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Sunday, March 25, 2012

All Will Know Me

The desire of God is that all people would know God and live in God’s ways of love; but today God also owns a desire to forgive us all we have done wrong.  It is Jesus in whom we find the fulfillment of this covenant, and from whom we are given the ability to live in it ourselves.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fifth Sunday in Lent, year B; texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33; Psalm 119:9-16

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Jeremiah delivers two statements from the LORD God today which beautifully summarize what I would argue the Bible claims is God’s saving plan for humanity and the whole world.  “ ‘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.”  That’s the first one.  The second is this: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

All will know me, says the LORD God.  And I will forgive them and forget all they’ve done.  These two themes flow through the entirety of the Scriptures, even the Old Testament, where we too often assume God’s goals and intent for us to be different.  Our Lenten Sunday journey through some of God’s covenant promises this year has been guided and shaped by these two desires of God, that all the people of the world know and love God, and therefore know and live by God’s laws of life; and that our failure so to live will not be held against us.

It is this “new” covenant Jeremiah declares which is the one God believes will finally accomplish these goals.  It should come as no surprise to us that the Church from the beginning has read the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ as the fulfillment and completion of God’s part of this new covenant, that these goals are accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  But perhaps it would be worth our while to seek that understanding ourselves, to explore this ultimate answer God imagines to address the broken relationship between the people of this earth and the Triune God who made all things.

A remarkable thing about God in the Scriptures is this relentless desire for covenant relationship with us, in spite of our repeated breaking of these covenants.

Each and every covenant we’ve seen this Lent, and every other one God makes with humanity, has been broken consistently.  In these words from Jeremiah, the LORD God even comments on that, that this new covenant is not like the one at Sinai, “the covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.”  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob struggled to keep their part of God’s covenant relationship.  David struggled to be faithful, in spite of God’s promised everlasting covenant and great blessing.  The people of Israel broke the Sinai covenant, as we heard a couple weeks ago, in a little over a month, and that was just the start of their unfaithfulness.

Yet again and again God forgives, calls the people to renewed faithfulness through the prophets, and then offers a new relationship agreement.  If the Triune God were a friend of ours, we’d be advising a little more guarded approach: don’t make yourself so vulnerable, they’re only going to hurt you, reject you, and break your laws again.  And yet God persists, and this “new” covenant in Jeremiah is God’s ultimate attempt to make a covenant relationship that will stick, that will re-shape humanity, that will not be broken.  Where all people, small to great, will know the Lord so well, and have God’s law written on their hearts, that all live in love of God and neighbor.

And built into this covenant for the first time, is a promise of forgiveness and forgetfulness on God’s part.  That seems to be a key element, that this time God’s planning an agreement which anticipates our failure, our breaking our side of it.

What makes the covenant truly stick, however, is its fulfillment in Jesus.  Everything we claim about Jesus anchors this new covenant to who he is and what he does:
An incarnate Son of God, as John reminds, can truly make the Father’s heart known to us.
A teaching Master, as Jesus was, can truly show us God’s laws in such a way that they become inscribed in our hearts.
And a saving Lord, as the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is, can in forgiving and restoring not only take away our failure but empower us to live into our covenant relationship.

So that means the first things Jesus is to do for us is to make God known to us fully, and write God’s will on our hearts.

Let’s not underestimate the gift of knowing the heart of God.  Without Jesus, there is no way we could understand this Scriptural desire of God to live with us in relationship, no way we could fully know God.

It’s dangerous to make sweeping statements, but I have yet to encounter another faith which so powerfully clings to a forgiving Deity.  Human beings throughout history have imagined lots of gods, or one God, and have ascribed all sorts of personalities and demands and actions to their deities.  These gods are sometimes kind, sometimes capricious, sometimes good, sometimes wicked.  But they all have laws, demands.  And those demands, if not met, result in punishment.  For centuries tragedy, disaster, suffering, illness, loss, grief, all could ultimately be laid at the foot of whatever deity one followed.  You sin, your god punishes.  You suffer, you must have done something wrong.

Yet for all that, the Hebrews had hints that things were different.  That there was a true God transcending all these other gods, who had reached out to them.  And they heard words of grace amidst the judgment from God.

They heard God call them into covenant relationship.

They heard God tell them, through the prophet Isaiah, that tragedies and suffering were realities of life, but the promise was that God would be with them throughout, holding and strengthening them.

