[Sermon] The Power of a Promise

I gave a sermon today at the lovely Truckee Lutheran Presbyterian Church.

You can watch it above and/or read it below…

The Scripture text I preached on was…

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 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. 32 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. 33 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. 34 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.

I remember the first time I got into REALLY BIG trouble as a kid. There were a few minor infractions before this, but THIS was the big one.

I was in the third grade and my class went to the school library. While we were there, my friend dared me to pick up the phone in the back of the library and prank call a teacher who, I’ll just say, wasn’t very well-liked among the student body.

I picked the phone up. Found this teacher’s name in the directory. And dialed the extension. They picked up and I proceeded to spew the most nonsensical and deplorable words that came to mind.

I hung up. My friends and I all laughed. And we went about our morning.

It didn’t take long for me to be found out and aptly sent to detention. But the worst part of this was knowing that my dad would find out.

Prior to today’s text in Jeremiah are chapters upon chapters of God’s spoken wrath. I’ll give you a small sample…

Yet I planted you as a choice vine,
from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate
and become a wild vine?
Though you wash yourself with lye
and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
says the Lord God.

Or this…

Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are so numerous,
I have done these things to you.

Wow…

Thinking back, the voice that I assigned to my dad in my head during my long walk home from school that day was far worse than his actual accusation (as painful as it was).

My record was spotless before this. I’d never been sent to detention before or even been reprimanded by a teacher. I was a well-behaved kid. My dad had such high hopes for me and I blew it. There was no way I was going to get myself out of this.

I felt alone. Singled out. Guilty as charged. I was convinced that my teachers hated me and that my family would abandon me. I’d soon be out on the streets scavenging for food.

What’s interesting is, I wasn’t even very religious at the time. My folks never tried to frighten me with God’s wrath. But that accusing voice from the great beyond was loud and clear.

I know that guilt has lost its popularity in modern church sermons — and for the most part, I’m thankful for that. Guilt is a primal emotion that the church has wielded all too loosely in its history. But I don’t think the emotion of guilt has just vanished from the human experience. If held in a healthy and life-giving way, the emotion of guilt can be a blessing. I’m glad we come with a file of guilt installed on the hard drives of our psyches. After all, those who don’t seem to have it are called sociopaths… But guilt can also be a curse.

Though modern psychology might disregard the Biblical wrath of God saying that it’s merely a projection of our guilt onto God, this inner accusing voice (also known as “the law” in Bible-speak) is an all-too-real part of the human experience for me to psychologize away. So, since the elephant of guilt is still very much in the room, it does us no good to ignore it or act like it doesn’t exist. And today’s text gives us a divine excuse to reflect on it.

In today’s passage, God takes a drastic turn from those long chapters of wrath and, out of the blue, speaks an undeserved promise into the convicted souls of the Israelites (aka us). God does not ask them to change their behavior in order to make things right. God makes it right for them.

Reflecting again on my childhood episode, I remember the moment when the law lifted from my shoulders. As much as I wanted to earn my way out of it — as much as I wanted my redemption to be driven by ME and my good works, this isn’t what happened. I didn’t have to do x amount of chores to make up for it. It was merely a moment when my dad had said what he needed to say (using far worse words than I used in my prank call, by the way) and I heard what I needed to hear. After some time, it might have even been the next day or so, a sense of lightness returned to the room and we merely… Got on with life. It was done. Grace had returned. It showed that my dad’s love for me was not conditional. And it was a gift I never took for granted from that moment on.

Back to the text, this covenant from God was a new one, an unconditional one, unlike the old covenant which was conditional. This time, instead of leaving us to figure it out on our own and punish us when we messed up, God was going to write God’s law on our hearts.

However, that doesn’t immediately make us perfect people. Sure, we’ve had our good moments as humans since this text was written a few thousand years ago. We are, at our core, created GOOD. The human heart has SO MUCH capacity for good. But overall, we’ve had a fairly bad run. We’re not robots of goodness because the law is now in our hearts. We’re still flailing creatures, which the inner accuser reminds us of all too often in painfully vivid detail.

Just this week, a mass shooting in Atlanta has left 8 people dead. It’s still undecided what the motive for the murder was. Some say it was racially motivated being that six of the victims were of Asian descent. Others are saying that the suspect was in the throes of a deep struggle with sex addiction.

Either way, though I didn’t commit the crime, I can’t help but feel the burden of it. How many times have I otherized people who look and live differently than me, even in small ways? How many times has my mind been possessed by perversion? Jesus, after all, looked deeper than our actions into the desires and stirrings of the human heart. Though I may not have pulled the trigger, we are all connected and guilt echoes like a sound wave through the collective human consciousness. Not to compare the two in any way, shape, or form, but whether it’s a prank call from a third-grader or a mass shooting, the question begs us, what can we do to undo what has been done? How can the offense be made right?

There are no viable options. And when we see that we can do nothing in and of ourselves to undo what has been done — when we see that there’s nothing we can do to earn our forgiveness — do we lose hope? Do we just give up? This passage shows that this hopeless condition is never the end of the story. In the midst of our sorrow, God speaks a promise to us that raises us from the dead, so to speak.

This is what God grants us in the final verse of today’s passage. Now, note that this promise doesn’t say, “They will sin no more.” It says, “and I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

It is done. Forgotten. This is an offensive move from God. No “good people” want to hear this.

We want to earn our way back into the shalom of God — we want peace to come on our terms.

But God creates goodness out of nothing. Ex nihilo, the fancy theologians have written. In and of ourselves, in a state of sin, or, in other words, in our default state of inner separateness — separateness from ourselves, others, and the created world — we have nothing to offer. Our only hope is in God who meets us in our sin and speaks new life into us to make us new.

Our sin, our separateness, as awful as it is, is the raw material of God. It is the only thing God has to work with because we are so easily consumed by it without even knowing it.

And so, this brings us to the cross. In Christ’s death, our sin is absorbed. Even though we thought we carried out the law to the best of our ability, the end result remains that we hung God on a cross. But, by God’s grace alone, we did not and do not have the last word. Ever. God has the last word, and God’s last word always leads to resurrection…

You are my beloved child and you are forgiven.

As scandalous as this is, this promise is the only thing that frees both the victim and the aggressor from the shackles of sin and death. No law will do this. It is the only thing that enables us to get up, dust ourselves off, and wholeheartedly serve our neighbors no matter how badly stricken by guilt we’ve been. As we are resurrected in Christ, our actions now are free of self-interest.

We are absolved and freed, not because of our own earned goodness, but in the goodness of our God. The chains of guilt have been ripped away; we are freed from self-loathing and turned outwards towards our neighbors bearing love as an unearned gift.

God’s radical mercy of resurrection, which cost God everything on the cross, costs us nothing.

A new promise is spoken to us in the midst of our sin. No matter what side of any offense that you find yourself on, victim or oppressor, you are created anew in this promise.

God’s love shines on you in this very moment. A new day dawns for you and God smiles on your path.

Amen.