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The word came from what might have been seen by some in that day as a surprising source...Jeremiah. By this point in the prophet's career (probably 40+ years by now), he was fairly well known. He was NOT famous for bringing words of comfort and hope. If anything, he was seen as sort of a curmudgeon who was a constant gadfly to both the religious and political establishment. He had attacked the nation's religious hypocrisy that saw folks look on Temple worship as a national good luck charm - "As long as we go through the motions, all will be well," appeared to be the attitude. He saw injustice rampant with the oppression of those less fortunate. He foretold the coming of the forces of Babylon and recommended national surrender, and called Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon's emperor and Judah's most despised foe, the "servant of the Lord." He even incited his compatriots to desert to the enemy. He was hated by his family and friends; he was forbidden to preach in the temple; he was arrested and placed in stocks; he was threatened with death; he was beaten and imprisoned; he was dropped down into a cistern that had nothing in it but gooey muck; finally, he was carried off into exile in Egypt against his will. Jeremiah's ministry spanned a half-century, one of the most difficult half-centuries in the history of his nation. No wonder he became known as "the Weeping Prophet."
At the time of our lesson, Judah was already conquered and all but a small remnant had been carried off into exile - away from home, land, family, and, in the minds of some, even God - more or less as Jeremiah had predicted. They had broken every covenant that God had established, and now were experiencing captivity once again - a once-proud nation now reduced to a life of slavery in a foreign land. Now the prophet's words to them were concerned with how to get along in this new environment. In an open letter to the exiles, he suggested that they make the most of the situation - go along to get along:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (1)Jeremiah went on to let them know that this would not be a short-term situation: they were looking at seventy years, time enough for an entire generation to be born and die. Yes, they WERE away from home, land, family, but not God, and God had plans for them, "hope and a future" in Jeremiah's words. (2)
"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."
"I will put my law within them" - not on tablets of stone. "I will write it on their hearts" - it will not be an external set of rules, but an internal motivation. People will do right just because it is right. Wow. What is envisioned is a dramatic end to the cycle that has been repeated so often. The people receive a covenant from God, follow it briefly, fall away from it, are punished, then return to the covenant with God...only to cycle through again. Now, the vision is for a covenant which will be kept naturally, without a chance of cycling through this awful experience.
Someone has suggested that the old covenant is like a posted speed limit and a traffic cop. We obey it because we fear getting a ticket if we do not. The new covenant is driving a speed based on respect for the conditions of the roadway, the residents of the neighborhood, the safety of other drivers, as well as our own need to get from one place to another (which presumably all went into setting the posted limit in the first place). In either case the speed of travel is the same, but the difference is in the motivation.
I would love to report that soon after Jeremiah's words were spread abroad among the exiles that their fulfillment came, but we know such was not the case. In fact, by the time we hear again of a "New Covenant" more than five-hundred years had elapsed - you remember: "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood." (3) Jesus. It can truly be said that, until the coming of Jesus, the handwriting on the heart was part of Jeremiah's "future with hope."
According to the Gospel lesson, the word had begun to get around about Jesus. This was Palm Sunday afternoon now - crowds had already greeted his entry into Jerusalem. In John's chronology, this was hard on the heels of his raising Lazarus to life after four days in the tomb. Jesus was beginning to attract significant crowds, and they were even bigger than normal because this was a festival week, and folks had traveled from all over the known world to celebrate the Passover here.
Word about Jesus had apparently spread to the visitors in the city. Some of these Gentile converts ("God-fearers" as they were known) got wind of this incredible rabbi. Perhaps they had even heard of what he had done in cleaning out their part of the Temple precincts from all the commercial traffic, the selling of sacrificial animals, the money-changing, that was constantly going on. They wanted to meet him. OK. They came to the disciples and asked for an appointment.
We never hear whether or not they get their audience; instead we get this bolt from the blue about, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." OK! A certain tingle of excitement must have raced through those who heard him. This was exactly what a lot of folks had been waiting for for three years. NOW, Jesus would throw off the Judean "Clark Kent" disguise and become Israel's "Superman" Messiah. YES! Glory!
But wait. What follows in the Gospel account is almost a stream-of-consciousness monologue which we who live on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection can understand, but it must have left his original hearers in a fog. Put yourself in their place. There was that statement about the grain of wheat having to "die" in the ground before it can bear fruit. What has that got to do with the conquering Messiah? That was followed immediately with, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Then he says, "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also." Uh huh. Finally, he takes a deep breath and sighs, "Now my soul is troubled." And those who were standing there listening probably whispered, "Ours too."
