Current Live Weather

Sunday, August 26, 2018

“YOU Will Be My Witnesses”

A sermon based upon Acts 1: 1-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time,  August 26th,  2018 
(1-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Courtrooms are serious places, but sometimes they can also be funny, especially when lawyers are trying to prove the obvious.  Now, I’m not going tell a lawyer joke, but I do want to refer to some “bloopers” taken from real life courtroom cross examinations.

One unnamed lawyer, during a cross examination pointed to a picture. “Were you present,” he asked, “when this picture of you was taken?”
Another lawyer asked: “She had three children, right?”
The witness answered, “Yes.”  The lawyer then asked, “How many were boys?”
“None,” answered the witness.
The lawyer asked, “Were there any girls?”

Another attorney asked a witness, “The youngest son, the twenty-year old, how old is he?

My favorite blooper happened when an attorney was cross examining a doctor and asked: “Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?”
The doctor said, “No.”
The attorney continued, “Did you check for blood pressure?”
And again the doctor said, “No.”
The attorney took a step closer to the witness stand and said, “Did you check for breathing?” The doctor said, “No.”
Then the attorney seemed to get to his point by asking, “So then, is it possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?”
And the doctor said, “No.”
Then the attorney said, “How can you be so sure, doctor?”
And the doctor said, “Because his brain was in a jar sitting on my desk.”

At this point the attorney pursued his line of questioning a little too far, asking: “But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?” And the doctor wisely responded, “I suppose it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing LAW somewhere.”

I don’t know if any of you have been involved in a courtroom proceeding, but from my own experience it’s not easy to be a good witness?  When, right after we were married, my wife was involved in an accident right outside our home.  It was a ‘no fault’ accident, but the insurance companies were trying to place blame on someone.  They put me on the witness stand and I made a very bad witness.  I didn’t like the semantic games being played with the truth.  But what I did learn from the experience is just how heavily our American legal system relies on the testimony of witnesses.

It’s also amazing how much Jesus Christ entrusted the completion of God’s reconciling into the hands of witnesses, whether we are good or bad witness.   There is a great old story about Jesus entering heaven right after his ascension, as Jesus entered heaven, the angels were praising him for finishing God’s reconciling work. 
Jesus responded, “Well, I actually didn’t finish every bit of of it.” 
“What do you mean, didn’t you say “It is Finished,” the angels asked in puzzlement. 
Jesus continued, “Of course, the price of human was paid for, but I left the task of getting the message out in the hands of those who will follow and come after me.” 
“The angels retorted in shock, “Are you saying that you left the greatest message in the world in the hands of those flawed and fallible disciples?”
“Exactly, now they have this ‘treasure in earthen vessels’, that’s the plan!”.  

That’s just a story, what really happened is in our text today.  When preparing to ascend into heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”  (Acts 1:4 NRS).  Then, Jesus gave another promise: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NRS).

Jesus entrusted everything he lived and died for to his followers. Their assignment, which is also our assignment, is that we are to be Christ’s ‘witnesses’. This is the mission and God’s plan to get the word out.  Our primary mission is not going to church, nor is it preaching or hearing sermons, and it is not hiring professionals to all the work for us, but Jesus said:  “YOU will be my Witnesses!”  What Jesus means is that people who have experienced the life-changing and life-commanding power of God’s grace through the gift of the Spirit have been ‘empowered’ to share God’s goodness and grace with the world.  So, now that we know the main outline of God’s plan, let’s take a closer look.  It all starts with a word:

Do you hear your name is this command?  Jesus didn’t say ‘some people’, a few people, for a select few people, but Jesus used the plural form, referring to all who follow him.  Underline the word “YOU” shall be my witnesses…”  Did you hear Jesus speak your name?  “YOU!”

A popular preacher in Europe used to say, “Every Christian is a Missionary”.  What Jesus really said is that “Every Christian is a Witness.”  You may be a bad witness or you may be a good witness, you may be a mediocre, or poor witness, or you may be an astoundingly great witness, but in some way, everyone who names Jesus as Savior and Lord is some kind of ‘witness.’ 

The continuation of the Christian Faith and the work of the Church of Jesus Christ depends upon having ‘witnesses.  The work of God depends on you being a witness.  The question is, “What kind witness are YOU?  YOU cannot, not be a witness.  That’s a double negative to make a point.  If you call Jesus your Savior and your Lord, YOU are some kind of ‘witness’!   Are you a witness for, or a witness against?  Which kind of ‘witness’ are you? That’s the question.

Ray Pritchard tells of a Presbyterian evangelist, Ben Wilkerson, who came to his church in Russellville Alabama for a week of evangelistic meetings. This was about thirty years ago.   During the mornings Rev Wilkerson trained a team of young people to go out and share the gospel door to door.  It’s hard to get young people ‘in the door’ today, but that’s how it was done in many churches, as young people were being prepared and trained to become adult witnesses.   Pritchard goes on to tell how sometime during that week, Rev Wilkerson posed a simple, interesting question that is still worth repeating: Have you ever wondered why, when God saved you, he left YOU here on the earth?

The evangelist went on to make his point: If God had wanted to, he could have saved you and taken you directly to heaven at the moment you trusted Christ as Savior.  But God didn’t, which means that God left you here on the earth for a particular purpose.  Quoting a distinguished Scottish pastor, he put it another way: “To every true Christian these two things may be said: You have need of Christ and Christ has need of you.” He added: “The simple fact that a Christian is on earth and not in heaven, is proof that there is something for YOU to do; and if YOU aren’t not doing it, YOU grieve the God who made you, the Jesus who commands you, and the Holy Spirit who has the power to enable you.”

What is it that God left you on earth to do?  What is it that we can do on earth that we can’t do in heaven? We can sing on earth and we can sing in heaven. We can praise God on earth and we will praise God in heaven. We can fellowship with other believers on earth and we will certainly fellowship with them in heaven. The list could go on, but when you think about it, the most important thing YOU can do on earth that YOU can’t wait to do when YOU get to heaven is that YOU can’t tell a person who is lost how to find Jesus Christ.  There will be no ‘lost’ people in heaven, so if you’re going to bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ with someone who is lost and needs to be found and loved, then you’ve got to do it now, while you’re here on earth.  If the job gets done, Jesus is saying, “IT’S UP TO YOU!”

What Jesus said his disciples, just before leaving, Jesus is also saying to us, through the Spirit, to us, you and me, as the church, the body of Jesus on earth.  After saving us, Jesus leaves us here to be his witnesses.  In Heaven, ‘seeing is believing’, but here on earth, believing is seeing.  In heaven, the Lamb will be the light and there will be no need of reflecting God’s light, but in this dark world, we are commanded to reflect the light of Jesus Christ.  On earth, we are his only witnesses.  Did you hear Jesus’ commanding words: “YOU WILL BE… YOU SHALL BE… and YOU MUST BE are the implications of this imperative of Jesus.   The first part of the book of Acts is filled with imperative and indicative statements, like this, not options and opinions: “Repent and Be Baptized every one of you and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2: 38).
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name for mortals to be saved” (4:12). 
We must obey God rather than human authority…” (5:29).
“What God has made clean, you must not make profane” (10:15)
“God shows no partiality, but every nation who does right is acceptable to him (10:34-35). 

