The Days are Surely Coming March 21, 2021

The Days are Surely Coming

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Jeremiah 31:31-34

March 21, 2021

Main Idea – God makes new beginnings possible.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O LORD, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

The days are surely coming when we can gather again with loved ones, and strangers, in crowds, without masks.  We hold onto that hope and that vision even as we wonder and sometimes despair about how we get from here to there.  On Friday we received new hope about this new beginning when Governor Scott released the schedule for everyone aged 16+ to sign up for the vaccine.  We are on the cusp of a new beginning and today’s Hebrew Scripture text tells us that God makes new beginnings possible.

Today is the last in our series on covenants. Through the covenant with Noah, God proclaimed love for all of creation. Through the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God named and claimed God’s people. Through the covenant with Moses and the Israelites, God gave a vision of life for humanity in harmonious communion with God and with each other.  Through the story of snakes, God empowered the people to cast out fear by turning to God. Today we will explore the new covenant proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  This covenant does not negate those that came before, in fact, it makes the promises of the previous covenants more accessible and understandable.  This New Covenant, grounded in forgiveness and love, makes new beginnings possible for us all.

A lot of time passed between the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and the prophecies of Jeremiah.  The people got to the Promised Land and for many years organized their common life around the guidance given by God.  But eventually outside pressures led to changes.  The people wanted a king to protect them from other nations.  They had Saul, then David, and then Solomon.  After Solomon the kingdom split in two; Israel in the North with Samaria as capital and Judah in the South, ruled from Jerusalem.  Although the two kingdoms remembered their shared history, they were never reunited in the Biblical Era.  Israel was the first to fall to the mighty Assyrian empire and Judah lived for many years as an uneasy vassal state on the edge of that vast and brutal regime.  

The prophet Jeremiah lived in a pivotal moment of this history. His home was in Jerusalem, during the time when Assyria and then later, Babylon lay siege on the city, eventually conquering it.  Jeremiah proclaimed to the people that their suffering had been brought on by themselves because they had turned away from the Law given to Moses and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai.  They had worshiped the gods of Assyria.  They had oppressed the vulnerable among them. They had forgotten their history as a redeemed people.  Most of the book of Jeremiah consists of oracles and prophecies of doom. Jeremiah was not very popular and even he complained to God about the horrible stuff he was called to proclaim.  But as Jerusalem suffered under the Babylonian siege (which was years long) Jeremiah was finally called to proclaim words of hope to a defeated and hopeless people.  Chapters 30-31 are known as Jeremiah’s Little Book of Consolation.  The centerpiece of the book is today’s text, chapter 31:31-34.

“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.” (31:31). This promise was not just for Jerusalem but for all of the Israelite people both north and south! This covenant was completely God’s initiative, requiring nothing from the people, and poignantly, it arose out of God’s grief at the people’s unfaithfulness. God says, “It will not be like the covenant 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” (v. 32).  Instead of anger and punishment, God chooses a new way and a new beginning. 

This new covenant will need not be taught.  It will require no human intermediaries or hierarchies of access.  It will be within each person as natural and intrinsic as the beating of their heart.   It will be grounded in the relationship between God and the people, each belonging to the other.  “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  Therefore, the people will obey God’s law, not because of an external threat of punishment but because of an internal desire to be aligned with God’s purposes. 

All of this is made possible by God choosing to forgive their inquiry and remembering their sin no more. “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.” (v. 34)

This is quite something.  God chooses to forget the people’s unfaithfulness and wrongdoing.  God chooses to wipe the slate clean and to make a fresh start as if none of the shenanigans of the past had ever happened.  God remembers the love but forgets the sin. Let’s just think about this for a moment.

When we have been hurt or wronged by someone, it is often hard to forgive them and even harder to forget.  One of the tips for healthy dis-agreements between people is to not bring up past issues in the course of the current argument.  This can be very hard to do but these memories can become grudges and resentments which poison everything which comes afterward.  These memories can be burdens which block new beginnings.

To remain connected to others in healthy relationships we must acknowledge that people can change and that we can change and learn from our mistakes.  We do not need to be defined by the mistakes we have made.  Now sadly, there are times and circumstances when we are unable to forgive and let go and usually these are moments of great pain.  God does not call us to remain in dangerous and abusive situations.  God does not give us a free pass so that hurtful actions can just continue. This is important to affirm.  But God’s love and strength is greater than ours and God’s gift of new beginnings is offered to everyone.

Jeremiah tells us that God forgets sin but remembers love.  God sees each of us as beloved children, with the spark of the divine within us.  We do not have to earn this love or prove this love.  It is given to us freely by God’s choice.  This means that we do not need to heed those who tell us we are not worthy of love. This means that no one can exclude us, for this new covenant is written within our very beings.  It cannot be taken away.  Because of this love, this covenant, we can begin again after struggle and hardship.  We do not need to carry the burdens of the past. God gives us the gift of new beginnings.

Now one thing we need to lift up is that God does not promise that things will go back to the way they used to be. God does not forget our sin so that we can just keep on sinning!   After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile, the nations of Israel and Judah were not the same as they were before.  God removes the burdens of the past so that we can learn and grow into deeper and more connected relationships with God and with each other.

As a nation, we are on the cusp of a new beginning.  We have the opportunity to be sprung from our isolation, and the responsibility to put what we have learned this year into making our society more just, and more safe, and more connected than it was before.  This means recognizing the spark of God in every person and treating all as beloved children of God.  This means valuing the gift of physical presence and the gift of technology that connects us when we are not in physical proximity.  This means acknowledging the reality of racism and working together to eradicate it.  This means insisting on the truth and resisting the lies of Christian nationalism.  This means caring for our planet by taking climate change seriously.   Our nation, our world, has suffered this year and we can make significant strides toward justice and peace.

As a church we are on the cusp of a new beginning.  Easter is just around the corner and now with the vaccine schedule, we have the opportunity to make plans for the future.  And we have the responsibility to put what we have learned this year into making our congregation more welcoming and more engaged than it was before. This means we are making plans for safely resuming in-person gatherings while continuing to include folks who do not live within driving distance of Burlington or who choose to continue worshipping from home.   This means that Sunday worship and meetings will not revert to exactly what they were before the pandemic.  This means our engagement with our wider communities will grow and deepen.  Our church has persevered this year and now our ministries can grow and expand.

We are on the cusp of a new beginning, full of challenges, yes, but also full of hope, and energy, and joy.

Next week we will enter Holy Week, honoring and celebrating the incarnation of God’s New Covenant, Jesus our Christ.  Jesus reveals to us God’s heart.  Jesus shows us how it is to live in God’s love.  In his death, we experience God’s grief at the sin in the world.  In his resurrection we experience God’s joy in new beginnings.  Let us claim this new covenant as we let go of our burdens and remember the love of God.

Let us pray,

Loving God, we are humbled by your great love for us.  Your gift of new life and new beginnings redeems us and enables us to grow and serve you in the world.  Help us to open our hearts to your love.  Help us to open our hearts to those around us who need forgiveness and understanding.  Embolden us to proclaim your grace.  Amen.