Lenten Series-- Promises in the Night: A New Relationship
Jeremiah 31:32-34 with Mark 14: 66-72
Lent is a self-reflective time when we are asked to slow down and reconsider parts of our lives that we might just rush through at other times of the year.
So, in the spirit of the season, I'd like to ask you this morning to reflect upon a few things with me just a minute. Consider a time in your life that you wish you could forget. This could be a time when you said something hurtful to a loved one, a time that you acted out in public in an embarrassing way, or even a long stretch of time when you rebelled and turned your back on all the good things in your life. If you were standing before God at the pearly gates right now, what are the moments of your life you wish that God would forget?
When I think about my life, I wish God would forget that day I ruined my father's car by running over a cinder block (and wasn't honest about it) just one week after getting my driver's license.
I wish God would forget that day early in my marriage to Kevin that I was so angry I threw a shoe at him.
I wish God would forget the countless times I failed to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength and to love my neighbor as myself.
I, like you, have many times that I wish just didn't happen-- that God would just forget.
When we meet the apostle Peter, in the latest installment of Jesus' dark night of the soul this day, we encounter him during a few moments in his life that I bet would be on his "I wish God would forget this" list too. Peter, does the unthinkable as Ken illustrated for us this morning as our worship began: he turns his back to his best friend.
And this is the scene: Jesus has just been arrested. He has been seized by the Pharisees and the chief priests and taken in for questioning. Peter follows Jesus to the courtyard of the house where the high priest held him. And though it appears that this will become his shining moment-- being the only among the named 12 disciples who even follows Jesus after his arrest-- such is not the case. No not at all.
When one of the maids, a young girl who served the high priest noticed Peter's presence and remembered his face as one of the traveling companions of Jesus, she asks in verse 66: "You were with Jesus the Nazarene" weren't you?
And though Peter should have said and could have said a simple "Yes. Yes, I was with him. Yes, I knew him." , fear paralyzes Peter. He denies any connection to this man who had inevitably changed his life saying: "I neither know nor understand what you mean."
What Peter? Are you serious Peter? Yes, he was. He denied any knowledge of knowing Jesus. It was going to cost him too much. Maybe they'd soon be arresting him as well. He couldn't bear the thought of that.
So, as the young girl with a good memory-- she just knows she recognizes Peter as having been a friend of Jesus-- asks the same question and again, again and again we get the same answer. He even goes as far to swear. "I do not know this man of whom you speak."
And at that very moment, the cock crows for the second time to fulfill the prediction that Jesus had made of this "I wish I could forget it" moment of Peter's life. Peterremembers that the Lord had told him: "before the cock crows two times, you will deny me three times."
It might have seemed at this juncture that all was lost for Peter and his relationship with Jesus. It might have seemed that Peter royally screwed up so bad that from that moment all would be lost. It might have seemed that Jesus would never speak to him again. It might have seen that all of those years Peter prepared for this moment where all eyes were on him to make a confession were a complete waste.
In the same way, when we read the prophetic book of Jeremiah, we could easily be completely depressed too. Jeremiah affectionately known in modern times as the prophet who should have been on Prozac but wasn't. Scholars often called Jeremiah, the "weeping prophet".
But, why? Commentator, Wil Gafney writes of the context of Jeremiah saying, "Jeremiah lived through the demise of his civilization when the Babylonians invaded Judah, assaulted Jerusalem, and reduced the temple to rubble, exiling, or killing the royal family, priests, prophets, and majority of the population."[i] The nation of Israel turned their back on God's plans for their nation. And thus, God allowed his beloved to experience the consequences of their own actions. The nation was in exile. The temple was in ruins. Family members had died during the siege. There was certainly a lot to be sad and cry about. It was a dark, dark night in the chapter of Israel's history. It was a chapter, too, that I bet they'd wish that God would forget.
In particular when we read earlier in the book of Jeremiah, such as in chapter 5, we hear how bad things had gotten. Jeremiah was asked by God to tell the Israelites: "Announce this to the house of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah; Hear this you senseless people... [you] have stubborn and rebellious hearts..." Not exactly the warm fuzzies anyone would want to hear.
The nation of Israel, like Peter, rightfully shared guilt. They'd messed up. They could have assumed that the relationship and the shared history was over.
But, the tune of verse 31 of Jeremiah chapter 31 tells a different story. "The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah."
I don't know if you are like me, but when I mess up (and I know it!) there's nothing more I want to do than bury my head in the couch for a while. Most certainly, I don't want to hear of some new hopeful plan. Licking our wounds feels good for a while, doesn't it? But, the Lord would have none of it.
Sure, Israel had messed up. Sure, they'd fallen short. Sure, they'd broken all of the covenants they made with God up Mount Sinai. They'd worshipped other gods. They'd had affairs. They'd not kept the Sabbath. They'd not welcomed the foreigner or blessed the stranger. It was grounds for divorce.
