Sunday, April 2, 2006

Lent 5: Standing before a forgetful God

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-26

Each Sunday during Lent, and this is the fifth one,
we have looked at a different Old Testament covenant.
First, the one with Noah: a one-sided promise God made to all creation,
never to destroy the earth again.
Second, there was a covenant with Abraham.
I will bless all nations through you and your descendants.
Third, we looked at the covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai,
written on stone that Moses brought down from the mountain.
Last Sunday, we had what you might call a “covenant for healing,”
when God told Moses to lift a bronze serpent up on a pole.

Now, today, it’s the covenant written on the heart,
our Lenten theme this year.
We’ve been reading this Jeremiah text over and over every Sunday.
Some of you have now memorized it.
...Do you know what it means?

“God writing on our hearts.”
Everything about that phrase is hard to get hold of.
We can’t picture it easily.
That’s why the banner and bulletin art is so abstract.
How do you represent God taking a pen to our hearts,
and writing something on it.
And what in the world does that mean, anyway?

Well, let’s explore it.
You might want to turn to Jeremiah 31 as we do this.
The text is there in the bulletin, too.

Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah,
God announces to the people that a new covenant is coming—
“is surely coming, says the Lord,” v. 31.
And this new covenant is held up
over against the covenant at Mt. Sinai.
Not to undo the Sinai covenant,
but to enhance it.
At Sinai, the covenant was written on stones,
and it was apt to be broken—the stones and the covenant—
because it was external.
It was handed down to them.
It had to be taught, by rote.
Learn this, people.
“Know the Lord.” (v. 34)

By contrast, the covenant to come will be written internally,
on the heart.
For people of the new covenant,
knowledge of God, and of God’s covenant,
will be part of their nature.
They won’t have to be taught the same way, Jeremiah says.
Because they will already have it in them.
From the youngest to oldest, the least to greatest.
They will know the Lord, naturally...by nature.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

Now what are we to make of that?
Certainly, we Christians read it from a different vantage point.
We see Jesus in that text.
And rightly so.
Jesus did come proclaiming a new covenant.
He called people to a new standard of life in God.
He preached a higher level of life in the kingdom of God:
“You have heard that it was said...but I say to you.”
And that new covenant was sealed
by the blood of his suffering, his death, his resurrection,
which we’ll be celebrating over the next couple weeks.
And the new covenant remains with us through the Spirit,
which Jesus promised would dwell in us,
as he called us into communities of the Spirit.

So we could look at this reading from Jeremiah, and say,
“Hey! It’s been done.”
Jesus fulfilled this covenant. We are living in it now.
And on one level, that’s true.
We do experience some of the internal dynamic
of this covenant,
because of the Spirit of Jesus in us,
enlivening the covenant,
giving it a quality of being inherent in us.
But who of us can claim we have it down pat?
Who is willing to say we no longer need to teach this covenant?
The strongest evidence, looking around us,
is that we do not all, from the least to the greatest,
“know the Lord.”
We are not beyond the need for being taught.

No, there’s something deeper here in Jeremiah 31.
And I think it goes all the way back to Genesis 3.
Ever since humankind fell away from God,
into a sinful, self-oriented, existence,
God has been reaching out to us to repair the breach.
That’s what we’ve been looking at the last four Sundays,
covenant after covenant, God is reaching out to us.
But these covenants have not reached their full potential
because of our failure to keep them.
Sin keeps dragging us back,
away from the destination God has in mind for us.

Jeremiah, I think, is prophesying about the day that will surely come,
when our restoration will be full and complete.
Back to how it was in Genesis 1 and 2.
When all of creation was in harmony with itself,
and with its Creator.
Jeremiah is prophesying a complete renewal—
we will have a renewed consciousness...
renewed will...
renewed passions.
And this will be nothing other than a gift of God.
It’s not something we make happen.

Look carefully at v. 34:
“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.”
It is God’s forgiveness that results in the knowing.
“They shall know me...for I will forgive them.”
That’s an important little 3-letter conjunction:
“for”...meaning “because.”
It is because God forgives us, that we are able to know God.
God’s forgiveness comes first.
It’s God’s initiative, not ours.
We usually get it backwards.
We think we have to learn enough about God,
and muster enough belief and faith in God,
so that we can say the right words to God,
and present ourselves before God in the right manner,
so that because of our approach of faith toward God,
God will then forgive us.
That’s not how Jeremiah 31 says it.
God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and forget their sins...
and then they shall know me.”

The forgiveness of our sins by God is a done deal.
What is left, is for us to open ourselves to God.
To allow ourselves to experience the knowledge of God,
made possible by God’s forgiveness.
We human beings are the clog in the system, here.
Always have been.
It’s not that God is holding back his love and forgiveness,
for some future age when we all get our act together.
No...it’s a done deal.