All these imperatives and indicatives mean that Jesus needs people to be his witnesses.  Jesus does not send angels to proclaim his name and he does not write the gospel in lightning across the skies.  Jesus uses people like us, that is ‘people to people,’ to convince, persuade, and influence others to believe on him. We are Christ’s witnesses—we are the evidence of the truth about Jesus to an unbelieving world. If we do not do our part, God has no other plan.  

Listen to the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 again, as Jesus imparts this truth to his followers: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Here, Jesus emphasizes two things that insures how we can be, should be, must be, and will be His witnesses:  One, we will be ‘empowered’ by the Holy Spirit, and second, as Spirit-filled disciples, we will witness for Jesus all over the world.

Our greatest need all over the world today is not for political power, but for the spiritual power of the Holy Spirit.  I hear a couple of politicians from South Carolina, one a US Senator, and the other a Congressman say on national TV that politics is by nature, divisive: one side must lose and one side wants to win and defeat the other.  Then they said, that’s why people don’t work together well in Washington.  We all get along very well as friends, but we accomplish nothing as politicians.  As leaders, political power can make our attitudes toward each other change but it can’t change hearts and it doesn’t change the situation.  Political power can win elections but it can’t save lives.  Political power can pass righteous laws—or repeal unrighteous ones—but it can’t make people righteous. Politics cannot change the way people think because it touches only the outside. Only the living, inward, spirit of holiness and righteousness, the Holy Spirit can change hearts, restore families and save nations from destruction. 

For example, way back in 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Prohibition, it was called.  The people who supported the Amendment—including the great evangelist Billy Sunday—meant well. They truly believed that by outlawing liquor, they could improve society. Many people called it “the Grand Experiment.” It didn’t work, largely because Americans by the millions chose to flout the law by patronizing bootleggers and speakeasies. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment and the Grand Experiment was over. It failed because no outward law, even God’s law, can change human nature—a point Paul makes forcefully in Romans 7:15-25. If people want to drink and get drunk, all the laws in the world aren’t going to stop them.

That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. “Be drunk, not with wine, which is in excess, but be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), Paul wrote.  Only God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, can take the ‘preached’ Gospel and use it to bring people to change, which means to repent of sin and to have faith in Jesus Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can replace old hearts of stone with new hearts of flesh and give them pure hearts which hunger to live in righteousness.  Jesus told his inquisitive disciples that instead of worrying about the coming of a political kingdom, they should focus on the spiritual work. First, they should wait to be filled with the Holy Spirit and then, when the Spirit comes in promise and power, they must be witnesses for Christ. This was and is God’s plan for his people.  The world has its political jobs to do, but the Church has a different kind of ‘spiritual’ work to accomplish.  This is our ‘job description:  Jesus said, “You WILL BE my witnesses.”

Jesus also said, “You will be MY WITNESSES.” What did Jesus mean by calling us to be HIS WITNESS?   What is asking us to actually do?  Are we to be like Jehovah’s Witnesses, going door to door, making people uncomfortable, putting people on the spot, leaving unwanted pamphlets at the door, or walking up to people and forcing our ‘truth’ on them, which amounts to ‘casting our pearls before swine’ which is simply telling other people what they don’t want to and are not ready to hear?  Is this what it means to be a witness?  Who wants to be a ‘witness’ like this? 

If that’s not what it means, then what does it mean to be HIS WITNESS?  What is a witness TO Jesus Christ who is also a witness OF Jesus Christ?  What we learn from the whole story of the birth and beginning of the church in Acts, that there are many different ways to bear ‘witness’ to Jesus.  The Church spoke the ‘languages’ of the world.  The disciples came together as a devoted community.  The apostles were sent out to touch the lives of people and share Christ’s compassion for the whole world.  All this is in the book of Acts, but what I like best is the simple definition Peter gave after the events in Acts were all done.  Peter wrote to the church saying that this is how you become Christ’s witness: “Always be ready to give an answer to every person that asks a reason of the hope that is in you”  (1 Pet. 3:15 KJV).

To ‘witness’ is to ‘be ready to give and answer’ for the ‘hope’ you have in him.  What this means is that you don’t have to be a theologian to be a witness for Christ. You don’t have to go to Bible school or seminary and you don’t have to be a missionary. It doesn’t require a college degree or a high IQ. Just tell the truth about why you have hope in Jesus to anyone who asks you. Did you notice that Jesus does not tell everyone to go ‘out witnessing.’  Statistics say that only about 10% of Christians are even able to learn how to do this.  This is not what Jesus or Peter meant.  Of course, as the book of Ephesians says, ‘some’ do need to be trained to be the ‘face’ of the church and it’s ministry and witness in the world, as ‘some’ are gifted as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and some as teachers.  The apostles, prophets, and evangelists, and sometimes the pastor’s and teachers should be able to ‘go’, but still their main work is ‘to equip the saints for the work of the ministry’ which is in the church and in the world.  As witnesses, we do God’s work in the world so that, people will ask us ‘why’ and then we should be able to give an answer to the reason for our hope in Him.  By ‘answering’ and giving reasons for our hope we begin to be a faithful witness. 

But now, this question follows:  “What kind of ‘answer’ do you have to share?” Many people feel that they have ‘nothing’ to share, and they don’t know what to say, even if they are asked.  What do you say, as a witness to Jesus Christ? 

The comedian Red Skelton once a story about himself that happened many years ago.  It is a funny story, but it makes an important point about our reluctance to share our own stories of hope, faith, and love.

“Red Skelton was a young man at the time and he had a secretary on his staff who had done a lot of extra work for him. So he decided that he would like to get a nice gift for her to show his appreciation. He asked his wife what she thought would be an appropriate gift. She thought a moment and then said, “Why don’t you get her some perfume.” “But I wouldn’t know what kind of perfume to get,” said Skelton, to which his wife replied, “Well why don’t you just tell her what you’re going to do and let her tell you what’s her favorite kind,” So that’s what he did.

“Well, when he asked her, his secretary said, “Oh, Mr. Skelton, I just love working for you. You don’t have to buy me a gift.” But of course, he persisted. So finally she said, “Well, if you insist, my favorite perfume is called ‘Romantic Thoughts at Midnight.’” So the next day, Red Skelton went to the department store to get the perfume. And when he walked up to the perfume counter, the elderly saleswoman asked if she could help him. And Red Skelton said, “Yes, you can. Do you have ‘Romantic Thoughts at Midnight?’” And the saleswoman just looked at him and said, “Listen sonny, I have to drink coffee just to stay up for the 10 o’clock news!”

It’s a funny story that illustrates the point—that we need to talk to each other.  We get into a lot less trouble when we share what we feel, and when we ask and answer each other’s questions, than when we don’t.  When we don’t talk to each other, this is when we can get into a lot trouble.  It is so very important, especially in this age of cell phones and FACEBOOK, that we hear and answer God’s command to ‘share’ ourselves with each other in clear, concrete and compassionate ways.  

