A sermon for October 16 on Jeremiah 31:27-34
We have been digging around in the book of Jeremiah for about two months now, and here tonight we bring that to a close. This passage is drawn from what is often called Jeremiah’s “book of consolation.” After twenty-nine chapters of unrelenting warnings and dire prophetic words, the gears shift into a space of equally unrelenting hope and words of new possibility, new orientation. Not that the prophet has suddenly lost his edge and begun to sing endless rounds of kumbaya around the campfire. Oh no, it would be a disappointing if this hard-nosed truth teller began to do that…
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Again, context. He’s writing to the exiles in Babylon; essentially prisoners of war, who have been lifted out of their homeland and taken into captivity. Jerusalem lies in ruins, the nation is broken, and the deepest fear of those exiles is that their great story has ended. God has allowed the whole works to come crashing down, because the nation had turned its back on its covenant identity, on torah, on God. No future.
And then this is what Jeremiah writes to them: “And just as I [the Lord] have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil”—I told you Jeremiah still had his edge—“so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.” Ah, he has edge, but he also stands at the very edge of hope.
And then this:
In those days they shall no longer say:
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
He’s obviously quoting a widely known proverb or wisdom saying that suggested that the errors and failings of one generation always have consequences for the next, and you have to acknowledge that there is truth in that. It is certainly true at a societal level, right? That’s what the whole Truth and Reconciliation Commission was about. It is also true at the level of families, as any therapist will tell you. There simply are consequences that flow down from one generation to the next.
Yet as Walter Brueggemann notes, Jeremiah “finally refuses the proverb and declares it to be null and void.” You see, Jeremiah’s refuses the proverb by adding, “[A]ll shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” Now at first that might sound like raw judgment, but it is actually not. As tonight’s reading continues you’ll see what he’s actually dealing with is raw grace, but even before he goes there what Jeremiah does is to insist that those exiles are not fated or condemned because of what their parents and forebears had done. No. Again from Brueggemann: “Each [new generation] can act out its own destiny and choose its own future with God. The refutation of the proverb, and therefore the dismissal of conventional wisdom, asserts that newness is possible for the generation of the Exile.” Newness is possible, Jeremiah proclaims to this disoriented community of exiles. And do you know why? Because, he proclaims to them, because,
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… 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.
The law, the torah, the way, the covenant, written right on their hearts, which means it is to be embedded in their very souls. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”… again, but anew. The temple may be gone, the stone tablets on which the commandments written lost, but it doesn’t matter, for “from the least of them to the greatest” they will know me; they will know my way.
What words to be spoken into that broken, exiled community. Almost too good to be true, yet in time they were freed and they did return to start anew. And even in exile, they reclaimed their deeper story, and learned to live in trust.
But you know, they still stumbled, and so do we. We can pay deep attention to what is written on our own hearts, but we know all too well what Paul is talking about when he writes in Romans 7 “I do not understand my own actions… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
And that’s where we come to Jeremiah’s assertion of raw grace, for the Lord says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” I will forgive it and remember it no more. “All newness,” comments Brueggemann, “is possible because Yahweh has forgiven. Indeed, beginning again in and after exile depends upon Yahweh’s willingness to break out of a system of rewards and punishments, for the affront of Israel and Judah could never be satisfied by punishment.” There’s no way to vindicate things on some scales of justice, so God goes out of the book-keeping business and not only forgives, but forgets. That’s the rawest kind of grace imaginable.
It is incumbent on us to forgive. We remind ourselves of it every Sunday: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It isn’t always easy to do that, but it is the mandate. It might take time, and you might have to return to it again and again to work our some other piece of forgiving, but it is still the mandate. When we’ve been wronged or hurt or betrayed, we’re called to drop the suit, forgive the debt, let it go so it doesn’t hang around our own necks like a stone. Forgive just as we ourselves have been forgiven. Absolutely.
But the forgetting? The remembering no more? Only God can do that, or at least do it utterly and fully. We don’t forget like that, and sometimes we’ve got some of the scar tissue in ourselves that keeps reminding us of where we were hurt, trespassed against, wounded. As I’ve said here before, this side of the Kingdom of God, it just isn’t possible for us to forget like that, nor is it necessarily even wise or prudent. If you’ve been badly wronged, badly hurt, deeply betrayed, forgetting can be a set-up for having it happen all over again. But the forgiving and releasing? That’s our call, and a big part of that has to do with being freed from being merely the victim; being freed from always having to carry across our shoulders the burden of the hurt.
In our reality—human time, human context—such things can take a while to work through, and in fact we may entirely get there. But no matter, because our reality, our time, our context, is but a small part of a much bigger reality. God’s reality. God’s reality, shot through with this wild, mad grace. This is the word Jeremiah wants us to hear, these are the words spoken to us by our God: I am your God, and you are my people. The sins and failings you bring to me in confession? Forgiven. Forgotten. Wiped clean. The book is closed. I remember them no more. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Now, says the Lord, what were you saying you wanted to tell me about?