When God tries again
A sermon on Jeremiah 31: 31-34 by Nathan Nettleton, 17 March 1991
God is passionately in love with us and longing to give us every good thing if we will respond to his love.
This is a wonderfully affirming reading from the prophet Jeremiah, but when I was reading my commentaries I discovered that there's a bit of controversy around it too. Some scholars say that it is merely an unrealistic utopian insert added to Jeremiah's writings by an over enthusiastic scribe a hundred or so years after Jeremiah's time. Others say that it is the high point of the Hebrew Bible, the most important statement in the Hebrew Scriptures of the nature of the gospel that was to come with Jesus Christ. You will probably realise by the time I am finished that I am sideing with the latter group. I don't know whether Jeremiah wrote it or not, and I don't care, but I do know that it has a lot to say to us about the intense love God has for us and about the intimate and beautiful relationship God has promised to share with us. And I am encouraged that I am on the same side as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, whoever that was, who quotes this entire reading in Chapter 8: 8-12, to tell us more about our relationship with God. So if you're into following sermons in your bibles you can do so from either Jeremiah 31 or Hebrews 8.
What I want to do with this reading is perhaps a little experimental. More than likely it will be a style of preaching that you are not familiar with, and so I want to warn you about what I am going to do. What we have got in the books of the prophets, like Jeremiah, is mainly collections of sermons that they preached. Jeremiah was a preacher, not a writer. He had a secretary named Baruch who took notes as he preached and wrote them down for publication later. So the reading we have just read is a brief summary of a sermon that Jeremiah preached and so rather than just try to explain what I think this reading means and how it applies to us, I have attempted to rewrite the sermon. Now its no use you hearing a sermon that was intended for a bunch of dispossessed hebrews two and a half thousand years ago, so with a bit of poetic license and considerable embellishment I am going to attempt to repreach the sermon in the way that Jeremiah might have spoken it to us if he had been here this morning. Jeremiah's message to the South Yarrites if you like. Rather than commentate on the passage I am going to pretend to speak for Jeremiah, who in turn was speaking for God, so don't be put off when it sounds like I'm talking as though I was God. I don't think I am, I'm just preaching the way Jeremiah did. That's what I am going to try to do.
Let's just pray together for a minute before I do.
God of all ages and all places, Lover and redeemer of us all, what I am about to speak and we're all about to hear is a mixture of some of the words from your servant Jeremiah, and a lot of words from me. Lord, we ask that through all that you would be speaking your words to our hearts. Even if this is nothing like what Jeremiah would have said here, we know that you are capable of making yourself known to us now, through these words. Help us all to be open to whatever you want to say to us this day. Amen.
These are the days, says the Lord, when I invite you into a new covenant, into a new committed relationship of love and trust and security. These are the days when I offer myself to you, when I offer to share myself with you for the rest of time. I have shown myself to you, I have come among you and proven to you that my love for you could withstand even torture and death, and now I invite you to respond to that love and to accept the commitment I am offering you.
This new covenant will not be like the old covenant that I made with those who went before you thousands of years ago. In those days I found my people in Egypt. I found them broken and suffering. They were being cruelly abused by a people who cared nothing about them and who sought only to exploit them for whatever they could get out of them. And like a lover who sees their beloved viciously bashed in some mindless act of random violence, I was distressed and anguished, and I reached out my hands in tenderness and pity, and wiped away the blood from their wounds and the tears from their eyes and, cradling them in my arms, I took them out of that place to a place of safety and healing. And when their wounds were healed and they were safe from their oppressors I offered to commit myself to them, fully and forever, if they would offer in return to be faithful to me alone and to live lives of justice and righteousness, to show all the world the light of my love. And so we committed ourselves to one another in marriage, in a binding covenant relationship. And I loved them and cherished them and gave them every good thing. Whatever they needed for happiness and fulfillment I gave them and I kept them safe from anything that sought to harm them. I explained to them carefully the ways they should live that would ensure that their lives were long and joyful and fulfilling. I was their God and they were my people.
But despite my love and my faithfulness, they broke the covenant, they tore up our marriage certificate, they threw back the wedding ring I had placed on their finger and they spat in my face. And my heart was torn in two as I saw them go out and prostitute themselves on the streets to others who cared nothing for them, who just used them and raped them and ripped them off. I couldn't hold back the tears as I watched and saw the life and vitality draining from their faces as they were sucked dry and cast aside on the garbage heap of humanity and yet still they would not return to the warmth and safety of my arms.