When I lived in Greensboro, I lived in a city that had one of the largest Jewish communities in the South.  At that time, which was the late 1990’s, there was a lot of discussion going on about the comments that a popular Southern Baptist preacher made, when he said that “God doesn’t hear the prayers of the Jews.”  Such language made the Jewish community a bit nervous, because they remembered the terrible persecution of the Holocaust, and other persecutions done to them, sometimes even by Christians who were prejudiced against them for not believing in Jesus Christ.  As part of the nation-wide discussion, I remember reading in the Greensboro New and Record a statement by a certain Jewish fellow in New York, I think it was.  He was asked what he thought about the Baptist people in his neighborhood who were always coming to his house and trying to convert him.  His response was very interesting, “I’m fine with my Baptist neighbor’s coming to try to convert me, in fact, I really appreciate them caring about me, as long as they love me and want to talk with me.  The people who scare me are the people who want to kill me and say they love Jesus.  That’s what keeps me up at night.”

What people really need to hear from us, is that we really care, really have compassion, and really have convictions of faith in Jesus Christ.  We do not actually ‘convert’ anybody, nor do we have to say the ‘right words’.  It’s is God’s Spirit that does the ‘converting’ and it is our compassion that makes conversion a real possibility.  Again, let me underscore, that to ‘give and answer for the hope in us’, does not mean that we have to have all the answers.  We still have questions too.  Even after we come to ‘know’ Jesus we still wake up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning wonder about life, about God, have doubts and struggles in life.    Being HIS WITNESS doesn’t mean that we become ‘answer men or women’ or that we’ve got it all together in life, or that we must always be bubbling over with joy because we’re “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

What being HIS WITNESS means is that we are honestly, seeking the truth just like everyone, but it also means that we SEEK the truth while TRUSTING CHRIST for our SALVATION, which means that in the end, everything depends upon the mercy, grace, and justice of the God who loves and who saves through Jesus Christ.  This means that we not ‘closed minded’ but that we are always open and vulnerable, willing to confess that we are pilgrims on the road, not perfect, not yet whole, or finished learning, but trusting Him to ‘complete the work that he has begun within us.

If we can have that kind of attitude, that kind of stance about the faith, that we are pilgrims, growing, struggling to incorporate the life of Christ in our life, then we’ll always have something to offer.  All we have to do it be a faithful witness of what God in Christ, is doing in us, and allow God to do the rest.

Not long ago, the life of the great evangelist Billy Graham was celebrated, when he died at 99 years of age.  Most all of us know who Billy Graham was, but who knows the name of J. Wilbur Chapman or Mr. Kimball?  Well, if it wasn’t for the faithful witness of Wilbur Chapman and Mr. Kimball, there may have been no Billy Graham.  Think about this true story of connection.  It reminds me of that movie about ‘Six-Degrees of Separation’ which connects every person on the face of this earth.  The story goes:

A Sunday school teacher, Mr. Kimball, whose name is remembered only in forgotten books, led a Boston shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to give his life to Christ in 1858.  While preaching in 1879, Moody lit a fire of evangelistic zeal in the heart of a pastor of a small church. That pastor was Frederick B. Meyer.
F. B. Meyer became one of the greatest preachers of the world. He was preaching on an American college campus, and was instructed in bringing to Christ a student named J. Wilbur Chapman, the person whose name none of you recognized a moment ago.
Chapman engaged in YMCA work and was used to reach a professional baseball player named Billy Sunday.
One of Billy Sunday’s great revivals took him to Charlotte, North Carolina. Some business men of that city were so excited about it they planned a second campaign and invited an evangelist named Mordecai Hamm to lead it—now you wouldn’t know that name either, but during the Hamm revival meeting, a young man named Billy Graham heard the Gospel and yielded his life to Christ.
Only eternity will reveal the tremendous impact that one Sunday School teacher, Mr. Kimball, who led Dwight L. Moody to give his life to Christ in 1858.

I believe Jesus anticipated connections like this when he said to his first disciples,  “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” To witness the faith, hope, and love found in Jesus Christ, is the calling of every Christian.  The question is, can God get a ‘witness’ out of you!  Amen. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

“Buy it…Redemption Is Yours.”

A sermon based upon Jeremiah 32: 1-15
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  August 12th, 2018 
(11-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

What does it take to run a good business?  I grew up in the grocery business that my father ran, but it’s nothing like the grocery business today.   In fact, it was the changes in the grocery business, from small to large, from retail to discount, from store to warehouse, that basically ran my father out of business.  This kind of cut-throat competition is still happening today.

Recently I watched Jeff Rossen of NBC News, compare the new, up and coming way of selling groceries.  He was comparing Amazon home delivery with another lesser known challenger in the home home delivery grocery service.  After ordering certain items, they reached the his home ( in the big city), within 5 minutes of each other.  The challenger got there first but left out one item.  Amazon’s groceries arrived a few minutes later but left out an item too.  Amazon refunded the money and added a coupon for 5 dollars.  The challenger didn’t mention the missing item, also credited the amount for the missing item but gave no coupon.  The items from both stores were in good shape, but because of their size, Amazon’s could sell for a little less.  The real loser in this new war, will probably not be the large retailers, but will be the smaller convenience store around the corner.

One thing I found interesting is that Amazon and its challenger, by establishing a home delivery grocery service, are attempting to go back to what I observed my Father doing in his business long ago.  He too had ‘home delivery’ way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s and then finally in the 80’s too.  He had a personal touch and also knew the people he served and had established a relationship with them.  He couldn’t give the discounts the big stores did, but his grocery business gave personal service and knew you by name.  Unfortunately, in this highly competitive world, it’s hard to run a business like this anymore.

So, what makes a good viable business model for our changing times?  Is it about the saving people money?   Is it about the quality of service or the guarantee that comes with the products that are bought and sold?   Is it about the options or choices you have?   Do we have to kiss goodbye the world where ‘everyone knows you by name’?   Are we really getting a ‘good deal’ when we get what we want, but we don’t really know where it came from, who made it, or who helped us get it into our hands?   These are the kinds of business questions our world continues to discuss, which will be decided either the laws that are passed or questions which the markets will answer in their ‘business wars’.

Today, in this Scripture text, we see business deal taking place.  It’s a business deal that goes against what makes for good ‘business sense’.   What Jeremiah did raises a question that is still important for the church, because church business is not like any other kind of business.  Remember, Jesus said that he had to be about his ‘father’s business’ (Lk. 2:49).   But what kind of ‘business’ did he mean?   In fact the word ‘business’ does not even occur in the original text.   The Greek actually should be translated more like, ‘Don’t you know I must be about what my Father is about?”   In my earthly Father’s  store there were, of course, certain business rules I observed my father following, unspoken rules like, the customer is always right, you’ve got to sell what the customer wants,  and most importantly, you’ve got to make sure at the end of each month, that you end up ‘in the black’, rather than ‘in the red’.  That’s the way business works, but is what Jesus meant being about what His Father was about?  Did Jesus mean that he must be about the success of the church with human business skills, or did Jesus mean something else?  

