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A New Covenant

Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on Mar. 29 2009.

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Strangely enough, it’s hard to listen to these words of the prophet Jeremiah without getting a warm and fuzzy feeling. I say “strangely enough” because a word of hope – anything positive, for that matter – coming from Jeremiah is so out of character. Yet, it isn’t possible to hear Jeremiah’s words without thinking that it’s good news. In fact, this proclamation by the prophet comes as close to the gospel as the Old Testament is ever going to get. Listen to it again. Jeremiah speaks for God as God speaks about Israel and Judah…

 
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…
For I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.
 
          That is so nice. What a wonderful sentiment.
 
          Yet, it’s the very last thing the people expected to hear from Jeremiah’s mouth. And knowing what we know about Jeremiah and the times in which he lived, if we did not have these words printed for us in black-and-white, we would have a hard time believing it too.
 
          He wasn’t called “The Weeping Prophet” for nothing, you know.
 
          Bad news was all you ever heard from Jeremiah. At least, so it seems. And here they are, about to be overrun by the hated Babylonians – the brutal savages – and they know how it’s going to be. They know the reputation of their enemies, have heard the stories of how, when they overtake a country, they leave nothing but death and destruction in their wake. Like the legendary Apaches torturing those impudent white people who invaded their favorite hunting grounds, the Babylonians were ruthless in the way they treated their prisoners. And of late, the Babylonians have been so strong in their military might that the people of Judah know they have nothing in their arsenal that will prevent the onslaught. It is going to be ugly indeed when the Babylonians come.
 
          If they’re honest about this whole thing, they would admit to the fact that they’re going to get what they deserve. Pure and simple. You see, there’s been this thing between God and the people of Israel and Judah. It is as old as Abraham. Actually, if you think about it, it goes back even farther than that. God made a deal with Adam and Eve, and of course they broke it. Then God renewed his covenant with Noah, and again with Abraham. God revealed his sense of humor by choosing Jacob, the poster child for the belief that only God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick… cause, boy, was Jacob a crooked stick.
 
          There were the four hundred years in Egypt, during which time the people forgot they even had a God. So God raised up Moses and through his reluctant messenger gave his people a law written in stone. It wasn’t enough, of course. They continued to stray and do that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.
 
          And now God was going to punish them yet again, this time through the Babylonians. But not before God re-establishes his covenant with them. This time, he tells them through the prophet Jeremiah, it will not be written in stone but will be inscribed upon their hearts. It will not be without pain, of course. Heart surgery is always painful. The Babylonians will come. There will be exile. But God will hold true to this, his new covenant, and one day they will come back home.
 
          All along, God has used this word covenant when it comes to God’s relationship with his people. They keep breaking it and God keeps keeping it. It is the age-old story of scripture. Truth be told, it is the age-old story period.
 
          So, the people of Judah expect Jeremiah to lead the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the rending of sackcloth and the smearing of ashes. He wasn’t called “The Weeping Prophet” for nothing, you know. They think they’re going to hear a long harangue of how bloody it is going to get, and that they are going to get what they deserve because they had turned their back on God and have committed unpardonable sins. They’re ready for a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Sometimes, when things are bad, people not only expect to hear bad news, they want to hear bad news. Especially from Jeremiah.
 
          He wasn’t called “The Weeping Prophet” for nothing, you know.
 
          But surprisingly, Jeremiah offers them an olive branch, a word of hope…
 
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…
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…
For I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.
 
          That is so nice. What a wonderful sentiment.
 
          You would think that good news is appreciated anywhere or anytime, but not necessarily. When you expect bad news, or you are feeling really, really low, good news just gets in the way. It toys with the strings of your heart when you prefer that your heart remain heavy. You want your heart to be heavy because you know that’s the way it ought to be. Good news causes you to lift your head when you would rather have it hang low.
 
          There are times, believe it or not, when bad news comes cleverly disguised as good, and when you hear cheerful words you find yourself feeling resentful, angry even. You want your bad news to be what it is… bad… not disguising itself as good.
 
          These last few days I’ve known something of how Jeremiah’s people might have felt as they reacted to the words of the prophet. Most of you know that our family lost a very dear friend two Sundays ago. As I have reflected on, and reacted to, the deep, deep hurt I have been feeling – and certainly not just for myself but for all those affected by our loss – I came to understand that when you’re hurting good news can seem awfully shallow and phony.
 