I was grieved, I was deeply hurt, I was shattered to the core, but still I longed to be reunited with them. Despite the humiliation of having my love treated with such public contempt, my love never died.
So I decided to do away with the old covenant and offer a completely new covenant. A new covenant with a more human face. I became one of you and I came and lived among you. I walked on your streets, I ate in your homes, I worked in your workplaces. I found among you the same agonies and frustrations that I had felt when your ancestors betrayed me and scorned me. I experienced the struggles of living in your society and the pressures from every side to compromise your integrity and your faith. I learned all too painfully just how costly it can be to take a stand against hatred, violence and greed. I know how deep the fear is when faced with the powers of evil and corruption and how strong the temptation to turn your face away, to pull your head in and keep your mouth shut. I felt the pain and the grief and the deep deep scars of your broken families, of your abused and molested children, and of those who grew up in an emotional nightmare, starved of genuine love and affirmation. And I wept. I wept again because I was standing amidst the agony and destruction of a world that scorned my love and care and was now reaping the fruits of its own betrayal.
So I stood amidst the ashes of death and called for life. I called for healing. I called for peace. I called for joy. I called for justice and for righteousness. And I began to live it and to help other fragile hurting people to live it too. And we danced and we sang and we celebrated. And the powers of death rose up and tore me apart. The powers of darkness who could not stand the arrival of light screamed and spat and clawed and they broke my body and drained the blood of life from my flesh. Take my body, I have given it for you. Take my blood, it was poured out so that you might have life and have it to the full. This blood, this cup, is the symbol of the new covenant. It is the symbol of the depth of my love for you, it is the symbol of the commitment I am offering you.
This is the covenant I am inviting you into in these days, says the Lord. I will take you in my arms and call you my precious and my beautiful one. I will offer myself to you, fully and forever. I am offering you the deepest, most beautiful intimate relationship. I will forgive all the sins of your past. I will erase the memory of your unfaithfulness. I will take you into my heart and into my arms as one who is innocent and pure. I will carress away your fears and tenderly massage away the hurts and the scars you have suffered. I will kiss away the tears from your face and the pain of this world from your heart. I will hold you gently when the memories frighten you and I will stroke your hair and ease the anxieties of your mind. I will restore your dignity and renew your integrity and your self respect. Everything I am and everything I have I give to you, my chosen and precious people.
This is the covenant I am inviting you into in these days, says the Lord. I will put my law within you, and I shall write it on your hearts. Not a law of restrictions and rules, but the law of life. The law that keeps you safe within the bounds of love and joy and overflowing exuberant life. The law that enables you to reach the heights of joy and fulfillment and that guides you away from death and despair. I will pour into your hearts my Holy Spirit and she will be a seal of my love and faithfulness to you. She will blossom forth and bear within you her fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness. You will be my greatest delight, my most beautiful treasure. You will be more precious to me than anything else on earth. I love you and I offer you this commitment, this covenant relationship, this promise of myself.
I will be your God and you will be my people, says the Lord. As you celebtrate life together with one another, you are sharing together in the new covenant. I have called you, not only to be mine individually, but to be mine as a people. As my Holy Spirit begins to work in your hearts she will begin to reconcile you one to another and to bind you together as a covenant people. You will begin again to express for one another the sort of love and care and faithfulness I have expressed for you. My righteousness, my justice, my mercy and my love will be seen by all the world as it is lived out among you, my covenant people.
This is the covenant I am inviting you into in these days, says the Lord. You will know me intimately. I will share with you the deepest secrets of my heart. Everything I am I will share with you. Everything I am I will give to you. I will withhold nothing from you. I give you myself completely. No longer will you need to teach one another, or say to each other Know the Lord, for you shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. You who are nothing in the eyes of this world will enjoy a close intimate relationship with the creator of this world. You who are great in the eyes of this world can have the same but only the same, and you must accept these others as your brothers and sisters. No-one will have to show you the way to God. None of you will be left in the dark, groping for someone to take your hand and lead you to the light. For you will have unrestricted access to me and the light of my love will lighten your way forever.
These are the things to come, says the Lord, they are now beginning and they will come to fulfillment. This is the covenant I am inviting you into in these days and this is the future that I am promising to you. I will blot out the memory of the evil and the pain and suffering of the past. I will forgive your mistakes and heal your wounds and we will be committed to one another in marriage, in a covenant relationship forever. I love you, I have chosen you, I want always and only the best for you. This is the new covenant sealed with my blood and my tears. Accept my promise, accept my commitment to you, accept the new covenant. And I will be your God and you will be my people, says the Lord.