Filed under: Sermons | Tags: covenant, faith, Jeremiah 31, john 12, law on hearts
Think back to 2008. It’s been a while now, but do you remember what the Great Recession was like? It’s aftereffects are still around today. Many people are still dealing with the job and economic security issues that followed.
At that time, many people who thought they were secure in their jobs found themselves without a job. People who had spent their entire career, 30 or more years, working for the same company, diligent and loyal, were cast aside, downsized, facing a loss.
This happened to a man I knew, named Glenn. Glenn’s story exemplifies what made this so difficult for people.
Glenn had been working at the local Ford plant since he was a kid. Now, don’t get too hung up on the details, because I’ve changed them, and I don’t want to affect your brand loyalty. Ok?
So- Glenn had worked hard, training for new roles along the way, working his way up into seniority. He appreciated his employer and was proud of the product they made. He drove a Ford, encouraged others to drive a Ford, and thought of himself as a Ford guy.
When he’d have a summer barbecue, more than half the people there would be his buddies from the plant. He taught his kids to work hard, to be like him, able to provide a comfortable life for his family.
His work, his company, was a major part of who he was. Not only a paycheck, it was his community and his vocation.
When word started going around that the profit of the business was down, and plants started reducing hours and even closing, Glenn was a little nervous, and sad for those who would lose their jobs, but he never really expected that it would go so far as to affect him. But then one day it happened. He was done. Or rather, the company was done with him.
“Who am I now?” Glenn asked.
One answer Glenn might discover is that he’s always been something more. He was given an identity long before he lived into who he became at his company. There’s something more permanent that defines him.
All throughout Lent, we’ve been exploring how God gives us an identity through covenants. God forms a relationship with specific people by making promises to them. God’s covenanting work- God’s promise making- makes us who we are and tells us who we are. The covenant sealed by the rainbow told creation they are the work of God’s hands, work that God will never destroy. The covenant to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants made them a people set aside to be God’s own people. The covenant at Sinai helped the people remember they were God’s own people who had experienced God’s salvation: freedom from Egypt. The law gave them a way to live out their identity.
Difficult times still came to these people to whom God gave a covenantal identity. Some voices in the Biblical tradition interpret these hard times as God’s punishment for the people’s failure to live up to their identity as God’s chosen and blessed people. When their land was conquered, people questioned if they were still God’s chosen people. After all, the land God promised would be theirs, and the kingdom God promised to sustain were no longer. Even after God sent a new conqueror to free the people from exile and allow them to return home to the promised land, nothing was quite as good as they remembered. Did these hard times mean God’s covenants had ended? Were they no longer God’s people? Had they so failed to live up to their identity that God forgot them?
“Who are we now” was the question of the Israelites where we meet them in the book of Jeremiah. “Who are we now- after the Davidic Covenant seems to have been destroyed along with Jerusalem and our kingdom and our independence. Who are we now- after years of living in a foreign nation as exiles, desperately trying but sometimes failing to maintain our identity as a separate people? Who are we now- as we return to Jerusalem and the land God promised us, but without a king, without a temple, without knowing what forms the center of our identity?
God answers their lament with the promise of a new covenant. Once again, God affirms the relationship-creating aspect of this covenant: God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (33b).
God makes sure this covenant is based on nothing external, nothing questionable, nothing able to be taken away. God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I shall write it on their hearts.” God’s word will be inside of God’s people, so they will never forget and never leave it. God will be at the core of who they are.
God’s promises continue, “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”
God is recognizing that allowing humans to have any responsibility in this covenant, for any part of the promise to be dependent on them rather than pure gift, is not going to work. God is the one who takes action. God is the one who takes responsibility. God works so that everyone will know God, not only the best and the brightest, the most holy or the most studied: even nursing babies and elders with memory loss will know God.
Sin and failure, rejection of God, will no longer have the power to repel God from relationship.
We share the problematic lifestyle of the first people to receive this promise. We will always turn away. We make choices that hurt others. So, God commits to forgiveness and amnesia. Our failures aren’t going to matter, our sins aren’t going to affect God’s love for us.
In the Gospel of John, it’s the Greeks- the foreigners – who come wanting to see Jesus. They are outsiders who have never been in relationship with God. God hasn’t made promises to them, God hasn’t made them God’s own people. Regardless, Jesus responds. Jesus’ response is to reveal himself. When Jesus prays, “glorify your name” and God responses, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again,” this glorify really refers to being known. Rather than something being made greater than it is, Jesus is being shown for who he is. Who Jesus is is the God who comes to earth in order to die for not only the chosen people, but all creation, and to win over death so that our judgment is not death but is forgiveness and life forever in relationship with God.
We are among those Greeks, who come seeking without any prior claim on God. God welcomes us and brings us in to the community. God is making it possible for us to know the Lord- to know the one who has included us into the relationship given to the covenanted people. Jesus shows us that God comes to us. We don’t need an external law or specific rituals to make us holy enough to live into an identity as God’s people. Jesus has done everything necessary to seal our relationship with God.
What does God say, to those Hebrews no longer in their homeland, or returning to a place that looks nothing like they remember?
To Glenn who’s lost the base of his self-understanding?
To you and me?