          The good are not supposed to die young, the talented should live a long, full life so they can continue to spread their giftedness everywhere they go. It just isn’t supposed to be this way. But there are no guarantees that this will be so, and when a young friend dies you are reminded painfully, all over again, that all of us live one final breath from our own funeral.
 
          I was asked to offer the invocation at the funeral service of our friend Dave Smith, and prefaced my prayer with some brief remarks. In that preface I quoted Will Campbell… “What the Giver gave so freely, we now return. Without apology for the grudge. We will long harbor and nourish the grudge. Not against the Giver. But against this day and its foolishness.”  Well, right now the people of Israel and Judah are indeed holding a grudge, and they might very well be holding it against God, the Giver; for right now, as far as they can tell, God is a Taker, a Pillager. And that is why it is so strange that right into the midst of their anger and heartache their God implants these words of hope and love and encouragement.
 
          It’s like two lovers quarreling, and while one screams the other plants a kiss on the cheek. Imagine how disarming that can be, not to mention infuriating. And when God, through the prophet Jeremiah, says, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord,” the expression, “says the Lord” literally means “the whisper of Yahweh.” Ever have someone whisper in your ear while you’ve got steam coming out of it?
 
          Do you think the people heard this word gladly? Chances are, no. No. It just magnified their grudge and drove their anger deeper inside. As the hated Babylonians sacked and pillaged their beloved city, do you think the prophet’s words – straight from the mouth of God, if Jeremiah can be believed – gave them any comfort? Don’t think so.
 
          Well, some people may have had the same reaction to Jesus, especially when we are told that at the outset of his public ministry he said to them, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (John 1:14-15). Is he whispering in their steamy ears? Is he planting a kiss on their tear-stained cheeks?
 
          You see, the expression “good news” was not an altogether positive word for the people of Israel… at least not in Jesus’ day. It is many years since Jeremiah uttered these same prophetic words, but once again the people of Israel are on edge, not to mention held captive. This time it is the Romans and not the Babylonians. And while they are allowed to remain in their own land – they haven’t been taken into exile – they have discovered that exile is not so much a place as it is an imposition. It is no less an exile for Jesus’ people than it was for Jeremiah’s people.
 
          And like Jeremiah, Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”
 
          That is so nice. What a wonderful sentiment.
 
          It certainly sounds tame enough to us. Who doesn’t want good news? Except that we so closely associate the expression “good news” with Jesus – after all, it means “gospel,” doesn’t it? – that we have lost its significance as to when Jesus first used it. It was not considered to be a religious term when it first came from Jesus’ mouth. In his day it was actually an expression of dominance that the Romans used to lord it over their Jewish captors.4
 
          When the people heard “good news” proclaimed to them, those who brought the good news were the Romans. And you know what good news meant when the Romans said it, don’t you? It meant peace, but it was peace through political and military domination. It was the kind of peace and quiet that follows a violent act and comes only through brute force. It was the kind of peace that comes when dissent is squelched and enemies are eliminated; peace that is the result of power and control.
 
          When the Romans talked of peace, it was not really peace at all. And so, when Jesus comes along offering “good news,” you have to know that the people are wondering just exactly what kind of message he is giving them.
 
          That confusion is intensified later in his ministry when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”(John 12:25-26). Where he will be is on a Roman cross. And he wants them to follow him?!
 
          Does that sound like good news to you?
 
          If you are uncomfortably beginning to find a parallel between the people of Jeremiah’s day, the people of Jesus’ day, and our own day… well, you might just be getting the idea. What goes around comes around. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun, because we – especially of late – have been caught putting our faith in the wrong things. And it’s beginning to catch up to us. What we thought was good news wasn’t so good after all.
 
          We’ve swallowed the prosperity gospel, we’ve placed our faith in comfort, we’ve ignored the plight of those Jesus called “the least of these,” and we’ve turned a deaf ear and blind eye to those who suffer at the hands of our modern-day Babylonians. We have developed an empire, not a way of life… at least Jesus’ way of life. To put it bluntly, we are now the Romans.
 
          We still think the answer is pumping up the Dow Jones by buying more stuff, and that security is found in responding to violence with violence. We think that what we seek is good news, but Jesus turned his back on this kind of thinking and went to the cross to show us a better way. For, you see, what Jeremiah proposed Jesus accepted and embodied.
 
          What Jesus offered was nothing short of a whole new way of life. And that is why it is called a new covenant. May God write it on our hearts, and may we see it truly as good news.
 
 
          Lord, show us how to follow you, no matter the cost. May your good news invade our hearts and be revealed in the way we live. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.