Sermon for Sunday, March 18th
Last week I began my sermon talking about good King Hezekiah. Well good King Hezekiah was followed by his son, bad King Manasseh. Manasseh went out undoing all of his father’s reforms, and again worshiping foreign Gods. Well bad king Manasseh died and was followed by his son, good King Josiah. Josiah was only eight years old when he came to the throne, but by the time he was eighteen, he had already begun to reform the worship in his kingdom that his father had corrupted. Once again, the pagan altars and shrines were taken down and he set about refurbishing and restoring the temple in Jerusalem.
Josiah told the high priest, a man named Hilkiah, to go into the temple treasury and get money to pay the workers there. I guess some aspects of religious life never change…we are always looking for money to fix God’s house. Well, while Hilkiah was rummaging around in the temple treasury he found a scroll and as he opened it and began to read it he realized: this was God’s law, his Torah, his commandments. This was the story of how he had saved his chosen people and brought them to this land. But it wasn’t being processed around and celebrated. It wasn’t in a grand ark in the temple in a place of dignity and honor. Here it was, in the basement, unused and unread. Hilkiah can’t believe what he is reading. So he takes the book to the king and when King Josiah hears the words of the scroll, he tears his clothes. How far have his people strayed from God’s ways! How could they have forgotten God’s law! How could they have forgotten the story of their own salvation?!
Josiah has the entire community gathered at the temple: all the priests, all the prophets, big people, small people, everyone from the least to the greatest…and he has the book read. And the people hear how God had saved them. They hear how time and time again God made a covenant with their ancestors: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They hear the commandments and the law that was given to Moses. And they also hear how time and time again, God’s people broke his covenant. But each time God’s people proved to be unfaithful, there was God, ever faithful. Each time the covenant was broken, there was God, ready to renew it. Ready to forgive, ready to start over. It isn’t that the people never had to suffer for their own sinfulness, they did, but God always fulfilled his end of the bargain. He never forsook his people. All of those covenants that he made were everlasting. God would not fail, even if his people did.
Inspired by this proclamation and reclamation of God’s Torah, his law, his divine story, Josiah declares there in front of all of Jerusalem that he and his people would renew this covenant. They would follow God’s commands with all their heart and all their soul. They would observe the Passover, which had not been celebrated in generations. They would tell their children about the greatness of their God and they would teach them to walk in his ways. And when Josiah was finished speaking the people stood and cheered. Yes, they would keep this covenant.
Standing there in the temple courtyard was the High Priest’s, son. He was a young prophet in his own right, just beginning his career of serving God. He wouldn’t forget this scene. Perhaps he was a bit skeptical as young people often are. Perhaps he doubted that all these people gathered here would really keep this covenant. So many times before God’s people would prove faithless…why would this time be any different? And yet…he found Josiah’s words inspiring; he loved the idea that God’s commands should be taken into our heart and soul, and not just be letters on a scroll that can be rolled up and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be great if God’s covenant was always met with the love and enthusiasm that it was on that morning? Well maybe this young man was unsure about God’s people, but he was sure about God. God would be faithful.
The young man’s name was Jeremiah. And he didn’t forget that morning. The image of people rejoicing in the love of God, celebrating his word, committing themselves to his law in heart and soul, that moment must have imprinted itself upon his soul, because it was a vision of hope that he would cling to for the rest of his life.
The prophet Jeremiah can be a tough read for most people. He predicted and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and he wrote about it vividly. Most of his prophecy seems dire, negative, painful, because the people of his land did stray from God again; again they broke his covenant, and he knew that they would continue to do so. I can only imagine that he lived with a broken heart; broken by witnessing how far people have strayed from the love of God. And yet…right there in the middle of Jeremiah’s book is this little group of verses, interrupting the death and destruction to shine a light of hope. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” Jeremiah said that God would renew his covenant with his people again. Despite their failures, despite their faithlessness, God would be faithful. But if you only read those few happy verses and ignored the difficult ones that come before and after you might miss an important detail: when Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, the House (or the Kingdom) of Israel is already dead. The people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel have already been massacred and hauled off into exile by the Assyrians. When Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, he is talking about a Kingdom that is about to die at the hands of the Babylonians. So, God is going to make a renewed commitment or a renewed covenant with people that are either dead or dying. Jeremiah says that the death of his people, even death as a result of their own sins, will not cut them off from God forever. God says that the sun and the moon will pass away before he would reject his people. No, God will restore his people, he will reestablish the Kingdom of David, he will forgive their sins. That is a supernatural hope. There is a reason why we say in our creed that God through the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets; there is a reason why we honor them: because to be able to see what Jeremiah saw (all of the sin, the pain and the suffering) and still to hold on to even a seed of hope, well that is a profound grace. To stare death in the face and see the potential for rebirth and new life, that power, that message, comes from God.
Try to see in your mind, try to envision this renewed commitment and covenant that Jeremiah is talking about. What would it look like for someone’s heart to be so united to God, so in love with God, that observing God’s commandments are as much a part of their life as breathing in and breathing out? What would it look like for someone to be such a person of prayer that day and night their attention was turned toward God and that those who witnessed that prayer would have no question that God had heard them? What would it look like for someone to be so obedient to God that even their own suffering and death would not turn them away from following after God? What would it look like to be a part of a kingdom that no ruler of this world could destroy? What would it look like for God’s covenant to so shine in your life that even foreigners, people who worship others gods, are drawn to you and want to know your Lord? Have we ever seen someone whose union with God was so strong that even death could not break it? Have we ever seen a glimpse of this new covenant that God has promised us?
Maybe we have…