The prophet Jeremiah had a difficult career. He heard God’s Word coming to him, clearly requiring him to convey to his people a message that they did not want to hear. Jeremiah prophesied destruction and calamity for his country. And he was received as we might expect him to be. While some people respected him as a prophet, he was also almost universally hated.
All the things God intended for the Israelites had, by the time of Jeremiah, soured into corruption. The people of God had repeatedly and chronically fallen into exactly the kind of nation God did not want them to become. In the commandments of the Torah, God gives them a pattern and model for a good and blessed community, based on justice, equality, and divine law.
God shows them how not to be like Pharaoh. But over the next 500 years they are repeatedly tempted and succumb to idolatry, leading to injustice. So that Israel and Judah were barely distinguishable from any other nation. They followed after kings, almost all of whom were bad. They allowed the rich to get richer and ignored the cries of the poor. And they tolerated and even enthusiastically embraced the worship of idols of other gods.
All this was connected. It was the falling into idolatry that led to a centralized political regime and an unjust economic order. God does not demand that they reject other gods just out of blind jealousy. Following these idols was part of a whole social system which allowed power and wealth to flow mainly to the elites who were already wealthy and powerful. The nation of the Israelites had become little more than a second-rate imitation of the corrupt and unjust regime they had escaped from in Egypt, half a millennium before.
And what Jeremiah predicted was simply the natural consequence of that. In fact, God sends numerous prophets over this period to warn the people that, if you do this, if you fall into idolatry, you will inevitably create a political economy that is wildly unjust. And this kind of imbalance cannot last for very long until the system adjusts and rebalances itself. These episodes were experienced by the people as some kind of catastrophe, whether it be a military or natural disaster.
God made the world to work in a certain beneficial way. God gave the people a detailed manual of how to live peacefully in the world as God created it. The people reject that law and insist on living according to their own religious, economic, social, and political ideas, thus creating a system that is out of synch with the world as God made it. That kind of regime is unsustainable. It is not based on reality, and it inevitably collapses.
Almost everything Jeremiah prophesied about was bad. He knew that the biggest collapse, reckoning, rebalancing, and consequence was about to happen. He also knew that, by this time, things had gotten so corrupt that there was no avoiding the coming disaster. They have lived by the sword of injustice and inequality, and like every nation that takes this path, they will die by injustice and inequality, in this case at the hands of the Babylonians.
In chapters 30-33 of his book, the disaster has already at least started to happen. The Babylonian army has come. Jerusalem has been destroyed. The Temple built by Solomon is burned down. And the cream of Judah’s society is in the process of being deported far away to Babylon. The people have endured horrors beyond imagination: the slaughter of babies and children, crushing famine, indiscriminate murder, forced relocation, enslavement, rape, comprehensive destruction of property, and so on. There is almost nothing as horrible as losing a war.
Into this maelstrom of catastrophe and death, Jeremiah still gets words from the Lord. These words are never a smug “I-told-you-so.” There is no satisfaction about the fact that everything Jeremiah has been warning them about has come to pass. In fact, I hear Jeremiah saying what Jeff Goldbloom said in the movie, Jurassic Park, when his dire warnings came true: “I hate being right all the time.”
In these chapters, Jeremiah begins to talk about the other side of this mess. After the disaster, after the world has regained some semblance of balance, after the people have endured the horrific consequences of their centuries of messing up, after all that has blown itself out, then the people will be able to experience God’s love again.
Because God’s love is deeper and stronger and more pervasive than the storms we bring down on ourselves on the surface, as awful as they are. God still made the world, God still created creation and sustains it in equilibrium, God is still in charge and still has a plan and a will and a model for us to follow and participate in. God’s will is to save, and to heal, and to liberate, and to redeem. Nothing will ever keep that from ultimately happening. It is the deepest meaning of all creation. It is the grain of the universe and we only experience catastrophe when we insist on going against it.
Throughout this season of Lent our readings from the Old Testament have all centered on the theme of covenant. We saw God’s covenant with Noah, in which God promises never again to destroy the Earth, and requires that the people respect life. There was the covenant with Abraham, where God establishes a particular family through which all the families of the Earth will be blessed. And there is the covenant with Moses, when the people were liberated and the law was given. They are all the same covenant, the same agreement or deal that God makes with people, just with different levels of specificity and detail. God never revokes any aspect of the covenant.
