Sunday, October 20, 2019
There’s a distance so great, it’s hard for us over here to understand what they’re saying over there. We need to! We need what they have over there. We are 21st century Christians. They were Jews exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC. The word of God spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah is also God’s word for us. How can we receive God’s word when the context in which it was originally spoke is so utterly different than the life we live in the world as it is now? How do we span the gap of many centuries and receive the word of God?
We can ask questions.
What was exile like? Jews forced into exile Babylon probably lived in cramped, unsanitary quarters. Most likely, they had to work long hours in menial jobs with little pay. They had no civil rights. They had no civil services. To survive, they had to depend on their captors, the ones who forced them to live like this.
What is life like for us, Christians in America? Many think Christians’ social influence has diminished significantly. More and more people openly declare that they have no religion: the “nones,” so labeled because when asked their religious preference, they respond, ‘none.’ As Christians lose our public voice, we fight with we each other. In some cases, Christians are openly hostile to one another over theological or more often political or moral differences.
Does any common thread tie us to the Babylonian exiles, the original recipients of Jeremiah’s prophesy? The circumstances are clearly different, but in both communities, a couple of dynamics are in play. The exiled Jews were powerless. Christians today feel like our public voice has been almost silenced. The exiled Jews feared they might not have a future. They feared annihilation. Some Jesus followers today, with much anxiety, wonder what the church of Jesus Christ will look like in America 100 years from now. Will anyone proclaiming the gospel in the next century?
Written so many years ago and so many cultures removed from us, Jeremiah still speaks to us. Listen these promises from God found in the earlier verses of Jeremiah 31. The exiles desperately needed God’s words to be true. So do we.
“The people who survived … found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).
The Lord said to Israel (and says to us, his church), “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).
Next, God promises. “Again I will build you, O Israel. Again you shall take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of merrymakers” (Jeremiah 31:4).
“Again you shall plant vineyards … and enjoy the fruit” (Jeremiah 31:5).
“Sing aloud … and be radiant over the goodness of the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:12).
God promises reversal of fortune. “Their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:12e-13).
God’s heart breaks for His people. Calling Israel ‘Ephraim,’ God asks, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him. I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (31:20).
What do we see in Jeremiah 31? God delights in his child. He is deeply moved out of love for all his children, including each of us. The New Testament epistle First John, in chapter simply says, “God is love” (4:7, 16).
All of the early verses in Jeremiah 31 lead up to this promise. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel. … I will put my law within them, and I write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (31:33).
I was touched as I read the comments of Old Testament scholar Gerhad von Rad in his reflections on this new covenant in Jeremiah, the covenant written on our hearts. Von Rad sees this as something so unexpected that the change God brings about is complete and irreversible. Once God plants his word in our heart, the written word is no longer needed and sermons are no longer necessary because, with the word planted in us, we no longer sin. Von Rad says, “What is outlined here is the picture of a new man who is able to perfectly obey because of a miraculous change of his nature” (Rad, p. 182, 183).[i]
Can he be right? When God inserts His law in our hearts, does it mean we are able to perfectly obey God’s will? Read everything in the Bible that comes after Jeremiah 31. We know that’s not right. We know people failed as disciples yet were God-worshipers. We know God did not stop speaking after Jeremiah 31. There’s a Jeremiah 32! There are other prophets. Jesus and Paul spoke. Gerhard von Rad was a renowned scholar. What was he saying as he thought about the new covenant described by Jeremiah?
I think the point he raises that we need to come to grips with is the idea that we become completely new. When God writes the new covenant on my heart and on yours, we are no longer who we were. The exiles had to learn how to be the people of God while in exile. We live after Jesus came, died, and rose. Our meeting with God comes through faith in Jesus as Lord as we meet Jesus in the Bible and through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, leading us to confess Jesus. Just as Jeremiah promised, God writes His will on our hearts. We become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old me, the old you, has passed away. We are made new in Christ.
In Romans 2:29, Paul likens this change to circumcision – the physical marker that indicates a man is truly of the people of God. He writes, “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.” That opens the way for non-Jews, uncircumcised people to be accepted as Jesus followers. It also allows for women who don’t get circumcised to be marked as God’s people: marked by the Holy Spirit.
But spiritualizing circumcision must not neuter the power of the image. Circumcision is surgery, the most intimate form of surgery. When God writes his law on our hearts, it is as invasive and bloody as when someone goes through surgery: open heart surgery.
Does the change mean we don’t sin anymore? Is that where spiritual growth leads? This process used to be called sanctification. Through our growth in Christ, we become so like him we become near perfect. Is God able and willing to do that? If the answer is ‘yes’ and God in Christ renders us perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, can we still be said to have free will? Or do we become spiritual automatons who don’t sin because we don’t have the choice to sin?
I don’t know. I want to believe God’s promises, spoken by the prophet Jeremiah. I go back to all those words hope in the early verses of chapter 31. Finding grace in the wilderness; seeing mourning turned into joy; exchanging our sorrow for God’s gladness; I think about the most difficult experiences in life and I want this all to be true. I want God’s law planted in me. I want God to give me a new heart and to help me see the world that way He sees it.
More than wanting it, I believe God does this! Based on my experiences with God in worship, in meeting God in the Bible, in seeing God in my own private prayer time, and in encountering God as God is at work in the world, I know these promises can be trusted. God does a new thing in each of us.
I still believe in free will. Jesus walked on earth. People could touch God -in-the-flesh, yet they had the choice to reject him and many did. He chose twelve disciples to walk with him and spend all their time with him. No one knew him better. They were Jesus’ inner circle, but they still had freedom, and they used it. One denied him, one betrayed him, and they all abandoned him. We can be ‘in Christ’ and still make mistakes. The exiles had to choose. Would they wallow in exile-misery or choose to be faithful God even in their circumstances? Christians today, must choose to live as new creations with eyes fixed on God or to join the world around us and reject God.
What is the path forward?
The exiles had to learn to worship God and live as the people of God in Babylon. Another group of Jews was in Egypt. The diaspora became the context for living faithfully.
Christians in a world uninterested in God, in a world that glorifies the self must declare that Jesus Christ is Lord; Lord in our homes, Lord in our church, and Lord of the world. So many signs point to a world that’s turned its back on God. Violence run rampant; decreasing faith and declining morality in our culture; in the face of these and other signs of societal decay, we stand certain of this. Jesus is Lord.
That means we are always people of hope. As Hillside Church, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope. Yes, Jesus died on the cross, but he also rose from the grave and promises to come again. As we tell the good news about him, the Holy Spirit empowers us. We are born-again, Spirit-filled people.
Hope is God’s future for Hillside Church. The reason we are in this neighborhood, in this town, at this time, ready to leap into the future with our new name and new calling is God placed us here with a mission and God calls us to fulfill that mission.
Hope is trust that God’s goodness is without limit for those who choose to follow Jesus. Through his prophet Jeremiah, God promised to write his word on our hearts. We come before the Lord open, ready to be filled and sent out in his name. It doesn’t matter how many people in our culture are believers. We are sent to love all, believers and unbelievers alike. We have the hope of a new heart and we are to share that hope. The world needs it.