5th Sunday of Lent
March 18, 2018

5th Sunday of Lent

Passage: Jeremiah 31:31-34

All through Lent we’ve been surveying the Old Testament covenants – that series of promises God made with creation and humanity and – in the case of Moses – the promises the Israelites made in return. And what we see over the years is that, whereas God is always steady and faithful, we humans are not.

And with this before us, we arrive at the fifth Sunday of Lent. We arrive at the prophecy of Jeremiah,

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 (Jeremiah 31:31).

But you know, as good as that seems, there’s part of me that reads this and says, “God – haven’t you figured it out yet? What’s the point? We can’t do it. With every declaration of good intent, we always revert to the way we were before.”

But the prophecy continues:

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… a covenant that they broke.

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:32-33).

Now the law of Moses was written on tablets of stone. Like any law, it was something separate from them – outside of them – just as a speed limit is written on a sign and our legal code is enshrined in the law courts. These laws certainly wield a kind of authority.  But in the end, it is always our hearts that will choose whether we submit to them or not. Ultimately, it always comes down to us. Even when we’re choosing sin (and we know we’ll regret it as soon as we’re done!) still we judge that the immediate pleasure is worth the guilt we’ll later feel, and off we go – fools to our own destruction.

The problem is, of course, the condition of our hearts. We are fools. We in the church have at least made some genuine assent of the Christian virtues – of love and mercy, forgiveness and generosity. But day to day what compels us is typically quite the contrary. We’re driven by fear and selfishness.

The mind accepts that the laws of the Land and the laws of the Lord are reasonable and worthy of submission. But the heart rebels. This is our problem. And it is this problem that makes us perk up and listen to Jeremiah’s New Covenant with such hopefulness, “I will put my law within them. I will write it on their hearts.” The New Covenant is a different kind of promise – a promise that God will restore what is broken at the core of our beings, such that we would truly desire, with both heart and mind, what is right and true and consistent with the heart of God.

But here’s my confusion: typical Christian orthodoxy insists that the New Covenant has already been fulfilled in the person and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s not that I seek to undermine any faith in Jesus. Quite the contrary. But in seeking to know and follow Jesus with integrity and truth, I’ve got to admit that I don’t perceive any significant change in the human condition. The hearts of our generation seem no different than generations before. We certainly don’t seem anywhere close to what Jeremiah describes:

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. 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, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The only portion of this promise we seem to be living with is the hope through Christ that our sins have been forgiven. But surely we aren’t a living in a world in which all of us “know the Lord” or operate in such a way as to believe that the law of the God has been inscribed on our hearts.

So the question remains: Is the New Covenant fulfilled through Jesus? Or is it not?

And as with most things in our faith, my answer at this point is both yes and no.

Yes, I believe that through baptism and all it represents, our sins are forgiven, that when Jesus was lifted up from the earth upon the cross he was indeed drawing all people unto himself (John 12:32?), that the Holy Spirit is within us, that God indeed has written his law on our hearts, and that – truly – choosing God and the way of God is our honor and always within reach.

And – paradoxically – I also believe “no” – that the totality of Jeremiah’s prophecy is still awaiting fulfillment. It’s not to say that the mission of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is inadequate, but that its eternal fullness is still unfolding in our reckoning. “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,”… and there are yet years and years to come.

Why the wait? Why not instant fulfillment and bliss?

I know not.

But this is what I see: We live in world of God’s creating in which there is no static thing, no completed thing. But rather, this whole creation is always in a state of becoming. And as God made it so, so it must be a good and holy thing. I remember being stunned when, as a young man, I took my grandfather to the doctor. He removed his outer clothes and I could see the shape and the form of his aged body and it suddenly became very clear to me, There is no such thing as “grown up.” I was at the age where I thought I was on the brink of arriving – of becoming an adult and stepping into my completed form. But that’s nonsense. Each day’s body is just for the one day. And though from day to day there seems little change, over the course of years the body never stops its irresistible change.

And, as with our own corporality, so with all of creation. Nothing in existence can repel its God-given vocation to change, of always being translated into something new, of something it hadn’t been before.

And so it must be that the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah is all true, and is a truth that is yet becoming. And that must be a good and wise gift of God.

So as much I think I would prefer the completed New Covenant right now, to be a part of a world where everyone knows the Lord, where everyone’s heart is completely in sync with the heart of God, that simply doesn’t seem to be what God has for us yet.

But we do live in an age in which the substantiality of forgiveness is already revealed and is already ours. We do live in an age where we have seen and perceived the heart of God through Christ in which forgiveness is freely given. And as forgiven people there is nothing to inhibit us from becoming partakers of the unbounded liberality of this greatest of God’s revealed gifts.

Again and again I’m stunned by the sheer brilliance of forgiveness. There’s nothing more powerful. If anything can be forgiven, what can stand in its way? Nothing! And so God’s love and mercy must win – no matter how overwhelming this world’s woes may be – because nothing can withstand the force of God’s, “I forgive you.”

And I find that to be most exciting for us people of God. We’re on the winning team. God is saying, “I forgive you, and I forgive you and I forgive you, because I love you and I’ve got at my disposal the power to set you free and there’s nothing I would rather do.” And we’re with God now. We get to do the same thing: “I forgive you and I forgive you and I forgive you, because I love you, and there’s nothing I’d rather do!” It’s like being the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella – bippity-boppity-booing everything within reach of her magic wand – changing pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses. But this is for real; we’re changing death into life!

Or it’s like playing some game of tag, where God is “It” and God’s s tagged us, and now we’re “It” too – running around the field with God, tagging everyone we can – forgiving every person we can touch. It really is exciting. We have what it takes to heal this world. Already.

But do you know what gets in the way, what makes us resist forgiveness? It’s that we’re still so self-centered about it all: I don’t know if I can forgive. I don’t know if I’m ready to forgive. I’m still so hurt and wounded. And I’m not mocking that; I certainly understand. But in all those statements, we’re still being totally self-referential. It still all about us.

But when we join God, when we choose to enter into the heart and spirit of God, we are entering this new reality that is ready and excited to be liberated by Jesus’ central command: Love God. Love your neighbor.

We act like this is a hardship. But it’s not. It’s liberation. It’s freedom to become what we’re made to be. Selfishness and fear are actually foreign to our souls. We are made to be one with one another. And when we finally discover that to be true, then forgiveness just becomes one of the many ways we’ve been set free to love. “I have the power to set you free, and there’s nothing I’d rather do. You and I are one, so how could I possibly desire anything other than your good?”

We might not be living in the age when we see the full fruit of the New Covenant – where every soul, from the least to the greatest, knows the Lord. But thanks be to God, we are living in the age of the New Covenant where our sins have been forgiven and are known no more.

For indeed, Jesus is drawing all people to himself by setting us free from the burden and alienation of our sins. And as we drawn to him, we are joined to him to become part of God’s covenant people setting this world free from sin and all that enslaves us.

Telling your neighbor about Jesus is just so many words in an already word-choked world. Forgiving your neighbor with the love of Jesus …well! That is the power to set them free, and along the way to discover that our prayers are being answered, that God is indeed helping us to be more like Jesus.”