Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

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—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 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. 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; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.

The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

When God Gets Personal

Jeremiah 31:27-34

These seem like trying times.

There’s the U.S. government, of course. I don’t have to go into more detail for you to understand what I mean. I don’t even have to make any partisan statements. One thing everyone can agree on: something’s broken, and that brokenness triggers suspicion and fear.

As a pastor, I would also say that October more and more is a difficult month for people. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the change of seasons. Other pastors have noticed a change in attitudes around this time, too. People, even church people, act out in anger more, saying or doing things they probably regret later.

I have wondered if the depressing, overarching theme of the month causes some of these disturbances of the soul. I’m personally not crazy about October because Halloween has become such a big deal in our culture, and I feel during the month that I’m constantly inundated with zombies and bloody, evil imagery. If NBC doesn’t stop running those promos for “Dracula” soon, I’m going to have to stop watching the network.

It could be a lot worse, though. As my son is fond of saying, those are all “First World problems.” We’re not surrounded by our enemies, under siege and starving, awaiting an attack that is going to lead to mass slaughter. That’s the situation people have repeatedly found themselves in throughout history; in particular, that’s the position the prophet Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem found themselves in about 600 years before Jesus Christ was born.

This story is remarkable because of what God said through Jeremiah in the midst of this impending doom. I also love the way Jeremiah personally responded to God’s promises.

Jerusalem clearly was going to fall to the invading Babylonian Empire. In his role as prophet, Jeremiah had said as much, and it did happen. Before the fall, Jewish King Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah for daring to say so.

There was more to Jeremiah’s prophecies, however. He also related promises from God that still resonate in our lives today. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” Those are the words marking the beginnings of these promises.

First, the Lord said, the time of tearing down and punishing what had become a divided, disobedient children of God would end. The people of Israel would return to their homes. And not only that, a new way of relating to God would begin. Rather than being judged as a nation, each person would be judged individually for his or her sins. That is the point of the “sour grapes” verses.

Second, that new way of relating to God would lead to a new covenant, a deeply personal one. “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,” Jeremiah said on God’s behalf. There also was a third promise that Jerusalem will one day be remade into a holy place, “sacred to the Lord,” never again to be “uprooted or overthrown.”

Jeremiah even put his money where his mouth was. A cousin came to him, wanting Jeremiah to buy a field in Anathoth, their hometown. Imagine paying valuable silver for a piece of land just as a foreign army is about to take all the land around you—on its face, the transaction looked quite foolish.

Jeremiah bought the field to make a point, however. God’s promises are trustworthy. The land would one day be returned to the Israelites. Jeremiah had the deed of purchase sealed in an earthenware jar so he or his descendants could one day prove ownership of the field in question.

And God’s promises were fulfilled—in fact, they are still being fulfilled—in astounding ways.

For us, these promises were fulfilled most importantly through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life and death on the cross established that promised personal relationship for us. When Jesus died for our sins, we once again had a path to God. Believe in the effectiveness of his Son’s death and resurrection, and we are once again able to go to a holy God despite our sins.

And there’s more. When we enter that relationship, God’s Holy Spirit begins to work within us. That’s as personal as a relationship can be, God’s Spirit whispering to our spirits. Such interaction changes us and shapes us, re-making us into what God intended us to be.

Those promises from God carried Jeremiah and the children of Israel through conquest and captivity, sustaining them until they were returned to the land. And they likely were clueless as to just how far God would go. The Christ who would come centuries later, and how he would actually make salvation possible for all, was beyond their imaginations.

We should fare much better as we face our First World problems, particularly when we consider the knowledge we have about how God is making all things new. We can look to the Bible for sustenance; we can look to our hearts to see what God is doing, assuming we have faithfully let God in.

Jeremiah’s words are a lesson for any trying times.

Budding Prophecies

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’ve always been intrigued by preachers who use the title “prophet.” A prophet’s prospects for long-term popularity seem dim, at best.

Prophets may be well-known in their time, perhaps even gathering astonished crowds with miraculous signs. The actual act of prophecy, however, is unlikely to make the prophets many friends. And the more prophets prophesy, the less their audiences seem to like them.

And yet, what higher human calling can there be? Yes, prophets sometimes speak of the future. But more importantly, to prophesy is to be so directly connected to the mind of God that you can speak God’s will directly into the everyday world.

Young Prophet

Jeremiah was a prophet, called at a very young age to speak God’s will to God’s chosen people—a people divided politically, anemic in their faith and on the verge of a terrible downfall. He was so young, in fact, that he protested his calling, citing his youthfulness.

The ability to prophesy is not rooted in human concepts like age or education level, however. It is not even rooted in a particular prophet’s immediate existence, in his or her conception and birth. Judging from Jeremiah, God’s placement of prophets through history is strategic and part of the plan of creation.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said in his opening revelation to Jeremiah. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

It is as if God wired creation with a broadcasting system, and the prophets are the woofers, mids, tweeters and subs resounding according to the Creator’s will.

When God speaks, change usually is demanded, particularly when the situation has become as unholy as the one in which Jeremiah found himself. And therein lies the problem for the prophet. People are naturally resistant to change. In fact, I would argue that the further people are from God, the more resistant they are to holy change. It certainly seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day.

Loud Complaints, Heavy Burdens

Jeremiah’s pronouncements were so strong, in fact, that we now call lengthy complaints “jeremiads.” God complained loudly that his chosen people had turned away, looking to other gods. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people they were headed for disaster. The disaster—the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire—happened during Jeremiah’s prophetic tenure.

The burden of all this prophesying took its toll on Jeremiah, as it does on prophets throughout the Bible. Consider what Jeremiah was called from the start to do among his own people, to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” Only later would his prophecies contribute to building and planting.

During one particularly trying time, Jeremiah resounded bitterness: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you  have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”

His only comfort lay in his understanding that those who would persecute him would face God and eternal dishonor. And yet, he still wished that he had never been born. The Bible is silent on Jeremiah’s end; stories outside the Bible indicate he was stoned to death by his own exasperated people.

A Fire Within

So why prophesy? Why suffer so? Jeremiah answered that question in his discourse of complaint, recorded in Jeremiah 20:7-18. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Prophets prophesy because they are made down to the marrow to do so.

Now, there can be joy in prophecy; there are times when the prophets glimpsed how God’s plan to save unholy humanity would unfold. For the Old Testament prophets, it must have seemed a vague, distant joy, like a clear sky on a deeply cold night about an hour before sunrise. There are at least nine places in Jeremiah where the prophet saw the Christ to come.

Think how blessed we are, knowing the story of Jesus Christ in full. Through prayer and study, we can so much more easily understand the radical truth of what God is doing in the world to save us.

Prophets for Today

And yet, we still need prophets, or at a minimum, prophetic moments implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It remains a difficult world. Just as it happened in Jeremiah’s day, people turn away from God now, trading a potentially eternal relationship for what is immediate and worldly.

We are called to examine ourselves and change our ways. We are called to find ways to convince others to practice a vital, ruddy faith, one rooted in the bloody cross and the dawning resurrection.

If we take such steps and speak what we hear from God, there are plenty of people out there who will want to stone us, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally. But with the Holy Spirit burning deep in our bones, how can we not prophesy? After all, we have been remade down to the marrow.