The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Jeremiah 31:31-40; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
People are tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of the waiting. Tired of the arguments that have filled Church life for, well, nearly 2,000 years. We hear about it in the news, as Pope Francis is both applauded and vilified, and we learn today that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.
The Lord is talking to ancient Jeremiah. Jeremiah, who probably lived and wrote sometime in the 7th century before the birth of Jesus. Jeremiah warns the people Israel in a series of laments. In every one of them he lets them know that he is in the midst of a great spiritual struggle with God. Everything from being hauled in before officials for his prophecy, to the opposition that he faced even as his life was ending. Everything is a struggle for Jeremiah.
And yet, today he writes to Israel that God promises to make a new covenant with them. And God will make the covenant alone. It will be unilateral, and the people will accept it. They will have no choice. “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.”
The people were tired, tired of the struggle. They fought against each other, against God, against their prophets, and nothing was ever the way that they wanted it to be. We might say that there was no glory in the land. No feelings of accomplishment and wholeness and success as a people, as a religion, as a culture. There was only the waiting. The longing. The fumbling for wholeness that evades an incomplete people. Wholeness that can come only by being directly connected to, supported by, involved with its Creator.
So God spoke through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…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.” God will mend the broken relationship with Israel and Judah. God and God alone will undo the pain and the sorrow that the people have done. Then the struggle and the arguments will end. And all will be well. “The days are surely coming.”
But we wonder. Is this true? Is this for real? Are the days really coming? Why haven’t they come yet? We wonder. And I imagine that Martin Luther and the other reformers must have wondered, too. Why is God allowing the Church to become so corrupt? The people are tired of it! They want wholeness and they want an eternal vision of the glory of God. All they get is turmoil and hurt. They get someone laying down the law and condemning them. Instead of the Law of love being given to them as a crown to wear, they are denied and scolded and told how bad they are, how wrong their living is. The days are surely coming, comes as a word of hope and a word of promise. A word to live by.
Several millennia after Jeremiah wrote, Martin Luther was a priest in a Church that taught that we can know God by our own deeds. We can work our salvation by doing right and obeying the hierarchy. We can save ourselves day by day simply by doing better. God, in an obvious lack of benevolence, an obvious lack of love, will finally give in, if only we will persevere. Luther called this a theology of glory. As long as we work to find and to know and to understand God, we will obtain glory. God’s glory will reluctantly become ours. And Luther saw that this theology was brutalizing Christians of every stripe. The Church was ever more corrupt as people sought their own glory by buying into the Church’s glory.
This theology still exists today. Live right, whatever that means. Do right, whatever that is. Speak truth, at least the truth of the one who is giving you the orders. And you will receive glory. Luther points out the profoundly evil lie in all of this. Along with St. Paul, he teaches that everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God. We cannot be glorious. Therefore, Christianity, true, real Christianity is not found in seeking glory. It is found in bearing the cross. It is found in having faith and living with faith as the light of our lives.
This whole idea of faith, though, can be very tricky. What is faith? What is it, really? It is not the act of conjuring up all of our mental resources in order to believe in God or Jesus or in any other being, or in any idea, for that matter. To have faith is to trust. To trust that in the end God will take care of everything because in the beginning God has taken care of us. From ancient times, from the time of creation, God has taken care of us, and guides us still.
Martin Luther insisted on a theology of the cross: we are driven by faith to see and to understand God where God has most fully revealed God’s own self. And where is that? Where do we see God? We see God not in distant, cloudy glory. No. We see God hanging on a cross, dying for us. No glory. Just the gory reality of the sin that bathes our lives, being washed away by the waters of Holy Baptism. The sign of the cross being made on our foreheads. Not a sign of some shallow victory, but the victory of life over death itself.
Today we baptize another child into this same faith. We encourage his parents and all who stand with him to teach him to be faithful. To trust. Not to seek his own aggrandizement, but to seek the wholeness of life and living that comes in recognizing that God has made a new covenant with him. It is done. God has made a new covenant with us in Christ Jesus and in him we live today and we shall live. The glory that we might seek is denied. Turned away.
The cross, made over and over on our foreheads, on our bodies, the cross teaches us unceasingly to trust. To fully trust that in spite of the deaths of our lives, life awaits us. God no longer remembers our sins, no longer allows us to wallow in our brokenness. Instead, God has unilaterally become our God. And we are God’s people. And now, we can live! Amen.