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Lent 5B

Heart Promises.
(Jeremiah 31:31-34)

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Back in the days before TV and global satellite feeds, a preacher would have her work cut out to help her listeners even begin to imagine the dire, desperate situation into which God sends the prophet Jeremiah to utter the promise of God, which we heard today.

For me the task is “easier.” Rather than try to describe, I simply need to allude to images we have all seen on our television screens. The world of Jeremiah 31 was like Syria, 2012. The people of Jeremiah 31 had, etched on their faces, the same horror we saw on the faces of those fleeing the falling Towers of 9/11,
the same despair of families who watched the levees break in New Orleans,
the same hopeless exhaustion of the tent-dwellers of post -earthquake Haiti,
the same terror of devastation we saw in the people fleeing the wake and fallout of Fukushima.

Read the history of the destruction of Jerusalem by the empire of Babylon in 587 BCE,
and you’ll know I don’t exaggerate when I call forth these horrific images from our own times.
Jerusalem was transformed from a city of gold to rubble, its houses fired and flattened.
Her King was stripped naked, and dragged off in chains.
The Temple razed to the ground, its boulders shattered, grave markers of a ruined faith.
Temple and King were as iconic to Hebrew culture as were Manhattan’s Twin Towers to western capitalism.
Their downfall, and their clouds of toxic dust strangled to nothing the confidence in everything they stood for.

To Jeremiah’s people, the world and its possibilities, faith and its promises, were displaced by destruction, and despair. If the Temple and the King are gone, surely God has gone too. Either God has willfully deserted the people, or was simply never strong enough to withstand the mighty gods of Babylon.

Not for nothing is Jeremiah called the ‘weeping prophet,’ as normally he does not mince words to decry sinfulness and faithlessness, and the need for repentance, but in the case of today’s text, he is uncharacteristically consoling, his words startling in their originality, which is what makes it all the more worth our attention, as if we are truly seeing the surprising, life-giving Word of God breaking through. For into this pit of despair is uttered a promise that reverberates through the shattered temples of broken hope, and through the grim realities of every subsequent generation:
“The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant,
written as a seal upon the heart of everyone from the least to the greatest.
You don’t need a Temple, nor a King, you don’t need a particular promised land,
nor priests, nor Manuals, or Tablets of Stone,
nor Bases of Union, Statements, or Creeds, or Songs of Faith.
You don’t even need to know my name, says God, nor how to pray the Lord’s Prayer,
nor how to sit or stand or which hymnbook to use, when to say “Amen”
because from now on, I will be with you, within you. Here.” (the heart).

Such words to a displaced population, to folk with nothing, to families sharing a tent with three others, to believers with burned out shells of torched temples, synagogues, mosques, churches, these words are like sun after snow, like day after nights of terror, like food after famine.

We need not to hear this promise – of God’s “way, dream, law, written on the heart” – as something vaguely spiritual, mystical, humdrum, religiously normal, because it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. To an ancient culture used to confining God to place and time, and special intercessors, and technicians of the sacrificial apparatus, this is a radical intrusion of God Most Holy into the midst of life most ordinary, life most ugly. That’s big.

Now, to be sure, God had been making a habit for two millennia or so already of making amazing promises with this blessed people, the children of Noah, of Abraham and Sarah.
A rainbow promise of fidelity, and relationship of blessing.
A carved-in-stone promise of guidance and justice for life, sealed with pillars of cloud and fire.
A hereditary promise of identity passed on to David’s great-grandchildren.
God has been a repeat promise maker and keeper with this hapless people, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, that when disaster strikes – again – God responds, not with absence, but with presence and promise.

Perhaps not surprising that when identity, and justice, and relationship, are stolen with the strike of swords,
when death is dealt, and despair wraps around the heart with chains of iron, God chooses to step in, through the barbed wire, past the sentries, into the desert, and into the wasteland of hopelessness into the hearts of God’s own, cherished, people.

That is radical. It’s the most radical thing about this God who claims us and names us cherished, no matter what. This God, who crosses every barrier ever conceived by human envy, fear, and greed. This God, who cried newborn in a wayside stable, who starved in a desert, drank wine and ate bread with ‘outcasts and sinners,’ who touched lepers with spittle and hand, who spoke life to little girls, and forgiveness to stoned women. This promise to come close as our heartbeats, to become one with our lives, in our joys, but more in our sorrows, terrors, and despair, is radical.

I read one commentary which sadly declared that this promise of God, uttered by Jeremiah, has sadly not yet happened. The evidence for this unfulfilled promise, is a world still hurting, empires still overbearing, crime still rampant. But I beg to differ. I beg you to see how, partial, maybe, but recurrent and persistent for sure, is the evidence of this covenant of God within your own heart.

It is evident when you recognize the Dream of God
for a world more just, a love more lasting, a life more full,
has taken a hold of your own hopes and dreams and life,
even, and especially in a world where brokenness and evil still persist.

It is evident, when you, or we,
choose to reach out to a friend in need, rather than rush on by.
In the choosing of justice, of relationship, even when both are harder than silence or isolation.
In the choosing to love, or to love again, knowing that to love is to risk.
In the choosing to tell the truth,
In the choosing to risk hope instead of despair, or cynicism,
to spend a little more for the ethically traded product,
to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, next door or across the globe,
to forgive, to let go of the grudge…..

Not for nothing then did Paul once say
“Nothing, nothing in all the world
can separate us from the Love of God that we have seen in Christ Jesus.” ( Romans 8 )
The, love, the promise of God is within us.
Look, and see.



© Elisabeth R. Jones March 2012

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