"Why Should it Be Said, “Where is God?” It Shouldn’t! #6"

Date Sunday March 18, 2018
Service Fifth Sunday in Lent
Text Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Why Should it be Said, “Where is their God?” It shouldn’t! #5"

     For four weeks now, five sermons if we count Ash Wednesday, we’ve been focused on the relationship between God and the people of Israel and how (if) God is present with them. The common theme has been that God wants to be their God, to guide their lives, to love them and be loved in return, but they keep falling way short when it comes to loving God and each other.

     We’ve reviewed some of that story this Lent, and have been reminded of a massive flood, the audacity of 90+-year-old people having a baby, biting poisonous snakes and the giving of the law – the 10 Commandments – provided by God out of love, as a guide to human action. But, these events, and much, much more that occurred in the more than 800 years between, the exodus from Egypt and when the prophet Jeremiah spoke, have not curbed human behavior or sealed the deal between God and the people of Israel.

     So, we hear from Jeremiah. In the first half of his book he describes the collapse of Judah as an indictment of the people, the result of their disobedience. He foretells the ruin that will come upon them and denounces any false hope they are harboring. They will be overwhelmed by Babylon, and many will go into forced exile in that foreign place. But then, Jeremiah focuses on the true hope that awaits the people upon their return from exile. God will make a new covenant with them … really new … and it will involve radical action on God’s part. It’s described in today’s text:

     “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 the shall be my people. No longer will 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.”

     Commentator Terence E. Fretheim notes that at the center of this promise are two things: Everyone will know God, whatever class or status, from priest to peasant, from king to commoner, from child to adults, all will know God. And, God will forgive; Israel’s past will become truly past; never again need they wonder whether God will remember their sins. (1)

     It will be as if the heart – the place of will and intellect in Hebrew thought – is a clean slate and God’s will and ways are recorded on it, in each person. God’s Spirit will implant a longing for God, a desire to know God and the ability to live as God’s child. Just think … no one will need to teach another about God … everyone will know and serve the Lord. Now that’s grace!!!   People will be transformed to receive it, glad to live it and able to do so.

     What a beautiful image – but, it’s not fully here yet. Commentator Doug Bratt writes that there was partial fulfillment of God’s promise after Judah returned from Babylonian exile. And, in Jesus Christ, Jeremiah’s prophecy finds further fulfillment. Through Jesus we are forgiven, and the Holy Spirit is among us, implanting a longing for God, a desire to know God and the ability to live as God’s children. However, Jeremiah’s prophecy still awaits its complete fulfillment. (2)

     As I often say, we live in an imperfect world, filled with imperfect people. But, one day, the Devine inscription on human hearts – on our hearts - will be completed, and we will fully know God and do God’s will. In the meantime, forgiveness in real, we have been claimed as God’s children and the writing on our hearts has begun. During Lent, we focus on how to more fully allow that reality to be revealed in our lives.

     I recently read an article by Samuel Wells in which he gives a wonderful example of that reality. He writes that one day he received a phone call from a former parishioner, someone he had not spoken with for 25 years. The man had heard him on a radio broadcast on BBC of “Thought for the Day” which is heard by millions of listeners. The caller had intended to leave a message, but Pastor Wells answered the phone, so he shared that the pastor’s voice on the radio had brought something to mind. “I have a confession to make,” he said.

     The caller, a firefighter by profession, then recalled that decades ago, two weeks before Easter, Pastor Wells had preached a sermon at the end of which he gave each congregation member three used nails as reminders of the soon-to-be remembered crucifixion of Jesus. Pastor Wells told them to put them somewhere where they would be close to them every day, and then to bring them back on Easter and put them in the baptismal font and celebrate what those nails really mean…that the one who died is alive and with us.

     Now, Pastor Wells said he had nearly forgotten this, and was glad for the reminder. But, what was the man’s confession? “The truth is, I never brought the nails back,” he said.

     I’ll read you his “confession”: “When I took the nails home,” he said I knew what I wanted to do. The next day I took them to the fire station. I picked up my firefighter’s overalls and sewed each one of them into its own pocket across my chest. And then I gave each one of them a name.

     The first one, the largest one, I called Faith. The second one, the rusty one, I called Courage. The third one, the twisted, almost broken one, I called Hope. And from then on, for the next 20 years, every time the bell rang and we jumped down the chute into the fire tender to go out on a job, I would put my hand on my chest. My hand would cover the pocket with first nail and I would say, ‘Be close to me, I need you with me.’ I would move across to the second nail and would say, ‘Give me strength to do what I need to do today.’ And then I’d find the third, twisted, smaller nail and I’d say, ‘Help me make it through to live another day.’

     I kept those three nails in my overalls until I retired. And when I heard your voice on the radio, I thought it was time to tell why I never brought them back on Easter day.”

     Pastor Wells said he was silent for about as long as a person can be silent on the phone without making the other person nervous. That’s because he was in awe. This man had not only received a glimpse of Jesus’ passion, but he had lived resurrection daily. (3)

     What a story. That caller was keeping reminders of Jesus’ suffering, as well as his power and presence, close to his heart, the place on which the Holy Spirit was busy writing. That’s happening to us now even as I speak, God is writing a story of forgiveness on our hearts, and we are being transformed to receive it, to be glad to live it and to be able to do so.

     So, for a final time I will ask the question of Lent. Why should it be said among us, “Where is God?” And the answer is, “It shouldn’t be said.” Our God is here … in our hearts. AMEN


(1)   “Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34” by Terence E. Fretheim, www.workingpreacher.com

(2)   “Jeremiah 31:31-34” by Doug Blatt, Lent B, March 12, 2018, Center for Excellence in Preaching, cep.calvinseminary.edu

(3)   “The Three Nails” by Samuel Wells, Christian Century, February 28, 2018, pg. 37