Sermon for March 22, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland

Texts: Psalm 51: 1-12 and Jeremiah 31:31-34

                                Renewal Of Vows


I still remember the day it happened. My husband Ellis and I sat across from one another at a battered wooden table in the Butterhorn Café in Frisco, Colorado. It might have been early spring, the brilliant light glancing through the glass and across the table, creating shadows on the floor. These things I recall looking back, but at that moment, there was only him. We had been dating but a few weeks when he leaned across, looked at me curiously or perhaps that’s how I looked back, and asked me if I’d be willing to be his PC. “Your PC?” I inquired aloud. “Did I miss something? What’s a PC?” “Primary companion”, he replied, as if to say, “Everybody knows that.”

         Still unclear on the concept, we spent the next hour considering what that meant for us. Were we going steady? Too old for that. Going out? Truth be told, we mostly went to church. By the time we’d worked through our intentions, we agreed that we really loved hanging out together, and basically wouldn’t date anybody else. On the other hand, we were too new to one another to talk about getting married.

       Sometimes the covenants we make with one another require a bit of negotiation. When our children text one another on their smart phones, they casually express their affection by signing off BFF, Best Friends Forever, even if that means only until the end of the school year. When a ball player signs a letter of intent, it means they will come and play ball for you. To break the intent might be costly. There are consequences when we fail to keep our promises, even if only a trip to the attorney’s office and a hefty fine.   

       Those who choose to marry, make promises. We say them out loud in front of God and everybody. We pledge our lives and our bodies to love and uphold one another in the covenant of marriage, from this day forward, in sickness and health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorry, forsaking all others as long as we both shall live. Getting married is easy. Staying married is hard. Renewing vows after trust has shattered seems impossible.

The great prophet Jeremiah reminds the listener of just such an impossible heartbreak. We listen in when God speaks to his beloved intimately in the first person. “The days are coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant, I will renew my vows with the house of Israel. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of the house of Egypt from slavery to new life. This covenant they broke, though I was their husband.”

The conversation is anguished and deeply intimate. We imagine tears shed. We cannot help but be moved when God says, “I love you and despite all you’ve done to me, I’m going to take you back.”

Though you’ve cheated on me and worshipped other Gods, though you’ve hurt me and failed to cherish and honor one another, I’m such a fool in love for you that I’m going to marry you all over again. But this time it will be different. This time the terms of our relationship won’t be written on stone tablets to be carried around and displayed in the Ark of the Covenant, or on the altar of churches, or on the lawn of town halls. It won’t be stitched in needlepoint on your living room wall.

“I will put my law inside of you, I will write it, engrave it, tattoo it on your heart. Hear this, no matter what you’ve done, I will be your God, and you will be my people. You will know me, from the greatest to the least of you. And I will forgive all of what you’ve done, and I will forget what you’ve done. And I will be with you always, even to the end of time.” Oh my God! Who can imagine such a thing?

We know all too well that when the bonds of human vows break or simply wear thin, only re-covenanting with unmerited trust can break open our wounded, hardened hearts. This impossible unmerited loved we call grace. We have no idea how to do such a thing. Thank God through God all things are possible.

         We’re familiar with these varied covenants, promises, and vows that we make with one another, saying, I will and I do. This morning we reflect together on this new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, a new covenant we now see fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Christ becomes the new stone tablets, our new wedding ring. It’s so interesting that the condition for the renewal of the vows between God and a faithless people is that God forgives our faithlessness. The initiation for renewal belongs to God. We can only cry out for mercy, “Will you take me back? How long O God?” And then wait for it.

         God never disappoints, though when we feel helpless and hopeless it doesn’t feel like that. Jeremiah is writing to a people far from their home and empty of hope. It must have seemed to them like ancient history, that covenant that we call The Ten Commandments, given to them on Mt. Sinai. Where was this God who promised always to hang around. It seemed to them that God had not protected Israel from harm as God promised when to their great shock, they had been taken captive and sent into exile.

         Like any love relationship gone sour, the people blamed God for leaving them alone too long, as if their infidelity were God’s fault. But God simply allowed them to bear the consequences of their faithlessness. God never promised that there wouldn’t be a price to pay for acting as if there were no God. However, God didn’t beat them up for it. On the contrary, God simply communicated through love that though we human beings are perfectly capable of screwing things up for ourselves, this eternal covenant with God wouldn’t go away. Once God enters a relationship with us, God is in it for the long haul. Like a any mad lover who tries to get in the car and drive off into the sunset, God searches for us until God finds us and then brings us back home where we belong.

         Pastor Theologian Kathryn Schifferdecker describes this renewed relationship in this way.

“The prophet speaks of a covenant -- like the one made at Sinai -- between YHWH and Israel. "The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31).

“There is both continuity and discontinuity with what has come before. The continuity lies in the character of God and the love God continues to have for a wayward people. God will not abandon Israel forever. God will not forget God's promises made so long ago at Sinai:

"I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God." (Exodus 29:45; cf. Exodus 6:7)

"And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people." (Leviticus 26:12)

“Just so, in this new covenant, God promises, "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). The relationship is not new. Israel knows this God, and God knows this people. The promises Jeremiah speaks build on a long and shared history between YHWH and Israel, a history marked by wavering on the part of the people and by faithfulness on the part of YHWH. God continues to love this wayward people; they continue to be God's treasured possession. In this new covenant there is indeed continuity with what has come before.

“The discontinuity is, of course, implied with the term, "new. This is a new covenant with Israel, not like the covenant at Sinai, "a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says YHWH" (Jeremiah 31:32). Still, what is new about this covenant is not so much its content, but the means by which God will bring it about.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: 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 YHWH," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

         “The old covenant, written on stone tablets and scrolls, will be replaced by the new covenant, written on flesh. The first set of stone tablets was broken (Exodus 32:19), the second set written again (Exodus 34:1) and hidden away in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5). The book of the law, containing the stipulations of the covenant, likewise was stored beside the Ark (Deuteronomy 31:24-26) and mostly forgotten until it was rediscovered in the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), in the early days of Jeremiah's prophetic career.

“Unlike the old covenant, then, written on stone tablets that can be broken and scrolls that can be lost, the new covenant will be written within the people, on their very hearts. No need for remedial religious education, because everyone will know YHWH, from the king to the stable boy, from the oldest elder to the youngest child.

“And it will all be YHWH's doing. "I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more." The people have not demonstrated a great aptitude for faithfulness during the many years of the old covenant, so this time YHWH will do it differently. This time, the covenant relies solely on YHWH's mercy, YHWH's ever-present grace in forgiving a disobedient people and calling them back into relationship with him.”

We call this renewed relationship the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith or what we might call radical trust in the living God. God’s nature does not change. God was, is, and always will be a God of great mercy, forgiveness, and love for a wayward people.

 “And this is all God's doing. In and through Jesus Christ, the God of Jeremiah continues to forgive, renew, restore, and call God's people into right relationship with him and with one another. God is faithful, even when we are not.

Battered and bent by the trials and disappointments of any married life, wounded by the thousands of small ways we hurt one another, it takes a ridiculous leap of trust to love all over again. Who in their right mind would do it? Only a fool hopelessly in love… For God so loved the world, that God gave his only begotten son, that whosoever trusts in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”

Jesus becomes God’s wedding present to us. Christ is the sign of God’s renewal of vows, the new covenant through his life given for us and to us. God wrote God’s Word through Jesus into our hearts, that when we wholly trust in Jesus and follow him, even though we’ve cheated on God in the past, we would experience once again the joy and intimacy of life with God, always.

May it be so for us all…. Amen