Certainly the church can’t continually run ‘in the red’, and is an earthly body, but my Father, who was not only a business man, but was also a church leader, knew that the church was not merely an earthly business.   He certainly did not believe at church that ‘the customer was always right since we are all sinners, or that you should simply ‘sell’ what the customer wants, because he believed we should strive to seek God’s will.   This kind of thinking doesn’t make business sense, but then again, the church does not exist like any earthly business.  And even though my father had a great math mind, was very conservative in this business practice, he did not believe that it was the church’s calling to make or hold on to its money.  While he did believe that church should be fiscally smart and responsible, he was also sure the church had a higher purpose, it existed to love God more than money and the church existed to give its self away and to serve others to the ‘glory of God’ by giving away whatever it took in. He did not think the church was a bank or should be run like any other business. 

As far as I know, the prophet Jeremiah never studied business, because the business deal we observe in today’s text doesn’t make any kind of good ‘business sense’.  But before we can understand what Jeremiah was doing, and why he was doing it, we need to understand once more, what was happening in Jeremiah’s world.   Those were stressful, even dreadful and confusing times in Jerusalem.  It was wartime, too.   And it was in this ‘wartime’ that Jeremiah had been preaching the opposite message of all the other prophets and what the people hoped.  Whereas all the others had preached that Judah and Jerusalem would win the war currently being waged against Babylon, Jeremiah preached the opposite.  Jeremiah advised, as God counseled him, and also, we might add, as the situation also dictated, since armies had the city surrounded for weeks;, that the city of Jerusalem should give itself up and surrender to their enemy.   Can you imagine some preaching saying such a thing today?  Can you imagine someone saying that America should stop fighting and surrender to its foe?   For such treasonous talk, Jeremiah had been ‘confined’ in ‘the court of the guard’ (2) being considered a traitor, even though he was obviously speaking the truth.

Jeremiah had preaching the difficult truth of God’s judgement all along, but it was the truth no one wanted to hear.  We wouldn’t want to hear it either.  No one wants to hear the sad truth about themselves, about their country, about their leaders, or about their military.   As good citizen’s, we like to take pride in our patriotism, and we don’t like to have to criticize or examine ourselves or our viewpoints too closely.   We like to live in denial of what is really happening.  We like to pretend it isn’t true.  We like to find a way to avoid and escape reality.  Millions, if not billions of dollars are made helping us find ways to escape and be entertained.  It was much the same in Jeremiah’s day.  Even King Zedekiah questioned Jeremiah’s logic.  “Why do you preach and say,….THE LORD will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon…. (saying) that the King…will not escape….and will be taken to Babylon…? (3-5).   In other words, why do you speak against us, when you should be speaking for us?  Why do you have to tell us this ‘God-awful’ truth?  Why can’t you be positive and optimistic like everyone else, who knows, it might turn things around?

If we learn anything about the truth from the book of Jeremiah, is that the truth, that is ‘God’s truth’ can sometimes be a very ‘hard pill’ to swallow.   The truth can hurt.   The truth can threaten.   The truth can be something we want silenced.   The truth can be something we want to sweep under the rug and pretend isn’t real.   That’s how it was in Jeremiah’s day.  It would have been one thing if King Zedekiah challenged Jeremiah when the armies were far away, but now they were marching around Jerusalem at that very moment.   ‘The hand-writing was on the wall’, but no one, except for Jeremiah and maybe a faithful few could see what was really happening and be willing to face it for what it really was.  Facing reality is still a very rare skill, but it is very necessary for life.  In this point, God’s business and human business agree.

Are we willing to see what is really happening around us, or are we first in line to deny the truth that is as plain as the nose on our faces?    Not long ago, Teresa was substituting in a very difficult school.   There was absolutely no discipline in the classroom.  Children were acting out and refusing to follow the teacher’s rules.  It was frustrating and difficult.  What strikes you in such a situation was that in this kind of pain, chaos, and struggle, is where the future of our culture might go, if change doesn’t happen.   These children are really helpless and hurting, just as the teachers and administration are helpless and hurting, because there was no community consensus about what should be done to restore discipline, order and hope.  If this continues, and changes doesn’t come, it will soon be, if it isn’t already, too late for some of these children.   And you can’t run from this, or escape this either.  If it happens somewhere in America, it will eventually everywhere in America.   The pain and hurt in our culture that is going unanswered, will one day, if it isn’t already, rise up, bring a ‘dark change’ or bring a dreadful end to the wonderful world we have known as a land of ‘freedom and justice for all’.

Think about the many ways our own culture is coming unraveled: fears of terror, school violence, broken homes, undisciplined students, the lack of faith, hope and love and the decline of our communities and churches,  along with the bullying, hazing and addictions.  Where will it end?   We know where it will end, but who wants to admit it?  We know what is going to happen, but who can do anything about it?  Most of the good teachers want out?   Most feel their hands are tied and it’s a no-win situation.  Most would rather be doing something else, and they do.   And folks, this is the situation of working with young children in certain pockets of our country.  What about working in other areas of society?  How will what happens in some places that are ignored, turn out to affect life everywhere?

Since we’re going to talk more about business, let me tell you how the decline of ethics, discipline and morals is already affecting life in the mainstream.   I was in a store right around Christmas looking for some new speakers for my sound system.   While I was looking for the best speakers at a good price, I noticed that the item I was considering, was being falsely advertised.   They had put one set of budget speakers on the advertisement, but then pushed a higher priced and higher quality speakers up front on the display, pretending that you would get this quality for the cheaper price, but it wasn’t true.  If you purchased these budget speaker, thinking they were good quality, if you didn’t know what you were doing you’d get home with the lesser quality ones, which they would did not even allow you to sample.   I had done my homework, so I knew the difference.   When I told them sales person that  I wanted to change the wiring and hear the cheaper speakers so I could compare the difference, they told me I needed to talk to the manager.  When the manager came, he told me I couldn’t touch the wiring, because the Vendor had set it up and he had no responsibility for it.  I commented that it was in his store, how could he say he wasn’t responsible for it?  I also explained that this was ‘false advertising’.  He told me I’d have to call the Vendor, who would be impossible to reach.  

 I decided to go with another company altogether, but what I really got that day was another lesson in what is really going on all around us in our culture, in our free country, where fear of God is missing and doesn’t matter, so that most anything is permissible if you can get by with it?  WHERE IS A WORLD LIKE THIS GOING?  HOW can this be good business practice?  Do we see ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are falling into the hands of?   Do we notice the bursting seams in our moral fabric and notice the cracks in our moral armor of a nation once pledged as ‘one nation, under God’?

So, what do we do, when the world around us is falling apart?   Do we all go home and hold on for dear life?   Do we stick our head in the sands, and pretend we see nothing?   Do we try to build a fortress around ourselves with our guns, our security devices, our stock options or our bank accounts?   What do we do in a world that is socially, spiritually, and morally coming unglued?  Will we face it?  If so, how do we face it and what should we do?

Jeremiah’s situation was even more desperate, but what happens next is most hopeful, as the text tells us that it was in this kind of darkness that the prophet heard ‘the word of the Lord’ (6).   And this ‘word’ that comes to him, is not what you would expect.   God tells Jeremiah that he should go and buy his cousin’s property, and make a future investment even in this declining, downward, even dying market.   God tells Jeremiah to make, what looks like, the worst business deal in his life, which would also be the best spiritual deal he could ever make.   God tells Jeremiah to ‘go and buy the field’ which would give him all the rights to someday ‘redeem’ the value of that field, when in the future, the property values come back.  

