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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on March 25, 2010.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

 

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the fifth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St. Mary of Egypt, who lived in Alexandria Egypt in the fifth century. She lived and survived as a prostitute on the streets of that great city. But somewhere, from someone somehow, she learned of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She learned that this is the church built on the very ground it was believed Jesus suffered and was nailed upon a cross for our sins. That great church is so enormous that it includes where he was laid in a borrowed burial cave. Jesus had died on the cross and in that borrowed tomb he laid for three days until the dawning light of Easter broke and he rose from the dead.

Mary knew she was somehow connected to Jesus’ rising from the dead, that his death had given her life. Inextricably, mysteriously Mary knew that in his rising, she had hope. These holy sites beckoned her and she gave everything up and joined a group of Christian pilgrims and boarded a ship that was bound for the Holy Land. She joined them in the hope that she too could make it to that sacred place to see it with her own eyes and to drink deeply from the well of faith. Her hard life had made her a desperate woman; she had been used and abused and despaired of her own dignity.

But when she arrived at the massive cathedral doors and as she was ready to cross the threshold into that great soaring church, a man’s arm thrust itself in front of her and she was denied entrance. However, despite being denied entrance, she was moved by her transforming faith in Christ. She left Jerusalem and crossed over the Jordan River to live in the desert. It was in the desert she committed the next forty years of her life to repentance, prayer and obedience to God.

Great failures in life hold within them God’s seeds of reconciliation and restoration awaiting our desire to be reconciled to God. We can celebrate that St. Mary has her day and we get to talk about her sixteen centuries later as someone so hungry for restoration, she was willing to take big steps in her faith. On this Sunday before Holy Week begins, we need a heroine like St. Mary who was willing to walk out into the desert in search of her healing.

I

Most Christians are only vaguely aware of the prophets, why they came into existence, why they spoke out or about the issues that consumed them like a burning fire. These are the unread parts of our Bibles. We’re unclear about the historical context for them and don’t understand them in those contexts.

In any close reading, however, we know that all those prophets paid a dearly for being called by God to interrupted their times with pronouncements of God’s judgment. Some paid dearly with their lives as people will only take a snitch to a point before they fire back.

Abraham Heschel wrote about the prophets and claimed they were “some of the most disturbed people who have ever lived … (They were) men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”[1] Heschel helps us understand them because their importance transcends anything they said or wrote. Their importance comes from the core of their very being. They embodied their messages and bore the scars that came in retaliation to such blunt and truthful language.

But despite the harsh judgments, if you asked a respectable sample of Christians to name their top ten prophecies from the pages of the Jewish Scriptures, this text from Jeremiah would be on their short list of favorites. These words are a terrific promise from God of restoration and forgiveness! There’s the hopefulness of a new covenant to be announced brimming with God’s goodness and generosity. There’s the emphasis of grace versus the obedience to law.

But the problems comes when we realize we can’t be lulled to sleep by the promise of restoration unless we’re also willing to confront the issue within that has brought us to our need for restoration. Properly understood, the Bible is telling us through the prophets that we often desperately in need of restoration as God’s response to our sin.

Neither repentance nor obedience is very high on the list of our American sensibility of how we see ourselves. In a culture that exalts individualism, individualism, self-affirmation, and assertiveness, most of us struggle digesting the difficult issues of obedience and repentance, steps taken before restoration is possible.

II

The story of faith can be followed by tracing the ways God and people of faith have related to one another in terms of covenant. Some would consider this contractual language suited only for the lawyers, but before there was law, there was a covenant. The origins of laws in our faith stories are always preceded by covenants and the concepts of law followed, not vice versa.

For those of you who need a list to organize your world, there are seven covenants in the Bible. The first covenant came in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. That was followed by God’s covenant with Noah that God would never destroy the earth by flooding again – remember the promise of the rainbow given as a reminder of God’s promise. There was the Abrahamic covenant in which God reached over into modern-day Iraq and called Abram to follow God’s leading where he would play a pivotal role in God’s desire to grace a people with God’s presence. In the covenant God made with Abram, there were many promises made:  A new name to signify this relationship, many descendants who were described so numerously as “stars in the heavens,” and a land. God carved out in history a people through whom God would become known.

There was the little-known Palestinian Covenant described in Deuteronomy in which details about the land were given. There was the covenant with Moses that was conditional, meaning it would be either a blessing or a curse depending upon their response to God. There’s the Davidic Covenant that dealt with the promise that David’s lineage would exist through time offering the promise of an Israeli king beyond David’s reign.

Finally, there’s this covenant given through Jeremiah to outline God’s promise to do something about our sin, the chronic cause of our disobedience.

III

In short, in our understanding of God’s revelation, we note that God made covenants with Israel. God would provide loving care and protection of the people and the people would obey God in return. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses and the sign of Israel’s faithfulness was keeping the law God gave them. God expected the people to show their love and gratitude by behaving in certain ways. And so God engraved the ten words in stone and they stood as a moral fence even to this day. Stay inside the fence and you can play at will, enjoy life, be secure, and experience the good pleasure of God.

But Israel found the fence too confining and crossed the boundaries of the law. So Jeremiah is speaking from the captivity in Babylon. They’ve lost their deed to the land and are suffering in exile and slavery. The prophet has spoken harshly to them about their transgressions and has also identified the way back to God through obedience and faithfulness to God.

One of the first significant Christian books I recall reading as a student was C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. One of my adult leaders suggested it to me and I recall that it was formative book that helped me see the big picture of what faith could be like. In this classic, Lewis speaks of morality in three dimensions.

The first is the social matter of making sure people don’t kill each other and rob one another. Simple laws exist to keep our society functioning fairly and civilly. Those ten words help form the fence so that life is livable and reasonably safe. Lewis compared that to ships traveling in a fleet. The first idea in this fleet of ships is to get them to sail so as not to collide with one another and to stay in formation. That’s a minimal approach we might expect or hope to see.

However, some ships have faulty steering mechanisms or broken engines or twisted rudders. If the ship is not seaworthy, if there is something structurally wrong, then you can’t expect the ships will be able to travel without bumping into each other. This is the problem with Israel in Jeremiah and with humankind in general. It’s not that simply make bad choices; it’s that we have a bad chooser. What we should do, what we ought to do, and what we do are at war with one another. Something has to change inside us if we’re ever to change much outside of us.

The first problem is making sure the ships don’t collide. The next issue is the problem of whether we’re seaworthy. Finally, there is the issue of where we steer ourselves if we are able. Lewis suggested that if a ship is meant to reach New York but actually arrives in Calcutta, it may have been able to avoid other ships along the way and not cause too much trouble to other vessels but if it doesn’t arrive in New York, there’s a basic problem.

We are not our own. We don’t live only to ourselves. God has made us and God knows best how we need to work. And we are at our best when we’re steering our souls in the direction God has charted for us. Here’s how C.S. Lewis put it:

People often think of morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t, I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature:  either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be one kind of creature is heaven: that is, joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. [2]

In our time, the idea of tattoos has gained in popularity. Some of you have one and trust me, I won’t ask you to show them off. Some are where I would want to see them but some are not. It wasn’t too long ago tattoos were low-class and to be avoided unless you didn’t care about being respectable. They could limit your life, your job possibilities, sending off messages about you either rightly or wrongly in the eyes of others. Today? Not so much …

What if God could tattoo our hearts with a heart tattoo? What if God could make us know we were loved unconditionally and that we could love God in return as God loves us? What if we were branded for good by the goodness of God, so that it would be possible for God’s nature to become our nature?

[1] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Two Volumes in One, Peabody MA: Prince Press, 1999, vii

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1960, 86-87

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