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From the Least to the Greatest

Old Mystic, March 29, 2009
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Summary

Lent is a time to remember, ponder, and seek God’s forgiveness as we reflect upon the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross. Forgiveness is a continuous opportunity of healing, renewal, and relationship that God offers in His new covenant in Christ. As it was granted to the Israelites in exile, it is a covenant where God makes himself known to the human heart; from the least to the greatest.

Sermon

It is very difficult to understand disaster until it hits home. Those of us who have been accustomed to a peaceful and more or less problem-free life, we probably need to relate to something out of our personal realm to understand the plight of the Israelites. Perhaps the heinous attacks to the World Trade Center on 9/11 can help. On that day we saw lives destroyed, families who lost loved ones, the destruction of buildings; and tears, unbearable grief, the rise of fear, and a deep sense that some part of our peaceful living was forever lost. Can you imagine if in addition to that our nation would have fallen into some sort of captivity? I believe that only those who were directly affected by the catastrophe can have a sort of a grasp of the suffering of Israel in captivity, personally and in the sense of a national disaster. Many of us, not directly affected by the bombing of the towers in New York City, we may have to resort to our imagination.

Jeremiah is powerful in words to lament the fall of Jerusalem, God’s beloved city: “How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” “She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks… the roads of Zion mourn for no one comes to the festivals.” “The tongue of the infants sticks to the roof of their mouth for thirst; the children beg for food but no one gives them anything.” He is also aware of the sinfulness of the city and the nation: “Jerusalem has sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her.” But God also inspired the prophet to bring words of hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

It is always difficult to explain suffering. Theologians and philosophers struggle to come to terms with the fact there are no satisfying answers. Why a loving, merciful God allows “good people” to suffer? Why me, or why us? I will not attempt to offer an explanation. I just want to say that I remain in the belief that God does not necessarily punish sin with suffering. Sin brings suffering in itself because when we are in sin we are estranged from God, far away from him, out of that loving relationship; on our own and without any spiritual resources to live our lives in peace. Beyond suffering and punishment, sin is a fact; it is a harsh reality of the lives of many who suffer but also of those who do not.

But Jeremiah had good news for those suffering in exile as well as those who were left behind in the desolated city of Jerusalem. God is making a covenant, one that is almost impossible to ignore. For us it becomes powerfully manifest in the cross where Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for our forgiveness. For the Israelites, in the words of Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” God offers a covenant of forgiveness and great things will happen to those who want to enter into that covenant. Looking at the promise of forgiveness advanced by the prophet, I’ll point out to three aspects of the promise contained in the covenant.

I. IT IS A PROMISE OF HEALING

There is no doubt that at that stage in history they were convinced that their sin was what brought the punishment of suffering upon them. With that understanding, strongly declared by Jeremiah, forgiveness becomes really powerful. Because it means returning to the ancient promise of possessing their own and fruitful land; it entails planting their vineyards and building their houses; it opens up the possibility of a peaceful life and, above all, it restores the nation to the cherished title of God’s People. Their dignity, their self-esteem, and their self-love are renewed. In short, peace, that most precious state of life, never fully achieved but in the making, brings its unsurpassable healing power even when in this life any of us would get just a glimpse.

There is healing in forgiveness because the estrangement from God, our separation from him, that what most human beings fail to see as their most pressing problem, ends and the most precious relationship is restored. Now we are alone no more; we have a hope that does not fade; we can experience joy. And all of that is healing. Both the wounds of sin and suffering can and will in the end be healed by our Loving God.

II. IT IS A PROMISE OF RENEWAL

The promise of this new covenant is unusual for the Israelites. “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.” A really remarkable promise when we think that these people were children of rigor who needed something compelling to submit to and would miserably fail in their attempt to be faithful to the constrains of the law. What it is promised in this new covenant is quite different. It is as if Jeremiah is saying, “You will be able to know God on your own;” “you will be able to experience God on your own.” They might have asked then when that was going to happen; they were used to obey the law and now it seems that they are granted freedom. Freedom? Paul makes it clear when writing to the Galatians. In Christ we are free from the law! We have the freedom to know God, we have been granted God’s Spirit!

Needless to say, this is a conditional freedom. It is the ability to make responsible choices, not just what pleases us. But beyond making choices, some of which might be difficult and challenging, it is the freedom of the unlimited possibilities that come with the privilege of knowing God.

III. IT IS A PROMISE OF A NEW RELATIONSHIP

The Israelites had a distant relationship with God. They always needed a mediator, whether it was their leader like Moses, or one of the prophets like Jeremiah himself, or the priests who would offer sacrifices in their behalf. They had no direct connection with God. In the light of the promise of forgiveness offered in this new covenant, whereby they could know God personally, they are blessed with a whole new relationship. They might have not understood it then. After all, for them the promise seems to lie somewhere in the future. From our vantage point we know that individuals, groups, and peoples can have a relationship with God.

Our focus tends to be most of the time on the possibility for individuals to have a personal relationship with God. Through the Holy Spirit God makes himself known to us. This is a great promise contained in the New Testament and Pentecost is the perennial reminder of this precious gift from God. On the other hand, the covenant offered to Israel, analogous to the one of the cross, is a promise of forgiveness for a whole nation. Peoples, nations, churches, and other groups are entities that God cares for. They also need to be restored; they also need forgiveness, renewal, and healing. The possibility of knowing God is the most powerful equalizer; it is a possibility that is offered to all, from the least to the greatest.

Lent is moving toward its culmination in the solemnity of Holy Week and the jubilation of Easter Sunday. Forgiveness proved to have a high price; God did not stop at anything to grant it. Christ’s sacrifice at the cross is God’s most powerful argument to draw us near. If we just stayed with forgiveness as such it would be enough to help us continue our journeys with hope. Yet, the promise that forgiveness carries over is beyond anything that could be described in human words. It is the promise of God’s very presence in our lives and the possibility to know him.

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