This is the second of our five week sermon series on prophets. We are studying the prophets leading up to Lent which is the season of preparation for the Resurrection. Jesus was both compared to the prophets and used them in his teaching. The sermon schedule is on the website along with the sermon manuscripts after they are preached.
Prophets and prophesying were common in the ancient Near East. Every nation from which we have religious records had men and women who spoke for God – to the people. Most prophets of that time though worked at a particular shrine that honored a particular god. People would come from near and far and pay good money to speak with the prophets to ask the god questions. The prophets would hear the questions and then do something to induce an ecstatic experience to receive an answer from the gods.
But while prophecy was almost commonplace, in Israel it developed a unique dimension. The Hebrew prophets delivered unsought and undesired messages from God. The Hebrew people were not even asking questions, but the prophets told them God’s answers anyway and rarely was it good news. At times the kings would ask a question of God through a prophet, but the Hebrew prophets would give God’s answer whether or not it was what the king wanted to hear; and whether or not God’s answer might get them personally in trouble with the king. They pronounced stinging admonitions and scathing accusations of such a nature as to be expected to bring punishment upon themselves. And some of them, including Jeremiah, were persecuted. But their messages endured time, thousands of years, which speaks to the fact that the people did indeed hear God’s voice through the words and the lives of the prophets.
There were 70+ Bible prophets who were spokespeople for God. They were a diverse group of rich and poor, male and female, simple and educated, well respected and thought to be crazy. A few prophets were excited to be called by God but most were resistant to God’s call and would have preferred God to call someone else. Some of the prophets have books named for them, including the ones we will study, but many more are found within the stories of the Old Testament, like Elijah and Deborah, Miriam and Moses.
Today we look at Jeremiah, sometimes called the “weeping prophet” because his message and his life were mostly sad. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, a Jewish priest. He was called by God to prophetic ministry 627 years before the birth of Christ. Jeremiah resisted God’s call saying that he was only a child and did not know how to speak. We know that Moses tried that argument too and arguing with God never really works. So God touched Jeremiah’s mouth giving him the power of the word of the Lord. In his early ministry, Jeremiah was primarily a preaching prophet, going where the Lord directed him to preach – against idolatry, the greed of priests, and false prophets. Jeremiah was called to prophesy under King Josiah’s reign and continued prophesying during the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. Jeremiah’s message was not well received. The ground was ripe and false prophets were everywhere predicting peace in opposition to Jeremiah’s message. Jeremiah was persecuted. He was severely beaten and had plots against his life. From those experiences Jeremiah provided us the only reflection of a prophet’s spiritual struggle with God.
Under King Zedekiah’s rule, the king’s officials put Jeremiah in a cistern and left him to starve to death. Fortunately, he was saved by a kind person, but kept in prison until the Babylonians invaded and defeated Jerusalem and the exile began. Interestingly, the Babylonians treated Jeremiah well and let him go free, but his message never softened and he was never well received by any community. He died in Egypt.
Jeremiah’s words in our passage today come between oracles of tough judgment on God’s people. Even though God had been angry and had brought punishment, in this passage God gave the promise of hope for a new day, a new start, a new relationship, a new covenant. The days are not here yet, but “the days are surely coming,” he says when God will make a new covenant with God’s people. This is the only time the term translated as “new covenant” is found in the Old Testament. A lot of water had flowed under the proverbial “covenantal” bridge since God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. There had been a lot of sin, a lot of turning away from God since they went through the Red Sea. But, a day was promised when a new covenant would be established, and the failure of the old covenant made at Sinai forgotten. The law was not going to be written on tablets of stone this time but on the hearts of God’s people. — Where sin was once written, now God’s instruction, God’s own will and love would be found.
This all could happen because of God –not because of the people.
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, says the Lord (v. 32). This covenant differs from the last in several ways, but perhaps most significant is that it is brought into existence, and was ratified, not by a sacrifice or any ritual practice but by God’s decision to remember no more — to forget Israel’s sinfulness, betrayal, and infidelity. God did not just pass over, absolve, or forgive, God also forgot, erasing even the memory of the breach in their relationship: for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34b).