Of course, this looked like a very bad deal when he made the purchase; buying land when the value was sinking.  But this is best way to do faith, and if you are thinking what I am, it’s really not that bad of a way to look forward in business either, if you are able and willing to wait.   But don’t misunderstand.  What is going on here is not the business wisdom of buying low and selling high, but this God’s business, going against the grain of this world, investing in life and giving to what is good, even when the times are hard or the days are evil.  It goes against convention, and it is certainly not easy to do, because it demands faith from us, but when you keep buying, keep investing, keep giving, keep loving, keep hoping, and keep on caring, especially when things are down and difficult, you are willing to wait, trust, and sacrifice for the future that only God can bring, the value of life can go back up and will one day return .

When I think about what Jeremiah did, I can’t help but recall Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25?   Who got into the big trouble in that story?  Do you recall?  A wealthy man needs to leave town, and leaves his investments in the hands of three different people.  To one he gives 5 talents, to another he gives two, and then to one he leaves only one talent.  Now, in that day, a talent value of money in silver and gold.  One talent would be worth a little over a million dollars today, thus we can translate the talent as large investments of 5 million, 2 million, and 1 million.   

Now back to the story which you all know.   It wasn’t the one with 5 talents, or 2 talents who got into trouble, because both they both invested them and doubled the investments for their boss.  The one who got into big trouble was the one who because he was ‘afraid’ buried his talent and when the master returned, and showed no gain whatsoever.   But what is often forgotten, but is most to understand about this famous parable is that Jesus didn’t tell this story in good times either.  It was a time when Israel was under occupation by a foreign ruler and they were about to fall apart too.   But exactly in these very difficult, dark, and depressing times of decline, Jesus was challenging God’s people are to continue to ‘invest’ for the day to come.   Jesus was challenging those who would stick their money in the bank, live in fear, or who were doing nothing to ‘endow’ the future with hope.

Can we do this?  If we did, what would it mean?   I think it means something like that ministry we witnessed with Solus Christus.   In a world where women are becoming addicted, these folks established a ministry, not to lay blame, but to reach out and to make a difference in their hurting lives.  Isn’t this what we are also supposed to do in difficult, dark, and depressing times?  Aren’t we supposed to be salt on the earth and light in the world?  Aren’t we challenged to keep investing in the good for our children and for the future which belongs to God alone, but also depends upon the ‘talents’ God has put into our hands?

A couple of months ago, I ran into a pastor friend of mine who pastor’s a small town church in North Carolina.  I can’t remember how our conversation went into this direction, but after we spoke about our families,  we started talking about church ministry, and he shared how his church was touching the lives of senior citizens, which is where there church was growing.  He said our congregation visits each other, and the seniors need and know this.   Of course, you know that investing and building your church around seniors means that your church might have a limited future, since ‘we’, and I mean we, aren’t going to live that long.  But since the younger group like the louder, impersonal, ‘leave me alone’ style, this personal, visiting, caring, and relational style church doesn’t appeal to them, but it does to seniors, and there church is growing, at least for now.

Why am I telling this story?  It’s because of what he told me next.  He said had a senior lady in their congregation who lived in a very small, modest house in town.  Knowing she was not well physically, the pastor visited her and told her that if she needed any help, with money, with chores around the house, and upkeep, please let them know, so the church could organize some of their youth to help out.  But in response, the lady said, “Oh, Pastor, I’m fine.  I can manage.  I can hire out most of the things I need, don’t worry about me, but help someone else.”   It wasn’t long until after that, that the lady died.  Shortly after the funeral, her lawyer called to let the pastor know that “Mrs “B” had left all she had to the church.  “Really, the pastor, answered.”   “Yes, we have valued her small little bungalow house at about $38, 000 dollars, and adding that with the rest of her savings, we it comes to about 1.2 million dollars that she have left to the church to ensure and invest in the church’s future work.”  The pastor couldn’t believe that this humble, sweet, modest living lady had so much money to leave, but she had two other relatives how had no one to leave their money to, so they left it with her.  Thinking that money was not hers to spend, she put it away and now added to what she had, she is leaving it to your church.  She wants to invest in the future of God’s work.

Now back to Jeremiah’s own investment in the future.   In this account, even at a time when the land value had plummeted, and when the future was most unsure, God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field, sign the deed, seal and save the note as proof that hope and value would one day return to his land.   God wanted Jeremiah to show God’s people that they should not lose hope, even in difficult times, because the future belongs to God.

Could we too, find ways to invest in hope, even in these deadly and destructive times?  Could we even dare to be part of investing in what only God can do?  This is certainly not immediately good business sense, but it can make good, spiritual, biblical sense, because it is the same way  God was also ‘investing’ in the world, even when the world arrested, tried, and murdered his only son.  God was at work in Jesus, loving, planting seeds of faith, hope and love, even giving the best he had to give, because God wanted us to also keep believing, trusting, waiting, and hoping, even when everything looks dark and dismal around us.

Many years ago, the great reformer Martin Luther called this ‘other-wordly’ logic, the ‘theology of the cross”.   Luther made the point that God’s style of working in this world is revealed in the Cross, which is God’s way of doing ‘business’ that still continues in the present time.  Luther said, just as God confronted the world and its wisdom on the Cross (1 Cor. 1: 17-25) , so that today we must learn to treat the world’s wisdom, even our own wisdom, with suspect, and not to rely on our own insight alone.  Why?  Because, quoting Scripture, Luther said: “the works of God are can be unattractive and can appear wrong”.   God works in this very hidden and unsuspecting way to humble us by confounding our wisdom.  Then, in the end, we will learn how foolish and sinful we are and become totally dependent on him (1 Corinthians 1:20-29). Commenting on Psalm 30, Luther claimed: “We must not judge by what we feel or by what we see before us. The Word must be followed, and we must firmly hold that these truths are to be believed, not experienced; for to believe is not always to experience at least, at first. …Faith is to precede experience.  Faith comes first.  And the Word of God must be believed even when we feel and experience something different.”  (As quoted from a sermon by Mark Ellingsen “Even Our Business Belongs to God” from  Luther’s Works), Vol. 31, p. 39., 44, and Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 40, III, pp. 370f).
Luther has helped us to understand why the God’s ‘business’ strategies seem so much in tension with our usual everyday business sensibilities.  It has to do with God’s style of confounding our worldly wisdom in order to make us recognize our total dependence on him.  Isn’t this what we really need, not just to conduct  good business, but to learn to depend wholly on him?

