I do not know about you, but I entered Lent this year already done. We talked about this reality five weeks ago, back on Ash Wednesday, when I told you that it was okay if you did not give up something this Lent – because we have already given up so much in the last year. We have already fasted what feels like twenty Lents during this pandemic. And then this week happened. We started out with the words of the Vatican, declaring that although our LGBTQ brothers and sisters were still to be loved and welcomed in Church, their “sinfulness” would not be blessed within the covenant of marriage by the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot tell you the pain and suffering those words created this week for so many who live in faithful, loving relationships and marriages. Then, just a few days ago, a man in Atlanta murdered people of Asian descent, sparking off conversations about the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans since this pandemic began. Our own Sacred Ground circle, the group studying the institution of racism in our country – not just towards blacks, but towards indigenous Americans, Latinos, and Asians – just finished its ten weeks of work; and yet within the same week we are talking about racism yet again. And then this week, as administered vaccines slowly rise in James City County, I see people becoming lax about masking and social distancing, some folks in public spaces barely covering their faces. Even the test positivity rate – the one whose decrease has allowed us to enact regathering plans – is creeping slowly toward the numbers that will shut us back down again.
That is why I found myself gravitating to Jeremiah this week. Part of the attraction is the good news of the text, but a larger part of my attraction is empathizing with the Israelites. Jeremiah writes in a time of desperation for the people of God. The Babylonians have razed the temple and carried King Zedekiah off in chains. Effectively, the Babylonians have “destroyed the twin symbols of God’s covenantal fidelity.”[i] Sometimes we talk about the exile so much that I think we forget the heart-wrenching experience of exile. Being taken from homes and forced to live in a foreign land is certainly awful enough. But the things that were taken – the land of promise, the temple for God’s dwelling, the king offered for comfort to God’s people – are all taken, leaving not just lives in ruin, but faith in question.
But today, in the midst of the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation, Jeremiah says God will make a new covenant. God knows the people cannot stop breaking the old covenant, and so God promises to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” Instead of making the people responsible for the maintenance of the covenant, God goes a step further and writes the law in their hearts, embodies God’s way within the people. The words of Jeremiah in the section called “the Book of Comfort,”[ii] and this new covenant by God, show a God whose abundance knows no limits. God offers this new covenant to a people who surely do not deserve another covenant. God has offered prophets and sages, has called the people to repentance, has threatened and cajoled, and yet still the people cannot keep the basic tenants of the covenant established in those ten commandments. But instead of abandoning the people to exile, God offers reconciliation and restoration yet again. And because God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, God basically says, “Here. Let me help you. Let me write these laws in your hearts so that you do not have to achieve your way into favor with me, but you will simply live faithfully, living the covenant with your bodies and minds.” And when even that does not seem to work, God sends God’s only son. God never gives up on us or our relationship with God. Even all these years after Christ’s resurrection, God is still finding new ways to make our covenant work.
That is where I find hope this week. Despite how broken we may feel because of this pandemic, despite how our nation seems incapable of not harming one another due to the color of our skin, despite the ways we seek to limit God’s love and abundance, God is relentless with God’s lovingkindness. In Jeremiah’s text, when the Israelites have hit rock bottom, God turns not to vengeance or even a notion of just desserts. God picks up the covenant of love, not relying on our hard work to be faithful, but declaring how God will simply put God’s law within us, will write God’s law of love on our hearts, will be our God and we will be God’s people. In essence, nothing we can do will drive God from us. And that, my friends, is good news indeed. God sees us in all our fullness – light and shadow alike – and loves us anyway. In this continued time of strain and strife, in this long night of COVID, God gives us good news. As one scholar affirms, “God will bring newness out of destruction. God will bring hope where there is no hope. God will bring life out of death. God will make a way where there is no way.”[iii] Thanks be to God!
[i] Richard Floyd, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 122.
[ii] Jon L. Berquist, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 123.
[iii] Floyd, 124.