The God of Israel, the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, chose to forget, not just to forgive but also forget. The whole “golden calf” incident, just forgotten. The worship of foreign gods – forgotten. The unfaithfulness over and over and over– forgotten? Can God forget?
I am good at forgetting, but is God? I forget to pick up the one ingredient at the grocery – the one thing that was why I went to the grocery in the first place. There was video on facebook recently that showed a young man in a grocery store pushing a cart up and down the aisles praying to God to please help him remember what he was supposed to get. He prays over and over – almost in tears – to please help him remember that one thing – that one important thing he came to the store to buy. And all of the sudden he says, “Paprika, that is it – Paprika is what I came for – thank you Jesus.” I can very much relate to that video. I am pretty good at forgetting, well, at forgetting when there is something I would like to remember.
The sermon last week based on Isaiah was about how our faith is built on remembering – learning and remembering God’s story – and finding our story within it – as part of it. Memory and remembering is so important. As our grandparents and parents tell us the story of our family, we better understand ourselves. As we learn and remember the stories of the Bible – of pain and triumph of suffering and joy, we better understand ourselves. Memory and remembering is so important that some of us take vitamins and do physical and cognitive exercises to keep our memories sharp. Rose Hall who is 94 does word searches and plays cards to keep her memory sharp. Our memories are important to us.
And yet if we are totally honest, there are things we would like to forget, hurtful and difficult memories, memories of injuries to our body and pain to our heart. We sometimes hold onto memories of times when others have hurt us, for reasons that we do not really understand. Maybe we feel we have to hold them accountable. Maybe we think if we forget, it will happen again. And there are things – atrocities that should not be forgotten by us collectively: genocides and slavery and war for example. We should not forget some things in order that we might learn and keep them from happening again.
But many things, after we have had some time to reflect and learn, should be forgotten – let go of, especially when we have forgiven, when the hurt was unintentional, and when the other person has been able to move on. And we should especially work to remember no more the painful things we have said and done over the years to other people. It would be wonderful to be able to forget certain things forever.
I wonder, in fact, if part of Israel’s problem at this point in their story was that they were not able to forget. They could not forget what it’s like to be enslaved, to live in fear, to live every day with mistrust. They could not forget their habit of running to the god and customs of their neighbors. And, most of all, they could not forget their relentless pattern of faithlessness. And not being able to forget these things, of being trapped by those memories and their past behaviors, they seemed doomed to repeat them.
And so God does what Israel could not: God forgets. In response to their failure, God forgets. In response to their pattern of infidelity, God called them to be faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real wretchedness, God forgets. And if God can choose to forget, might we also?
And by forgetting I mean, letting go of that memory, letting go of the past, letting go of something that we cannot change because it already happened. In remembering no more, we let go of the chains that bind us. In forgetting, we let go of how our parents defined us, how others define us, how we have come to define ourselves and we become who we want to be, who God created us to be, who God desires us to be. None of us is trapped – God did not create us to be victims. In Christ we have freedom – we have freedom.
There is a wonderful song called “Break Every Chain” and it starts with the words: there is power in the name of Jesus – there is power in the name of Jesus – there is power in the name of Jesus – to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.
We do not have to be imprisoned by our past – our past behaviors, past incidents, past hurts. There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain and to be who we are called to be. God chooses to remember no more and so can we.
I would now like each of you to call to mind one difficult memory that is something you did that you wish God would forget – an unkind word or deed – that stays with you, that has defined you to yourself or to others. Hold that one memory in your right hand.
Now call to mind one thing you wish you could forget: a hurt or betrayal or disappointment that stays with you that you would like to remember no more. Hold that one memory in your left hand.
God said to the Israelites and says to us today, “I will forgive your iniquity and remember your sin no more.” And so in your mind, you can see and in your heart you can feel, your right hand open letting go of that issue – because God has forgotten and so there is no reason to continue to hold on to it.
And in the same way, I invite you to let go of whatever you hold in your left hand and work to remember it no more. And throughout the coming week and month, I encourage you to let go of these things, over and over, anytime you feel yourself thinking of them. Claim God’s covenant in this passage of Jeremiah and claim the promise of that song – there is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain. The song ends with these words: I hear the chains falling – I hear the chains falling – I hear -the chains –falling. May it be so – may it be so!