What we depend upon God for was really what is being decided when Jeremiah bought that worthless land from his cousin in Anathoth.   It’s something like that that was being decided when a woman named Cynthia stood before her church to speak.  She told the story of her faith in her successful struggle against cancer and death.
She explained how doctors told her chances of survival with the kind of cancer she had were so slim, that it was not worth the misery she would have to endure, but she decided to invest in the struggle anyway, and do you know what, she opened her Bible,  and after reading about what Jeremiah did when he invested in worthless land, she decided to fight anyway .  At this point, she lit the candle she was holding as a sign that she decided to trust God like Jeremiah did, and invest in the future, even against the recommendation of her doctors.   She became very sick, almost died, but she invested, she lit her candle in hope, went through with the treatments and she survived, is in total remission and now lives her life fully to give all the glory to God.
After this powerful testimony, a man in the back stood up and celebrated with Cynthia for a moment, but then explained how he and his wife lit a candle and invested in the pain of chemotherapy and great prayer and hope, but that his wife died.   He asked her, and the church honestly, ‘what does Jeremiah’s investment in hope mean for my wife?’  Cynthia did not know how to answer?  Do we?  How do we take on the theology of the cross, of investing in the good, and investing in life, when death and destruction is all around us, and it does not always turn out like we want it too?  Even Jeremiah died, before he got to see  his land value return.  How can we say there is anything ‘real’ to God’s way of doing business?
Thomas Rogers, who told this true story about his church, went on to tell about another woman named he names Pamela.   Pamela had a very rare eye disease.  She was a very successful CPA in her mid-30s and she was going blind.  Pamela tried everything. She went from doctor to doctor and they put her on special diets and gave her special treatments, but nothing seemed to stop the steady loss of vision. Finally an eye specialist told Pamela that she had one last option open to her. There was a very complicated surgery that could be performed.  If it was successful she would be able to save some of her vision.  If unsuccessful, she would go completely blind immediately rather than gradually with the disease.  Pamela chose to have the surgery. She emerged from that operation with no sight at all and no hope for that to ever change.
Pamela's pastor went to see her in the hospital. The pastor took Pamela's hand and said, "I'm so sorry. Is there anything that you would like me to do for you?"
Pamela said, "Yes, there is."
The pastor said, "Just name it."
Pamela said, "I would like a candle."
The pastor was considerably surprised by the request, but said, "Fine, I'll be sure to bring one when I come next time."
Pamela said, "No. I want one now."
The pastor said, "Don't you even want to talk a little bit first?"
Pamela shot back, "If you really want to do something for me ...."
The pastor interrupted, "Okay. I see that it is important to you. I'll go get one right now."

It was a 15-minute drive back to the church from the hospital, but the pastor made the round trip and returned to Pamela's room with a candle in hand. Approaching her bed the pastor asked, "Do you want me to light it for you?"  Pamela answered, "Oh, no. Just hand it to me." She took the candle in her hands gripping it tightly. She then clutched the candle against her and said, "During these last months I have often thought of myself as a candle about to go out.  I thought that everything I am is tied up in being able to see.  I expected that when blackness came then there would be nothingness." She then said, "Now I'm blind. It's dark." She held the candle tightly. "But the candle is still here.  I'm still here.  I'm still me.  God is still God. It's going to be okay somehow."
Perhaps in her blindness Pamela was able to see something in her candle that eluded Cynthia when she held up her lit candle before the group. Cynthia saw the flame of her candle as a symbol of hope.  The flame was the symbol of light in darkness -- God helping us out of bad situations. This can be a powerful symbol for people who have passed through darkness on the way to better times. But it did not speak to the man in the back row. And there may be times when this will not speak to us either.
Pamela, however, experienced the candle in a different way.  She discovered that a candle is more than a fragile light.  Flames come and go on candles.  But, as Pamela discovered, a flame doesn't make a candle.  It's the candle itself that makes a candle a candle.  For her, the candle proper was a symbol of hope, because, regardless of whether there is a flame or not, her hope came in the promise that hope is not grounded in what will happen to us, but hope is ground in God’s love for us, because of who we are.  
Each of us have our own terrible times. You know what yours have been. Perhaps you are in the middle of some pretty bad times right now.  Yet, when things go badly for us that is not a time to despair, but a time to invest ourselves in the future. It is the same way in our world, and in our church life too.  We have to keep investing in the future, because of who we  are and because of who God is, whether we see immediate results or not.  We must  keep living, loving, investing, doing, and caring, because ultimately, because God gives life, live has value, we have value, and the future too has value, because it all belongs this God who loves and created life.
When Jeremiah bought the plot of land, he invested in the future. In the middle of terrible times he made a symbolic purchase -- a statement of hope grounded in God, who gives everything value.  Yet, ultimately, Jeremiah’s and Judah’ hope too, did not rest in whether or not good things would happen to them, but in who they were, a people grounded in a covenant with their God.  Yes, the land was important issue, but its importance lay in the fact that it was a part of the promise of God.  Their hope came not in what would happen to them, but in who God had made them to be the people of his promise..
We, like Jeremiah, are called to invest in the future. We do so not because we are certain that God has something better in store for us, but because we know who God has made us to be. The flames of life may flicker, and some will go out, but ultimately this does not matter. Our hope is not grounded in the promise of good things happening to us. Our hope is grounded in the fact that we have become and are the children of God.

Our hope comes not from who we are, but who God is and who God has created us to be.  We are a people who need God, and need to keep investing in good, even in evil times.  We are people who are called to be church, and a living, loving, faithful community that serves and does justice, even when the days are evil.   That is what we do, not because of what is happening, but because of who we are in God.  Our identity is in Jesus Christ and in his body, the church. Come hell or high-water, this is who we are.  Even in the worst of times we can invest in the future, for in the love of Jesus Christ, God has invested everything in us. AMEN.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

“The Days Are Surely Coming...”

A sermon based upon Jeremiah 31: 27-34
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  August 5th, 2018 
(10-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

In his wonderful book, Open Secrets, Richard Lischer, a professor of ministry at Duke Divinity School, tells of a retired pastor who came to visit him shortly after his wife died. Throughout his whole ministry, he had prayed with countless people, providing a bridge between them and God. When it mattered the most though, he couldn't pray.
When his wife was dying, he couldn't pray with her. He didn't make a conscious decision not to pray with her, he just couldn't do it. He felt as though something had shut down inside of him, almost as though he had died spiritually. In an attempt to understand why his ability to pray had shut down, he went to visit Lischer, hoping that a fresh perspective could help him sort out his pain and his agonizing questions. He told the younger Lischer that trying to pray was like trying to touch something when your arms and hands are wrapped in gauze.  As he said in the conversation, "I couldn't break through to whatever it was that sustained Geneva and me for almost 43 years, and nothing could touch me either."  ( Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through A Country Church (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 176.
The grieving pastor couldn't get through to God and couldn't feel God trying to get through to him.
A tragedy in our life can make us more aware of it, when sometimes, in our lives, God can seem far away, unapproachable, silent.  Especially when we are hurting, or going through a spiritual crisis, the distance between God and us seems greater and harder to understand and endure.
In our text from Jeremiah, the prophet speaks of the spiritual crisis Israel and Judah experienced because of the people’s sin against God.  It is this life-destroying sin that Jeremiah is referring to when says “the parents have eaten sour grapes, so that the childrens’ teeth are set on edge.”  “Sour grapes” is a most graphic way of saying the sin of the parents led to the failure and destruction their children endured.  Poor parental choices had made God’s help seem far away to God’s children.  Now, God’s people were living in spiritual, as well as, physical, exile.  They could not get through to God and they couldn't feel God in them.  God seemed so far away, that the ‘children’ did not even know what it was like to know God was near.

