This is an edited manuscript for my for my sermon on March 22, 2015. It’s based on Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Jeremiah envisions The LORD’s incredible grace and patience. Jeremiah is an interesting prophet. He lived during the time of Judah’s rapid decline and actually witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. His prophetic ministry began long after the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped off the face of the Earth, and he had to see the same thing happen to his own native land. In many ways, it’s a heart-breaking tale.
Yet, even as things were falling apart, Jeremiah was granted hope by the LORD. Hope to see a world beyond the crumbling reality all around him. He saw a new covenant being made. And made not only with the “House of Judah” (where the descendants of David reigned and where the Temple was situated), this new covenant would also be made with the “House of Israel,” the 10 northern tribes which broke away from the House of David and quickly fell into idolatry.
As Jeremiah dreamed of his people’s future, he envisioned the LORD as a betrayed spouse, specifically a husband. Hurt and wounded by the very one who should have cared most about their relationship. He saw God looking at a people He barely recognized and for whom He had, with the covenant long broken through disobedience, no obligation for which to provide care. Yet, as Jeremiah saw, the LORD was going to provide care anyway. The betrayed spouse would welcome an adulterous people back into love and security. And so, through the promise of God A new reality is glimpsed.
The new covenant would be entirely unlike the one which came before. The old Covenant, written on stone and literally etched on the bodies of Israel’s descendants through circumcision, wasn’t going to cut it (pun intended). The people had broken that covenant, so the LORD was going to etch it a bit deeper – it would be written on their hearts.
The New Testament sees this promise fulfilled through the work of Christ, and ultimately through the filling of the Holy Spirit. We see this in passages like Acts 7 when a disciple named Stephen rebukes a crowd who rejected Jesus’ claims and were threatening his person. He looks out at the hostile crowd and insists they had “uncircumcised hearts and ears.” In other words, they hadn’t permitted the LORD to cut them deep enough. By contrast, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and displayed wonderful calm – he was an image of the new covenant seen by Jeremiah, even as he was martyred. We Christians believe we inherit both the blessing and the obligation to live in that new covenant which Stephen exemplified so beautifully. And yet, it is precisely because of our beliefs that a scandal exists.
Jeremiah foresaw how, under the new covenant, there wouldn’t be any reason to tell people to “know the LORD” or to teach one another – because everyone would already know the LORD (the covenant is inside people. after all). Yet, we have a command to go out and tell people both to know the LORD and teach people what knowing the LORD means. Even for those of us in the Church, this covenant written on our hearts does not seem to a bullet-proof fix for the human disobedience. None of us is perfect, after all, and we spend a lot of time as believers learning from our mistakes and repenting of our sin (at least, we should be). Even the Apostle Paul writes about his own struggles with staying true to his calling in the book of Romans. If the new covenant is on our hearts, and Jeremiah seems to think it’s the final solution for the former disobedience of his people, why don’t we look like better reflections of God?
The easiest way out of the dilemma is to say, “Well, Jeremiah is looking forward to after the end times, when the only people remaining will know the LORD and will always be obedient.” I don’t discount that there is probably some wisdom in that idea, but it doesn’t explain why Stephen (and the Book of Acts) seems to think the new covenant was fulfilled in the present through their obedience to Jesus’ calling.
Another easy way out of the dilemma, though morbidly so, is the polar opposite of the first path. This view states that the New Testament writers were wrong, the early believers were mistaken, and God probably never made this promise in the first place (often believed because, in these folks mind, God is obviously a fairy tale). Sometimes, when we look at the state of the Church and the way Christians act, this might be a tempting path on which to walk.
Or, and I like this path the best, we could remember that Jeremiah is literature. It’s divinely inspired literature, but literature nonetheless. One of the ways literature likes to paint contrast, and this seems to be a human notion which spans both culture and language, is through hyperbole – intentional exaggeration. Jeremiah had a vision of the incredible grace of God and a world so radically different from his own that he stretched his language in order to be able to process what he saw. Things were bad in his day, but he knew they would get better – so much better it was almost unbelievable. I love believing in a Lord and savior who is so good it’s almost unbelievable.
How do we resolve this scandal in our lives, while still proclaiming the wondrous grace and patience of our LORD? Well, we’ve all probably seen one popular method in the form of the bumper-sticker, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” It’s nice, but while it sounds humble it actually communicates hubris through an implied second statement, “And you’re neither. It must be awful being you.” I think it might be good to alter the sentiment, “Christians aren’t perfect, and we’re sorry. The grace of God is greater than we know or deserve.” If you’re thinking, “Wow, that would make a great bumper sticker” you’re kinda missing the point. We don’t need this sentiment stuck to our cars, we need it etched on our hearts. As we submit to the almost unbelievable grace and patience of our God I think we’ll live out a genuine humility, and the New Covenant will slowly form throughout our entire lives. Amen.