Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we read the Scriptures and often feel a sense of de ja vu, like we are in a replay of Jeremiah’s day. Things we felt confident in are being uprooted, accomplishments we depend on for our self-esteem are being torn down, plans we have made for our future destroyed and long held commitments overthrown. These are days where we are not sure things will be put back together. Remind us today that what constitutes us as your people is your forgiveness not our decisions. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Among the many bibles that you will find in my office is this green, hardback copy of the Living Bible. It has been quite a while since I took that particular bible off of the shelf. Inside the front cover a date is recorded in my mother’s handwriting, February 19,1972. It is the date I trusted Jesus as Lord of my life. I was 9. From time to time as I grew up I thought back to that day. Like when I had doubts about my relationship with God. When I knew I had sinned and wondered if somehow it indicated that I really was not a Christian. It was not hard to think that it was my decision that constituted what it meant for me to be a Christian. Does that make sense to you? Have you looked back on your decision for Christ and considered that is the moment you became a Christian?
Sometime later, in the fifth grade, during a Civics class we were assigned to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States,
We the people, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and out posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Unlike the decision to trust Christ, I learned that my citizenship in America came by right of birth. I was not there when the Preamble was written or the Constitution ratified. I, like you, inherited the promise of that commitment. Over time I was indoctrinated in the aims described in those 52 words. These words represented the values we were to hold. I learned that the American flag, the banner to which we point, reminds us of the values for which we stand.
On the second Monday of every month, I pledge allegiance to the flag, our banner, that reminds all gathered that our commitment to justice, the general welfare of all residents and the blessings of liberty guide the decisions the Tuttle City Council commits to uphold. Some people like the decisions we make, some don’t like those decisions, and most don’t know anything about those decisions.
For most Christians, the decision to trust Christ is our banner. It is the decision we point to that constitutes us as Christian. Is it? Let’s look at it this way. If our decision is what constitutes us as Christian, then what about our decisions that follow that event in our lives? What happens when some of our decisions are faithful, other decisions are faithless and that there are times when no one would know we ever made such a decision. Do we really want our decisions to lead someone to believe that our decision is what constitutes us as Christian? If so, you may easily see why some may not be too persuaded to follow Christ given our inconsistent decisions.
But, since we have adopted the decision to trust Christ as our banner, it is easy to see how it becomes fuel for the church to be an enemy making machine. Have you made that decision? Our insistence that the decision constitutes our being Christian automatically sets us up to be against those who have not. Few people will listen to us, much less hear our talk about Good News, when we point to our decision as what makes us better than all others, and that is what they hear from us.
We took some time in Jeremiah in our previous sermon series. That series focused on Jeremiah 1:10, God’s assignment to Jeremiah that by his words he would,
pluck up and pull down
destroy and overthrow
build and plant
It was a doomsday message no one wanted to hear, much less heed.
Most of what we looked at reminded us that no matter who we think we are, our decisions tell the world what we really are. And, by this time, many in Judah had been carried into exile in Babylon and any thought of a future fell prey to their being plucked up from their homeland, their city walls being pulled down, their Temple destroyed and their social-civic system overthrown. They were forced to sing songs by the river in Babylon that increased their guilt and shame. They knew their decisions led to their situation. They knew what they had done and reminders were everywhere.
If Jeremiah wept, grieving over the decisions of his people, imagine his joy when he awoke to the reality that what constituted the people of God was not their decision but God’s. The verse just prior to the place where Julie began reading a moment ago reads,
Thereupon I awoke, and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.
What he had heard from the Lord before his sleep and what he would hear after would be enough to turn his mourning into dancing. And, it may well turn our grieving into hope.
Pay careful attention here. The Good News Jeremiah declares will point to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s commission — to plant and to build. God will restore what had been plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown.
God’s decisions bring Good News.