There are many reasons that people lose a sense of God’s presence.  As this text reminds us, it may not always be because of our own sin.  Too often, innocent people may suffer unjustly and undeservedly, without any fault of their own.  People can suffer the results of the sins of others too.  We see this in Israel’s story, not just here, but also in history, as in the Holacaust, when the Jews and German people suffered for the sins of Hitler and the Nazis.  We too, can suffer from the sins of our government, our communities and the sins of our society, just like children suffering from the sins of their parents.  But still, the question remains, what kind of sin was it, that was so destructive and so devastating that it could be carried down from one generation to the next, or passed over from one person to another?   

Earlier in Jeremiah’s writings, he names this most grievous sin against God, and it’s not what you might think.  The primary ‘sin’ the prophet contributes to causing their spiritual exile was not named as any specific breaking of the covenant or commandment, or any other specific moral failure.  Of course, specific sins were part of the equation, but Jeremiah mentions no specific sin leading to the break down of the old covenant. 

So, what was it?   What kind of ‘sour grapes’ did the parents eat that ‘put the children’s teeth on edge’?   Jeremiah says the old covenant was broken, not by one specific bad behavior, but it was broken by an unwillingness to hear and listen to God’s voice (Read Jeremiah 5-6).  When the true prophets spoke, people wouldn’t listen (Jer. 25: 3-9).  When the truth was declared, people ignored (Jer 29:19).   The prophet Jeremiah named this problem early on, as the people having ‘uncircumcised ears’ (KJV, Jeremiah 6:10).  The Revised Version translates this as the people having their ‘ears closed’ to God’s truth (NRSV). 

So, what did the people do when they ‘closed’ their ears to God’s truth? They invited and listened to False Prophets, who told the people what they wanted to hear (See Jer. 14, 23).  These prophets neither lived God’s truth, nor did they speak God’s truth (Jer. 23:14ff).  The more the false prophets preached, the further and further away the people were led away from God’s truth and God’s presence.  As Jeremiah said, they ‘caused’ God’s ‘people to forgot God’s name’ (23:27).

How do people cease to hear God’s voice today?  Is it because we sin?  Sometimes, it is.  Is it because we suffer unjustly, perhaps also because of the sins of others?  Perhaps, that too.   It may also be that God’s voice is no longer heard because we have become distracted by the many noises in life, or we’ve distanced ourselves from God because some negative event has left us confused, hurt, and broken.  Sometimes God voice has gone silent because truth about this God who ‘is for us’ and not ‘against us’,  has gotten all twisted up inside.   Perhaps some well-meaning pastor, parent, or teacher, spoke in ways that have mislead us, but the end result is that we have become disconnected from hearing God’s voice and God’s loving, caring, and truth-filled voice can no longer be heard in our own hearts.  For some reason, either due to a fault of our own, or perhaps without any fault at all, we too have also developed, ‘uncircumcised ears’.

It can happen to anyone.  My wife reminds me too how sometimes, I too, develop an inability to hear.  When she has spoken to me about something I have overlooked, or need to do, instead of agreeing with her, I become defensive.  Because I ‘pride’ myself on doing it right, I can’t stand to have anyone tell me I’m doing it wrong.  Like one day, when she commented about me not emptying the coffee maker, so that the new coffee became mixed with the old, instead of hearing her, admitting my mistake, I answered with all kinds of defensive excuses, “I had a phone call, I got involved in a sermon, or some other lame excuse.”  Instead of hearing her, agreeing, I felt like she was on my ‘case’, like she was my mother getting on my case.  Instead of answering my wife like she was my wife, I answered like she was my mother still raising me, rather than hearing my loving wife who was only trying to ‘remind me’.

Too, often we don’t hear God’s voice, because of all the other ‘noise’ in our lives.  Some of these may even be well-meaning voices, like my mother’s voice was, but they are still not the voice and voices that we need to be hearing right now.   God’s people had listened to the wrong voices so long, that they not only gotten used to hearing the wrong things, they were not unable the true voice.  How could Judah overcome this deafness?  The sad truth was that there was nothing they could do to open up the line of communication again.  They had gone completely deaf.  Their ‘ears to ear’ where totally ‘uncircumcised’ and stopped up.  As Jeremiah declared: “See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it” (6:10).  God could not get through to them because there was nothing in them that even God could connect to.   There was no hope of change within the hearts of God’s people as things were.  God asked through Jeremiah, "Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?" (13:23). Jeremiah wonders, how can God’s people ever learn again to be responsive enough to God’s voice, so they can enter into a relationship with him.

This impossible situation is why God’s judgment has come.  This is why God has ‘watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil’ even upon his own people (v. 28).   They are longer God’s people in how they live or hear, so judgment had to come. 

All of this sounds almost like a soap opera, or a bad, broken marriage.  The God who was against divorce, now wants to divorce his people.   God wants a relationship with his people, and the people want a relationship with God too, but they can’t get together because neither hears or understands the other. 

Isn’t that tragically how it often goes in human relationships; perhaps there have been bad words that can’t be taken back, perhaps, as it was in the case of Israel and Judah, there had been adultery, an affair, and the marriage vows have been broken?  It all sounds as the relationship can’t be repaired. The voice of hope becomes remote, just like the voice of God becomes remote, when God’s people are stuck the result of sins and their own sinfulness.  There was nothing left in God’s people for God to make contact with them.  There was no covenant or promise to renew, because everything had broken down, and there was no connection, no link, or no contact point for them to have or make a future together.     

However, what our text is about, is that at this very dark and impossible place, is where Jeremiah show the ‘way when there is no way’. It was a way, an offer, or a connection that only God can make.  Jeremiah tells how God will reach across the distance to re-establish the relationship that had been broken. God will remake the connection, and he will not just ‘renew’ but he will ‘make all things new’.  God will not only ‘change’ how judgment works for his people (holding individuals responsible for their own sins, v. 30), but God will make a ‘new covenant’ with the house of Israel (v. 31) which will extend out into the world too.  Even in a world where God’s voice is unheard, or not listened too because people have broken their promises to him and to each other, God promises a new day with a new covenant of promise that begins with his own people.  It will be a covenant that only comes on God’s terms, which will be one person at a time, enabling us as individuals to receive God’s promise of hope for a future based upon what only God can do.  “I will watch over them to build and to plants, says the LORD”(v. 28).  “I will make a new covenant….” (v. 31).  “It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors…a covenant that they broke.” (v. 32).  Again, this is a ‘new’ promise that God makes which is made possible by God alone.

In New Testament language, which is also ‘new covenant’ language, this is what the word “Testament” means: the new covenant of promise.  In this ‘new’ promise, God does what only God can do.  God will extend his grace and his mercy upon God’s people to give birth to a future for them, which is based on God’s terms alone. 

This ‘new’ covenant or promise is based upon the powerful, miraculous, act of grace which God has done in Jesus Christ.   As Jesus said at the Last Supper, ‘This is my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ (Mark 14:24).  Interestingly, in the Greek, Jesus does not use the word ‘new’ like the King James does.  Jesus emphasizes that this promise is being made in his, that is, in ‘my blood’.    It is a promise of life, based on the giving of his life to sinners (Rom. 6:8), which is offered to all, but given only on God’s terms of grace, promised to the ‘many’ who will individually respond to God’s love, grace and promise so that ‘all things new’ can become the miracle in their own lives (2 Cor 5:17). 

