us in the direction that the LORD is taking us.
There’s a reason we read this passage in the wilderness of Lent. There’s a reason Jeremiah speaks to us as we wander through the world, in search of our savior. There’s a reason we need to hear this word in every age, in every time and place. There’s a reason we need to remember the future that has been promised.
The reason is, we’re still a people who need God grace. The reason is we don’t have it together and we can’t do it on our own. The reason is our faith is shaken from time to time, and we still need to hear the promise, because the time is coming, declares the LORD.
“The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah.” Judah, the people who are suffering under the heel of the armies of Babylon, Judah, who are hiding in the hills watching as their homes are destroyed, as the kingdom that was promised to them burns and is systematically ripped apart. Our Judah has been conquered and it seems like the battle is over and we’re on the side of the losers. Our neighbors have been carried off into exile. The Babylonians that are knocking at our own doors are not here to make a social call. The symbol of the promise of God has been taken away from us.
When you’re in the Judah referenced in this passage, you’re watching everything you’ve built crumble before you. Living in Jeremiah’s Judah makes the stories you used to order your life around feel like a betrayal. Because those stories no longer apply, and we’re not equipped to deal with their loss.
My generation was told that if you get a college degree, you’ll get a job, and have a secure future. My parents generation was told that if you work hard, you’ll be able to retire comfortably. My grandparents generation was told that if you provide, you’ll be provided for. And then we all watched as those stories were suddenly not true for everyone anymore. The man who built great things during his long career sees that his retirement benefits are drying up. So now he has to sell what was to be his children’s inheritance to provide for himself and his wife. The woman who worked her whole life at the furniture factory is told that the business is moving overseas and she won’t get the pension she had planned for. The summa cum laude graduate hears that she’s the next great up-and-comer in her field time and again. But those who tell her that she has potential aren’t hiring. She worries that she can’t pay off the mortgage she took out on her future with student loans. And all of them groan together for a new promise, a new covenant.
It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. It won’t be like the covenant that required more than the people have been able to live up to. It won’t be like the covenant that instructed them “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” It won’t be like the covenant that was to be tied on our hands, that should be written on our foreheads as a symbol. It won’t be like the covenant that our spiritual ancestors wrote on their houses’ door frames and on their cities’ gates. That covenant is broken, and we, individually and collectively, are the ones who broke it.
Broken promises to God. We live in a world glutted with broken promises to God. It seeps into every fiber of our culture, every word of our communication, and it’s all so very broken. The brokenness of our promises to God defines us, sinful from our origin. The broken covenant separates us from God. We cannot undo the break because we cannot keep the covenant. With Babylon beating on our doors to take us away, God misses us terribly, and refuses to let our break be the final word.
Jeremiah reminds us throughout this whole book that we have done this to ourselves, and we have done it to ourselves consistently. We cannot say that what has happened to us is not fair, because it’s not a matter of bad things happening to good people, it’s a matter of bad things happening to people who deserve what they get, because they have rejected God. God who wanted an intimate partnership with the people, a partnership compared in this passage to a husband. The comparison is weak, because God goes farther than any human metaphor of marriage could. When we reject and run away from God, God follows us. Our break will not be the word that defines our reality, God misses us too much for that to be all we are. So God changes the shape of reality in order to be with us.
We see how far we have fallen, we see what we have done to the world and to one another, pushing each other and ourselves away with the hope that by shoving them deeper into the muck we’ll somehow feel cleaner. So when we are about to get what we deserve for rejecting God, God speaks.
No, that’s not the kind of God I am. That’s not the kind of people you will be. That’s not the kind of world I created. No that’s not the way it’s going to be. No, I will not allow you to be destroyed as a result of your own choices.
No, this is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel.
When you write something on your hand, it will wipe off. When you paint it above your doorpost, you can always paint over it. The old covenant trusted in human ability to keep it, and the human freedom to break the covenant won out instead. But this new covenant is not something we write, and it’s not something we can wash off or cover up. The new covenant is dependent solely on God’s intervention.
“I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
I had the opportunity a few years ago to work with a stonecutter. Up until the moment when you begin the engraving process, you’re just looking at a rock. There’s nothing special about it, it’s like so many others. It’s a collection of minerals cut from a quarry. But once it’s engraved, it’s different. A blank wall becomes a monument. An empty slab becomes a gravestone. A floor tile becomes a centerpiece at a wedding banquet. The engraving takes a humble rock and provides it with a new purpose. Engraving a stone can transform the basest mineral deposits into beautiful art.
What the rock carver does to the stone, God’s covenant does to us. The instruction is internalized and engraved on our hearts. A new purpose is provided and we are no longer bound by our own brokenness but free to be restored to our relationship with God. The next verses tell us that we will no longer have to even teach each other what to say, because we’ll just know. We no longer have to remind ourselves what has been said, as with the ancient covenant, because it’s not an issue of knowing about, it’s about being who God has created us to be. God’s engraving on our hearts gives us a purpose and an identity and turns what is essentially a bag of meat and mostly water into a human being, created in the image of God.
And that time is coming, declares the LORD. Because we’re not there yet, we’re still wandering in the desolate wasteland of Lent, expecting to find a Babylonian army ready to carry us deeper into this exile of our own making. But being trapped in the desert doesn’t stop God from claiming us as God’s own. Because the second half of the passage is a creation story. God takes a moment to remind us of exactly who we’re dealing with here. We’re not dealing with some idol made of wood or brass. We’re being dealt with by “The one who established the sun to light up the day and ordered the moon and the starts to light up the night.” We are not claimed by a nationality, or a race, or a club, or a fraternity or a denomination. We are claimed by the one “who stirs up the sea into crashing waves, whose name is the LORD of heavenly forces.” This same one claims us as God’s own people.
When we run away and abandon God, and we will, God will engrave her instructions upon our hearts, giving us a purpose and an identity. Our discarded chunks of granite are engraved with and transformed into testimonies to God’s faithfulness. Because our rebellion shows God’s refusal to give up on us. God will have a relationship with us, even when we are broken and imperfect.
My mother has a saying, “God uses imperfect people because he made so few of the other kind.” We are the imperfect people whom God has choses to use. We are the body of Christ eagerly awaiting the return of our Lord. We are not our own, we belong to God, and God has missed us in our exile, and will bring us back. When we proved that we could not come back to God, God came to earth, taking the form of a slave, and was crucified for us so that we will know that God will be with us no matter what. Let us know that God has engraved our hearts with that powerful message of love. There’s a reason we read this text in the wilderness of Lent, so that when we are confronted with our sinfulness, we will be reminded that God will be with us no matter what.
Lord of heaven and earth, we feel alone and broken, and we cannot reach out to you. Comfort us with the knowledge that even though we can never reach you, you not only reach us, but refuse to let us go. Amen.