Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Mar. 22 2009.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Thanks to an economy in a deep nosedive, we are hearing a lot of comparisons these days between our current economic woes and the Great Depression of the 1930s. And we’re also hearing inevitable comparisons between President Barack Obama and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Almost exactly 76 years ago, FDR took a drastic step to safeguard American banks that were falling like flies. On March 6, 1933, Roosevelt closed all American banks for an extended holiday, and understandably, the American public panicked when they couldn’t withdraw their money.
Then, four days later, Roosevelt did something else no president had ever done. Only eight days after his inauguration, Roosevelt cozied up to a microphone at 10 p.m. (EST) in front of a White House fireplace, and with his dog at his feet, Roosevelt delivered the first of 30 “Fireside Chats” he would present over the multiple terms of his presidency.
Radio was still a relatively new technology, but Roosevelt decided to use it to explain to the American people how the country was doing in the midst of the Great Depression, and in particular, what he and Congress were doing to stabilize American banks. No President had ever spoken so directly to the American people, and his strategy worked. When Roosevelt asked Americans to show their confidence in their government by depositing money in their local banks, they did, and a catastrophic crisis was averted.
FDR had campaigned for president promising a “new deal for the American people.” The “old deal”, the old arrangement of the economy had given Americans a broken system that led to a Great Depression. The New Deal included programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, price supports for farmers, a minimum wage for workers, insurance for bank deposits, and regulation of the stock market. Roosevelt believed that with these economic innovations in place, we would never again see a Great Depression in America.
Today, of course, we find ourselves back in the economic ditch again, for all manner of reasons. And once again, we have an American president who is attempting to implement in 21st century version of the New Deal while taking his case directly to the American people.
Now, Americans need to remember that the concept of a New Deal was not invented by an American president. Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, the so-called “Weeping Prophet” named Jeremiah was enduring a Great Depression along with his fellow Israelites. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already fallen to a godless, foreign power, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was on the verge of falling into the hands of the Babylonians. The situation seemed absolutely hopeless, and it appeared that God’s dream of a united, thriving, even prevailing Israel was over forever.
Why did the Israelites take such a bad fall? After all, God had gone out of his way to help them succeed. He had chosen them from among all the peoples of the world, made covenants with them that promised his protection if they would obey clearly articulated laws, provided prophets to remind them of these laws, and offered them second and third chances when they violated the laws. God fashioned covenants with Noah, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses on Mt. Sinai, and later with Joshua, Samuel, David, and Josiah. And yet all these covenants ultimately failed to stand.
Why? Jeremiah explains in Jeremiah 17:1—Judah’s (and all human) sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts… The reason the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets didn’t eliminate or ultimately even restrain human sin is because sin is inscribed on the tablets of the human heart. So the old system of covenants inscribed on cold, stone tablets was broken, very broken, and the human condition was dark, very dark.
Into this spiritual darkness comes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who proposes a New Deal. Speaking not through a radio microphone but a chronically depressed prophet named Jeremiah, God makes the following sweeping promise:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors…”
“This is the covenant I will make with
the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Hopefully you are remembering in these days of Lent to examine the spiritual condition of your own mind and heart. This remains a sobering challenge for God’s people because we still find that our hearts are chiseled with the sharp stylus of sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
The honest truth is if you take an honest inventory of your heart you can almost give up hope of ever escaping the clutches of sin that seem to overwhelm our souls no matter how hard we try. The good news of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which has been called the “Gospel of the Old Testament,” is that God can still transform our hearts. And this transformation comes through the New Deal, the new covenant of God that offers not just laws written on stone tablets but an inner law written on the tablets of our hearts.
Interestingly enough, this is the only time in the Old Testament that the term, “new covenant” appears. Over the years, Christians came to refer to the new covenant as the New Testament, which, of course, became our follow-up to the Old Testament in our Bibles. That makes sense because we believe even though he wrote six hundred years before Christ, Jeremiah was pointing to Christ as the new foundation for the new covenant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have to ask first, “What makes this covenant, this deal so new?”
