A Sermon for 16 October 2016
A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 31:27-34. Listen for God’s word to us.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 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. 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. 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. 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.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
If you’ve ever been put on a diet, then you know how hard it can be. The doctor tells you your pants are fitting just a little too tight. Or maybe for another health reason you have to cut out sodium, or caffeine, or sugar. You’re sent home with the list of what you can and cannot eat. The list that’s to dictate whether or not you can enjoy all your favorites like chocolate cake and deep fried green tomatoes and beer or wine or whatever. Out of sheer willpower, some people can handle such external directives – for a little while or maybe even for the rest of their lives. Most cannot, which ends up causing other problems when we cheat. But maybe, just maybe somewhere along the way you came to your own conclusion that you only will eat what truly will be healthy for your body. Fresh vegetables and ripe fruits. Grains and nothing processed. These your body begin to crave and when you stop to really listen to exactly what your system needs, you find it’s an ice cold glass of water instead of half the bag of chips. Living like that – hearing from the inside out just exactly what your body needs – makes a shift in nutrition doable. Energizing even.
Internal motivation just seems to work better over the long haul. Athletes with that drive to be the very best in the world at their sport tend to reach their goals more often than those who have to be prodded along by an over-bearing coach. Ones who are naturally curious tend to really learn – and keep at it long after being handed a diploma at 12th grade. Those who appreciate beauty find a way to create something themselves, somehow. Being guided from the inside out – from the life-giving passions within instead of the external expectations of others leads to happier, healthier, persevering people. From the inside out assures we have matured in who we are and how we freely choose to live our lives.
From the inside out could be the title of the promise of God declared here by the prophet Jeremiah. For all we know at this point in their history, most of the people are in exile. Jeremiah seemed especially upset because Judah sought to put Temple worship as the pinnacle of religion – the abiding sign of the Davidic dynasty. And because they did, they sought to resist exile. Unpopular though his opinion be, Jeremiah was opposed to fighting against Babylon. He saw it as the road to national disaster. Rebellion against what seemed inevitable would only lead to more harm from the stronger kingdom. Besides, Temple worship, the royal religion of Jerusalem, was a “false religion, sure to fail,” Jeremiah proclaimed every chance he got (The Harper Collins Study Bible, 1993; p. 1111). They did not need to risk it all to try to retain it. Instead, the people needed to return. Return to the faith of their ancestors. Be changed from the inside out. Embrace the road map for what will work in life together and what will not. Making sacrifices in the Temple would not do. Clinging to practices that certainly would no longer be possible for waves of those exiled to Babylon or heading out to Egypt; fighting for the kinds of outer practices in the Temple that no longer could be was futile – at least as Jeremiah saw it. Rather, the good news Jeremiah proclaims here in chapter 31 is that another way is possible. A better way that God indeed promises to give the people. “The days are surely coming,” says the LORD through the prophet Jeremiah. When “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. 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” (Jeremiah 31:27-34). . . . The days surely are coming when we will have within us all we need to live as God desires – no matter if we find ourselves exiled to Babylon, fleeing to Egypt, or left back behind in the ransacked city of Jerusalem as the poorest of the poor were. One commentator writes: “The remnants of both Israel and Judah would enter into a new covenant and faithfully follow God’s law, for it would be written upon their hearts” (Ibid.). They will know it from the inside out.
From the inside out. . . . It’s possible to think of this inside out living in a few different ways. Take, for instance, the return to living according to the commandments – to having the ways of God written in our hearts. Once upon a time long before the supposed security of the bricks and mortar of the Temple, the people understood the whole moral code of the commandments as God’s gift to them of the best way to be the people of God together. The Light of God shining to all the nations. But if it wouldn’t get inside them; if they started to see it as something other than a gift. If they grew spiritually lazy and stopped being truly led by the love of God; then there were going to be problems. If the love of God isn’t within, we can have an external list of all God’s laws to follow; but we won’t likely carry them out. Or we’ll live by the letter of the law and forget the whole reason behind it. We’ll get caught up in trying to earn something by how many from the list we can follow. We might even start comparing ourselves as better, or worse, than everyone else. We’ll be led from the outside and sooner or later it will cause problems on our insides – bitterness or arrogance or fear.
From the inside out – God’s law written on our hearts –also is a beautiful metaphor for the Spirit of God living in us. The Divine dwelling inside – as happened when first God put the breath into us. God’s ruah, God’s Spirit exhaled right into the very first ones and every one of us since. We may not always feel that Presence within; but rest assured: it is there. Just waiting to be awakened. Waiting to be stirred up – moved as when we feel compassion, or love, or righteous anger over the violation of human dignity. That too is the law of God written on our hearts. God internal – in us – to be the compass that points us in the right direction, to the right action, to the needed word that we do know when we do as the Psalmist said: when we be still (paraphrase of Psalm 46:10) to let the swirl of angst and external expectations and voices of everyone else settle like muddy water finally calming into a crystal smooth pool in which we clearly can see. Be still, like that, on the inside and indeed we will know the prompting of God’s Spirit in us. Hearts transformed by God.
Of course, from the inside out presumes we trust enough not only God, but also ourselves. How many of us see ourselves as so incredibly marred that something so Holy as God’s Spirit never could dwell in us? Could something as pure as God’s unconditional love move us from the inside out?! Jeremiah’s words shout yes! Notice the depth of God’s love in Jeremiah’s prophecy? This is a re-start between God and God’s people. A chance for true forgiveness after the people of God have transgressed. What husband – as God is named here in reference to God’s people – what husband re-commits to a new covenant after the original vows have been trampled all over? What partner is ready to begin again when actions have caused such heartache? One able to honestly declare this: “I will forgive and remember the violation no more.” (paraphrase of Jeremiah 31:34). . . . It seems almost impossible for us, so much so that we often hear someone say, “I can forgive, but I never will forget!” According to Jeremiah, that’s not what God says. God forgives AND God forgets. Together we are free to begin again. . . . I’m not sure this is something anyone of us really can do, which might be why so many harbor guilt for whatever ways we’ve messed up. We hardly can forgive ourselves, let alone forget the disasters we’ve done in our lives. But God’s not like that. Not according to the promise of the new covenant initiated by God. . . . It’s an act of the greatest love that God hopes will get in us – stick in us and stay there so that we might begin to live a little bit more like that. God desires so deeply to be in this intimate dance of life with us that God changes us from the inside out. And it all is done by God’s love – transforming the hearts of every last one through God’s amazing gift of grace.
Here then is the new creation: God in us, transforming from the inside out.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit. Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)