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Sermon: The God Who Would Be Known

Jeremiah 31:27-34

27 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. 29 “In those days people will no longer say,

‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,

and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

30 Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.

31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,

“when I will make a new covenant

with the house of Israel

and with the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant

I made with their forefathers

when I took them by the hand

to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant,

though I was a husband to them,”

declares the LORD.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel

after that time,” declares the LORD.

“I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,

or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the LORD.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.”

The Prophet No One Wanted To Hear

Last week we looked at Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet no one wanted to hear.  Jeremiah preached between the time of the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonian captivity of the southern nation of Judah.

Jeremiah’s first sermons came as the king of Judah and the aristocracy of the nation were being carted off to Babylon.  Other prophets were saying that the “shalom” of God — the all-encompassing peace of God’s provision, protection, and presence — would be with the remaining inhabitants of Judah.  In other words, “everything’s gonna be all right.”

But everything was not going to be all right, and Jeremiah knew it.  The famous phrase, “peace, peace when there is no peace” may have been borrowed by the American revolution, but it originated with Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was the naysayer, the doomsday prophet, the guy with the sandwich board which read, “The End Is Near.”

And, of course, the end was near.  In 586-7 BC, the Babylonians quit playing at making Judah its territory, and destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s temple with it.  But, this passage we have just read comes as the worst is about to happen.

Finally, the prophet no one wanted to hear had something to say that everyone needed to hear.

The Days Are Coming

Jeremiah has some bad news for the people — Jerusalem is going to be destroyed.  But he has some good news for them, too.  “The days are coming” Jeremiah says in verse 27, “when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and animals.”  That’s the promise God makes, but what does it mean?

Well, there are two things going on here.  First, the phrase “the days are coming” is a prophet’s way of speaking of the beginning of the end, of the eschaton, the culmination of all things.  So, this is a real prophecy, a glimpse into the future of how things will be when God has God’s will in this world.

And, Jeremiah uses the language of creation — “the offspring” or seed of men and animals — to paint a picture of a new creation, a new day, an era unlike the era in which he and his fellows Jews are living.

This era will mark a new beginning, a new awareness of God in His relationship with humankind.  The old relationship was based on the Exodus experience.  God delivered the nation from bondage, from the slavery of Egypt, and from exile in a strange land.

But that the face of that deliverance was Moses.  Moses was chosen by God.  Moses represented God before Pharaoh.  Moses spoke for God, even though at times he used Aaron to do the speaking. And most importantly, Moses encountered God first at the burning bush where God called him.  Then, after the Exodus on Mount Sinai where God had summoned him.

Moses was the face of God before the people of God.  So afraid were the people of a direct encounter with God that they wanted Moses to go into the Presence on their behalf.  And it is in the presence of God that Moses receives the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God, on rock-solid visible tablets of stone.  These tablets were held up before the people, broken in anger at the rebellion of the people, and then given again as the external reminder of the expectation God had that this people would be different from all other peoples on the earth.

But it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough to have the Ark of the Covenant, powerful as it was, in their midst. It wasn’t enough to have the tablets of stone containing the Decalogue, the foundation of moral and spiritual conduct.

It wasn’t enough for God to be on the mountain, and it wasn’t enough for Moses to represent the people of God in the Presence of God.  For while Moses was on the mountain, the people in the valley clamored for their own experience of God.

And before the proverbial ink was dry on the 10 Commandments, before they had even heard what God had in mind for them, the people wanted a god they could see, hear, and control.  The golden calf, made from their own gifts of jewelry, became their reassuring symbol of the presence of a god.

God’s Hand Was Evident In Nature, Too

But before God had called Israel out of bondage in Egypt, God had revealed himself to his people in creation.  God had placed Adam and Eve in God’s own garden, a place where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening.  But it wasn’t enough.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was supposed to be an external reminder that humanity did not know everything, became an external symbol to be grasped, and plundered rather than revered and acknowledged.   Even the penalty of death, which mankind had not experienced, was not enough to keep the boundary between God and man secure.

It wasn’t enough that Adam and Eve had everything good thing in the garden, they wanted everything.  And most of all they wanted to be like God.  Not with God, but like God rendering God’s presence with them unnecessary.  It wasn’t enough that they were products of the hand of God.  They wanted, not God’s revelation, but God’s prerogatives.

