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Covenants of the Heart

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31: (3-7) 31-34

©2021 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

intro to scripture
Scripture + Sermon

Let’s take ourselves back in time, two and a half millennia
to the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean, a crucial corridor
between the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta and its access
to the continent of Africa. As with all crucial transportation routes,
it was fought over, conquered and reconquered countless times,
and in 601 BCE, yet another massive conquest was underway,
as Babylon pushed Assyria out of this contested land, and set its sights
on the tiny strip of land between the Judean uplands around Jerusalem,
and the coast.

Enter Jeremiah; a prophet, a seer,
one called by God to call out what he sees
particularly about the ways in which human society
had fallen away from the God-Dream, the Torah;
those Top Ten Ground Rules for good living in creation.
Jeremiah is known, by his name as a prophet of doom.
He is ornery, dramatic, he has quite the collection of condemnations,
he doesn’t mince words, he’s what my ancestors would call “blunt to a fault.”

He had, and held strongly, to a simple algebra for faith:
do the right things, life works; do the wrong things, you’ve hell to pay.
So, as the Babylonian threat gets larger, darker,
more ominous year after year, he gets louder, harsher,
desperate in his oracles, pleading with his people to smarten up,
to return to living Torah closely, or else….

Then the worst happens.
Babylon invades,
and destroys the city of Jerusalem,
and with iconic precision, crushed to burnt-out rubble
the massive Temple, heart of Israel’s faith and identity.
Their king and all the religious and political leaders
are shackled and carted off to Babylon.
They will soon be followed by the forced deportation
of the general population into exile,
leaving the land desolate;
vineyards and olive groves left to grow wild,
only dregs and dogs left behind.

Jeremiah, the brooding, weeping, curmudgeonly prophet
enters this ravaged, curfewed landscape,
and begins to speak:
What will God say through his grumpy mouthpiece?
“I told you so!”? “You had this coming!”?

“Thus says the Holy One,
the God of our ancestors,
Abraham, and Sarah,
of Moses and the generations in Egypt;
“I have loved you with an everlasting love,
therefore, all this, that is destroyed,
you will one day return and rebuild.
Again you shall plant vineyards,
and enjoy their fruit.

Watch and see, I am going to bring you back
from the lands to the north,
gather you again from the farthest parts of earth;
all of you; the blind, the lame, the woman in labour,
the child, the ancient,
all in a great company,
from least to greatest,
you will return weeping, and I will console you;
and let you walk by riversides,
along straight roads where no foot will stumble,
for I have become Father to Israel;
the children of Jacob are the firstborn of my womb.

And there is more, listen for this:

“The days will surely come,” declares the HOLY ONE,
“when I will make a new covenant with my people Israel,
with the house of Judah;
This covenant will not be like the one made with your ancestors,
when I brought them out from slavery in Egypt,
a covenant written on stone, and easily broken,
despite everything I did to guide and lead.
This new covenant, I will write it within you,
I will inscribe it on your hearts;
“I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
You will no longer need teachers to instruct you, saying
“Here is how you will know your God”,
because everyone shall all know me, here,
from the least to the greatest, the youngest to the oldest.
I have forgiven every sin, every failing, every iniquity,
I will remember this sin no more.”

Well, that wasn’t what we expected!
We expected Jeremiah to lay it on thick,
we would have expected him,
as countless religionists since have done,
to keep God locked up in some hidebound, rule-booked,
judgmental box, condemning the sinful generation
to a fate brought upon themselves.

So it’s even more radical, amazing, that
this stunning, beautiful unequivocal,
compassion of God pours from the mouth of Jeremiah
of all people!!?!

What does that tell us of the power of God’s own heart
that God has managed to crack Jeremiah’s crusty,
judgmental carapace
with the fluid absolution of everlasting, forgiving grace and love?!

What does it say about the magnificence and potential
of this, God’s own covenant
of everlasting, utterly forgiving, covenant
written on the hearts of that hapless generation,
bereft of everything known and cherished?
All the anchors of life and faith destroyed, utterly;
the temple, the rituals, the festivals,
the means of livelihood,
the freedom of movement,
the ability to birth, marry and bury in community,
all suddenly constrained…?

Was I talking of 6th century Judeans, or of
21st century people across the globe?
What happens when this completely
guiltless compassion of God
fills our parched hearts with bright red blood,
pumps through our wearied bodies,
fills our lungs with sweet, easy breath…
I am God, you are my firstborn beloveds,
and everything you need to know me,
to know my ways, to know my Dream,
to know my promise of a future filled
with forgiveness, compassion, and love,
is right here? (HEART)

The days are surely coming,
when we open the doors again,
when we hug, travel,
worship in our church building,
fill our kitchen with food to feed hundreds,
when the living of the Dream of God
will feel so much less constrained than it does now.
Meanwhile, we, like the Judeans in Babylon,
need to weather the exile a little longer.
But we have Holy words to live by,
covenant words, written on our hearts.
And they make all the difference!

So when the tears come,
when the days drag,
when we feel useless,
all out of touch,
low on hope,
blind to a good future,
that’s when we
centre down,
put hands over our hearts,
until we feel, with each metronomic beat
we are God’s beloved,
and we have all we need
to be God’s covenant people,
living the Dream of God,
for the sake of the world,
right here.

Can you feel it….?

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