Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Renewal

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Promise of Renewal

Jeremiah 31:27-34

27The 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. 28And 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. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No 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.

            Today is the fourth and final sermon in our Lenten series on the Promises of God. Each week, we have heard a text and sought to understand what God can be promising to us. We have heard about God’s promise of presence, the promise of overturning, the promise of whosoever, and today, the promise of renewal. Throughout our Lenten season, we have turned our prayers to God in these specific and direct ways, including Ash Wednesday when we wrote our prayers, and sent them back to God in a fire. We have written our prayers, and woven them together into a tapestry of truth-telling.

On these slips of paper are the words and names

and hopes of us – this gathered congregation –

that we have collectively given back to God.

What a sacred, beautiful and honest work of art

we have created together. Here, in our worship,

we have prayed these prayers, and sought out

what it means to live into God’s promise to us.
            This is also the time for us to consider our Lenten journey, and observe how we have changed during this time of reflection and self-denial. In giving up eating in restaurants, I, for one, am fitting into clothes I haven’t worn since before Sloan was born. But Lenten disciplines aren’t about what we get from them, they are about how we open ourselves to change. If you have taken on a discipline during this season, consider how your life and rituals and patterns have adapted to your intentional choice. I used to take a little cream with my coffee. In this season, I have left behind the dairy I thought so necessary. Now, I am an adaptable creature, who can consume coffee without any modification. I am liberated. I am changed.
            Today, we are expecting to hear about God’s promise of Renewal. This is the greatest hope for us, isn’t it? That we might find new life, new strength, new hope. Renewal is the promise that it will get better, that we will have the resources, that we will be transformed. It is the goal of our Lenten journey, in short, and our Christian journey, in full. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Lent is our season of honesty. It is a time when we may break out of our illusions to face the reality of our life in preparation for Easter, a radical new beginning. Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being."[1] So, as we approach Palm Sunday, the Passion of Holy Week and the promise of resurrection, we do so with the hope and anticipation that we shall have a new beginning because of this season of deliberate awareness.
            It seems fitting, then, that the prophet Jeremiah should bring our closing word to this season. The prophet Jeremiah came from Anathoth, a village in the hill country of Benjamin, one of the tribes of Jacob – also called Israel – in the north of Judah. He was the son of a priest, the grandson of a priest, and his line of succession made it no surprise that he might be called to serve in the temple.
            Jeremiah’s story seems like a fairy tale, set in an ancient land in a far away place, rustic and humble. His is the story of a man – a simple man – who was appointed by God to be the voice of one crying out. His voice sounded like Moses, resonated with the same authority. This man, Jeremiah, was to be the voice of reason, the voice of love, the voice of redemption to a people who were broken and scattered. It was Jeremiah of whom it was said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)
            By the time we meet Jeremiah, the Israelites have endured assimilation into the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah, along with the tribe of Judah, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple, the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the death of King Josiah.  Most of Jeremiah’s words to the people are cries of lament. Jeremiah incessantly warned his people to mend their ways, to return to God, to take up the faithfulness of their ancestors and to live into the promise of what God would do.
            As we encounter our text today, we do so, not as Christians with an eye to the promise of the resurrection, but as broken and scattered people, with only prayers of lament and sorrow in our throats. Jeremiah has preached repentance, to no avail. So now, his sorrowing is past, and he uses the gift God has given him – that of prophecy and truth-telling – to preach a new covenant.
            The days are coming, says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors – a covenant that they broke. But, 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. No longer shall they teach one another, for they shall know me, for I will forgive them and remember their sin no more.” This is the only Old Testament passage where "new" modifies "covenant.” The law remains a key point of continuity between old and new; but it will be written upon the heart, no longer a written Torah. [2]
            Here, God is telling the people of Judah that despite innumerable attempts to remain faithful and live into the old covenant – the old promise of faithfulness and steadfastness – that the old covenant is irreparably broken. It is here, in this passage, that we learn something altogether wonderful about God: God does not turn away from the people who consistently break covenant. Rather, God finds a new way to be in relationship with them. 
            If this is what we are striving to do in our own lives, seeking to live out in our own way, then this promise of renewal is about more than just being changed or turning over a new leaf. This promise of renewal, at its core, is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s about relentlessly seeking out ways to be in relationship with the most challenging of people, simply because we love them. It is about setting aside expectation, and re-evaluating how we can make it work.
            What God promises to do in this passage is utterly radical. God tells Jeremiah, “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.” If you consider the ways in which the society of the Israelites was created and sustained, it was all done through the temple and in the course of religious life. By saying that the law – which had been in the hands of the experts to interpret and implement – would be written on the hearts of the people, God is saying that there would no longer be a need for the world to function as it had. God says, “No longer shall they teach one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.” Knowledge of God, then, is inherent in their very being. The law is no longer written on parchment, a limited, finite, protected entity. Now, the law, which isn’t just rules, but the way in which to be in life-giving relationship with God and others, is written on the hearts of all. “They shall all know me, the Lord says, from the least to the greatest.”
            This new covenant is about what God chooses to do for us, in our hearts. Now, the law is not to be logically understood. Now, there is a new covenant that is so close that it is physically in our hearts, coursing through our veins. What flows from our soul, what fires our passions, is not just biology, but relationship. As our hearts beat, our life is renewed, God’s promise is renewed, and we live into the covenant that God is ours and we shall be God’s people. This is the commitment of God; the covenant; the promise. That we are God’s. Now, forever.
            It is the last verse of our text today that demonstrates how this is possible. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” If I’m being completely honest with you, I have such a hard time with the language of forgiving and forgetting. So often, my attempts to forgive turned into an ongoing relationship that was harmful. The delicate balance between forgiveness and boundary-setting is tricky to navigate, and I know that if I forget previous wounds, I risk being vulnerable to them again. It is the remembering that keeps me safe. But, this is not about our relationship with one another, per se. This is about God’s ongoing relationship with us. Despite our repeated refusal to keep covenant with God, God chooses not only to continually engage us, but to re-define the covenant itself. God forgives, and forgets, and we are the only ones who benefit from this. This tells us so much about God, and God’s insistence on relationship with us, because “God does what Israel cannot: God forgets. In response to their failure, God refuses to recognize it. In response to their infidelity, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real wretchedness, God's memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God forgets.”[3]
            So, the divine memory of our relationship with God is no longer marred, but beautiful. It is less like the threadbare tapestry, worn by perpetual erosion, and more like a beautiful work of art, restored to its fullness. Written on our hearts is not just the law, but the promise that we are God’s people. Our response, then, must be some kind of radical generosity, which alone can break the cycles of resentment and revenge. As God’s people, we must learn to live as people guided by our hearts, called to serve the Lord, love others and change the world by living differently in it. “The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness.”[4]
            In this, is the promise of Renewal.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God who answers prayer, I come before your throne.
O God who answers prayer, I come to you.
By awesome deeds you answer, with deliverance you answer.
You are the God of my salvation.
You are the hope of all the earth. – Psalm 65 [5]

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