Jeremiah, the 31st chapter (31-34)
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.
Today is Reformation 504.
504 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, on October 31st, the eve of All Saints Day or All Hallows Eve. This simple act sparked a transformation of christians and the church that still reverberates to this day.
As we consider the Reformation today, we must also admit that the past 20 months have been another reformation of a kind for us, with everything we are used to doing and being together as a church being upended and changed.
There is a theory among some scholars of religion, particularly Christians, that there is a major transformation or reformation every 500 to 700 years. Five hundred years ago it was Martin Luther. Seven hundred years before that is was the split between East and West, creating the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 400 or so years before that it was the codification of Christian belief at council of Nicea – out of which came the Nicene Creed.
And each of these moments were, in some way or another, about re-imagining the ways in which Christians understand and proclaim the gospel. The Reformation was precisely about this issue, about the right proclamation of the gospel in community. Martin Luther’s reasons for speaking up and speaking out as he did were pastoral, he was concerned for the well-being of the people he served. He wanted to make sure they clearly heard the good news of God’s free gift of grace given for them, rather than the exploitative message of the church, using fear to get people to pay their way into heaven.
Luther always wanted to turn us back to the gospel, to turn us back to the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us from sin and death.
20 months into this 21st century pandemic, we need to hear that gospel promise from the 16th century. Though the world is more normal than last year, we are only slowly passing through this pandemic. It is hard to know whether we are nearing the end or still at the beginning. Good news is hard to come by and normal seems like an ancient dream.
And so in the midst of darkness, in order to do our best to follow Luther’s desire for gospel clarity, we hear again the same foundational texts of the Reformation. Romans 3, the part of St. Paul’s writings that sparked Luther’s imagination towards God’s radical gift of grace. And John’s declaration that the Son sets us free, the promise of freedom in the gospel. And of course, Psalm 46, the basis for the most famous of Luther’s hymns – A Mighty Fortress.
But what about Jeremiah, the somewhat familiar but often overlooked reading of the bunch?
Jeremiah’s prophetic words were written for the people of Israel during the violent times of the Babylonian exile. Words about the covenant with Abraham and Sarah… the covenant that goes all the way back to the beginning: the promise of land, descendants and a relationship with God. And while usually a covenant is an agreement that places conditions on both parities, all the people of Israel had to do was not refuse. All the promises were coming from God, none from Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
Still, the people consistently turned away. It’s not surprising that they turned away as it is hard to believe in God in the midst of violence and oppression.
Most of what comes before this passage in Jeremiah is a lot of God’s ranting and raving about the failings of the people. Eventually God decides that a new course is needed for God’s people. And so God makes a promise. A promise that rang true in the Reformation and a promise that rings true for us today.
So no, Jeremiah is the least famous of the Reformation readings, but it is none-the-less foundational. There is no radical gift of grace in Romans, no freedom in the Son of God in John, no A Mighty Fortress without Jeremiah.
The problem and struggle of the people of Israel and in Martin Luther’s day is the same as it ever was. A problem that stemmed back to the garden of Eden, and problem that we too bear.
As God tries and tries to draw us back to God, we continue to turn away. For the people of Israel, God’s promise of land, descendants and relationship first given to Sarah and Abraham was always too unbelievable and also never enough. Whether it was Abraham’s own fear that God’s promises wouldn’t come true, or the people of Israel longing for Egypt and slavery as they wandered in desert, or the Israelites losing faith during the Babylonian exile.
During the Reformation it was a church that wanted to control God’s promises, to make mercy a commodity rather than a promised gift.
And today? We too struggle with covenant. It is too hard to trust, even in the midst of chaos and change, in the lonely and fearful world of the pandemic, in this world it is hard to accept that God’s promises are indeed for us too. The promised land seems to unreal, descendants to follow us in faith and carry the torch feels laughable. A God who loves sinners like us? Preposterous. A God who is relevant in a world that has mostly forgotten or doesn’t care anymore? Unimaginable.
It’s no wonder that God might be frustrated with us. We just don’t want to get it.
And so God does a different thing.
God starts all over again.
God brings us to the foundation.
God decides that a new covenant is needed. A simpler covenant. A simple relationship.
When in scripture, a prophet – such as Jeremiah – utters the words “Thus says the Lord” biblical scholars call it an oracle. A message of the divine, a direct speech from God. And so it behooves us to listen, to open our ears and hear what God is about say:
But 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.
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And with that, a new covenant comes into being. One that even the fickle Israelites cannot break. Or the people of 16th century Europe, or 21st century pandemic peoples.
A covenant made manifest in incarnation. In the God who becomes flesh, the God in Christ who comes to bring the Kingdom near to us. The God whom we try to put to death, and the God who rises again on the third day.
This new covenant, this new promise is now unbreakable. It is the promise of mercy, the promise of radical grace and forgiveness, the promise that sin, suffering and death will no longer control us.
Because God is our God… we cannot be God in God’s place.
And we are God’s people, we have no other identity, nothing else lays claim to who we are, not the world, not ourselves, criss or tribulation, not sin… not even death.
We are God’s people, we belong to the one who has chosen mercy and love for us.
And God reminds us of this truth each and every day, week after week, season after season.
God reminds us that we are God’s in the mercy and forgiveness that we hear proclaimed.
We are God’s in the Word announced in this assembly and in places of worship all over the world.
We are God’s in the Baptism that washes and renews us for life as God’s children.
We are God’s in the bread and wine, given so that we become the Body of Christ for the world.
Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.
This is the foundation of the truth proclaimed anew in the Reformation, just as it became the new covenant with the people of the Israel.
And this is the precisely what God intends for us to hear on the 504th anniversary of the Reformation, during our pandemic exile and our zoom reformation, that we 21st people of faith still belong to the God of Abraham and Sarah and Martin Luther.
That even when we try to turn away, that God’s promise is unbreakable.
Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.