A woman in Atlanta telephoned a television weather forecaster to ask the predicted overnight low reading. “26 degrees,” she was told. The woman asked him if that would be freezing. “Lady,” he patiently replied, “anything below 32 degrees is freezing.” “Oh, I didn’t know,” she said. “I’m new to Atlanta.”
We’re all new to Atlanta. We’re living in at a time when change is happening so fast that none of the old landmarks make any sense. Two o’clock one morning you are roused from a deep sleep and a voice on the other end says: “He’s gone.” You sit uncomfortably on the edge of that white table with that stupid gown on that ties in the back—and the Doctor finally comes in and you know what he will say. The news is not good. Or one day you come to realize that this marriage you have worked so hard to keep going is over and your future looks sad and scary. You’re new to Atlanta and everything around you has shifted.
Jeremiah also faced a changing world. The Temple—which was the great symbol of their faith--had been destroyed in 587. Everything he and this people cherished had been torn apart by that cursed word: exile. Even as Jeremiah spoke he knew that many years would pass before his people could leave cursed Babylon and turn toward home. Jeremiah and the Israelites lived in that awkward in-between time where destruction lay behind them and good days, if there were any good days, were yet a long way off. This was exile, which meant dislocation, failure, misery, change, disruption and the end of everything that was familiar. They were new to Atlanta and all the unfinished business of their lives just bubbled back to the surface. Out of the depths of their uncertainty they began to ask questions that sound familiar. Where is God? If the Almighty is so good and faithful why doesn’t he do something? Things were out of control and they saw no hope whatsoever. Being new to a place like Atlanta can be scary. In-between times always are.
Loren Eiseley was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He suffered a serious setback in the middle of his teaching career. And in his autobiography he told of those moments when “the kaleidoscope through which we peer at lift shifts suddenly and everything is reordered.” And he added: “Every now and then there comes an experience so shaking that the kaleidoscope never quite shifts back to where it was. We must simply deny the experience or adjust our vision.” Now the false prophets would have denied their experiences or at least would paint the present tense as not being so bad after all. What did Jeremiah do? He called his people to adjust their vision. And we find that adjustment in these wonderful words in Jeremiah 31:
"The days are 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 one another, ‘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.”(Jer. 31.31-34)
This is what the prophet had to say to himself and his suffering people. His words were nothing that they expected. Not conventional wisdom that one always expects from the Reverend. Jeremiah challenged them to adjust their visions.
Something About God
Let me tell you about this God, he said. God has not forgotten about us because we are in this hard place. God is not powerless before the hard things in life. Remember Egypt. Remember Red Sea. Remember the wilderness. Jeremiah says: God continues to take the initiative. “I will make a new covenant.” “I will put my law within them.” “I will write it on their hearts.” “And I will forgive their sins and remember them no more.” This is a God who acts. And so what we have here is really a foreshadowing of Easter. None of the hard things in life can block God’s power or stop his love. God’s activity is not confined to the good old Bible days. He just did not act back there in the good old Bible days. God is the God of the future as well as the past.
What about that woman in Atlanta? Or that little girl left with three children and so scared—is this not a word for her? Or for that person sitting on that cold examining table in that little quiet room—is this not a word for them? And for all those who have lost or been forced to face the unknown, Jeremiah says God is the god of the future.
Something About Us
And then Jeremiah said: Let me tell you something about us. The exiles were scared and depressed. They muttered that they had no future—just disappointment and heartbreak. And what Jeremiah said was that this is a personal word. “I will put within them…I will write it on their hearts…I will be…They shall be…From the least to the greatest--they shall all have a common access to God.” There was no superiority or elitism. The word was all. All shared fully. All knew the old, old story. All were accepted under the sovereignty of God.
Scattered throughout our world and our churches are people who say they aren’t very religious. I don’t know much about prayer, they confess. I started trying to read the Bible through and got stuck somewhere between Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The begats just tripped me up. We all get stuck in Leviticus. The begats trip all of us up. And so Jeremiah told his people that there were two covenants—old and new. And the old covenant was written on the old weathered scrolls. You could hold it in your hand—and everything was nailed down and predictable. But Jeremiah talked about a New Covenant. This New Covenant was an inner thing. It would be written on their hearts. And if this were true perhaps it takes in troublesome things like inequity and racism and capital punishment and sexism and liberty and justice for all—not just the privileged. Note the heart of Jeremiah’s New Covenant. All. They shall all know me—from the least to the greatest.
Conventional wisdom said: Well, some might find help in faith. Some. The religiously inclined. The spiritually minded. The left brained ones among us. The saints, whoever they are. But Jeremiah shook his head. No, this word of the Lord is for everybody. Deep down inside, nestled in your own heart—you can discover for yourself. All those times when we are unsure of what the freezing temperature really is.
Something About Faith
Jeremiah continued: Let me tell you something about faith. And of all the words that run the other way from conventional wisdom, this may be the greatest word. The last word of faith is not judgment—it is forgiveness. Far from home, conscious of all the foolish things they had done—they learned something about this new covenant that would be written on their hearts. The last word of faith is never judgment—it is always forgiveness. The reason they could hope and begin again was because God wiped the slate clean when he forgave their every sin. Some of us don’t know that. God is not yet a God of grace or glory. God is stern and harsh and a punisher. Not here—Jeremiah said—not here. God doesn’t sweep away their iniquity—but God forgave them. And with the weight of their sins removed they could march into the unknown future unencumbered by all the burdens of their past.
Jeremiah’s faith was hopeful—not hopeless. It had social and political ramifications. Israel would be restored. If that isn’t political I don’t know what is. Exile would end—if that is not social I don’t know what it is. A new day was coming. This terrible present tense of their lives was only an interim experience.
William Barclay wrote that one of the low points of his life was when his daughter and son in law went out sailing one day and did not return. He prayed for their recovery. There was no word for three long weeks until Barbara’s body was recovered. Barclay said: “It was a dark time and if I didn’t keep on working I would have never worked again.” The father had the terrible job of identifying his daughter’s body and making final arrangements for its transportation back to Scotland. After the service Barclay sent out 600 thank you notes for those who had expressed condolences. The card read:
Reverend William and Mrs. Barclay
Thank you most sincerely for your
kind messages of sympathy.
And then Barclay typed these personal words to his friends: “There is a comfort in coming to the end of the chapter, although we are very sure it is not the end of the book…it is not easy to pick up threads and go on; but if we who are messengers of the gospel cannot go on, who can?”
Faith is not created out of the old—but emerges from the death of the old. This new comes when we least expect it. Joan Chittister understands Jeremiah’s promise when she writes, “Never think the darkness is the end of anything. It is simply the call to a new beginning.”The parameters of our lives sometimes make us think that we live in a closed house with all the windows nailed shut. Not so. What we see around us is not the last word. Exile is only an interim-in-between-time. There is more yet to come. More than we ever, ever dreamed.