23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Sermon
October 23, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
160 "Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven"
209 "God Of Our Life, All Glorious Lord"
129 "Spirit Of God, Descend Upon My Heart"
510 "Take My Life And Let It Be"
AN UNEXPECTED WORD OF LOVE
TEXT: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant through I was a husband to them, declares the Lord. 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. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and I will remember their sins no more.”
Little Bobby was a pretty good boy, most of the time. He helped his mother and father around the house, and he played nicely with his brothers and sisters. His mother and father felt they could trust him, and he usually never let them down.
One Friday after school, Bobby was walking home with some of his friends, and they went into a nearby convenience store. Bobby’s friends all had money, and so they each bought themselves a chocolate bar. But Bobby didn’t have any money, so he checked to see if anybody was looking, and then he slipped a chocolate bar into his pocket. He thought he was home free, until he stepped outside the store. The manager, who happened to be a neighbor of Bobby’s, walked up behind him, put his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Bobby, I’ll have that chocolate bar back, thank you.” Bobby knew he had been caught, and handed it back.
All the way home, Bobby had this sick, hollow feeling in his stomach. By now, the manager would have phoned his mother, and would he ever catch it when he got home.
When he finally got home, there stood his mother with her arms crossed by the front door. His fears had come true. He got a stern lecture from his mother, and the same stern lecture and a spanking from his father. His punishment was that he would have to stay in the house with no TV for the whole weekend, plus he would have to eat his meals out on the back steps, away from the family table for the weekend as well.
Now Fridays were special days in Bobby’s house, because his mother would always make cup cakes as a special treat for the children, and it was always something that Bobby looked forward to having. But that night, after the evening meal, there were no cup cakes for Bobby. And that really hurt him, almost more than the other punishment. Crying, he went up to his bedroom. He was sure that nobody loved him any more because of his mistake.
The next morning, he was really feeling lousy. He came into the kitchen to get his breakfast and take it out on the back steps; when to his absolute delight, he saw on his plate and nobody else’s, two cup cakes. And suddenly, his whole outlook changed. He knew that he had done wrong and deserved the punishment his parents had given him. He knew that he didn’t deserve to have any of the cup cakes. But there they were. What an unexpected, pleasant surprise! He knew that his mother and father really did love him, and that his punishment was for his own good. And suddenly his whole outlook changed.
Now I don’t know how many unexpected, pleasant surprises you’ve had in your life. But if you’re like me, I would imagine that you’ve had at least a few. Unexpected and pleasant surprises are always good for us, and there are many different ways this happens. We may not feel that we deserve or are worthy of such niceties when they happen; but frequently it’s those little things in life that pick us up and keep us going, and serve to give us a much brighter outlook.
As we look at our text for today, I’d like you to think of this as being God’s unexpected word of love, not only to the Israelites, but to us as well.
I have spoken before about the Israelites, and what kind of people they were. They were an obstinate, self-righteous bunch of hypocrites, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone else like them. Oh yes, they had religion, but it was all just a fraud. They were going through all of the right motions and had all the right words behind it, but there was no substance behind any of it. It was all just for show; they didn’t have their hearts into it at all.
If we go just a little ways ahead of our text for today, reading from Jeremiah 32, 30-35, we find God describing the Israelites in this manner: “The people of Israel and Judah have done nothing but evil in my sight from their youth; indeed, the people of Israel have done nothing but provoke me with what their hands have made, declares the Lord. From the day it was built until now, this city has so aroused my anger and wrath that I must remove it from my sight. The people of Israel and Judah have provoked me by all the evil they have done—they, their kings and officials, their priests and prophets, the men of Judah and the people of Jerusalem. They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. They set up their abominable idols in the house that bears my Name, and defiled it. They built high places for Baal in the valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
Now that’s quite a lengthy quotation, but it just goes to show what kind of people the Israelites were. Quite frankly, when we read Jeremiah’s book, we find him more than just a little frustrated with the whole bunch of them. He had simply just had it with them all.
Why in the world were the Israelites so slow to learn that God was a jealous and possessive God for his people? God does not tolerate idolatry, whether it be the fancy graven statues and images, or whether it is the idolatry in our own hearts. These people were no better than their forefathers, who created the golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Sinai; in fact, they were worse. They at least had the benefit of knowing the kind of vengeance God had put forth on their ancestors because of their sin. But the sad fact of it all was that the Israelites loved to sin more than they loved God. And that’s it in a nutshell.
Jeremiah’s position was a lonely one, being the spokesman for God, joining the long line of prophets who had spoken the Word of God before him. When Jeremiah got the call, probably somewhere around 600 B. C., he knew he wouldn’t like it. He protested and complained from the very beginning. But yet he had to do it. There was no backing out. Jeremiah had to be God’s spokesman.
And so as time progresses, we find the Babylonians entering into the picture. Wicked Babylonia would be God’s instrument of vengeance against the Israelites who gave God only lip service, while their hearts belonged elsewhere. Israel had broken the covenant contract established so long ago. The terms of that contract were simple: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.” It was put in writing on the tablets of stone; yet what was written on that stone wasn’t etched into the hearts of the people. Israel never quite got it right that what God wanted wasn’t meaningless outward acts, but a commitment of heart and soul. And so, Israel kept on sinning and sinning, never learning their lesson.
