Sermon. March 21, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
The prophet Jeremiah is addressing in these words to a people in crisis. For the people Israel their entire world has come to an end.
Babylon has conquered the Promised Land. The walls of Jerusalem, the Holy City, have been breached and whole sections taken down. The Temple has been destroyed and lays in ruin.
The king has been brought to Babylon in chains. The leadership infrastructure – the political, economic and religious leaders are all in Exile.
The Babylonian Captivity is a new wilderness experience. However, with Moses in the Wilderness during Exodus there is a sense that God is guiding the people toward the Promised Land. Now many have been forced away from the Promised Land.
How can this happen to God’s people? Had God been vanquished? A common view in the ancient world was that when two nations engaged in battle their gods were also engaged in a cosmic battle. When one nation emerged victorious the defeated nation’s god was seen as being defeated as well.
Are they still God’s people? Or has God abandoned them?
From a theological and practical perspective how do they hold together as a Covenant people? For those in captivity in Babylon, how do they continue to hold on to their faith when they live as a conquered people in a foreign land? After all, the faith traditions of most conquered peoples have been lost to history.
For those left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, how to they hold together as a people without leaders, without a Temple, without religious services and rituals? With the Promised Land being occupied territory, are they the people of a defeated God?
The prophet Jeremiah offers hope. He shares that God is offering a new covenant that can sustain God’s people regardless of the circumstances they face. A new covenant that can withstand having a destroyed Temple, an occupied Promised Land, and a diaspora that scatters God’s people throughout distant lands.
This covenant is new in the way it is given, but word used here can also mean renewed. The covenant given by God during Exodus, when God “took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” has been broken by them.
Here Jeremiah asserts several hopeful things. He reminds the people that there was a time when they were enslaved people living under Imperial control, just as they are now living under the control of a new Empire. God took them by the hand and liberated them from slavery and gave them a covenant.
It is this covenant with God that makes them God’s people. Not a Temple, not a Holy City, not a Promised Land. “A covenant that they broke.”
The crisis they face is not because God has been defeated, but because they were not faithful to God’s covenant with them. During the Babylonian Captivity the Book of Genesis challenges the Babylonian creation myth.
The God who makes covenant with the People Israel is not a mere tribal god, but rather the God of all Creation. The God of all Creation makes a new, renewed covenant with the house of Israel. This covenant with be written on their hearts.
With the covenant written on their hearts they will know that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The Temple of God will now be within their hearts.
No longer will there be need to perform religious rituals within the Temple to teach and tell them “Know the Lord.” For everyone, from the least to the greatest will know God. God’s Torah, the Law will be in the hearts and minds of everyone.
“For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The covenant made by God with their ancestors in Exodus wilderness was broken. But God will forgive this and heal the relationship that they ruptured. God will remember their sin no more.
God in Exodus is a God of liberation. God in Exile is a God of forgiveness. There is a new – renewed covenant written on the hearts of God’s people that offers restoration.
Jeremiah shares the hope of restorative justice to a conquered people. With God’s covenant written on their hearts they will hold together and survive as a people, as God’s people, even without a Temple, a Holy City, or being able to live as a free people in the Promised Land.
We face a different set of problems than in Jeremiah’s time. Yet the prophet’s words offer us hope today as well.
In a way the pandemic has been a time of exile. We have not been able to gather together in person for worship, for coffee hour, for Sunday school, for choir, and for committee meetings. Instead we have been gathering remotely through zoom meetings and worship videos.
The Exile in Babylon lasted fifty years. Our time doing things remotely has lasted one year and counting.
This has been a time of economic crisis. Millions of people have lost their jobs, businesses have closed, and while a few billionaires gained hundreds of billions of additional wealth, the gap between the wealthy and everyone else accelerated.
This has been a time of racial reckoning. The murder of George Floyd last year set off a movement of mostly nonviolent protests throughout the nation. Many white people have become aware of racism in ways they hadn’t before.
This past week we have seen the horrible killing of Asian women in Atlanta. This hate act highlights the intersections of racial violence and sexual violence. White supremacy and misogyny – women hating – are tightly woven together.
This past week, just as the US Senate is taking up the Equality Act that would give federal legal protection to LGBTQ+ people so they are not discriminated against in housing and employment, we had the hierarchy of the global Roman Catholic Church declare that they will not sanction or bless unions between LGBTQ+ people.
Our work for justice must be intersectional because the hate and violence we resist is intersectional.
While we are gathering remotely the small side conversations that are each very small but collectively so important have not been able to happen.
I feel the difference between preaching before people and being able to see people’s response as I preach and sitting here preaching a sermon into a computer that I’m not sure who will watch or how you might respond.
Likewise, I feel the difference between being together with a person needing pastoral care and support and trying to do this over the phone or internet.
Jeremiah’s words give us hope. We know that God is with us. The Quakers call this the Inner Light of Christ which we all have within us. God’s covenant is written on our hearts.
This can give us the hope and the courage to be persistent in our faith during this pandemic. Persistent in our bringing faith formation into our families. Persistent in our work for justice.
Persistent in holding to our core values – Being Spiritually Alive as we love God with all of hearts, minds, and strength. Making disciples through online Sunday school, family faith formation, and prayer circles. Loving Church Family by reaching out to each other, in a letter or card, a phone call, an email, or internet message. And by being an inclusive community that welcomes LGBTQ+ people and everyone. Engaging our community by offering support to those in need and by working for justice.
What allows us to hold on to our core values is the God who is with us in our hearts. The God of liberation, the God of forgiveness, the God of all creation.