What God Wants

Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Through this Lenten season, the OT lectionary readings have focused on covenants.

We reflected on the covenant with Noah.
We reflected on the covenant with Abraham.
We reflected on the covenant with Moses.
And we looked at “covenant gone awry” last week, with the story of the bronze serpent.

This week, we look forward rather than backward: to a covenant that was foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, initiated by Jesus Christ, and will be fully realized one day in the future.

The timing of Jeremiah and this text is truly key to our application of it.

The prophet Jeremiah comes onto the scene immediately after the death of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 627 BC. The Assyrians have been troublesome for the Kingdom of Judah for some time, even before the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and violently dispersed the people in exile in 722 BC. After four decades on the throne, Ashurbanipal’s death indicates the imminent fall of Assyria.

As the Assyrians lost power, King Josiah of Judah initiated religious reforms and sought to reestablish the old Kingdom of David. When the Babylonians conquered Assyria’s capital city, “it must have seemed to everyone in Jerusalem that God was at last beginning to smile upon Judah and that the spiritual ideals proclaimed with such energy by Josiah…were surely correct” (Newsome, The Hebrew Prophets, 102).

But the fall of Judah’s enemy did not usher in a period of peace and independence, as they might have hoped. Good King Josiah soon was killed in battle. His son swore allegiance to Babylon and had no respect for the religious reforms and practices of his father.

What follows is a tragedy of defeat, powerlessness, heavy taxation, outsiders appointed king, and even individuals’ movements being controlled. Every king that sought some degree of independence (for honorable or selfish reasons) was immediately replaced and often killed. Their hopes were dashed, and there was the ever-present likelihood that they would be conquered, exiled, and destroyed.

Jeremiah calls to Judah to return to God. He anticipates the destruction of Jerusalem, and lives to see the dreadful series of events he predicted. In continuing in his prophetic role, “he provided a prophetic commentary upon God’s judgment even as it was happening” (Newsome, Hebrew Prophets, 101). Though he originally objected to God over his call as a prophet, Jeremiah fulfills the commission laid upon him with painful faithfulness, suffering with his people.

In all likelihood, our OT text dates after 586 BC, when Babylon conquered Jerusalem and carted off the elite and tradespersons into exile. Jeremiah is speaking from Babylon to the people with whom he has been exiled. They are living in the greatest tragedy of their history since their oppression in Egypt: The kingdom is gone, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed, God has abandoned them.

It is here that Jeremiah speaks the promises of Yahweh to the people:

The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days…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 forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31, 33-34)

Jeremiah’s words of hope come at a time when all hell is breaking loose. God (through Jeremiah) suggests that this is because the people have not honored their covenant with God, even using the metaphor of marriage infidelity.

The people in exile—at least at first—have a different opinion. They believe God has abandoned them, and that God has been more unfaithful than have they. Many of us can identify with this kind of sentiment from our own lives. We experience turmoil—struggling—and we believe our suffering is disproportionate to or disconnected from the sin in our lives. Our assessment of the realities of our lives is inconsistent with the way we understand God, so we conclude that God is absent or doesn’t care for us. As one commentator states: “An unfaithful god is no better than no god, and probably a bit worse” (Floyd, Feasting, 122).

I believe that many people who identify themselves as atheists are simply more honest than many Christians: their experiences indicate that God (as they understand God) is unfaithful or uncaring, so they choose not to believe in a Divine Being.

All of this tends to make us—and the ancient Israelites—feel alone. We must look out for ourselves, since God no longer looks out for us—this is how the ancient Israelites began to feel. Jeremiah too admits similar feelings in other places, emphasizing that “in some cases the people have been faithful, they have kept up their end of the bargain, and still destruction finds them.” The covenantal calculus does not always hold; our quid-pro-quo approach to God does not frequently pan out.

In the face of such feelings of abandonment, disorder, and desolation, “Jeremiah maintains that God’s covenantal fidelity is intact” (Floyd, Feasting, 122). In the midst of it all, Jeremiah seeks to guide the people in a process of reevaluating their description of God to be more consistent with experience and tradition. To take the long view. To explore how God might still be working in and through them.