Again, let me be clear, the ‘terms’ of this new covenant is very different.  “It is not” as Jeremiah says, ‘like the covenant…made with their ancestors’ who were just ‘out of Egypt’ (Jer. 31:32).  What’s the difference?  This new covenant is made based upon what only on what God can do, and what God has done in Jesus Christ.  Whereas the Old Covenant was dependent upon the commandments and laws Israel agreed to follow and obey, this new covenant will be based upon what God has done in Jesus, who actually did obey ‘even unto death on a cross’.  It is an act of sheer grace, based on Jesus’ own righteousness, which invites sinners likw us to follow Jesus and find God’s future in him.
What Jeremiah is describing here, is something we should already know in words, but need to be reminded in our own reality.  There is often no way forward on our own in life and in our relationships with God and with others.  Sometimes we have broken our promises to God or to each other, or others have broken their promises to us in ways that can’t be repaired in human terms.  But here is where ‘grace’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘compassionate love’ comes into play.  “Even while we were still sinners,” Paul writes, in Romans, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  Even when our spouse, our partner, or our friend, has let us down, we can find a way to forgive.  Even when someone else has injured us, hurt us, used us, we can still turn to them and love them, now, even if they have, at least for now, become our ‘enemy’ that we are called to love.   How can we do this?  It’s doesn’t come from our own strength, or from what we can do alone, but it comes from what God can do in us, because of what he has done for us, in Jesus Christ.

William Barber has worked with North Carolina in helping restore race relations, and he also been a pastor in Goldsboro.  While, back in the 1990’s, he was working for Governor Hunt in helping to bring racial and social justice, he got a call to become pastor in Goldsboro.  Not long after answering the call, he woke up one morning and couldn’t move.  He was paralyzed all over his body.  He thought he was dying and the doctors, at first didn’t know what was happening, and told him he’d probably never walk again. 

While he was in the hospital, still trying to understand what was happening, a woman amputee came to his room and told him that she was praying for him.  She said, “Now, I’m about to go to heaven and get my new legs, but God is going to restore you, because he’s got more work for you to do.”  After a long conversation together,  the woman left.  The next morning, they came and asked Rev. Barber if he wanted to go down stairs to the church service.  “I will, if that amputee lady will go with me!”  He answered.  They never found her.  Today, after his recovery,  Barber calls her his ‘amputee angel’.  She was the ‘angel’ sent to tell him that God was going to work in him some things that only God can do.  Rev Barber went on to establish and lead the ‘Moral Monday’ movement for social justice in North Carolina (“The Third Reconstruction, Beacon Press, 2016, pp 32-33)

It is one of the grandest statements in all the Old Testament, that Jeremiah tells us how this new covenant of love, grace, and forgiveness will be realized in God’s people through God alone, not by human strength or will.  Instead of writing the covenant promise down on stone tablets or parchment as laws and rules, God now promises to write the law directly into the human hearts.

This is how ‘grace’ and forgiving love works.  God works within us to heal our disobedience and end the division between us. As the Psalmist said, God will: "Put a new and right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10b). Or, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). By establishing a new ‘promise’, which begins in our acknowledgement of Jesus Christ’, God has begun a good work among us. God will give us the wisdom, the maturity, the loving attitude, the energy to do God's will. God will write the law on our hearts, will work within us in such a way that we are healed and given hope. 

But the only condition of this new promise, is that our freedom is always preserved so that, the promise only keeps working, as long as we keep living and loving in God’s forgiveness, grace and purpose and keeping our ‘eyes fixed on him’. God will not force his law on us, but as we continually turn toward God’s love, God’s Spirit remakes, reshapes, and changes our hearts to be like the heart of our Lord who saves us as we keep our eyes focused on him.

For when we keep seeing, knowing, and believing what God has done for us, we hear and see everything in life differently.  A story is told about a teenage virtuoso pianist who played his heart out to a large audience. At the end, as he walked off the stage, the audience stood and applauded. The man behind the curtain told the boy to go out and take a bow.
"No," the boy replied, "I can't."
"Why not?" asked the man. "They are all standing and applauding."
"Not all of them," the young pianist replied. "The man in the back row in the balcony is still sitting."
"That's only one," the man said. "What's so important about him?"
"He's my teacher," the boy meekly replied as he watched from behind the curtain. "I was playing for him."

Just then the man in the back row stood up and joined in the standing ovation.

Isn't that what life is all about? Keeping our eyes fixed on the one we call our Lord, our leader, our teacher?  Think of the end of your life and imagine the Lord giving you a standing ovation and saying, "Enter into the joy of your master."  Isn't that the most important thing of all?

Pastor Lischer's last word to the retired pastor who came to see him because he could not pray with his wife was all based on this kind of grace that says look at how much God loves you, no matter what else you experience in life.  This is the kind of grace helps us all keep faith in the God who can do what we cannot do. "It's when you can't do anything,  that God does it all.”   Like Pastor Lischer told his pastor, we must keep our eyes on the God who can do what we can’t do.  When we can’t break through to God,  God can still break through to us. (Richard Lischer, Ibid, p. 1770.
God is indeed still breaking through to us in God’s love through Jesus Christ. God is writing the law on our hearts even now, if we turn our faith toward Christ’s love and grace.   The separation between God and us will not be forever. Because we know that God is working to write the law on our hearts, to end the separation, to forgive our sins, we should rejoice, and receive his gift of grace and extend it to others in our lives too.

If we are confused about God, or we don't know how to solve the big disputes of the relationships at home, in the church, or in the world, we can rejoice, because God is at work, writing the law on hearts of those who will respond to his offer of grace.   Even if we can’t experience God close to us,  we can ‘draw near to him’ and know’ that he ‘will draw near to us’.  God is at work, even now, leading those who receive his grace toward a world that is based on what only God can do.  

If we struggle to overcome temptation and find ourselves too weak to do what we believe we should, we can rejoice too, because God is, even though our failures, if will see, admit and give them to God,  God is writing the law on our hearts, and someday we will triumph over our weakness and sinfulness, if we will continue to stay connected to him.

If we are battered by the grief and pain of life and wonder if we can keep going and living by faith, we can rejoice because God is still writing his law of hope and love on our hearts, and someday we can put away our grief, because in the end every loss will be answered by the faithfulness of God’s promise  (This reminder comes from Rev. Charles Aaron, who inspired this angle on Jeremiah’s text, in his sermon,  “Writing His Law On Our Hearts” CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Last Third): View from the Mountaintop, by Charles L. Aaron).

The days are surely coming’ when God will draw us close and we will feel God's love without any interference. The days are surely coming when we will experience God's forgiveness and feel the weight of guilt, failure and frustration fall off our backs. The days are surely coming when God will write the law on our hearts; God will be our God, and we will be God's people, as every sin is erased, and ever ‘tear is wiped from our eyes.  It is not all here now, but ‘the days are surely coming.’  Amen.