Dire warnings from a couple Old Testament prophets have given us reasons to grit our teeth these past few Sundays.
First it was Amos, whose voice speaks for the Lord in declaring that God’s people are crooked and out of plumb. Then last Sunday came Jeremiah with an equally harsh indictment that minces no words:
The people’s unfaithfulness to God and their disobedience of God’s commandments will result in punishment. They and their nation have strayed so far from God and so broken God’s laws that they essentially have broken their part of the covenant with God.
Their disloyalty causes the Lord to withdraw his blessings, and as a result, God leads Jeremiah to proclaim that famine, conquest, and captivity in a strange land are what’s in store for God’s people. Because of their faithlessness, the people bring trouble upon themselves in forever poking the bear of a God who is “slow to anger” but nonetheless willing and able to wield heaven’s wrath.
But as the story of God and us continues, Jeremiah goes on to proclaim that all is not lost. Yes, times certainly are awful, but these troubled days aren’t the only ones you’ll ever know. God intends to establish a new covenant in which the Lord creates a lasting impression by writing his plans and purposes upon the very hearts of his people.
As we prepare to listen for God’s Word, let us be together in a place of prayer:
God of open doors, we often long to come home to you, to love, and to ourselves, but we aren’t always sure how to get there. We know that we need you, but the road back to you is heavy with distractions. So if we can dare to be so forward, we pray – Reach into the loud noise of our hearts and minds and make yourself known. Quiet everything but your Word for us today. Leave us awestruck. Drown out the distractions. Come as thunder or come as a still, small voice; we don’t care which. We just pray that you will come. Turn on the light. Speak through these words. Find the parts of us that are lost. With hope we pray, amen.
I’m reading to you from Jeremiah chapter 31.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.
And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
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 – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:27-34)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, and God’s people cringe.
They know that whatever is coming next will not be good.
“The days are surely coming” – Jeremiah’s big, red warning flag that so far has signaled nothing but doom and gloom.
The days are surely coming, Jeremiah has insisted, when the Lord’s great anger will fall hard and fast on his people because of their sinful ways and chronic faithlessness. Through Jeremiah, God’s chosen people have heard themselves declared “whores” – degenerate and false, wild and perverse.
They’ve been put on notice, in no uncertain terms, that because of their insurrection, the divine hand is going to smash them to pieces and that God will “bring upon them such disaster” that the “ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.”
They have cried for peace, but there is no peace, and nothing but terror envelops them.
The days are surely coming, they hear, and wonder “When?”
When will God totally abandon us?
When will God finally wipe us out once and for all?
When will God wholly leave us to fend for ourselves and diligently search out another nation to bless, another people to call his own?
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,” and God’s people already know how the sentence will end. For up until now, they’ve heard the harshest words of divine disappointment and heavenly judgment, and things don’t sound like they’re going to end well.
The days are surely coming, we hear, and you and I cringe, too.
For we have seen enough of the terrors of this world to worry that things still aren’t going too well.
We hear that a day of reckoning will come upon us – and maybe it’s already here – because of our ignorance and arrogance.
We hear that the world is spinning out of control because of our abuse – that this vibrant-but-vulnerable planet will burn, and storm, and rage with even more ferocity.
We hear that our best days as a nation are behind us – that the great American experiment will fall victim to terrorism, or greed, or the ever-widening gap of division.
We hear that we can no longer hope that future generations will live better than we do – that the rich will only grow richer and the poor poorer.
We even hear that the Church is on life-support – that one day the lure of secularism and the drain of our hyper-busy-ness will simply prove too much, and that on some Sunday in the not-too-distant future, the Church will gather for its last worship, whisper its last prayers, serve its last cookie, unplug the coffee pot for the last time, and close-up shop forever.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, and everyone cringes.
Then the Lord glimpses a future that sounds a whole lot rosier.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will do something new for you, when I again will reach out to you – my own people, heart of my heart, love of my life, and I will rescue you.
But this time, there’ll be no commandments written on tablets of stone for you to memorize in your head. No. This time around, I will engrave my promises upon your very hearts and souls. This time around, I will perform a heart transplant, sewing my own righteousness so deep within you that you cannot forget about me or live without me!
Even when you turn away from me – which you will, I’ll still be there with you in your hearts, and souls, and spirits.
This time around, within you, I will make my words shine so brightly and burn so intensely that all you’ll have to do is look at each other and see my promise. Yes, those days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will do this new and wondrous thing for you.
Surprise! “The days are surely coming” turn out to be words not of bane but of blessing.
After everything that the Lord’s people have put him through, God chooses them – and us – again.
Even though we’ve broken God’s covenant with us, God will not destroy us.
Even though we’ve betrayed God, God will not forsake us.
