This sermon was preached on November 20, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE. The sermon text was Jeremiah 36: 1-8, 21-23, 27-28 then 31: 31-34. Audio for the sermon can be found here.
Last week we read the calling of the prophet Isaiah, this week we flash forward about 200 years to the reign of Jehoiakim, near the end of the career of the prophet Jeremiah.
Last week, Israel was facing destruction by the Assyrians, yet now it is the Babylonians who have conquered and begun to send the nations of Israel and Judah into exile. Jeremiah has been rather unpopular in his homeland. As the Babylonians begin to take over, Jeremiah calls upon the Judeans to submit, this is the consequence of the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Their lives and history will be forever changed. Jeremiah acts out the destruction of the kingdom and for his trouble he is confined to the palace, a prison of sorts. He can no longer go to the temple; he can no longer be with the people.
So here we are in Chapter 36. Jeremiah is instructed to write down all the words that the Lord has revealed to him. Jeremiah dictated the Lord’s words to Baruch, Baruch then read them to the people, then placed them in a room, Jehoiakim sends Jehudi to retrieve the scrolls.
As Jehudi read the scroll, little by little the king rips it a part and throws it in the fire.
Rev. Mary Austin says, “Curiously, the king doesn’t have the whole scroll burned immediately. He listens to each section, and throws it into the fire, as if caught between wanting to hear that God and the prophet have to say, and wanting to stop up his ears and ignore the whole thing. We can’t tell if he just wants to hear what the people have already heard, or if he’s interested in what God has to say. We don’t know if he’s burning the sections as a sign of defiance, or in despair that he won’t be able to comply with what God is saying. He is caught between what is and what should be.
I sort of understand where Jehoiakim is coming from. Have you ever received a performance review that you didn’t agree with. I have you ever been scolded, especially in adulthood, by someone and taken it well.
We, I, get defensive. We lash out, we crumble up the paper and throw it out the window, we tear it up and burn it, we quit our job, we quit our church, we break our relationship, we refuse to listen, we lash out. This happens all the time, we see it on social media, we see it in regular media, we see it from friends, family, we see it from our politicians, our police, our military, our pastors, our members, our kids.
How many times in your life have you looked back and realized that the person who corrected you, who called you out, who spoke prophetically to you was right?
For me it’s innumerable. My camp director who told me I was a born leader but that I ran right up to the line of appropriate and stopped and the people I was leading didn’t know where the line was and regularly ran past it. My CPE supervisor, who told me that I was a fundamentalist. My Committee on Preparation for Ministry that told me I wasn’t ready to be ordained, that I would have to do a few more steps.
I was so angry, sometimes I’m still angry. I wanted to cuss all of them out, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to quit, I wanted to tear up their words and burn them.
The thing is, they were all right. They helped me see my own sins and shortcomings and make changes. Some days, those changes are visible, some days they are they aren’t. I try to do my best every day.
Jehoiakim, didn’t have to listen, he was the king after all. Well at least that’s what he thinks. Let’s read a little more of Chapter 36 starting with verse 30.
"30 Therefore thus says the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. 31 And I will punish him and his offspring and his servants for their iniquity; I will bring on them, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and on the people of Judah, all the disasters with which I have threatened them—but they would not listen."
This shows us that God’s word is more powerful and lasting than the actions of a narcissistic king. This is what happens when people in power, when we don’t heed the prophetic words of God. When we dismiss pain, when we dismiss fear, when we dismiss people because they don’t look, sound, or worship like us. This is what happens when we forget that it is Jesus Christ who is king and we are not citizens of this world, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are aliens in a foreign land, and regardless of ruler, senator, representative, or president, it is Christ who is King of our land and our hearts.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday before the beginning the season of preparation of expectation we call Advent that we celebrate with the birth of our savior, the in breaking of the God with us, Emmanuel, the reminder that it even in the darkest night, the light of Christ shines in the darkness and nothing can overcome it.
We remember that Christ, our king, came in the form of a helpless baby, grew up and taught us to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves, He taught us to care for the least of these, he taught us to love each other as he loved us. The Apostle Paul, in the second chapter of the book of Ephesians, reminds of that Christ came to break down the dividing wall that is built between us.
Christ who reminds us that God is with us.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us in chapter 31.
"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,[a] 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."
The beauty of this new covenant, as Professor Roger Nam says, is that it is:
* Inclusive, not divisive (Jeremiah 31:31) -- It includes both the northern and southern kingdoms. This is a remarkable break from the tensions and outright animosity between the two kingdoms, which continued through the life of Christ (John 4:4-26); the participants explicitly include the “least to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).
* Lawful, not lawless (Jeremiah 31:33) -- The new covenant will build on the Torah of God. Now, the people have a new strategy for staying faithful to God. Pursuant to the Jeremiah 36 episode, it will center on the written word. It is better to think of a Torah in the sense of God’s “teaching,” rather than New Testament constructs of Torah as legalism. Torah was an expression of how the community could maintain covenantal fidelity.
* Divine, not human (Jeremiah 31:33) -- Whereas the older covenant was broken by the people, God pre-empts this possibility by making Himself the primary agent of the new covenant. Note the first person emphasis, “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.”
* Relational, not distant (Jeremiah 31:34) -- The earlier covenant was intimate in that it involved a God who “takes by the hand” and the metaphor of marriage. The new covenant incorporates these features in that they will fully know the Lord in both intellectual acknowledgement, but also inclusive in the intimate ideals that they will know the Lord and be known by Him.
Most significantly, the new covenant is indeed new! The cloud of sin no longer hangs above the community. For God declares, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” With the freedom from sin, the people can now move forward in their relationship with God.
This new covenant is much more protective and lasting. In the midst of the Babylonian sufferings, it enables the faithful to be grateful to God. Although politically oppressed, with little economic hope and an unknown future, the covenant of God brings rise to thanksgiving to all.
As we gather on this Christ the King Sunday, as we remember that the covenant, the knowledge that God has placed on our hearts, let us continue to work so that all feel safe. At school, walking down the street, in the class room, even in the theater, but let us not be so safe that we can not hear when God is speaking truth to us, for often times the Good News is not Nice News.
Rev. Mary Austin says, “God promises a new covenant, when fragile, temporary scrolls won’t be needed anymore because God’s law will live in our hearts. We won’t need a book or a tablet or a scroll. We won’t need someone to read it to us, or teach it to us. We won’t need an intermediary. No ruler will be able to do away with God’s word simply by burning it up. It will live fully in our hearts.
We haven’t arrived there yet, but God’s promises still stand. In a time when our own country is buffeted by violence in words and actions, when we seem to be overtaken by a spirit of division, God’s word comes back to us through the prophet. The invaders at our gate are the inner armies of hatred and separation, but God’s promises endure for those who are willing to hear, and to live with God’s persistence.
Let us have ears to hear and hearts open to repentance as we are called back to be the people of God, the hands and feet of Christ in this foreign land.
May it be so.