First United Methodist Church
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Devils Lake, North Dakota
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This Week's Sermon

October 20, 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34, 2 Timothy 2:8-13



There’s an old sea story about a ship’s captain who inspected his sailors, and afterward told the first mate that his men smelled badly. The captain suggested perhaps it would help if the sailors would change underwear occasionally. The first mate responded, “Aye, aye, sir. I’ll see to it immediately!” The first mate went straight to the sailors’ berth deck and announced, “The captain thinks you guys smell bad and wants you to change your underwear.” He continued, “Pittman, you change with Jones. McCarthy, you change with Witkowski. And Brown, you change with Schultz.”


Though this is an unfortunate example of change without improving the situation, it does make a point about simply making changes for the point of change itself, or because you’re told to do it. We realize when we begin our life with Christ through faith that change is required of us; not physical, but spiritual. And yet, God does sometimes grant us a physical change needed for spiritual growth.


We may understand God’s intent, if not the actual mechanism for how this change occurs. We can come to terms with this change because it’s good for us, for our spiritual health and for our eternal lives. When we resist change, we know there might be consequences, but I think we also hold onto the hope of God growing tired of watching us and moving on to someone else. 


Why don’t we comprehend how God wants us to live? Maybe it’s because we have not done all the necessary modifications to our hearts, but instead have tried to live a sort of half-hearted life, for lack of a better word. And yet, half-hearted is not that far from the truth, for if we don’t allow God to heal us and help us, we are settling for less than the whole heart.


What does God have to do to penetrate our sometimes rather dense hearts, or our stubborn wills? God’s verbal approach was not working on His chosen people. A covenant of law did nothing to contain the rebelliousness of the will. God would have to go deeper. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things and is desperately sick.” 


God’s desire for a relationship would call for desperate measures for our sick hearts. His word would have to go into more than just our minds. It would have to go directly onto our hearts. As someone once said, “The distance between heaven and hell is about eighteen inches – the distance between the head and the heart.”


Jeremiah addressed a nation who had been in exile for 70 years, now a people without a strong sense of identity. Think of it like emancipated slaves who had been born into and brought up in slavery, unable to comprehend what freedom really meant for their lives. The exiles were unsure what to do with a God who desired a relationship with them. 


In His everlasting love, their God reached out to them with a new promise, a renewed spirit, and a new covenant. It had nothing to do with what they had done; it was despite it, really. It had to do with who He is. 


There is no end to the ways in which God will make Himself known to God’s people. It’s also likely to be no end to the ways in which the world has neglected and rejected God. His own chosen nation of Israel was no exception. It was within this rejection, disobedience and faithfulness that God spoke a word of promise. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.”


How remarkable that God pledged love and faithfulness to a people who felt alone in their exiled lives, to a generation or two or three born into a situation without knowledge of their identity in God, or their place in the span of history. Generations of young people today might view the church as just a place for people to go and get their fix of religion, one that holds no appeal for them. They have faith, but it’s in the power of change or the strength of cooperative efforts to bring about justice.


Imagine how those young people would receive the idea that God wants to mark His word on us. I’m hardly a young person, but I have God’s word tattooed on my leg. This does not make its way into my mind or my heart or my soul, of course, but it serves as a reminder and hopefully as a point of entry to conversation with someone who is intrigued but ignorant of its meaning.


God’s covenant word is a sort of inscription placed right into the soul, into the seat of the will, where things may become permanent. May become permanent, but also may fade. Why should it be so hard to let God into your heart? A head religion has rules and restrictions. A heart religion has relationship. This word makes us God’s family.


For the sake of relationship, God wanted to make the intent of His laws a part of who we are. To make them a part of us God had to create the law out of flesh and blood, so that we could relate. Jesus became the Word made flesh, the law of God living among us. The covenant is based on forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness and God’s willingness to forget our sins create knowledge within us. We won’t have to be taught about God anymore, we will know Him personally as He lives within us. 


This is such a radical idea that even today people can’t accept it. It seems too easy, but it was anything but easy to achieve. It put Jesus, and by extension God, through incredible pain.   The sacrifice of Christ’s blood was the once and final sacrifice. The problem is there are still a great number of people trying to live by the old, null and void covenant. They are trying to save themselves by their own righteousness because they don’t understand the gift.


The cross is the basis for the new covenant, though that event was over a millennium away from the announcement of the promise. It was Abraham who first became the recipient of God’s promised word, and many centuries later God engaged in a new covenant, with the help of Moses, who demonstrated the nature of sacrifice by calling to mind the night in Egypt when God saved His people through the shedding of blood.


Fast forward to hundreds of years in the future, after the people deserted God for idols, broke the covenant and had paid the price of exile. It was in the seventh century BC that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, “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 and led them out of Egypt.”


“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. 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. 


Imagine a world where we don’t need lessons or lectures in order to know about God, but intuitively would have access to His word and live accordingly. If I could have absorbed all the courses in seminary that way it would have saved me four years of living away from home and thousands of hours of reading. It’s tempting to say it probably would have led to greater retention anyway. 


The covenant given through God made flesh is meant to remake us into the image of Christ and into people who know God and live according to the Spirit in their midst, and therefore love what and who God loves and passionately hate injustice and oppression. In doing so, we will simply receive the implanted word that has the power to save our souls, allowing it to transform us.


Christians must stand in the same position as Israel did in the sense that we are to be the walking, talking, embodied image of God, through whom the world does, or does not, see the very character of our God. If our God is compassionate and merciful, then what adjectives should be first on people’s lips when they speak of Christians? If our Lord is the one who executes justice for the oppressed and provides a refuge for the homeless and foreigners, then that is what the church should be about.[1]


Hope is always present trust in a future promise. In the Old Testament God did not reveal all His plans, but in the revelation of Christ to the world we now have a clear vision as to how hope works. If our hope is in God, we have hope. Everything we have hoped for is encompassed in Christ. It was His death and resurrection that secured our future, and while it may be tough to find hope in times of distress, hope remains because Christ is constant.


It was the inconsistency and the waywardness of Israel that caused God to renew His commitment to them despite their noncommittal attitude toward Him. He had given them opportunity after opportunity to repent, to change, and yet time and again they disappointed Him. The first of His covenants was given to teach them how to dwell in peace through their obedience. 


It did not fail. The people failed to uphold it. Perhaps they couldn’t. Perhaps they didn’t realize the consequence. The old covenant tried to control conduct, but it’s very difficult to legislate morality. God’s new approach came from a place of mercy. He spoke as a father would about a rebellious child. 


His mercy, though extended to all God’s people, would be available on an individual basis. No more would there be a sense of corporate blame for sin. Under this covenant each person would be accountable, which indicated how personal the covenant relationship would be.


“For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” The word forgive in that statement is applied only to the divine offer of pardon to sinners. It is not used in any other way. We cannot offer this same forgiveness to each other. This is where God has one up on us. 


There’s a lovely story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why do you say on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”


Maybe that’s why Jesus had to do what He did, in order to break the resistant hearts of those who could not be saved through the old covenant. Through His perfection He became the source of eternal salvation. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him, and the Father comes to no one except by way of Christ; the New Covenant. 


Jesus raises us to new life, not just to stumble through it, but to really, truly live it. From the heart.