This first result of this new deal is subtle, and I don’t want us to miss it. The first result of God’s New Deal is a new community.
Remember when Jeremiah is writing Israel has been a divided kingdom for over 100 years. This division among God’s people, into the house of Israel and the house of Judah, was heartbreaking to God. Remember, God’s dream had always been to fashion a unified, inclusive community of believers and followers all over the world. Remember God offered this new covenant to a community of faith, not just to individuals. And I believe a part of the New Deal is a promise to reconstitute a broken community into a new, unified community, much like the community that emerged over six hundred years later when the early church was born.
These days, we’re focusing a lot of attention on having a unified, close-knit community not only because that’s the focal point of our vision, but because that’s a sign God is renewing our church. People of the New Deal will always be in a growing, thriving, renewed community.
They will also be people with new hearts. Jeremiah is not the firstOld Testament writer to emphasize the human heart. But never in the Old Testament has the inner heart been the focus of such intense attention. In essence God is saying, “Because sin is written on the surface of your hearts, I will now speak to you from inside your hearts.” From now on, God will teach us from within, not just from without.
The prophet Ezekiel, who followed closely on the heels of Jeremiah, quotes God as saying: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you: I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). This means, by the way, that we will henceforth have a new awareness of God’s presence, and a new intimacy with God’s Spirit. As God says through Jeremiah,
“No longer will they teach their neighbors,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me…”
We may wonder about this part of the prophecy because we hear about people who say that they see no evidence of God, and consequently argue that there is no God. And yet, Helen Keller, born blind, deaf, and unable to speak, bears witness to a God who says they will all know me.
Helen Keller had no traditional way of knowing or hearing about God. Using only her sense of touch, Ann Sullivan, Helen’s companion and teacher developed a method of communication that involved tapping in her hand. When she first learned about God, Helen responded, “I knew him! I knew him! I didn’t know his name, but I knew him!”
By the way, the Hebrew term for “know” is a term of intimacy, much like the intimacy between husband and wife. In fact, earlier in this passage God calls himself, “our husband” (which is admittedly strange to us men). These past few years as I have explored the contemplative spiritual tradition, I have encountered people through reading and in person who have “husband-wife” kind of intimacy with God, greater than anything I’ve ever imagined. And that’s as it should be, because God promised that level of intimacy 2600 years ago.
Of course, with this new intimacy comes new responsibility. Seventy-six years ago when FDR was wrapping up that first fireside chat, he offered this observation: “We (your government leaders) have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than mine. Together we cannot fail.” Roosevelt was making it clear that the New Deal was no Free Ride. All Americans had a job to do and a responsibility to keep if the New Deal was to work.
Again, 2600 years ago Jeremiah made the same point in Jeremiah 31:29-30 when he quotes God as saying that from now on everyone will die for their own sins rather than the sins of others. God will pour his Spirit into each of our hearts if we let him. But we must let him.
What does that mean? Christian tradition has said it means our responsibility is to invite Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And our responsibility is to arrange our lives with spiritual practices that will help us grow deeper and deeper in our relationship with God so that knowing him and serving him and following him will become second nature.
But here’s the rub—we never fulfill our responsibility perfectly, do we? Inevitably, even with transformed hearts beating in our chests, we fall short of the glory of God, which is why God’s foundation of forgiveness for the New Deal is awfully important.
Maybe the most reassuring words in Jeremiah’s famous prophecy are these:
“I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sin no more.”
The only way this New Deal finally works is because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Jesus says as much on the night before he died on the cross as he had his last supper with his disciples. First, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then he took the cup of wine and said, “This is the new covenant of my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Oh yeah, God’s New Deal is terrific! But it comes at a terrible price. Out of a deep, deep love Jesus paid the price, for you and for me.