This is one of the key lessons from this text for us today. We live in a tumultuous time—and I recognize that people have been saying that for decades if not centuries, but it is still true. The wide fluctuations of energy prices fuel speculation, which further drives up prices. The dramatic rise of energy prices in the past years has driven up prices of almost every commodity in the market, hastening an economic crisis. Related or unrelated—poverty levels continue to rise as the so-called middle class shrinks. The high cost of continuing education makes it unattainable for many. Poverty, joblessness, and long hours at menial jobs seem to promote a restlessness and hopelessness that often sparks violence. All to say nothing of nuclear weapons, terrorism, war, famine, genocide, climate change, and natural disaster.

And let us not forget our religion, too. Thousands of churches across the US are in a similar position to our own: we have been in a slump for a long time, and we are having trouble maintaining the critical mass we need to remain viable.

It might be easy to believe that God has forgotten us. We might simply conclude that God has decided to move in a direction that doesn’t include us. We might feel abandoned, without hope.

But Jeremiah reminds us that God’s faithfulness remains intact, even in the midst of such disorder and desolation. And not only that: God is continually trying to do something new so that one day, God’s desire will be written on our hearts and we will remain perpetually with God.

Of course, this idea of God doing a “new thing” is not always as encouraging as we might initially think. We tend to romanticize the past, and we tend to let it influence our vision of the future. A common pitfall for churches is to try to recreate the “glory days” in the future. For a church like ours, it would be all to easy to look back at the 1950’s or 1960’s through rose-colored glasses and say: “We want to look like that!”

The same can be said for the ancient Israelites. The story we read in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles is of the desire to recreate the glory days when David was king of the whole land. They could never get back there, and neither can we.

What we can do—and what Jeremiah encourages us to do—is to look for the “new thing” that God is doing in us and through us. But this is hard.

One reason it is hard is that we don’t yet know what that new thing is going to be. We have spent so much time with a business model of setting objectives and creating initiatives to meet them that we are very uncomfortable with the notion that we might not know yet what God desires those objectives be.

Another reason it is so hard is that it upsets the equilibrium of the status quo. Look again at what God says to the Israelites in Jeremiah 31:33 and following:

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.

In one fell swoop, God has rendered obsolete all the religious structures of their previous existence in Jerusalem. There is no need for schools to teach Torah, since everyone will know the Torah. There is no need for the sacrificial system of the Temple, since God has forgiven their sin forever.

In our context, perhaps we should hear that there will be no Sunday School or sermons, since the Bible and knowledge of God has been internalized by all; there will be no evangelism or mission, since everyone knows God already. Take those things out of our conception of “church” and what are you left with? Now think about how much conflict has been generated over the years for such minor things as the type of music used in worship, chairs vs. pews, moving the pulpit, or the proverbial conflict over the color of the carpet.

With change comes conflict. Change is not easy; something must always be given up in change. And when we look at the past, we tend to think that it was as good as it can be, so we don’t want to give anything up. But this new covenant, Jeremiah promises us, will be better. This new thing that God is doing in us will be better than anything that we have experienced before.

It’s a hard thing to believe when it seems the walls are falling down around you. But it is what God tells us.

As pastor Richard Floyd writes about the Jeremiah 31 text:

Despite the people’s infidelity, despite corrupt kings and priests, despite injustice and exploitation, despite idolatry, despite all the ways the people have broke faith with God—God will not break faith with them. Instead of yet another word of judgment, the people receive a lavish promise, unexpected good news. God will bring newness out of destruction. God will bring hope where there is no hope. God will bring life out of death. God will make a way where there is no way. (Feasting, 122-24)

This is the God that we trust. This is the God we worship. This is the God who is the foundation of this community of faith. And this is the God that will see us into the future, whatever the “new thing” of the future may look like.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Prophets, writes, “It was in love that God and Israel met.” Our passage today is a perfect example of the relentless and pursuing love of God. It is in love that we met God and God met us. It is still in love that we meet God and God meets us today.

What God wants is that love with each of us, with every one of us. What God wants is that all know God. This “new thing” that God is doing in us? This is why. God wants to use us to bring that about.

Grandiose? Certainly.
Mysterious? Definitely.
Uncomfortable? Without a doubt.
Challenging? Awkwardly so.

But not hopeless. Not without possibility. Not without promise. After all, this is God we’re talking about. Let’s go with God. Let’s pursue this as-yet-undisclosed “new thing” that God is initiating. Let’s follow wherever it leads.

After all, what’s the alternative? It’s what God wants.