Friday, October 29, 2010

Floating in the Grace of God

Devotions at NW MN SynodCandidacy Retreat
October 29, 2010

Jeremiah 31:31-34

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. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Complete this sentence, if you would: “If you want to make sure a job is done right ________________ (do it yourself!)”

That seems to be the watchword here in Jeremiah chapter 31. To grasp the magnificence of this passage, though, we need to remember what comes before it.

Jeremiah was a spokesman for God, who lived and worked in the 7th century before the birth of Christ. It was a dark time for God’s people—and Jeremiah gave voice to that—calling Israel and Judah to account for their many failings, warning them of the judgment to come, interpreting their exile at the hands of the Babylonians in terms of God’s “alien work” of judging, condemning and killing.

Jeremiah the prophet is never mistaken for the “Mr. Sunshine” of our Old Testament. He is unsparing in his willingness to speak harsh, relentless oracles of judgment. And Jeremiah—in his own person—takes on the darkness of which he speaks. He suffers with and for his people.

But then in chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah’s prophetic book, the sun peaks through. Consolation replaces all the doom and gloom—promises cascade down from heaven, covering the sorrow of exile, reviving hope.

And here in chapter 31, it seems God rolls up his sleeves and says: “If you to make to make sure a job is done right, do it yourself.”

And that is exactly what God intends to do!

God has had it with halfway measures, and half-hearted responses. Having tried a give-and-take approach to covenant-making with his wayward people, God is itching to take a fresh run at it, to start all over again, to cut a deal with his beloved ones the likes of which they had never known.

And this is what the deal will look like: no deal at all! No quid-pro-quos, no “a little bit of this and that,” no “meet you in the middle” two-way arrangements.

No, God is through with all that. For that old approach to covenanting turned out to be a bust--not because God failed, but because God’s beloved ones could never hold up their end of the bargain.

Presented with the sweetest deal they could ever imagine—God’s chosen ones turned up their noses and sniffed, “thanks but no thanks.” And so God got fed up with them, handed them over to their own disastrous choices, and allowed their enemies to have free rein for a season. And the Babylonians were only too happy to level Judah’s cities, haul off the children of Israel, and swallow them up in exile. Resistance would be futile.

As fed up as God was with Israel and Judah, though, he simply could not wash his hands of them.

God could not abandon his claim on them. There had to be a way, some better way to make them his forever--which is all God wanted in the first place.

And then it hit God. If you want to make sure a job is done, do it yourself….which is what, through the lips of the exilic prophet Jeremiah, God now lavishly promised.

After chapters of doom and gloom, Jeremiah 31 breaks forth in a song of astounding hope about the new thing God was about to do: “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.”

The days are coming, sang the Lord, when I will take matters into my own hands and make happen what I have longed for since the dawn of creation: a people of my own, to cherish and love ‘til the end of time….and here’s how I will pull it off.

There will be no “recycling” of earlier covenants. Even an extreme makeover of the first covenant will not do the trick. What’s needed is a covenant like no covenant that’s been tried before….a covenant that I will make with my people, and a covenant that I will also keep on behalf of my people. I myself will guarantee it—says the Lord. I will make it happen.

I will write myself into the core of their being. I will insert myself into their programming code. This covenant won’t be etched in stone like the first one; rather it will be branded on human hearts—I will hardwire my steadfastness right into their DNA. I will weave my very being into their selves, make myself one with them.

No more teaching, instructing or learning of my will via third-party-vendors. Instead, I will meld my will with theirs—the two will cleave to one another inseparably.

I will be their God—they will be my people—and that’s not wishful thinking, either. It is their future, it is our destiny, I will see to it.

And perhaps most astonishingly, no one will be left out. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” No exceptions. This is the real “no child left behind” act!

And at the heart of it all—because sin taints everyone, because the disruption of the Fall infects the whole creation—at the heart of it all will be God’s fierce determination not to eradicate sin but to freely forgive it—to drive it away from our lives, as far as the east is from the west.

And just so we know God means business here, he opts for a case of divine amnesia. God swears that he will do what gods aren’t supposed to be able to do: God will forget something—God will forget all the ways we’ve rebelled, fallen, spit in God’s face. God will clear his memory banks of all that.

Our new life, our promised future—will be guaranteed by the self-imposed forgetfulness of God.

THAT’s how God is going to pull it off, start from scratch, take matters into his own hands—for us and for our salvation. This is not a plaintive, pleading God, knocking at the door of our hearts and hoping that we’ll open the door. This is God the divine cardiac surgeon who’s going to make it happen by giving us the new hearts for which the psalmist (Psalm 51) could only pray.

Appropriately enough, we hear this fabulous prophecy on Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate Martin Luther’s 16th century rediscovery of how God truly does business with us.

How can I find a gracious God, Luther wondered, as he was overwhelmed by his own sin and guilt? Luther’s quest for this gracious God drove him to the brink of despair where—finally—he discovered that his merciful God—the God he’d been looking for, longing for—was already hot on his own trail.

Luther, searching vainly for a God he could love, stumbled across the God who had already found him, the God who had already taken matters into his own hands, rolled up his sleeves and written himself into our lives forever in Jesus Christ, the bringer of the New Covenant for which old Jeremiah longed.

And what about us? Having been found by this seeking, mercy-bearing God in Jesus Christ, how then shall we live? If God has taken matters into his own hands and worked out our salvation—without even half an ounce of effort on our part—how shall we live out our days?

It is—is it not?—as if we’ve been given our lives back, so that we might simply float in God’s grace, and bask in God’s goodness.

Ray Lucker was the Roman Catholic bishop of New Ulm, MN for many years. A wonderful pastor, powerful teacher and faithful friend—Ray was deeply loved by his flock. When he was diagnosed with cancer, all of us who treasured him were disheartened-- but not Ray.

He was found one day, sitting in a lawn chair, in the sun, out on his little acreage. “What are you doing, bishop?” someone asked him. “I’m just sitting here, letting God hold me,” Ray replied.

What a Lutheran thing for a Catholic bishop to say? If God has already put into effect the new covenant, if God has taken care of our salvation, what is left for us than to bask in it, to float in God’s grace, and to return to what God made us for him the first place: trusting God, tending this good earth, and loving all our neighbors. It doesn’t get any better than that, now, does it?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Once we become members of Christ’s family, he does not let us go hungry, but feeds us with his own body and blood through the Eucharist.

    In the Old Testament, as they prepared for their journey in the wilderness, God commanded his people to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts, so the Angel of Death would pass by their homes. Then they ate the lamb to seal their covenant with God.

    This lamb prefigured Jesus. He is the real "Lamb of God," who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

    Through Jesus we enter into a New Covenant with God (Luke 22:20), who protects us from eternal death. God’s Old Testament people ate the Passover lamb.

    Now we must eat the Lamb that is the Eucharist. Jesus said, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you" (John 6:53).

    At the Last Supper he took bread and wine and said, "Take and eat. This is my body . . . This is my blood which will be shed for you" (Mark 14:22–24).

    In this way Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal Catholics consume at each Mass.

    The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross occurred "once for all"; it cannot be repeated (Hebrews 9:28).

    Christ does not "die again" during Mass, but the very same sacrifice that occurred on Calvary is made present on the altar.

    That’s why the Mass is not "another" sacrifice, but a participation in the same, once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

    Paul reminds us that the bread and the wine really become, by a miracle of God’s grace, the actual body and blood of Jesus: "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:27–29).

    After the consecration of the bread and wine, no bread or wine remains on the altar. Only Jesus himself, under the appearance of bread and wine, remains.