A New Covenant

by David Baer, November 20, 2016

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Text: Jeremiah 36:1-8,21-23,27-28,31:31-34

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. That’s literally true. My wife and I have gotten sucked into “The Crown,” a series on Netflix that follows the early years of Queen Elizabeth II. And there’s a scene at the beginning of one of the episodes where the new queen is preparing for her coronation. She’s trying on St. Edward’s Crown, the jewel-encrusted gold crown that will be placed on her head during the ceremony. It weighs 5 pounds, and she’s not sure she can keep it steady. She asks the attendant who’s assisting her, “Do you think I could borrow it for a bit, just to get used to it?” “Borrow, your majesty?” he asks, quizzically. “If it’s not yours, then whose is it?” Kings and queens possess an authority that is so weighty that it surprises even those born to it.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. I don’t know about you, but “king” is a hard image for me to square with Jesus. It speaks of someone powerful but remote, isolated, beyond the reach of ordinary human concerns. And that’s not how I think of Jesus at all.

But from the very beginning, Christians insisted that Jesus was someone with authority. They used just that word, “authority,” when they heard him teaching and saw how he healed the sick and cast out demons (Mark 1:27). The earliest Christian statement of faith was just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And there’s so much packed into that one short sentence. Jesus is Lord means I owe him my trust and my loyalty. It means I am at his disposal to go where he calls me and do what he needs me to do.

But Jesus is Lord means he is in charge not just of me, but of this whole messy, hurting world we live in. It means there is a higher power than those in authority on earth who exploit or attack poor and vulnerable people. It means there is a time when these wrongs will be righted, when hurting and suffering people will be comforted and made whole. And it means that in the here and now we belong in a very real way to that future–we’re meant to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God so that folks can find hope in these little pockets of the kingdom. Here’s an example: if Jesus is Lord, no one is meant to go hungry in a world where there is food to spare, and so we create a little kingdom space with others through the Center for Food Action. That’s not the sum total of what it means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord today, but it’s one little piece of it. “Jesus is Lord” is about my allegiance, but it’s also about reaching out toward the future that becomes real when the promise of Jesus’ lordship is fulfilled at last.

“Jesus is Lord” asks something of us. But when we say it, we’re hoping and praying for something from him too. Jesus’ work on earth is not finished, and there is a lot we can do. But the perfecting and finishing of that work is in his hands.

That’s something Jeremiah understood all too well. He was a prophet in Jerusalem at the time the Babylonian Empire was threatening the kingdom of Judah. He was not a popular guy. He said that the king and the people of Judah had angered God by worshiping idols and committing injustice against the poor. He criticized the king for trying to make an alliance with Egypt, which he said was hopeless. Instead, the king should accept God’s judgment and submit to the Babylonians. This was regarded as treason, and it got Jeremiah banned from speaking in the Temple and, on one occasion, thrown down into the mud at the bottom of a well.

In today’s reading, God tells Jeremiah to try again. Write down all my warnings, says God, all my pleadings, my heartache, my anger, my longing for my people to turn back to me. Jeremiah writes the scroll, and he gives it to his assistant to read aloud in the Temple, where Jeremiah is forbidden to enter.

Have you ever poured your heart out, put it all out there, and it lands with a thud? You’re part of a team at work, or in a community organization, and you know, you just know, what needs to be done… But it turns out that the values that animate you aren’t their values. The vision you have isn’t their vision. Your passion and your ideas just kind of fall to the floor, and the rest of the team moves on with what they want to do. Are you disappointed in them? Disappointed in yourself? Angry, surprised, heartbroken? Do you give up?

Here’s what Jeremiah did…

Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

No one is listening. The king is treating God’s warnings with contempt. Therefore write it again. And again. And again. Don’t stop bearing witness to what’s right, to the truth that may be uncomfortable for powerful people to hear. Write it again, God says.

I wish I could tell you I always had that kind of courage and endurance.

I’m a white man married to a woman. That means I can check a lot of boxes that make me acceptable to people whose hearts are, for whatever reason, painfully twisted out of shape, and sometimes people like this are led to believe that my presence is a safe space for bigotry. And as someone who doesn’t like conflict, I tend to deflect and pass over their ugly words and beliefs, instead of challenging them. What good would it do anyway? Why would they listen to me? It’s easy to rationalize silence and passivity.

But God shows Jeremiah another way, doesn’t he? Write it again. Let them burn it, let them throw it away, so long as they hear it.

Jesus is Lord. That’s the confession that’s meant to animate every aspect of our lives. God so loved the world, with no exceptions, that he sent Jesus to lay down his life. So when someone tries to pass off the lie that certain people don’t deserve the fundamental decency and respect and safety, because they’re gay or because they’re Muslim or because they’re women or because they’re black, Latino, or Asian, it’s a denial of the lordship of Christ, and we can’t let it go.

Jesus is Lord. He’s the one who gets to decide who’s worthy, who’s beloved, who belongs, not you! And those people whose humanity you’re denying are people he didn’t hesitate to die for. Jesus is Lord, and so your bigotry is a lie, a lie that comes out of a wounded and hurting place that will continue to harm you, until you recognize the truth. Jesus is Lord. Write it, write it again. Say it, say it again. Let them deny it, let them tear it or burn it, only let them hear.

Now, if that were the whole story, it would be a pretty grim place to leave it. But it’s not the end. God doesn’t leave Jeremiah to carry on alone, writing prophecy after prophecy doomed to end up in the king’s burning brazier. God makes a promise too:

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. 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. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord 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. 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.

Jeremiah continues to write and speak. He continues to tell the truth about who God is. But no matter how patient and courageous he is, he will always be speaking from the outside. God’s promise is to work on the inside, to write the message on our hearts where it can’t be ignored or thrown away, where it becomes an inseparable part of us.

Jesus is Lord. He’s the lord of each and every human heart—the bigot and the bystander, the victim and the violent. In our gospel reading he shows us with the symbols of bread and wine how the death he chose to save us is meant to become part of us. Our hearts aren’t yet perfect. They’re not finished. But they carry the force of Jesus’ love for us.

Jesus is Lord. Say it, again and again, especially at the present time when we need so much to remember. Say it, like Jeremiah, even if it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Say it until God makes good on the promise. On that day, each and every one of us will be addressed with a Word spoken within us that will soothe everything in our hearts that is aching and raw, that will open us up and let us see how deeply we are loved and how much we matter to God. And everything that clings to us—indifference, callousness, cynicism, despair, cruelty—will fall away. We’ll look at others—friends, enemies, people separated from us by distance or injustice—we’ll look at these others with new eyes as people God loves and values as passionately as ourselves. And on that day, with wonder and joy and excitement, we will be able to say, with new conviction, “Jesus is Lord.” Amen.