But, obviously, we cannot live in that love and forgiveness,
unless we open ourselves to it.
All that’s left, is for us to stand before God with an open posture.
The same posture that Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden,
before the fall.
Connecting Jeremiah 31 to the first chapters of Genesis,
gave me a new insight.
Before they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
it says that Adam and Eve were naked, and not ashamed.
Don’t know if I thought of it like this before,
but I’m not so sure their nakedness was really an issue
between them as human beings.
After they ate the fruit,
I don’t think they were suddenly embarrassed
to be seen naked by each other.
The reason they sewed fig leaves together for clothes,
was so God wouldn’t see them naked.
At least, that’s how the text reads.

When God called to Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”
Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden,
and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
Sin caused Adam to be afraid
to stand exposed and naked before God.
That’s what sin does.
Sin creates a need for cover.
Sin makes us move toward self-protection.
Sin causes us to settle for something less
than a full openness and vulnerability toward God.
Sin makes us conscious of our nakedness before God,
and we run for cover.

But the wonderful word of grace and hope found in Jeremiah 31,
is that when humanity finally finds the courage
to stand naked before God, with their sins exposed,
God will say, “What sins?”
And full fellowship will be restored,
just like the first day in the Garden.
When we stand exposed before God,
we will discover that God is a forgetful God.
We will discover that God has already forgiven us,
and is ready to move on.
The question is whether we are ready to move on.

That’s kind of disconcerting to those of us,
who’ve conditioned ourselves to think we have to earn God’s favor.
When we finally get up the nerve to approach God
and beg for mercy and forgiveness,
we expect to at least get a stern scolding from God,
and a long list of things to do to get back in God’s good graces.
But instead of standing before a faultfinding, finger-wagging God,
we are standing before a forgetful God.
A God who literally doesn’t remember our sin.

So maybe, just maybe, the reason this new covenant on the heart
is taking so long to come about,
is not because God is moving too slow.
Perhaps God’s part has already been done,
and the covenant is not yet fulfilled
because humanity is too stubborn, too proud,
too afraid, too self-oriented, too protective.
We’re back where Adam was, hiding in the bushes.
We’re not ready to stand naked and vulnerable before God.
If only we knew the kind of God we would meet,
if we came out of the bushes.

That puts a different angle on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
We still have a lot of work to do.
When we are reconciled with this forgiving and forgetful God,
it means we walk with God in a life of holiness and obedience.
It means we pattern our lives after a higher ethical standard,
than much of the world around us.
We are servants of God, not of ourselves,
and we are obligated to the agenda of God’s kingdom.
Being a disciple is costly.
But...being forgiven is not.

The forgiveness has already been accomplished.
It’s not of our doing. It’s a gift of a gracious God.
BUT...it’s only available to those willing to stand
open and vulnerable and exposed before this gracious God.

־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־־
It is our willingness to lay down our lives,
to assume a position of self-sacrifice,
that allows God’s salvation to take root in us.

In today’s Gospel reading,
Jesus shows us the way.
He models for us,
how to live out the agenda God has for our lives,
and lay down our own agenda, and let it die.
Jesus was willing to lay down his life,
because he was confident that by so doing,
God would bring about something far greater.
In John 12:24, he spoke about his own impending death.
“I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.”

That is also our calling.
To lay down the fig leaves, so to speak.
To come out of the bushes and stand exposed before God.

If we want to meet the forgetful, forgiving God,
we have to lay down those things—
those artificial things we have built up around ourselves,
to shield ourselves,
to protect our self-interest.
We have to say to God, here we are...we belong to you.
That is the day God will be able to say,
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Verse 33 of Jeremiah 31.
That is the day Jeremiah’s prophesy will be fulfilled,
“I will put my law within them,” says the Lord,
“and I will write it on their hearts.”
That is the day we will be gladly received by our forgetful God.

I would like to lead us in a collective time of confession,
that will take us, perhaps, a little closer to that day.

Will you bow your heads with me?
First, take a moment to reflect,
and identify just one of those artificial shields
that we have constructed around us,
to protect us from exposure to God and to others.
That shield could be anything.
I don’t know what God’s Spirit may bring to mind.
It might be our selfish pride,
our desire to succeed as a career professional,
or to raise successful children,
It might be our house,
our retirement portfolio.
It might be our shining reputation in the community.
And it’s not necessarily anything bad in itself.
But something that we are holding onto for dear life,
so as not to stand exposed and vulnerable before God.
To hide our sin and brokenness from God,
and from each other.
Name just one of those things that comes to mind.

[silence]
Now, if you are willing to lay down this shield,
and stand before God,
hold out your open hands in front of you,
as a gesture of that willingness to lay down yourself,
and your agenda.
Imagine yourself standing before God, fully exposed and vulnerable,
and naming your sin.
And saying to God, “Lord, have mercy.”
Now, with heads still bowed, and without using our hymnals,
let’s sing together, “Kyrie, eleison.” Lord have mercy.

—Phil Kniss, April 2, 2006

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