Lent 5B, March 22, 2015

March 24, 2015

The Unspoken Truth
Jeremiah 31:31-34

31:31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The prophet Jeremiah lived a tough life. He lived during a difficult period of time for the nation of Israel, and his life was made even more difficult by his compulsion to speak truth to power. At an early age he felt called by God to do this work of exposing the unrighteousness of their nation, and while he initially resisted the prophetic role that God called him to assume, he came to fully embrace it. And he suffered for it. Jeremiah was known for his ability to clearly reveal how the people of Israel were offending God in their personal lives as well as through the public policies of their kings and priests. What Jeremiah had to say was not well received by the various kings that assumed the throne during his long life, and while they never could bring themselves to actually kill him – they didn’t hesitate to have him beaten, imprisoned, and otherwise humiliated.

Jeremiah lived about 6oo years before Jesus was born, and he was living in Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, in 587 BCE when the Babylonians ransacked their country and destroyed the Temple. Jeremiah had seen this coming, and he had offered an avenue for salvation, but neither the people nor the leaders wanted to hear it, and the nation fell. Those were dark days for the people of Israel. The Temple was destroyed, their king and all of the other leaders of their nation were carried off into exile, and it appeared that they had been abandoned by God.

Jeremiah might well have used that occasion to say, I told you so, but that’s not what he chose to do. Jeremiah remained in Judah while the bulk of the population was in exile, but he continued to speak to the people, and he had a new message. The new message was that this experience of destruction and exile was not the consequence of being abandoned by God – it was the beginning of the new way in which God would be present with them. Yes, their circumstance was the consequence of their unfaithful behavior, but their relationship with God was not destroyed. They could learn from what had occurred, and their relationship with God would be enhanced.

That is the context of these words we have from Jeremiah. Jeremiah was writing words of comfort and support to people who’s lives had been totally disrupted and their understanding of God was in question. They considered the Temple to be the place where God was encountered – they considered the Temple to be the dwelling place of God, and the Babylonians had turned it in to a pile of rubble. They weren’t sure what to make of that, and Jeremiah was offering an answer. The Temple was gone, but God was still present. Their leaders were humiliated, but the word of God was still available. In fact, the word of God had become more available to them.

I don’t know about you, but I find these words to be powerfully compelling. I love this idea of God’s word being placed directly inside of our hearts. I’m thinking it’s the first form of direct deposit. It’s not a paycheck that’s being deposited, but God chose to directly deposit this most significant asset directly in to our hearts. And I’m thinking this would have been such good news to these people who were accustomed to their wellbeing being brokered by this institution that had totally crumbled. It would have given them hope for a new future.

It wasn’t a guarantee for a new and successful future, but it revealed the possibility for a new way of living in relationship with God, and even though they often strayed from living in a faithful relationship with God – the people of Israel believed that their wellbeing was in the hands of God.

It was a huge tragedy, but in some ways, this national catastrophe was a levelling event for the people of Israel. It removed the necessity of a qualified agent to stand between God and God’s people.

This may not have been good news to the class of people who held the priestly franchise, but they weren’t really in a good position to dispute these good words from Jeremiah. He was providing an interpretation of what happened that made sense and he was offering hope for the present and the future. They were in a horrible circumstance, but Jeremiah was saying that God was with them where they were.

Having personal access to God’s instruction is a great gift to us all, but that doesn’t mean we always know what to do with it. Just because you have something doesn’t mean you know how to use it. We can use good tools really dangerously.

For some reason this text reminded me of an experience I had with a tennis racquet one time. I’ve never been much of a tennis player, but I used to go out and play occasionally. I’m much better at hitting stationary objects than I am at hitting things that are coming at me quickly, so I’ve just never really embraced tennis. But I go along with other people who want to play, and I was out with some family members one summer morning at a tennis court. We had finished playing, and I started hitting the ball straight up in the air. I kept trying to hit it higher and higher, and I was getting some good attention, so I was swinging harder and harder, and it culminated in a swing that was so hard I couldn’t stop the racquet before I hit myself in the head with it.

I didn’t pass out immediately, but I knew I had taken a significant blow. I put my hands to my head to stop the bleeding, and I kept them there until I got to a nearby bathroom where a Dr. friend was also on hand. He had me remove my hands from my head, and as soon as I saw the knot and the blood I immediately passed out.

I’m the only person I’ve ever known who has knocked their-self out. I don’t guess if was technically a knock-out blow, but it was close.

I think the thing that story illustrates to me is how unaware I was of what I was doing – and the dangerous trajectory my actions had placed me upon. As far as I know, there haven’t been any lasting consequences of that stiff blow to my head, but you never know about such things. That actually could explain a lot about what I’m inclined to do and not do.

But I think we are often unaware of the trajectories of our lives. God has placed some divine wisdom within each of us, but it’s not unusual for us to engage in some personal foolishness – and I’m not just talking about doing stupid things with tennis racquets. The really unfortunate things we do have more to do with ignoring the plight of the poor, advancing initiatives that serve ourselves, getting overly focused on things that don’t matter, and glossing over the things that do.

I’m not convinced that the words of the Prophet Jeremiah would be any more welcomed here in Arkansas right now than they were in Judah before the fall of the Temple. In fact just as Jeremiah was blamed by the false prophets of his day for being discouraging to the people, and I’m guessing he would be accused of doing the same for us.

Prophets are never well regarded by the communities that they serve. And even though Jeremiah was seen as someone who was bringing an ominous forecast to the people of Judah – he was trying to be helpful. He was viewed as a troublemaker because he wasn’t saying what people wanted to hear, but they would have been far better off if they had listened to what he had to say.

I might not have listened if someone had told me I was going to hit myself in the head if I kept doing what I was doing. It may be that I had to actually do what I did before I would believe it, but I sure would have been inclined to listen to what they had to say afterward.

And that’s the way the people of Israel felt about Jeremiah when they found themselves in Babylon without a king or a temple. They had lost what they thought they needed, but it turns out they still had what they really needed. And so do we.

There are always a lot of things that are not going the way we want them to. We could each generate a pretty good list of the things we don’t consider to be going well on so many different levels. It’s hard to watch a developing disaster and feel helpless to stop it. It’s important to try to bring attention to the situations we believe to be wrong, and I thank God for those people who do the heroic work of speaking truth in situations where it would be easier to remain silent.

It’s hard to speak up when it’s easier to go quietly along with whatever is happening. It’s hard to speak up when you know your perspective won’t be appreciated, but the truth is never contained forever. And it’s always a good thing to aspire to be associated with the truth. There are people who do a good job of keeping the truth contained, and sometimes we get confused about what is true and what is convenient, but you can’t silence the One who is still able to make those direct deposits of truth within our hearts.

God’s truth will always emerge, and God’s people will always find comfort in this reality. We might not be where we want to be when we experience that truth, but God’s willingness to be with us wherever we find ourselves to be will always be good news.

Thanks be to God.


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