God says, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Thanks be to God for this everlasting promise. Amen.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Does anyone use the psalms frequently in their prayer lives? It might be a more common practice among those who pray the hours, using these texts over and over again throughout life to shape your prayer. Maybe some of you have memorized a psalm or two? Perhaps Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
The Psalms were written as songs for worship, words that would be sung on everyone’s lips and form their picture of who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do for them. If you were a person who prayed these songs regularly, you’d find that they become a part of your heart’s song. When something big happened in your life, you’d find a ready response from God in this prayer language.
As we continue to explore covenant this Lent, one line from our psalm expresses what we’re discovering: “God’s mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1b ELW). Or, put another way, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (NRSV).
The whole point of using these six weeks of Lent to explore covenant is to discover how God starts and keeps covenant. God makes promises to specific groups of people. These promises form a relationship between promise giver and promise receiver, and they give an identity to the people so that they become God’s people. We’re spending these weeks trying to figure out if God’s steadfast love really does last forever, and how that steadfastness is expressed to us.
In the covenant to Noah and all creation, God promises to remember creation, and never again destroy it. In the covenant to Abraham, God promises to make a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, giving them a land and a new relationship as God’s people. In the Sinai Covenant, given to Moses and the Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt, God affirms the promise to be their God, giving them God’s vision of a freed, life-affirming society through the law.
Today we read from Second Samuel the Davidic Covenant. God promises David, in verse 16, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God says that King David’s descendants will continue to be the kings and their kingdom will always be.
I’ve been using the word promise a lot as I describe God’s work in these covenants. I’m not sure if promise quite captures it. Remember, God’s speech has declarative power- what God says, is. Genesis 1 is God creating through speech. So when God speaks these covenants, it’s not a weak promise of “I’ll do my best to do this or that for you… if I can… if you’re really good.” What God promises, is.
As we’ve looked through the covenants, we’ve discovered that the person receiving God’s promises doesn’t always get to see them fully in place. Abraham had to trust God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would be a great nation. He waited a long time before he experienced the beginning of God’s work on the promise through the birth of Isaac.
The Davidic Covenant is so specific- one family- one kingship- forever- that its failure becomes glaringly obvious. There’s a big problem with God’s following through on this promise. The problem for the people of God in the generations after King David is that the kingdom is conquered. There is no unending line of kings ruling God’s people in peace, in their land. Rather, the people of God are conquered, some are taken into exile, later to return. Even then, they are still a conquered nation, without an independent king of their own. They remain under the authority of one or another foreign nation even through the time of Jesus and the early Christian church.
Imagine how it would be, if you were one of God’s people, living in exile, or living back in Jerusalem but with Roman forces in your streets. What would it mean to you to remember this covenant with David and also sing the psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Would that prayer catch in your throat as you wondered what it means for God to be steadfast and faithful in God’s promises?
It’s one thing to wake up to a beautiful sunrise and have your heart sing, “God’s love endures forever.”
It’s a similar feeling when you hear from a good friend and your spirit is raised, “God’s love endures forever.”
Even at the close of a funeral of a beloved elder, after acknowledging all the ways God provided for and through her, setting her in the eternal embrace of God, “God’s love endures forever.”
But when everything is falling apart- from the news on TV to your job to the kids to the house and the bills and your heath, and maybe even the church— “God’s love endures forever?”
If this was a refrain to your life, some days it might be comforting, others joyous, and at others might be the cause for anger- where is God’s power and love for me right now, in the midst of my life?
What does it mean for God’s promises to be steadfast when it sure looks like God’s long forgotten that promise?
We have a unique vantage point in the Bible. We get to hear the stories of people who ask the hard questions of faith. Over the course of scripture, God remembers, God is faithful.
God’s fulfills the Davidic Covenant in Jesus. Jesus is the king in David’s line, but his kingdom is different than expected. Jesus is not the victorious king, returning from war or convening councils in great rooms. Jesus is the king who suffers with and dies for his people.
God’s faithfulness looks like Jesus: God enfleshed, God in the midst of our real junk, mocked as king, crowned with thorns, clothed in a royally colored rag, reigning from above the crowd, his throne a cross.
The encouraging witness of the exiles, of the conquered, is the sustained hope that keeps “God’s steadfast love endures forever” on their lips, even when God’s answer to this promise is so far away.
Maybe you’re in a place in which it’s easy to rejoice in God’s faithfulness. But if you’re not- if you’re having a difficult time seeing God’s faithfulness for you- you’re not alone. Other faithful people have been there and are there today. Jesus knows what it is to be left questioning God’s faithfulness, to find yourself deep in shame, grief, and abandonment. Jesus experienced all despair so that he could be with you in compassionate, steadfast love.
We gather together in this place because we need to know that God’s love and faithfulness is for us. God’s steadfast love is for us, individually and corporately. It is for you- for those who gather alongside you at this church- and as John reminds us- for the whole world. Today you are not left to wonder if God has made real the promise of relationship, forgiveness, and life for you.
Be assured. Come and touch and taste and smell the elements that carry God’s promise and Jesus’ presence to you. In water, God washes the baptized and claims you in relationship for life forever.
In bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to you. God’s mercy and love are yours forever.
Jesus’ crowning on the cross is the antithesis of all we might image as God’s blessed king. Yet it is through the cross that Jesus opens the kingdom to all nations and breaks the power of all other rulers to oppress us. Jesus is raised from the dead so that we might glimpse the way in which God will fulfill all promises. God’s faithfulness gives us reason to hope for the future.