When we left off last week, the kingdom of Israel had just been divided, primarily because of the leadership (or lack thereof) of King Rehoboam, If you remember, we’re tracing the story of the Hebrew people this fall, from the time when they were slaves in Egypt to the wandering in the wilderness, to the promised land, to the establishment of the kingdom, and then, last week, to the dividing of the kingdom. Then, of course, that divided kingdom was conquered by neighboring countries and the temple was destroyed and the people taken into exile.
So today we turn to the prophet Jeremiah, who was living and writing in one of the most turbulent times of Israel’s history. The people have actually returned home from exile, but they find their homes destroyed and the temple gone and they have to rebuild their lives.
Jeremiah writes to these people who have come home to this mess and are trying to figure out what went wrong. They know they’ve broken their end of the covenant they made with God – they have been unfaithful, they’ve turned away from God – and so know they’re back home and trying to make sense of things, so Jeremiah writes this word of consolation to the people:
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,[a] 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. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
“I will be their God and they will be my people.”
I stumbled upon the website of a non-profit I’d never heard of this week. It’s called “Because I Said I Would,” and their mission is to encourage people to make and keep promises. It’s pretty simple – they provide a little card, the size of an index card or a business card, that says simply at the bottom: … “because I said I would.” And they encourage people to make a commitment that will improve yourself, your family or your community.
It’s simple, really, and I like it. They’ve only been around three years, but in those three years, they’ve distributed over 3 million promise cards to people willing to make a commitment to do something to make the world a better place. The founder, Alex Sheen, says, “Sometimes we don’t need a miracle solution. Sometimes we just need people to do what they said they would do.” (becauseisaidiwould.com)
So people make promises – to take care of their bodies better, or to keep going to their AA meetings, or to work hard at school, or to volunteer more often, or to do whatever they said they would do, because they said they would.
I like this idea because we’ve been thinking so much about what it means to be part of this community and what it means belong to each other, and what kind of promises we make.
In this passage from Jeremiah, God makes a new promise to the people. Well – it’s a new promise but it’s not really new – it’s a new renewing of the promise, the covenant and it’s been renewed before already. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, the new kingdom under David – over and over again, God has remade this promise with the people: I will be their God and they will be my people.
This is not a new promise – except that it is. This will be a new covenant with the people, different than the ones made before. So what’s new? What makes this one different?
Listen: “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts…”
That’s what’s different. This time, the law doesn’t need the ark of the covenant, or the stone tablets with the ten commandments. The law doesn’t need the temple in Jerusalem – the law will be written on their hearts. This is good news to a people who have been displaced, who don’t have a place to call home.
This time, when God makes this promise, the promise will be go with them, will be part of them, written on their hearts.
This time, when God makes this promise, they don’t need those little promise cards, because the promise will be written on their hearts.
Fred Craddock says: “I am yours and you are mine,” says God. That is the language of love and faithfulness.”
So I wonder, when we make promises today, when we hear this promise that is written on our hearts – what’s new about this covenant for us? What’s new about the commitments we are making?
There was a new report out this week that showed that fewer and fewer people in the United States are identifying as religious. Fewer people are going to church than they used to, and even fewer are identifying with any religion at all.
I feel like this same poll comes out every few months, and I get a little tired of the hysteria over it – partly because, well, it’s not all that surprising anymore. And partly because you all are here, and you think there’s something important happening here.
And partly because of what the other part of the poll showed, which was that the people who do identify as religious, the people who are actively part of a church community, are more committed to that church than ever before. This makes sense, because – unlike a few generations ago – it’s no longer a given that you’re going to be in church on a Sunday morning. So if you’re going to be part of a church, it’s because you really want to be – not just because it’s what somebody thinks you should do.
It’s no small thing, in other words, that you all are here this morning. You’re doing something really counter cultural here, by sitting in these pews and listening to ancient words, and praying together as part of a community, and making the promises you do. It’s no small thing.
And that’s good news for the church, I think – that’s what’s new about today’s promises. You don’t have to make them.
Because I think there’s nothing more powerful, nothing more hopeful, nothing amazing than a group of people who are committed to being the people of God.
Here’s the thing about this new covenant with that God makes with the people in Jeremiah’s time. It does not replace the old covenant, but builds on it. This is how all God’s covenant renewals work. The old promises don’t go away –the get renewed and updated for a new generation.
We’re building something new here, this community we call First Christian Church of Greensboro, and we’re hearing new promises… But the church we are creating today is not dismissing the church that was in years past. Clearly things look different, things change. But the church we are creating today is built on top of what was here all along.
Here are some places where I see God is making things new, making new promises to us, giving us hope for the future. I bet you could name some too, but here’s what I see:
Last week, on All Saints Day, we lifted up the names of 10 people we lost in the past year – that’s a hard thing, and we’ve done some significant grieving around here. But also: since January of 2105, we have welcomed 23 new members into the life of the church, all of whom have been active and involved and engaged in this community. God is making new promises with us.
A couple of years ago, when we switched around our worship times on Sunday mornings, we also said goodbye to our traditional Sunday school program. In some ways, that needed to happen; classes were not well attended, teachers were hard to fine…. In other ways, though, it was a real loss of connection and community for classes who had met for years. But now, looking back, that change made way for the small groups that are meeting now – providing healthy conversation about the Bible – and Table Talk – where sometimes a dozen people get together on Thursday nights to connect with each other – and our Sunday evening youth groups – where you’d be amazed at the energy of the kids and the leaders and the way they are learning together. God is making new promises with us.
Or the way our leadership structures work – we’ve been talking a lot about this, especially in the Cabinet, where our ministry team leaders are thinking about ways to invite new people into leadership in a way that doesn’t burn everybody out or impose unrealistic expectations on people who do not need another thing to do in their lives. We’ve had some good conversations about this, and some good ideas, and, people are saying yes when they’re invited to serve. God is making new promises with us.
And I’d venture to guess that this might be true in your life, too. That something is dying and something is growing. That you’re letting go of something old and finding something new. That something has broken is on its way to new life. That God is making new promises with you as well.
I will write it on their hearts; I will be their God and they will be my people.
Because if we are the people of God, do you know what that means?
It means, together, that we can care for each other. We can share the stories of Jesus and the wisdom of the prophets. We can hold, carefully, the hope that the world so needs to hear. We can do this, together, because of the promises we make.
Now, we’ll break those promises sometimes, for sure. But the good news is that God’s faithfulness is not dependent on our ability to keep our promises. That’s good news, isn’t it? See, it’s God’s initiative to make and re-make this covenant with us, to make all things new even when the future looks dark. Our commitment and our promises are simply our responses to God’s faithfulness.
And here’s the difference, I think, between these promise cards and the sort of promises we make to each other and to God today.
We keep our promises to one another not just because we said we would, but because God keeps God’s promises with us.
We belong to each other. We belong to God.
The Lord is our God and we are God’s people, and God makes all things new.