Fifth Sunday in Lent 2018 — Preaching Notes
Promise | REHAB WORSHIP SERIES
The prophet Jeremiah lived and preached in some very dark days for the Jewish people—around the years 627–587 B.C. That means Jeremiah lived and prophesied about 600 years before Jesus Christ walked this earth.
Jeremiah’s prophetic activity extended from the years immediately before Israel and Judah were conquered by their foes from the north, the Babylonians, and into the period of their exile and captivity. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem in 597, and completed the conquest of Judah (the southern kingdom) over the next ten years, then took many of the conquered peoples into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah continued to prophesy through the period of the fall and into the time of exile.
Jeremiah didn’t really want to be the one picked to be a spokesperson for the Lord God. When God called him, he pleaded with God not to make him a prophet, saying that he was too young and too inexperienced. He begged God to choose someone else to deliver God’s message. But God picked Jeremiah anyway. (See Jeremiah 1.) I guess when God picks you to be a prophet, you kind of have to do it.
So Jeremiah’s first job as a prophet of God was to deliver a message to God’s chosen people that they’d better shape up their act and start living the way God had instructed them or they were going to be destroyed by a foe from the north.
Nobody wanted to hear this from Jeremiah. He was quickly branded as an outcast, an irritant to the people and especially to the king of Judah, because he kept advising the king to surrender to Babylon rather than be destroyed. He said the impending destruction was God’s judgment on the king and his people for their unfaithfulness.
Even in the midst of having to be the constant bearer of bad news, Jeremiah still had a heart of compassion for the people and a trust that God had plans for them beyond the dark days of destruction, capture, and exile. He believed God’s promise that there would eventually come a day of restoration, when their suffering would come to an end, and God would prosper them and give them a future with hope (see Jeremiah 29:11).
Jeremiah had so much confidence in God’s plans for a future with hope that even as Judah was falling to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, he purchased a plot of land in Anathoth as a sign of his trust that one day the land would be restored to the chosen people and he would be able to return home.
For much of his book, Jeremiah’s prophecies that “the days are surely coming” referred to the imminent fall of Judah to Babylon. But by the time we get to this week’s reading in the story, that fall has already occurred. So the words, “The days are surely coming,” take on a new meaning in this context. They have turned from threat to promise.
The chosen people have been conquered. They have been taken captive by their enemies and hauled off to live in a foreign land for seventy years. Through a letter from Jeremiah to the people in captivity, the Lord God has instructed the Israelites to build houses and live in them in this land of exile. He tells them to plant gardens and eat, marry and have children, and seek the welfare of their captors with whom they are now being forced to live. And the children of Israel are trying their best to do just what God has asked of them. But it is hard.
Rehab is hard. It is hard to live through a time of loss and grief. It is hard to prosper when your life has fallen completely apart. Sometimes it feels as if we are just going through the motions. It takes all our energy just to get through one day at a time, and sometimes even one hour at a time.
I imagine that the words of the Lord God to the chosen people during this period must have “gone in one ear and out the other.” That is, maybe they heard the words that Jeremiah spoke, but they did not find much comfort in them.
It makes me think about all the times in my ministry when I’ve tried to speak words of condolence to people who have suffered a terrible tragedy. Someone has died, and I say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I tell them I will pray for them. I visit and I try to listen. Maybe a few months later, I will offer up some word of hope by saying, “It will get better one day. Time heals all wounds.” But to someone who is in shock, or someone who is hurting deeply, or someone who is facing the end of his or her life, mere words just don’t help.
Does it help? Maybe a little. It helps to know that others care and are praying for us. It helps to know that people want to share in our burdens. But it doesn’t usually make the burdens go away.
I know how many times I’ve sat in some church somewhere in my own life where I could hardly hold back the tears. It is painful to be in the hard times, the periods when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, as the Psalmist puts it. The dark nights of the soul that come upon all of us at one time or another.
And of course it isn’t just our personal troubles. There are terrible things going on in the world around us beyond the immediate needs of the people in our congregations. So much pain. So much violence. So much anger. So much brokenness. Where do we find strength for today? Where do we find bright hope for tomorrow? This week, we find it in this promise from the Lord God sent through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah some 2,600 years ago. And the amazing thing about this Scripture lesson is that the power of Jeremiah’s words speak to us just as clearly and profoundly today as they did to the children of Israel held in captivity in Babylon all those generations ago.