God will restore the division between his people. After Solomon’s death, the last king to reign over all of Israel, strife broke out between those in the North and those in the South. Israel referred to ten tribes in the North and Judah referred to two tribes in the South. It was a tug of war as to where the Capitol City should be and who should be king. The decision of the people to continue to avoid YHWH as their Lord and King left them at odds rather than together. Then in 722 Israel fell to its enemy. You may imagine how easy it would be for those in Judah to think themselves a bit more faithful having watched Israel become subjects of another group of people. It may not be that you or I want great harm to come to other Christians, but we will often take the fall of others as justification for our doctrines, our beliefs or our practices. We will perceive that we are more faithful, better if you will. Here Jeremiah points out that God has all his people in mind not just a few, not just a select group.
I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and animals.
If your buildings and homes are destroyed, your herds scattered and your crops in ruins, what better news than to know that it will all be restored? Israel and Judah. Houses, humans and animals. The dystopian nightmare ends with construction and birth. Building and planting. Seeds.
This is God’s doing.
God will bring something new. Not only will God restore what Israel had lost, the children will not be punished for the sins of their parents. All Israel, that is Israel and Judah, had lived under the law’s curse,
You shall not bow down to them [to idols] or worship them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.
Today we are well aware of what we call generational sin. That is, sadly the habits of parents that bring grief and pain are picked up by children, grand-children and great-grand-children. Here Jeremiah points out that in this restored vision, every person will be held accountable for their own decisions. Children will no longer be punished for the sins of their parents.
Here God announces that the covenant that Israel and Judah could not keep, the one initiated at Sinai, where they received the Law, where teachers taught the Law, where the call to know the LORD was a constant refrain, ended. Now, God would put God’s law within the people. God would write on their hearts that he would be their God and they would be his people. The relationship the restored people would enjoy would be constituted and supported by Godself. There will no longer be those who are greater and those who are least among God’s people. Whatever divisions existed before were no longer valid.
The Apostle Paul may be offering echoes when he writes to the Galatian Christians,
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
And again to the Corinthian Christians,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all of the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we are all made to drink from one Spirit.
Divisions based on ethnicity, social location or gendered roles are no part of the new thing God would do among God’s own people whether reading in Jeremiah or in Paul’s writings. Divisions set up where some are over others by social-cultural-religious roles are no more.The gift of a new covenant is for those considered the least to the greatest. Surely we hear echoes from Jesus,
The last will be first and the first will be last.
Why would anyone, why would we, want to go back? Our nature is to set up ways that divide and separate. God’s new thing is to restore and gather together. And it is very Good News that God takes action for us and toward us.
God will constitute what it means to be his people in forgiveness. Here is the pinnacle of the Good News. When the people return, building homes, having children, raising herds and planting crops, God will forgive his people their decisions. That is, God’s declaration of forgiveness is what constitutes what it means to be God’s own people. For us it is what constitutes us as Christian – God’s forgiveness.
Let’s not make the mistake thinking that what is described as new is some new utopian vision where we no longer need forgiveness. The events that Jeremiah describes come as the people return from exile. They indeed build houses, rebuild their walls, rebuild their Temple, they have families, care for herds and raise crops. And, they will make decisions that betray the faithfulness of God. But, what God declares as Good News then cannot be any less today,
for I will forgive their iniquity [their sins], and remember their sin no more.
The Law did not help the people. It only informed them, and us, of how difficult it is for us to keep our made decisions. God overcomes our difficulty, our inability to keep our made decisions, by declaring forgiveness. God’s forgiveness – God’s kindness – is what the Scripture describes that leads to our repentance, our change of mind. What constitutes us as Christian then, is our receiving God’s forgiveness.
Yes, we couch that in terms of a decision we make. But, apart from hearing the Good News that we are forgiven leaves us always working to justify ourselves and when we take up self-justification, we make enemies of all others.
Rather than foster enemies, Christians trust God’s forgiveness and forgive too, putting an end to the practices that form us as enemy-making people.
God’s forgiveness is more than a banner.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen to the preached sermon here.