How many of you have seen the movie “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” – the sequel to the original “Vacation” when Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, takes his tribe across the country to Wally World? In this sequel, the Griswolds find themselves in England. In an attempt to tour London by car, Clark finds himself in a stuck in a roundabout, a common traffic control technique in Europe, but not so common in the U.S. At first, excited by the sites and scenes, Clark points out to his family, “Look, there’s Big Ben and Parliament!” On his second trip through the roundabout, again Clark points out, “Look, Big Ben and Parliament!” And finally, after hours of this endless loop, Clark once again states, “Look, kids…” with the children replying, “We know, Big Ben, Parliament.”
And in our Old Testament passage, we find God frustratingly stuck in an endless loop with His Children of Israel. Even though, the Israelites had The Law, the pattern continued: Sin and disobedience bring judgment, and demands a sacrifice and sacrifice offered in faith brings release. Step and repeat – the endless cycle.
The Jerusalem in which so many of Jeremiah 31’s spiritually hard hearts live is about to fall to Babylonian invaders. Its conquerors are preparing to haul off many of those concrete hearts to Babylon. David’s descendants will no longer serve as Israel’s kings. Jerusalem’s temple will soon lie in ruins.
For most of Jeremiah, the prophet basically tells Israel, “You had all this coming, and this is why.” Essentially, the prophet insists, Israel deserves her fate because she has broken every covenant God ever made with her.
However, God and Jeremiah are particularly frustrated with Israel’s stubborn refusal to keep her part of the covenant God made with her at Mt. Sinai. There, God graciously showed Israel how to faithfully receive God’s grace by living as God’s obedient children. God even inscribed that guide to the thankful living on two stone tablets. On them the Lord essentially invited the Israelites to remember to love God above all and their neighbors as themselves.
Israel, however, doggedly refused to live up to her part of the covenant. She sampled from a whole buffet line of gods. And even when the Israelites did worship the living God, they used images of God to do so. So, Israel ignored the very first two words of her covenant with God.
Yet the Israelites failed not only to be faithful to the God of heaven and earth, but also to each other. They neglected to love each other as much as they loved themselves. Israel especially failed to love the most vulnerable citizens among her.
Yet that’s not just Israel’s problem. You and I confess that it’s also ours’. Our gods, as Martin Luther once famously pointed out, are whatever or whoever is most important to us. We naturally serve not the living God, but everything from our own desires to wealth. You and I also naturally love ourselves far more than we love the people around us, especially people on society’s margins and our enemies.
So, when God stands knocking at the door to our hearts, begging us to let God be our God, God’s people still naturally lock God out. If it were up to us, we’d never let God make himself our God and us God’s children. On top of all that, we’d never even naturally ask God to unlock our locked and dead-bolted hearts.
However, in Jeremiah 31, the crusty old prophet of doom and gloom, says “But that was then. This is now. God’s going to make a new covenant with Israel.” He announces that God will write this new covenant not on tablets of stone or even pieces of paper, but on people’s hearts.
Yet there’s still something very painful about God’s writing God’s law on our hearts. God is, after all, determined to soften God’s adopted sons and daughters’ hearts toward the Lord. However, for that to happen, sinful practices and loyalties must die. And since you and I can’t somehow overcome our naturally rebellious natures, God must put that part of us that is selfish and self-centered to death.
In God’s adopted sons and daughters’ sinful selves’ place God promises to put hearts and minds that God softens toward God alone. God vows to fill hard hearts with a longing to receive God as God. That is, in fact, one of the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed Christians profess that God raised Jesus from the dead so that “by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life.”
In that new life Jeremiah promises that God’s children will “know the Lord.” There’s a lot to such knowledge. After all, as one colleague notes, I may know that eating three bowls of ice cream every night is unhealthy. But that knowledge does me little good unless I act on it.
In a similar way, Jeremiah promises that a day is coming when God’s people will know God’s law. However, he also promises that they’ll also commit themselves to obeying it by loving God above all and their neighbors as themselves. God will empower God’s adopted sons and daughters to be both willing and able to obey God’s commands to do justice. In fact, Jeremiah insists, God’s children will no longer even have to teach each other about God. Everyone will already know about and serve the Lord.
God bases this new covenant about which Jeremiah speaks on God’s extraordinary grace. Of course, God related to Israel by grace since the very beginning. Yet the prophet’s Israel has stubbornly refused to receive that grace with her faithful obedience. So, God promises to fundamentally change her, to fully equip her to receive God’s grace with her faith. The Israelites will come to recognize themselves as beloved and forgiven.
Jeremiah is speaking of a day when Israel will obey God’s law not because she’s supposed to, but because she wants to. She’ll long to obey God’s law because God has shaped her hearts and minds that way. So, Israel’s capacity to be faithful and obedient will spring not from some outside constraints, but from the inside. They’ll do the right thing because they want to do it.
So, God’s greatest miracle may not be God’s parting of the Red Sea or rescue of Jonah from the whale. The greatest miracle may be that God softens stony human hearts, that God equips God’s children to want to do the right thing.
That’s why Jeremiah insists those days of complete and faithful obedience aren’t fully here yet. We see a partial fulfillment of his promise after Judah’s return from Babylonian exile. The people of Judah do, in fact, at least begin to acknowledge the Lord alone. They give up worshiping images of God.
In Jesus Christ, of course, Jeremiah’s prophecy finds further fulfillment. After all, in John 12:32 Jesus says that “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” In other words, when the authorities crucify Jesus, God writes God’s law on people’s hearts not just in Israel, but also across the world.
However, Jeremiah’s prophecy still awaits its complete fulfillment. After all, in Romans 11:27 the apostle Paul suggests that God has not yet totally fulfilled the prophet’s promise. Those who proclaim Jeremiah 31 might want to explore with hearers evidence of that incompleteness.
Yet God has already done a great thing by giving God’s adopted sons and daughters the gift of the Holy Spirit who writes that new covenant on our hearts. God’s Holy Spirit already equips us to both desire to and to keep God’s law.
But herein lies the crux. I have heard many people say that yes, I believe in God, I have faith that Jesus Christ died on the Cross to atone for my sins. Therefore, I can do whatever I want – my sins are always forgiven. Period. The end. Well not so fast. Continual sin erodes the conscience, which in fact is the Holy Spirit acting in us. That is to say, when you do something bad, you feel horrible. The second time you may still feel bad. However, the third time it gets easier and eventually it becomes your second nature to continue doing those things.
Remember, God’s Covenant with man is one of relationship now – a mutual relationship. We so often want to hold God accountable for His end of the bargain, “You promised me eternal life,” yet we forget to hold up to our end of the relationship. In my marriage with Kelly, I’m not sure it would fly for me to insist that Kelly remains faithful, yet I’m out running around with strange women. Of course, I’d feel bad the first few times, but eventually my conscience would erode.
But no, in a marriage, just like any relationship, each one has to hold up to his or her end of the deal. We must protect God’s gift of the Holy Spirit through which he has written this new covenant on our hearts and not only know right from wrong, but also compassion and empathy for others over ourselves.
God has lived up to His end of the bargain, maybe today is the start of the days we will ensure to live up to our end. Amen.
Sermon crafted by John Streszoff and read by Anne MacArthur, SMLC