The Lord is saying to them, and to us, “No matter what you are going through, no matter how much it hurts or how difficult it is to imagine a future with hope, I promise you, it will get better one day. And you are not alone. I am with you to the end of the age.”
- One day, the Lord says, the house of Israel and the house of Judah will be restored.
- One day, you will be able to return to the land that the Lord gave to you.
- One day, your homes and businesses will be rebuilt.
- One day, you will have work again.
- One day, your divorce will be a thing of the past.
- One day, shame will no longer control your life.
- One day, your grief will become manageable, and you will smile and laugh again.
- One day, you will no longer be a slave to your addiction.
- One day, there will be a new covenant.
- One day, the sins of the past will all be forgotten and you will be given a fresh start. The slate will be wiped completely clean.
- One day, Christ will come in final victory and we will feast at his heavenly banquet.
One day. Some day. The days are surely coming, the Lord promises.
Do you think the people being held captive in Babylon found comfort in Jeremiah’s words? Probably not at that point. Sometimes we just aren’t in a place where we can hear any word of hope, not even from a prophet sent by the Lord God. But perhaps the one thing that we can do is put our faith in this new covenant, this promise of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace and even prosperity that is, because of Christ, offered to all of us.
This covenant will not be made with words. It will be inscribed on our very hearts. It will come as an assurance in which we know, we know for certain, that God is with us and that God loves us whether we can feel it right now or not.
This is what we United Methodists call grace, and grace bypasses our heads, our intellects, the limitations of communication through our words. The grace of God shown in Jesus Christ speaks straight to our hearts.
If only during those times when we as pastors find ourselves searching for something to say, something to do, something that will bring a momentary comfort to someone who is in pain, we could find a way to communicate God’s amazing grace straight to someone’s heart. If only we were able to bypass the limitations of human methods of communication—our mouths, ears, and minds—and find a way touch the place that most needs touching in a moment such as that.
We can’t do that, but through the Holy Spirit, God can. God can touch people with grace inscribed straight on their hearts. Just as God touched the people of Israel and Judah straight to the heart just when they needed it the most, so God can touch us just when we need it most.
And that’s why this message from God is so powerful for us today. As we come to the end of our Lenten journey through rehab, I hope you can help your people hear God’s promise for themselves: for their struggles, personally. I hope we will remember it when we find ourselves in despair.
For 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. 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. 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. 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 (Jeremiah 31:31-34, NRSV).
by Amy Sigmon
When I turned twenty-five, I left a years-long romantic relationship that bordered on emotionally abusive. I quit my temp job, packed my belongings in my car, left our apartment and the state, and moved back in with my parents to heal. Looking back now, this process had some of the hallmarks of rehab and recovery: I had to admit that this relationship was a problem that I could not fix. I had to leave the entire situation behind and cut all ties with that relationship. I had to admit that it had caused me to lose friendships along the way. I had to repair my relationship with my parents. This person had shaped the first half of my twenties. I had to relearn who I was and how to be in a relationship in a healthy way. I spent the next year in what I considered to be “dating rehab.” I practiced clarity in speaking up for myself. I practiced compassion when I wanted to revert to passive-aggression. I learned that not all men were going to get angry at the drop of a hat. I learned to expect kindness. I went to church and prayed and reordered my priorities, putting my faith first and foremost. This process was not entirely emotional and relational work. At the same time, I paid off financial debt and found a rewarding job.
I guided myself through this recovery process. (Although I wish someone had gently directed me to a therapist’s office; it would have been immensely helpful.) All this recovery work, my “dating rehab,” was toward what I felt was God’s promise for me: a healthy relationship that would lead to marriage. Relationships take many forms, but marriage is what my heart longed for. I knew coming off my bad relationship that I was not the partner that I wanted to be in a marriage, and so I asked God to change my heart and life in preparation.
Almost exactly a year after I moved home, I attended a church fellowship dinner for young adults and met a man from North Carolina named Brian. I didn’t know it that night, but he had walked through the fire of divorce and experienced his own relational rehab and recovery. This was God’s promise that we had known in our hearts. Fifteen months later, we were married in that church. Our marriage, like any marriage, is not perfect, but it continues to reflect God’s love for us and promise to be with us always. Love radiates on the faces of our two precious kids. As my colleague says, God’s covenant will be inscribed on our very hearts. In our case, Brian and I feel it inscribed on our hearts and our marriage.