Here, God talks about a “new covenant.” This is not a new covenant in the sense that the old ones are now defunct or overridden. A better translation might be that it is a “renewed covenant.” The original covenant is given another layer of specificity and focus. In this case the covenant will no longer be exterior to the people. Now God’s Word is going to be placed within them. That’s how this expression of the covenant will “not be like” the preceding one, which the people broke. It will not be “out there” in nature, as if nature were separated from us. It will not be “out there” as words on a page or even inscribed on stone. Those media require interpretation. People have shown themselves to be brilliant at keeping the letter of the law, but shattering its spirit. We know how to hear what we want to hear from anything “out there.”
But here it says that, “after those days,” “the days that are surely coming,” that is, in the fullness of time, outside of our temporal alienation, then and there the keeping of the law and the knowledge of God will be something humans know interiorly, in themselves, in their bodies and hearts. No more will people be able to claim that they didn’t get the memo. The memo will be shown to be written inside them.
I think the law was always written inside of us. All the versions of the covenant were true from the beginning of creation. God reveals them to us in sequence according to what we are able to handle and absorb. The law is written inside of us because the law is the basic principle of creation and life. It is already in the matter, the atoms, molecules, cells, and sinews of our bodies. We are born with the knowledge of God within us, even Calvin says this in the famous opening sentences of the Institutes.
This new and final manifestation of the covenant will ratify the egalitarian and democratic nature of the covenant from the beginning. Remember how Noah’s covenant included everyone, even animals? Remember how the law given to Moses did not accept the practice of having some people more equal than others? Here it is the same thing. Because the law is written inside each person everyone shall be equal before the Lord. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.” The least and the greatest are now equal where it counts, in the knowledge of God. It is the ultimate leveling of society. Everyone is welcome at the table. Everyone has knowledge worth sharing.
Jesus comes into the world to fulfill this passage. He comes to unlock the knowledge of God that God has written on people’s hearts. Did you ever notice how, when Jesus heals someone, he very often says to them, “Your faith has made you well”? It is as if Jesus sees himself as the catalyst that activates something inside of people, something they already have. He reveals and realizes their faith, their trust in God’s love and power to heal. In his presence, people come into contact with their truest selves, and their truest selves are whole and healthy, blessed and good.
Jesus comes to be the message here, where God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” For now, when God looks at us, God doesn’t see our sin. God does not see our violence and selfishness. God does not see our greed and corruption. God looks at us and sees, deep within us… the One who is truly and fully human. God sees the One whose humanity we share, who became flesh to dwell among us, who emptied himself to share our existence even to the point of sharing our death. God sees Jesus Christ. God sees the Son. And in his name and for his sake, God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.
In our gospel reading for today some foreigners ask to see Jesus. And it’s significant that they’re foreigners, Greeks, because the standard view was that Gentiles were not included in the people of God and God has not written the law on their hearts. But when two of them are led by the Spirit to come to Jesus, Jesus sees that God has put this knowledge within them as well. And he takes it as a sign that his ministry has finally reached beyond the boundaries of the Jewish nation. This ever-broadening inclusiveness was the purpose of God’s covenants from the beginning.
So Jesus announces that, ”The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he goes on to describe his ministry: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
The Word, the covenant, the law that is written on our hearts is an open invitation. And knowledge of the Lord means the realization that God’s love demands the giving up of our own agendas, our own hierarchies, our own exclusive theologies, our own bigotry even. It is to set all that aside and enter into God’s healing forgiveness.
“The house of Israel” has a way of expanding. It expands to embrace those who find within themselves God’s law, written on their hearts, written in the very substance of their bodies, of the flesh they share with the Lord. It expands to embrace all who trust in Jesus and rely upon the love of God revealed in him.
What is this renewed Israel? What kind of community is Jesus forming, as he fulfills the passage among us? How do we access and activate the law of God written on our hearts? Where is the faith, the trust, within us that will make us well? How are we going to be a gathering of disciples that understands the necessity to “die” like the grain of wheat in order to bear much fruit?
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” says Jesus. It is not about our little individual life, but it is about all of life, it is about life itself, the power and direction God has placed within the creation from the beginning. It is no coincidence that the natural world so often reflects and expresses deep spiritual truths like resurrection. That’s why Jesus uses so many illustrations from nature.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God by whom everything was created in the beginning. He is the articulation of God’s love and he embedded that love, that transforming, redeeming, overcoming power, at the heart of all of life.
The community he gathers and then sends out in mission into the world is one that knows the Lord. It sees things from this wider perspective where all is included in the dance of God’s life. From this perspective it’s all good. There are no hierarchies, no one is least and no one is greatest. From this perspective we can be a community of forgiveness where we don’t remember the sins of others, but cherish their blessedness, even if they don’t know it.
We are to be a community of joyful obedience, trusting in Jesus and following him, so that in the end we may be with him, in God, with God’s law of love, justice, and peace written on our hearts.