And they heard the promise of forgiveness.

It is Jesus, born to this family, who fully fleshed out both literally and in our understanding the deep truth about God.  That God’s love for us and for the world, as we heard last week, is so profound God’s desire is to save all.  That God is love.  This is not something human beings intuit, ever.

Yet Jesus showed the heart of the Father to us as love, forgiving, unconditional love, even to the point of dying and rising.  We all can know God, from small to great, because of what Jesus revealed about who God is for us and for the world.

But he also was the one to do the writing Jeremiah speaks of, writing God’s law into our hearts.  We broke the Sinai covenant, as God says, so in the new covenant, it would be planted within us.  So Jesus takes the law and makes it all encompassing and life giving at the same time.

He takes a perfectly good commandment against murder and says it applies to hate and anger as well.
He takes a perfectly good commandment against adultery and says it applies even to our thoughts.  He takes a perfectly good human standard – love your friends and hate your enemies – and says our life will be known by our love for our enemies.

He raises a standard – love of God and love of neighbor – that is at once simple and easy to understand and perilously difficult to accomplish.  What he does in his teaching is radicalize the law of God to apply to every moment of our lives and every thought of our minds and every inclination of our hearts.

He removes all loopholes: God’s expectations of us are complete, and have no exceptions.  He makes it clear that there can be no gaming of the system.  God wants all of us, all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.  So even the ones who truly seemed to keep God’s law of Sinai, the Pharisees, were strongly rebuked by Jesus, because they kept the letter of the law but dodged through the loopholes, and missed the spirit of the law.

But Jesus’ radicalized teaching of the law also has a couple gifts for us.  First, by coming in person and living this way he is preaching, he modeled for us its possibility, he showed us what a life lived in love of God and neighbor could look like.  There’s no finding loopholes, but it’s a life of grace and love.

And in so doing, he planted in our hearts a desire to be like him.  To live in such full and unloopholed love, to have God’s law – which we discover is life and joy and grace to us as the psalmist again today says – to have God’s law so written on our hearts that we are reshaped into new people.

Even so, this new standard of Jesus’, this law written on our hearts, would destroy us if not for the other thing Jesus did to fulfill the covenant promised in Jeremiah.

It is his unconditional forgiveness and grace, shown throughout his teachings but made real and permanent and transformative of us all by his death and resurrection, which makes God’s promise complete and this new covenant the ultimate answer.

What God seems to have finally understood in becoming one of us, and even in this promise of Jeremiah, is that our path to fulfilling the covenant relationship lies through God’s forgiving grace, not God’s vengeful wrath.  The promise in verse 34 of Jeremiah today, fulfilled by the incarnate Son offering forgiveness and life on the cross even to his killers, is the ultimate answer God finds to the regret of the flood.  “When I am lifted up,” Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.”

If God cannot win us back by destroying us, and God cannot force us to obey his laws and the covenants made, God can finally forgive us.  Love us enough that we are shaped by that love.  And in so doing, give us a model for restoration and reconciliation with our neighbor that will make the command to love our neighbor also possible.

Jesus’ unconditional grace and forgiveness won at the cross not only makes it possible for us to be right with God, to be restored when we break God’s covenant.  It makes our keeping of the covenant possible, too.  So we learn and are brought into love of God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength by God’s forgiving love which teaches us that God’s heart is inclined to us and will not let us go.  And we become lovers of God.  And we learn and are brought into love of neighbor by living the same kind of reconciling, forgiving ways, loving each other into love.

Looking at the state of things, we could argue that this covenant hasn’t worked, perhaps we even might fear sometimes that it is doomed, it has no chance.

But in fact, we know it has worked, and it is working.  In our lives, in the lives of faithful people everywhere, God’s healing love is making an impact, and people are learning to know God, and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness even as they seek to live in love of God and neighbor.  If even some of our fellow Christians haven’t understood this, and still preach an exclusionary God who rains wrath on those who don’t believe or those who fail, we know that the Son of God has revealed to us the truth, and will reveal it to them.  And we know that God’s powerful covenant of love and grace is the only hope for our lives and the life of the world.

And so we live in hope, even as the Spirit our Lord Jesus sent us continues to write God’s will into our hearts and the forgiveness Jesus offers us continues to lead us to new paths of love, just as God has desired all along.

In the name of Jesus, Amen

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