Sermon: Destruction and Newness

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fifth Sunday of Lent, 21st of March, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

The Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”’(Jeremiah 1:10)

The Book of Jeremiah warns of and then records an absolute and utter disaster: the death of Judah as an independent nation; the siege of Jerusalem; the destruction of the Temple; the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah prophesied at the end of the seventh century BC and the beginning of the sixth century. He spoke in a time, his prophecies tell us, when the Lord’s people had turned away from the Lord. They had forgotten who had brought them up out of Egypt and instead worshipped idols, saying ‘to a tree, “You are my father”, and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”’ (Jeremiah 2:27)

Jeremiah’s prophecies begin by telling the people of Judah that if they change their ways there is a chance that they will escape destruction:

if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

But the people kept on their wicked ways. At one point the exasperated prophet reminds them: ‘For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened’. (Jeremiah 25:3) Finally, in 597 BC, the Babylonians defeated then-King Jehoiachin; deported him, his household, and some of the population of Judah to Babylon; and installed a puppet king in his place. Ten years’ later, in 587 BC, after that puppet king, Zedekiah, had rebelled, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and deported more people to Babylon, eventually leaving only the poorest and the weakest in the desolate ruins.

This is not, however, where the story ends. The actual book of Jeremiah, which is made up of collections of prophecies by Jeremiah and the stories about him, does end with the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. It does end in sadness and defeat. But that ending is not the last word. Jeremiah’s prophecies include a short ‘Book of Consolation’ (Jeremiah 30-31) that resembles the prophecies of Second Isaiah: ‘the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.’ (Jeremiah 30:3). The prophet who was called to ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ is now told that ‘just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord’. (Jeremiah 31:28) It is in this ‘Book of Consolation’ that we find today’s reading; the prophecy of a new covenant and a time when, ‘no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “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.’

Throughout Lent we have heard the covenants the Lord has made with his people; the covenant with Noah and through him with every living creature of all flesh that was on the earth, in which God promised never again to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17); the covenant with Abraham, when the Lord promised him that from him and Sarah would rise nations and kings of peoples (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16); the covenant made at Sinai, in which the people promised to obey the Lord’s commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Now we hear of a new covenant. The people had broken the promise they made to Moses when the covenant at Sinai was made, when they said: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’. (Exodus 19:8) They had turned away from the Lord, they had not remembered who it was who had brought them to freedom out of Egypt, and they are being punished for their forgetting, their belief that they do not need God. But while they have turned their backs on God, God has not forsaken them. Humanity has found it impossible to keep the conditions of previous covenants, has failed again and again to live as the people of God are called to live, so the new covenant the Lord will make with them will be different. It will be made not of words on a page or in the mouths of God’s prophets. It instead will be written on the hearts of God’s people.

Christians need to be careful when we hear of a ‘new covenant’. Every month I quote Jesus’ words that the Eucharistic cup is the ‘new covenant’ in his blood. (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Christians have heard ‘new covenant’ and thought that this means that the old covenant, the one between the Lord and the Jewish people, had been superseded. Too often Christians have taken this prophecy made by a Jewish prophet to the Jewish people and used it against the Jewish people. The new covenant made in Christ’s blood welcomes Gentiles into the community of the people of God; it does not mean that Jews are no longer those people.

So what is ‘new’ about the covenant Jeremiah prophesies? It will still be a covenant initiated by the Lord, just as the covenants with Noah, Abraham and at Sinai were. It is still a covenant made by God with the people of God, those who have experienced destruction and exile. They might have felt that the destruction of the Temple and the exile in Babylon were signs that the Lord had been defeated by the gods of Babylon. Jeremiah’s prophecies, like those of Isaiah, make it clear that that is not true. The Lord’s love for his people, which leads him to make covenants with them, has remained. So, what exactly is new?

The newness comes because no longer will there be a need for priests and teachers, the Temple scribes and those who after the exile helped the people understand the Law. In an amazing leap of prophetic imagination, this prophecy looks forward to a time of absolute equality among the people of God, when the people will no longer need to be told what the Torah means. Instead, it will be accessible to, and understandable by, everyone, from the ‘least of them to the greatest’. Everyone will have the same, unmediated access to the word of God. This is a dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination. If the ‘least’ as well as the ‘greatest’ know the Lord on equal terms, what will the world look like? It cannot be a world in which those with particular types of education or holding particular offices will have power and privilege, while everyone else knows their place.

Throughout the church’s history we have seen the Christian community take steps towards this kind of world, and then quickly back away from it. Among Jesus’ first followers women seem to have been just as likely to prophesy and pray as men, but soon the Apostle Paul was telling them to be silent in churches. (1 Corinthians 14:34) Paul himself speaks of apostles, prophets, teachers, those who do deeds of power, healers, leaders, those who speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12), but throughout the New Testament we see the church moving to having the ‘offices’ of bishop and deacon, and from the second century it was clear that such offices could only be held by men. Centuries’ later the Protestant Reformation opened the possibility of everyone being able to interpret the Bible for themselves, and the possibility of a greater equality among Christians, but during the German Peasants’ War Martin Luther wrote a polemic titled Against the Robbing Murderous Hordes of Peasants (1525) arguing that the rebellious peasants ‘must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog’. Early Methodism was predominantly a women’s movement, in which women served as Local Preachers, but after John Wesley died in 1791 there was a hardening of attitudes against women preaching until in 1803 women were restricted to addressing women-only meetings, a restriction that remained in place until 1910. The history of the church seems to be the history of people discovering a radical message of human equality under God, and then gradually losing that vision.

Jeremiah predicts that a day will come when God writes God’s words directly on human hearts. No one will need to teach it, and no one will be able, through education and expertise, to claim superiority. Everyone will know the Lord; the Lord will be our God and we will be God’s people. It is promise that has not yet come true. It remains an eschatological promise, a promise of what the world will be like at the end times, when everything is as God wants it to be. And the path that leads to that world will involve the death and destruction of things that we currently hold dear. On Friday night I participated in a Graduation Ceremony for the University of Divinity as a member of the University Council. I was able to wear the robes of a Doctor of Philosophy. In a world of radical equality, there will be no place for Doctors of Philosophy, no matter how stylish our robes and bonnets.

The prophecies of Jeremiah tell of the destruction of a community, a city, a country, and a way of life. Throughout the book we hear of other prophets, who told the kings and the people that their lives could remain the same. They did not believe that the Lord would pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow. King Jehoiakim took the scroll on which Jeremiah’s prophecies were written and threw it into the fire, unwilling to hear a warning of destruction. (Jeremiah 36) But Jeremiah was right, and the prophets who told the king that everything could stay the same were wrong. The new covenant that the Lord promised, the new world that this covenant would bring about, could only come through destruction and exile. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ What is it that needs to be destroyed in this church, what needs to die, to enable something new to be born? I will leave that question with you.

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