I think that all of us know only too well the sad story of not keeping God’s law. Like Israel, we all know how easy it is to fall into the trap of giving God mere lip service, while our hearts are far from him. For example, if what was stored away in the inner chambers of our minds were to be shouted from the rooftops or printed in the newspaper for all to hear or read, I think that we all would run for the hills. We would all be too ashamed and disgusted over our own disobedience to remain sitting still for very long.
Like the Israelites, we have been chosen only because of God’s grace to be his chosen people in the world; and yet we hide that specialness or that uniqueness under a shroud of sin. We can all confess with the Apostle Paul in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…for I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Yes, we can stand right along side of the Israelites, convicted of breaking God’s law; and so we brace ourselves to hear from Jeremiah the verdict of God’s doom that we feel is sure to come.
I believe that is what Jeremiah was expecting; words of gloom and final judgment for the disobedient Israelites. But instead, he is given the words of our text for today. “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.”
No words of judgment here; no, Jeremiah has been given an unexpected and an incredible call of love. One would have expected to feel the sharp edged sword of punishment; but instead God announces a new beginning. And this new beginning is based upon God’s absolutely incredible love for his people—even in the face of their rejection of him.
If we look at God in relationship to the Israelites, we see that his heart burns with an almost unreal love and concern for this wayward and rebellious group of people. God’s will is to have his children back home and with him again. As he acted to bring them out of the slavery of Egypt, so now he will act again to bring them out of the slavery of sin and death. And the incredible part of all this, the best news of all, is that God is willing to forgive, and renew the contract covenant once again.
Indeed, what a God of incredible love and forgiveness Jeremiah proclaims here. What a family we are adopted into through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. We come before God and we expect to hear the verdict of death for all our misdeeds and wrong doings; but instead we hear of a new life with the Father. And this new covenant relationship is made possible only through the grace of God, by the forgiveness of sins, through faith in Christ.
In this new covenant, the terms of the contract will not be written on stone as they were on Sinai; but rather they will be inscribed upon the hearts of people. God the Holy Spirit will provide the motivation and the method we need to enter into this new relationship with him. The motivation will not be based upon fear, or with the hope of reward; rather God the Holy Spirit leads us to a faith response based upon love.
So now, God speaks through Jeremiah to spell out the terms of this new covenant contract…this new contract of love. God says in our text for today, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
Faith in this new covenant of love will not be based upon clever debates, or convincing arguments, or by some high brow teacher instructing the ignorant. There is no part of this faith that is in any way dependent upon us. If it were, we could only serve to botch it up. It’s not up to us. Rather, God the Holy Spirit, the Lord himself will create the faith and the trust that’s needed to rely upon his Gospel promise for everybody, great and small.
Faith in this new covenant is purely a gift from God. Dr. Luther stresses this point in the explanation of the third article of the creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith.”
The concluding line of this unexpected and incredible call of love is, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The power of this call of love becomes most evident right here at its conclusion. Contrary to what we experience from other human beings, God not only forgives, but he forgets as well. One saying that I’ve heard before goes like this: “No matter how dirty and filthy our yesterdays are, we all have a clean tomorrow ahead.” Our life with God is not hindered or limited by our past unfaithfulness. Rather, it is based upon God’s present and future mercy as he leads us day by day to experience the complete, full, and free forgiveness he gives to each and every one of us.
With all this talk about the Israelites and Jeremiah, it should be quite clear to all of us that this unexpected word and call of love that God announced through Jeremiah becomes very real to us in Jesus Christ. He who knew no sin takes upon himself our sin, and sheds his blood on the cross so that you and I might experience the forgiveness that Jeremiah announces today.
This incredible call of love in the face of our own rebellion and sin against God, can only be understood and experienced with the confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. Christ himself is the final proof that a new relationship of love exists and is available to all who will call upon his Name with a faithful heart.
As we focus our attention on Christ and what he did on our behalf, we are able to experience the intensity of this incredible love. We need to remember how the Saviour’s suffering, death, and resurrection makes this incredible call of love available for you, for me, and for all.
What Jeremiah proclaimed, and what the Israelites experienced was indeed an unexpected word of love from God. To use the illustration of a little boy and cup cakes to demonstrate this, might seem to pale by comparison. However we know that the mother’s love for her son was much greater than simply giving him two cup cakes when he knew he didn’t deserve them. By that simple and unexpected act of love, it brought the boy to his senses, and he realized how much his parents really did love him. We can hear about love all day long; but when it is actually demonstrated to us, it makes it very real.
The point of God’s call of love is that all might know the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ. And that’s why we need to do more than just hear this call and keep it to ourselves. Rather, we need to heed this call of love as well.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus sums up the 10 commandments in one word: love. Love God, and love your neighbor. Our response of faith is to be the same love that God has shown us.
Yes, we need to live as redeemed children of God, and be living examples and witnesses of that love with which God has loved us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that brings Jeremiah’s words to our hearing today, each and every one of us needs to resolve ourselves that in whatever way we can, that all people everywhere will be given the opportunity to respond to God’s covenant of love, just as we have. And that response is one of faith, faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Our response can be nothing less than stated by the words of the hymnwriter Frances Havergal: “Take my love; my Lord, I pour, at thy feet its treasure-store; take myself, and I will be; ever, only, all for thee.”