Starting Over

Jeremiah 31:31-34
5th Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Someone asked me recently, “How do you know God is faithful?” It is a good question. How do I know? Well, part of the answer to that question is that I shape my life around the Word and the Sacraments which remind me weekly that God is faithful, even when my circumstances make me doubt. The other part of the answer to that question is my observation that God is faithful, as I see prayers being answered, people being cared for, the beauty of the earth, and love being shared among friends and forgiveness being lived out in our church family. I see God’s work in people being able to start over again after hard times.

When the Babylonians ripped apart the temple in Jerusalem and dragged King Zedekiah off in chains, they destroyed the symbols of God’s covenantal promises. The people of Judah faced a crisis. Not only had they lost power and prestige, freedom and security; they had also lost the assurance of God’s faithfulness. I cannot begin to describe what a catastrophe that was for them. It would be dangerous to make any comparisons of 587 BCE with our contemporary experience. Yet in smaller, more personal ways we know the ambiguity and pain of life and we, like they, sometimes wonder about God’s commitment to keeping promises.

If you are wondering about God’s faithfulness, then this is a good message of hope for you today. It is one of the most significant teachings of the prophet Jeremiah – that God is planning a new covenant and that this promise, which we Christians believe, was enacted in Jesus Christ, is one in which God believes new relational integrity will be established between God’s own self and God’s people. This is an exciting promise of a God who plans to start over, to make things right. This is the promise that allows us to start over. This is the promise that assures us that one day, as Mother Julian of the 13th century said, “all will be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.” She said that was true because of her unique experience of the presence of Christ in her suffering and isolation.

Jeremiah 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. 32 It 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. 33 But 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. 34 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 days are surely coming, surely coming. We believe those days came. They came in the one who lived a new covenant by focusing on the habits of the heart rather than the legalisms of the law.

God was starting over, because God’s estimation of the people’s ability to keep themselves faithful to God’s law seems to have changed. God says through the voice of Jeremiah, “Even though I was their protector and kept my promises to them, they did not keep theirs.” So God determines to cut a new covenant, a promise that will reside within the people, which will transform the people by forgiveness and close-relatedness. “No longer shall they implore one another saying “Know the Lord” for they shall all know me. Not just the important, powerful people, but the least important, powerless people. They will know me, too. Relational integrity. God is doing a new thing. And I am here as a Christian pastor to say that the new thing is, was, and will be Jesus Christ – God coming to us to know us and to be known by us. That’s the uniqueness of our faith – that we believe God actually lived among us and still lives among us through the Holy Spirit. That knowing happens in a person, not a set of rules.

All of us have probably heard the saying, often repeated by parents to children, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, we all know that children will do as you do.

You can talk until you are blue in the face, but the kids are watching and they will follow patterns of behavior. They will pick up habits, ways of communicating, spiritual practices, attitudes – both good and bad, healthy ways of living and unhealthy ways. They will pick it up not just from you but also from their friends, whomever they spend much time – good reason to have them at church, working to surround them with people who intentional about living their faith out. You can dole out the commandments, but the laws written on their hearts are the lived laws. Don’t just say it. Model it. Relational integrity.

How could God set up commandments that were so easily broken? God was trying to operate a bi-lateral covenant with God’s people. God was trying to live by the “Do as I do” model, but this took on all new reality when God came into the world as Jesus Christ to fulfill the covenant promise, saying I’ll show you. “Love one another as I have loved you.” “If any want to be my disciples, they must take up their cross and follow me.” “Come. Follow me. I am the way, the truth, the life.” He did not say, “I’m sitting in my cushy seat here, while you dig the ditches.” He did not say, “Go over there and wash some people’s feet. Heal some folks. Make sacrifices for their lives.” No, Jesus showed us how to serve. He showed us how to be a healing presence to others. He demonstrated how to live and how to love, how to die and how to live again.

Jesus Christ is very same person as the God who spoke through the prophet Jeremiah. John’s Gospel tells us He was from the beginning with God. And the same God is still present with us, in us, in the presence of the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, we are given power to believe, power to start again, power to keep starting over, no matter how hard it is. In Christ, our sin is remembered no more, it is washed cleaned, just as Jeremiah predicted to make it possible for us to start over in a radically new way. God has not forsaken his promises to his people. Paul tells us in Romans 9-11 that God cannot break his covenant, but what God did in Christ was break open the covenant that had in Jeremiah’s day been reserved for the Jews, the Hebrews, the people of Israel and Judah.

God made a new promise for all the people everywhere. If this promise was not for everyone, I could not stand here and preach about its greatness.

By the mystery of the Spirit of Christ working through Word and Sacrament, music and prayer, I know in my heart that God will make all things new for everyone. And when Jeremiah speaks of heart, by the way, he’s talking not just about emotions but of the mind and the will. Will God’s new covenant still be yours, if you don’t accept it? Yes, it’s still there for you, like a spring bulb, eager to be watered so it can burst forth in all its glory; like beautiful present, waiting to be opened; like a land of promise waiting to be explored. As we said last week, God’s forgiveness, God’s love, God’s grace is a gift. But what a joy to claim it, to know it, to embrace it, to celebrate it! When we do, it’s a new beginning, a starting over moment, a new life, filled with hope in believing in God’s promises and living by them, despite moments and days of doubt here and there.

God is even now doing a new thing in our life together here at Peace? Do you not perceive it? I think you do. I think your hearts/your souls/your minds are embracing it. I think you are longing to be like the Peace storage closet – cleaned out. Yep. If you haven’t seen that closet in recent months, well, just imagine your worst closet ever – jammed with stuff, overflowing with stuff, disorganized stuff – except for organized spot where the Fellowship and Property Teams had their stuff. Debby Sunkenberg and I were working on that church storage closet this week, as this sermon was simmering on the stove of my mind. Once we started I could not stop working to re-organize the closet because it became a symbol for me of the clean heart, the new covenant, the good work that God is doing right now with us, and yet really cannot fully accomplish without our cooperation, without our openness or willingness.

In the Psalm assigned to us today, Psalm 51, we read “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Is that your prayer, today? I’m thinking that all our hearts need some good cleaning out. Many less important things need to be moved out of the way, and some things disposed of, so that your heart has more room for the Spirit of God. It can be hard to let go of a messy heart with all of its boxed up memories, with all of its good intentions never accomplished, with all of its bitterness and frustration, with all of its excuses for why it was such a mess.

Letting God loose in your heart for a re-boot on life is a courageous and liberating decision, requiring trust and submission to the process of spiritual transformation. So I encourage you today to step out in faith, actively asserting your trust in the God of the covenant who gave the people of Judah new hope, who many, many years later is still giving us new hope. C.S. Lewis said you are never too old to dream a new dream. God is able and willing to renew your life by empowering you to grow more and more like Jesus Christ through the presence of the Spirit at work in your life. Are you willing to imagine the newness that God can do in you?

(Prayer – Change my heart, O God, may it ever true. Change my heart, O God, may I be like you.)