Covenantal Promise 

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.

Bloom Where You are Planted. Jeremiah 1:4-10

This is the text of the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church, Nebraska City on February 3. The sermon text is Jeremiah 1:4-10.

An old pastor was in his office one morning going through his normal routine. When a young man, who was considering the ministry came in and sat down in his office. After talking about their lives, the young man paused and said to the older pastor, “When did you know you were called to the ministry?”

The old, wise pastor sat back in his chair paused and said, “This morning.”

Every day we are called anew, some days hearing that call is harder than others, some day you might think that God has made a mistake. Not me Lord, I’m not smart enough, I don’t know enough, I don’t have enough energy, I’m too old, I’m too young, and on and on.

This is part of my story, when I was a junior in high school; I gave my first sermon in church. After my senior year, after another sermon someone came to me after the sermon and said, “You should be a minister.” I scoffed at that, a minister? Me? You can’t be serious, pastors were good people, who got good grades, who knew the Bible, I was not a pastor, nor would I ever be. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say, I haven’t always been a pastor and my actions reflected that.

As a got older, I kept finding myself in pastoral roles. My summer job in graduate school was as the Trip Director at the Presbyterian camp in West Virginia. Then when I got out of school, I couldn’t find any jobs in my field. I have a master’s in physical education and planned to be a college baseball coach, no options there. I also worked for the university during school. I was in charge of the officials for intramural activities for West Virginia University. I sent out about 100 resumes, not even one call back. I think God was trying to tell me something. The job I got was as a youth director at a large church in Denver. I was definitely not ready for that.

I came home to West Virginia and found myself back at the camp, now as the Assistant Director, leading worship, being the pastor to the staff. I started seminary with the express desire to never be the pastor of a church. They say, if you ever doubt that God has a sense of humor, just tell God your plans.

For most of that time, I believed that I was answering a call but God had the wrong number.

Now after years of fighting, giving in, resisting, embracing, being planted, being uprooted, shifting, and standing still I have the honor of serving with you as your pastor.

In our scripture reading today from the book of Jeremiah we hear a piece of his call story. God says to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

That’s fairly intimidating, don’t you think. “Prophet to the nations”? Yikes, I didn’t sign up for that, says Jeremiah, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

This response is normal, right. Moses said it, Isaiah said it, Ezekiel said it. I mean really who says, sign me up when you hear a voice from God say, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

I have a hard enough time deciding what I want to eat for dinner much less deciding what to pluck up or pull down, what to destroy and overthrow, or what to build and plant. I can barely get my children to listen to me much less prophesy to nations.

I believe that through God we can do more than we could ever ask or imagine, but I wonder if our call is often to pluck up or pull down things in our own lives, in our own communities, we are to build and plant in our own lives, in our own houses.

Maybe Christian calling is not just reserved for those asked to do mighty things. It is the invitation to every Christian to witness to the gospel by investing with radical grace whatever worldly roles God opens to us.

A phrase that my wife have held on to recently is, bloom where you are planted. I wonder if that is what God is calling us to do. Can we at First Presbyterian fix all the problems in the world? Maybe. Can we have a positive influence in Nebraska? Probably. Can we begin to address the needs in Nebraska City? Certainly. Can we respond to God’s call in our own homes? Definitely.

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

What is your deepest gladness? What is the world’s deepest hunger?

For us to answer these questions we might need to pluck up those weeds that cloud our vision, pull down the barriers we have built up over years of security, maybe we need to destroy some assumptions that we’ve always held, maybe we need to overthrow the perception that God’s grace and mercy are only available to a few. It will lead to build up each other and our community, to plant new seeds bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

I said last week, that I don’t know anything about farming, which is true, but I do know that in order to harvest fruit this season we need to pull up the weeds, we need to pluck up last year’s crops, we need to overturn the soil to prepare the land so we can plant our new crop. We often need to plant new seeds, we can’t continue to grow the same fruit in the same soil.

The soil here at First Presbyterian is fresh, it is nutritious, it is prepared for us to plant new seeds, to tend them and to watch them grow into the harvest that will sustain this city, this state, this world, and us.

We have an opportunity to experiment; we can plant whatever we want. It might be something that no one has ever tried here. It might whither and fade, it might flourish and expand our thoughts about what type of things can be planted.

Over the last year or two, you have been in a transformation process. The transformation has worked hard and now you have appointed a Vision Team. That team will be working over the next few months trying to form a vision for this church. We will be dreaming about what our crops will look like, what type of seeds will we plant. I want to challenge you to dream with us. I want to challenge you to think of the most bold, audacious, inventive goal you have for this church. The sky’s the limit; there are no limitations, dream big. In time I want you to share that goal with us, I want to pray for that goal, I want you to name your deepest gladness, and I want you to seek it’s meeting with the world’s greatest need.

I said last week that we are all in this together, but I didn’t say we were all the same. We can be unified without being uniform. Let us work together, let our passions combine, let our ideas grow, let us build up the body of Christ, let us plant the seeds that open our eyes up to the mystery of what we can do when we allow God to put the words in our mouths.

May it be so.