And so, because Israel had broken the covenant, God had EVERY reason to set them aside. Israel had certainly checked all the boxes that were grounds for divorce. God kept God's end of the deal, but Israel had not. God could walk away knowing God did all that could be done. Certainly, God could try again with this "my chosen people" business with another group.
But, instead, a re-marriage ceremony is offered. God says to Israel verse 33:"This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts."
Stacy Simpson writes of this God we encounter in Jeremiah saying, " In the evangelical tradition in which I grew up, we spoke of "letting Jesus into our hearts." He stood there patiently and knocked, waiting as long as it took, and when we were ready, we swung the door open and invited him in. But, the God of Jeremiah will have none of that. This God has grown weary of people’s inability to keep his law. No more will the covenant be written in stone, a covenant which was external and could be broken. Instead . .. God says "I will write it on their heart." The heart of the entire people will bear the covenant."[ii]
God takes an active role in restoring the broken relationship. Which is another way of God going to marriage counseling with Israel saying, "Let's start over. Because I want to make a new relationship with you."
But, how could God do this? Doesn't God remember all the pain of heartache, rejection and loss? Doesn't God know that if he works toward reconciliation that it all might go sour again?
Such is why the final verse of promise is important. Look with me at verse 34 as the Lord says, "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
This new relationship was based on 100% forgiveness. To move forward and to have a chance of the coming of the new-- the past needed to be forgotten. And, God makes this move.
How many times in relation to the topic of "forgiveness" have you heard the phrase, "forgive and forget?" And I think as equally number of times that this phrase is spoken aloud, thoughts of those who hear it also think, "I cannot forget. Maybe I can forgive, but forget is something I can't do."
For there's something about the human brain, isn't it that just wants to hold on to things, especially the unfavorable stuff.
In a recent conversation with a friend, we sat around a coffee table and recounted all of the negative things family members, classmates or even perfect strangers said to us at one point in our lives. And it was easy to make the list long. And if you were to make a list too, I'm sure you could without difficulty make one.
There was that time in the 4th grade that one of the well-liked, well-dressed girls told you that you were fat and your teeth were crooked. You've never felt the same about your body since.
There was that time in college when you rushed for a fraternity only to not make the cut because you family name didn't have enough money associated with it. You've been trying to make as much money as you can with your chosen career ever since.
There was that Christmas holiday when who you thought was your favorite aunt came over and found fault with all your home's decor. You've been afraid to host a family gathering since.
And there was that time you expressed interest in painting and began creating beautiful pallets of color and texture and a friend walked into your studio said, "Well maybe in 10 years you'll find some talent." You've put down the brush ever since.
No matter what your "there was this time" story is, I think it is safe to say that we all have them. We all have times in our lives that something has been said to us or about us that we'd wish we could forget.
So what good news this is to all of our ears-- what a promise in the night God's gift of a new relationship can be!
For just as we mess up, as the nation of Israel did time and time again, and just as Peter denied Jesus on a night when it mattered the most, we worship a God who promises us a new start.
But not just any old new start. A new start where those chapters in our lives that we most want to forget are forgotten, but also the painful wounds imposed on us by others can also be forgiven. We are not God of course, so we probably are never going to be able to forget the ill that has been done and said against us, especially those deeply traumatic memories. But, we take heart and remember that God can do what we can't. God can forget so we can live. And, as beloved children of the heavenly parent, we too have words of this covenant are written on our hearts-- so no matter what, we'll never be left alone. We have a sign of God's relationship always with us. There is nothing we could ever do that would not keep God's love from us. Nothing.
So in light of this, and in response to this sermon today, I want you to find a comfortable seated position where you are right now for a moment of meditation. Clear everything off your lap and place both feet on the bottom of the floor. And, close your eyes and take your hands and place them at the center of your lap with your palms facing open. And right now, I want you to call to mind the two things that we talked about in the sermon for this morning.
1. Something you'd done in your life that you'd wish God would forget.
2. Something someone has done to you that you wish you could forget.
And in the quietness of this moment, I want you to imagine that you are holding both of these somethings in your hands. Holding them tight by balling up your fists with them in it. One in one hand and one in another.
Now, as I re-read the passage for this morning-- Jeremiah's promise in the night, I invite you to listening closely. And, as you listen imagine these somethings being released. Of letting them go, as you are able, why? because in grace, God has already forgotten.[iii]
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It 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.33But 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.34No 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.
Thanks be to God who makes all things new!
[i] "Lectionary for October 17, 2010: Jeremiah 31:27-34" Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/17/2010
[ii] "Branded by God" The Christian Century http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2032
[iii] Thanks to David Lose of Working Preaching.Com for this idea.