Even though we’ve been ever-so-hard to love, the Lord decides to do something different, to offer himself to us in a new way – a new way that keeps us from being lost to God forever. God’s not going to walk away from us; the Lord isn’t going to turn his back on us; God refuses to give up on you and me. For God is God, and God remains true, righteous, and merciful – yesterday, and today and forever.
This God, our God, refuses to give up you and me to the powers of sin and death. Those promises, those truths, are already etched deep within us by the poured-in power of God’s Holy Spirit, and all we need do is look to our hearts to find them.
So, when the world comes shrieking its curses and threats, you and I can we respond by treasuring God’s promises engraved on our hearts – singing them out with our voices and dancing to their holy rhythms.
When we hear the hardest words of judgment, the grimmest predictions of doom, we can shout our hope from the highest rooftop and bluff.
We can shine the light that we know to be in us onto our path and onto the paths of all those who walk in darkness.
We can catch a glimpse of what we know the days that are surely coming really look like and complete the sentence not with cringing fear but with resurrection hope – that the day is surely coming when all of Creation will be made new, when all people will be reconciled one to another, when peace and justice will reign.
Can we live like we believe those words of hope are written on our hearts? Sure we can!
Not by our own strength, of course, not by fitting ourselves with rose-colored glasses, but by God’s merciful and gracious love that gives us the greatest gift possible.
As the season of Lent reaches its midpoint, the days are surely coming when we will hear the story of this great gift again, the gift of this new covenant, signed, sealed and delivered in the person and work of God’s only and eternal Son, who enters our world, becomes one of us, and writes God’s promises on our hearts with bread and wine, water and blood, with rusty iron nails and hard, splintered wood.
The days are surely coming when we will hear harsh words that make us cringe – ugly-yet-beautiful words about how our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, died and was buried, disgusting-yet-encouraging words about how God transformed the dry, dead wood of the cross into a lush, green tree of eternal life.
Our hearts will be stirred by the repulsive words of a hope-filled story of how the Lord looked down upon us – broken and guilty of sin as we are – and chose us to be his own no matter who we are, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done.
The days are surely here when some will look at that stick of wood stuck in the ground and see what to them looks like nothing more than a bloodied scarecrow of a man. And they’ll shrug their shoulders in confusion, shake their heads in disgust and disbelief, and shuffle off along their work-a-day path.
For others, the days are surely here when the repulsive spectacle of the cross stabs their eyes and pierces their hearts with assured hope.
It seems almost inconceivable that an all-knowing, perfectly just God who loves heaven’s children with an everlasting passion could ever forget the sins committed against and by them. But it’s only amazing and impossible apart from the sacrifice of Christ.
That’s the power of God’s covenants between heaven and earth.
Most people figure a covenant is pretty much like a contract, and so if they have any comprehension of the word at all, their understanding is in the realm of all that is proper, legal, and official. When you sign on the dotted line, you make promises. You become obligated to make loan payments or perform certain tasks that the customer stipulates. It’s all very cut and dried – and bloodless.
But in the story of God and us, covenants are bloody, because covenants are life itself. From covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David on forward, God’s covenants are always the lifelines of relationship between God and humanity. When it came to the Lord’s relationship with his people, covenant is always more than a transaction. Covenant is hope and promise and grace all rolled into one.
God’s promised new covenant opens a future for all Creation that would be impossible were it not for the existence of the covenant. And if we Christians are now right to believe that all of God’s covenant promises find their “Yes” in Christ Jesus, the crucified Lord of lords and King of kings, then we can know for sure that “covenant” is a word heavy-laden with meaning.
“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus says in the Gospel. He means being lifted up on a spit of wood, of course, and that is ordinarily a mighty repulsive spectacle, not one that draws most people in. And indeed, all by itself, a broken body nailed to a cross atop a place called “Skull Hill” will always be a horrific spectacle from which people hide their faces.
But when you know, when you understand, what is behind that hideous death – when the grace of it all starts to shine through – then not only do you uncover your face, but also you find tears streaming down that same face. God goes to considerable lengths to make clear heaven’s divine love for you. But once he does so in Jesus the Christ, the knowledge of what that means soon starts to spread like wildfire in a way that knowledge of God has never before done.
Because not only does that display teach us a lot about God that we never really knew before, it also tells us about the last thing Jeremiah mentions in this passage: Our sins have been forgiven, too. Nothing now stands between God and us. We have no old business to attend to, no skeletons lurking in the closet, no outstanding debts to pay, no reason to keep our distance from the Kingdom of God.
The days are surely here when you and I can live in that kind of assurance, thanks to a heavenly promise of forgiveness that forgets.
Ancient words, ever true, long preserved, for walk in this world. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, March 27, 2022, the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is the 12th sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, and Patrick D. Miller inform the message.