Sermon on Jeremiah 31
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Given March 21, 2021
Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Today’s reading from Jeremiah contains some of the most comforting language to be found in the Bible: “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.” It’s a passage in which God reaffirms deep and ongoing relationship with God’s people. This relationship is not one of stoic or distant observation, but rather, a promise etched on the hearts of God’s chosen ones, never to be taken away.
The passage is beautiful on its own, but it leaves me wondering about the context. Just looking at it here, it makes me think that this is the conclusion to a story; maybe it’s the summary after a long journey.
I find myself asking: What is happening here? Why does God need to make a new covenant now? And could it teach us something today?
To begin to answer these questions, it’s helpful to enter the historical moment:
The year was 627 BCE and the people of Judah were finally feeling hopeful again. Years of threats from the militant Assyrians were finally passed, and the Assyrian Empire was beginning to crumble. King Josiah was on the throne, and he promised to build back better. He wanted to restore things to the glory days of King David and Solomon, and first on the list was getting people back together for worship at the Jerusalem Temple.
You see, years of hardship and threats of war meant that the people were no longer participating in worship services at their central sanctuary. Instead, if they were participating in religious life at all, they were doing so in their own homes or in small, local gatherings. It felt like they were only connected by a thread to their religious community. If they were alive today, maybe they would be worshipping on Zoom.
So, when King Josiah announced that they should worship again in the recently-renovated Jerusalem Temple, I imagine many were thrilled. “At last,” they must have thought, “we are worshipping God the right way. At last, things are getting back to normal.”
But Josiah’s plans fell apart almost immediately. In 609, he was killed by Egyptians during battle. By 597 BCE, his people, the Judeans, were being rounded up, torn from their land, and exiled as refugees to the great Empire of Babylon.
Their hopes were dashed. Far removed from the sanctuary yet again, they deeply grieved their loss. “Where is God?” they asked. “Who will save us?” They sang songs of mourning, like this one:
By the waters, the waters of Babylon. We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion. We remember, we remember, we remember thee Zion.
Here’s the interesting thing: God’s new covenant is declared by the prophet Jeremiah before the exile begins. It is made in practically the same breath as destruction is foretold. We see that this is not a context in which everything is sorted out, but one in which everything is still up in the air…
The new covenant God makes with God’s beloved people isn’t the conclusion to the story at all. Instead, it is made in the very midst of a people’s confusion, anger, and grief.
It is made in that middle place between fear and hope. That place that keeps you up at night wondering what will happen next. In the context of the prophecy’s storyline,it is made in the nerve-wracking moment before the people allow themselves to anticipate a better future, and before their hardship is over.
Like the Judeans, we are a people on the brink of hope. After months of hardship, we have finally started to believe that things will be back to normal soon. The vestry has been discussing how to safely reopen the sanctuary. Many in the congregation, including myself, are antsy for outdoor services. I’ve heard more than one person describe the Eucharist so graphically you’d think they were describing some kind of decadent dessert.
We just want to make all the baggage of the past year go away, and to slip back into the joys of our old life. We want to be able to worship God the way we were always supposed to, with the creature comforts of liturgy and a familiar worship space.
But what we may not fully realize is that we’re still in the middle of things. The effects of Covid-19 are long term. The grief of death persists, and there have been profound economic consequences that put many families at risk. The evil of white supremacy still acts in the world, just this week with the murder of eight people in Georgia, primarily women of Asian descent.
We recognize that we are collectively a people of exile. Physically and psychologically, what we have endured marks us as survivors. Like the Judeans, we will eventually go back to pick up the pieces of our old lives, but we will be forced to confront the rubble, and the scars. We will be forced to internalize that the idealized world we remembered in our songs of mourning is not the same one we will re-enter.
This will not be easy. It may leave us just as shaken as we were last March when the world shut down. It may leave us raw with rage. It may bring us to our knees with grief. And we may feel as though God’s promise to be with us has been broken.
But Jeremiah reminds us that God never broke God’s promises. No, God compassionately responded to upheaval, accompanied these beloved ones on the journey into unknown territory, and even made a new covenant. And this one wasn’t tied to only one way of knowing God or one way of worshipping. It wasn’t dependent on whether or not the sanctuary was open.
Through Christ, God’s covenant has been written on our hearts, buried down deep. The hardship we face today, the anticipation for the future, and the trials we will inevitably face throughout the course of our lives are never faced alone.
The days are surely coming when we will touch hands as we pass the peace, sing together in harmony, and shout for joy in the sanctuary. The days are surely coming when we will participate in the beautiful, holy mysteries of the Eucharist. This is cause for joyful anticipation!
But, since God’s new covenant is affirmed in the very middle of our fear and hope, let us not forget to cherish what is here in front of us, now. Among the swift and varied changes of the world, we know that we are already the hands and feet of Christ, with a heart full of God’s love. We know that our hearts are fixed in the embrace of God, who turns our mourning into dancing, and responds to our human need with intimate understanding. In the middle of things, let us hope, and let us grieve, knowing that God accompanies us on our way.
 Harper Collins Study Bible