Suddenly, he lifts his eyes upward and begins a conversation with heaven that is punctuated with what some hear as a clap of thunder and others insist is the voice of an angel. One way or another, it is most disquieting. Finally, he says, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Yes, you and I know what he was talking about, but you can be sure that those who first heard him were confused.
Notice something: confused or no, THEY STAYED. There was something about Jesus that did indeed draw people to him. It had been so since the night of his birth - humble shepherds and ever-curious magi. As a boy in the Temple, there were rabbis and scholars. As a man there were folk from all walks of life - from fishermen and tax-collectors to men like Nicodemus, the cream of Israelite society; upstanding women and fallen women; the little children loved him enough to make such a nuisance of themselves that the disciples tried to shoo them away. Even a hard-bitten Roman governor would be mesmerized enough by him to disavow any blame for his execution.
Why were people so attracted to Jesus? Scripture says he was not particularly handsome. He came from no family of influence. He had no money. Was it the miracles? Perhaps. There are always some who want to see a magic show. But on a deeper level, what Jesus must have embodied for folks was a sense of hope, the same kind of hope that ancient Judah felt when they heard the words of Jeremiah: "The time is coming, says the LORD," - in other words, you can take this to the bank - a "new covenant...I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;" - this one will be automatic; no way for us to blow it - "and I will be their God, and they will be my people." Hope.
In Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times this past week, he quoted Dov Seidman, the C. E. O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, and the author of the book How. "There is nothing more powerful than inspirational leadership that unleashes principled behavior for a great cause." What makes a company or a government "sustainable," he added, is not when it adds more coercive rules and regulations to control behaviors. "It is when its employees or citizens are propelled by values and principles to do the right things, no matter how difficult the situation," said Seidman. "Laws tell you what you can do. Values inspire in you what you should do. It's a leader's job to inspire in us those values." (4) As a nation, right now we are desperate for that kind of leadership. As people of faith, we have found it in our Lord and Savior, and that gives us the hope that enables us to persevere.
Several years ago a school teacher accepted the volunteer position of visiting and teaching children who were patients in a large city hospital. One day the phone rang and she received her first assignment as a new volunteer. She took his name and room number and was told by the his teacher that this boy was studying nouns and adverbs in his class before he was hospitalized.
It was not until the visiting teacher got outside the boys hospital room that she realized that he was a patient in the hospital's burn unit. She was prepared to teach English grammar, but she was not prepared to witness the horrible look and smell of badly burned human flesh. She was not prepared to see a young boy in great pain either. She wanted to hold her nose...to turn...and leave faster than she came. But she could not just walk away. So she clumsily stammered over to his bedside, and she simply said, "I am the hospital teacher and your teacher sent me to help you with your nouns and adverbs."
The next morning a nurse from the burn unit asked her, "What did you do to that boy?"
The teacher began to apologize profusely, but before she could finish, the nurse interrupted her: You don't understand. We have been really worried about him...his condition has been deteriorating over the past few days, because he had completely given up hope. But ever since you were here with him yesterday, his whole attitude has changed and he is fighting back, and responding to treatment. It's as though he decided to live!
When the nurse later questioned him about it, the boy said, "I figured I was doomed...that I was gonna die...until I saw that teacher." And as a tear began to run down his face, he finished: "But when I saw her, I realized that they wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy...would they?" (5)
A few years ago the psychology department at Duke University carried on an interesting experiment to see how long rats could swim. In one container they placed a rat for whom there was no possibility of escape. He swam a few moments and then ducked his head to drown. In the other container they made the hope of escape possible for the rat. The rat swam for several hours before finally drowning. The conclusion of the experiment was just the opposite of our common conclusion. We usually say, "As long as there is life, there is hope." The Duke experiment proved, "As long as there is hope, there is life." (6)
If we read the newspaper, we might feel we are living in a world devoid of hope. Our economy in a shambles and threatening to take the whole world down with it, job losses on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, continuing conflict in the Middle East, our troops remaining bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to that the countless homes where dreams are crushed down and hopes are snuffed out each day. We wonder how anyone survives in this life.
We survive by the measure of our hope. The exiles in Babylon found their hope in the gracious words of Jeremiah and his description of the handwriting on the heart. The hope of your heart and my heart is Jesus.
1. Jeremiah 29:5-7
2. Jeremiah 29:11
3. Luke 22:20
5. Bill Adams, Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA, via Ecunet, 12/ 29/96
6. Bruster & Dale, How to Encourage Others, quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)