But even after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden for their sin, God continues to reveal himself in nature and creation.  But man continues down a path of rebellion, misuse, and misappropriation of all the good gifts of God until God uses creation itself to judge all that is evil.  Only Noah and those in the ark survive the judgment of God.

God Reveals Himself in a Purpose

Generations pass, and God reveals himself in a purpose to another man, Abraham.  The covenant God makes with Abraham precedes the covenant with Moses and the nation made int he desert of Sinai’s wilderness.  God calls Abram from out of paganism, gives him a son as proof of the promise, and then begins to establish the descendants of Abraham as a nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

But it is not enough.  The nation loses its way, forgets its purpose as it grows and expands, and finds itself captive in what had been the land of deliverance.

It wasn’t enough that the people of God had a purpose.  They continually lost sight of both the Presence of God and the purpose of God for their community.

And so after generations of disobedience, where the sins of the fathers impact their children, and grandchildren, God sends judges, and kings, and prophets, but they are not enough.  Not enough for the people to understand that God is their God, that they are His people.  Not enough to have the Presence of God mediated through judges, and priests, and kings.  Even David, called a man after God’s own heart, fails the God he encountered as the Good Shepherd who led him beside still waters and was with him through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

A Time Is Coming

So Jeremiah reiterates his prophecy.  “A time is coming” Jeremiah says.  Not just days, but an epoch, an era, a new beginning. “A time is coming” when God will make a new covenant with his people.

It will not be like the old covenant, not like the time when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.  That covenant meant deliverance, and security, and land, and a future, but even those promises were not sufficient to make the people keep their side of the bargain.  The people failed me, God said, even though I was their “husband” — their protector, their guide, their security, and their provider.

No, a time is coming when a new covenant will be made.  When the way to live will not be carved on stone, but carried in the heart.  Tablets that could be broken, became a symbol of a law that also could be broken.  External, enshrined in the Ark of the Covenant.  Eventually the Ten Commandments and some of the reminders of the Exodus — Aaron’s rod that budded and a pot of manna — were stored in the Ark of the Covenant.  It was placed in the Holy of Holies in first the tabernacle and then the Temple.

But Jeremiah is telling the people “the time is coming” when the law will be written on your hearts, not on tablets of stone.  What he doesn’t tell them is that in a few short years the Temple will be destroyed, the Holy of Holies desecrated, and the Ark of the Covenant plundered.  The Ark and its contents will disappear forever from the life of the nation.  The external law, the tablets of God, will also disappear for before God’s word can be written on hearts it must disappear from its external hiding place.

The Time Did Come

But when was this time of which Jeremiah spoke?  When did God place his law within his people?  When did God write his precepts upon our hearts?  When did everyman, great and small, know God directly?  When did God reveal himself in a way that was different, and make himself known so widely that no longer would teachers be necessary because everyone would know God directly?

The people of Jeremiah’s day did not live to see that time.  Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 BC and the Temple plundered and razed.  The Ark of the Covenant is lost forever.  The nation is carried into the long decades of the Babylonian exile.  The future looked bleak, if not hopeless.

But the day did come.  Not 70 years later with the return of the nation, but about 500 years after that.  The time did come when God made himself known.  The time did come when great and small could know him.  The time did come when the way to live would spring up from the heart, rather than be represented on hard tablets of stone.

The time came in Jesus.  The revelation of God known to all of Israel.  The time came in the birth of a baby, the growth of a boy, the maturity of a man.  The time came as the cousin of John the Baptist rose from the waters of baptism with the acknowledgment and approval of his Heavenly Father.

The time came when the least — a boy with his lunch, a leper with his sores, and blind man with his cane — would be touched and transformed by God’s presence.

And Jesus came with the message of Jeremiah, too.  Herod’s Temple, a grander version than Solomon’s, dominated the Jerusalem cityscape.  And Jesus reminded his followers that not one stone would be left on another.  And in 70 AD, the Romans did what the Babylonians had done five centuries before — they destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

And then, they dispersed the followers of Jesus into all the world.  The time did come when the Holy Spirit, promised by the Son, sent by the Father, filled followers of Christ with his presence, his power, and his promise.

The time did come when the last sacrifice was made, the forgiveness of sin complete, the power of death broken, and the promise of life secured.  The time did come, and the God who would be known was known by everyone.  History was changed, hearts were healed, and God would forever be known as the God who came down to his people.