Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Walter Brueggemann was a guest in the Pullen pulpit on Sunday, March 22, 2015. This sermon concluded a weekend of activities planned for the third annual W.W. Finlator Lectures in Faith & Social Justice. Widely regarded as one of the world’s top scholars on the Hebrew scriptures, Dr. Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1986 until his retirement in 2003.
Etched in Flesh: A Sermon by Walter Brueggemann
It was a dismal moment in the life of God’s people. The capitol city was in ruins. The government was forced into exile. The temple had been violated. The assault on Jerusalem had put faith into free fall, with endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, who was at fault. The economic, political confusion evoked hard theological questions:
- Was God dead or absent or fickle?
- Was Israel rejected, no longer chosen?
- Was any future possible, because they could not see any way forward?
They did not know the answer to any of these hard questions. They could only weep. The sadness soaked into the bones of mothers and fathers who knew that their children would not have it as good as they had had it.
And then, right in the middle of their despair comes this Jeremiah, this highly suspect nobody without credentials. He was already known to them. He had been a thorn in the side of the establishment for a long time with his savage poetry. He had been a critic of scandalous imagination with his offensive poetic images. They expected he would deliver yet another verbal whack at them when he started to speak.
But he did not. Perhaps he judged that they had had enough from him in the key of B flat. He shifted gears and changed tone. And then he said:
The days are surely coming…
As sure as God is sure…and soon. And then he said, “I will make a new covenant.” He spoke the big first person pronoun, “I.” It was of course the “I” of Jeremiah; but it was, they recognized, the self-announcement of God. The “I” who speaks is the “I” of exodus deliverance, the “I” of Sinai commandments, the “I” of Jerusalem destruction. This “I” is the subject of all of the big verbs in the vocabulary of Israel. “I” will make a new covenant. I will start over. I will let you begin again. It must have sounded strange, welcome, but very strange. The poem of this “I” of God did not arise from the shambles of a failed economy. It came rather from God’s own heart, the God who yearns for new life with Israel.
I will make a new covenant. Did he say “covenant”? Yes, he used the old word of Mt. Sinai, about fidelity, companionship, and compassion, and justice and mercy. He spoke future tense of all the dimensions of viable life that we do not now have. There will be a new relationship that will be restorative and buoyant and joyous, a stunning alternative to the free fall of despair in which you find yourselves.
And then this prophet, the one who had whacked us too many times, lined out the new reality that God will give:
- The new start-up of fidelity (new covenant) will be quite unlike the old covenant of Sinai that has been violated. The old covenant has failed. It is essential for new beginnings to recognize that the old commandments and old power arrangements and old social relationships have all exhausted their potential. It will be very different now.
- The accent in this speech of promise is a on the word new. Newness come only when the old is relinquished. It will not come as long as the old is cherished too much. Or as long as it is treated romantically apart from reality. The post-Jerusalem, post-temple, post-chosen moment in ancient Israel was a time for newness…new covenant, new temple, new Jerusalem, new heaven, new earth, new king, because this is the God who makes all things new. Those who had heard the new cadences of the prophet would not be permitted to shove the newness of God into old patterns and old assumptions and old practices. Israel, in this prophetic utterance, was being called out from old assumptions and old agenda to a newness that only God could initiate.
- The newness is that the Torah of God, the commandments that guarantee the covenant, would be etched on their hearts. The word Torah, in this tradition, no doubt refers to the commandments in the book of Deuteronomy; that is the big defining torah. The commandments in Deuteronomy are mainly about the economy:
- About canceling debts for poor people;
- About not charging interest on loans to poor people;
- About not seizing excessive collateral on loans for poor people;
- About not withholding wages from poor people who earn them.
The cadence of “poor, poor, poor,” is a vision of society in which the haves and have nots are bound in a common future together. The old Torah of Deuteronomy shows the God of the covenant not to be preoccupied with religious matters, but is invested in the economy. This God knew, from the outset, that debt–uncancelled debt, unpayable debt– is the true measure of a society, and that such debt will preclude neighborliness.
So imagine that the prophet Jeremiah had in purview exactly the commandments of Deuteronomy. They already knew all of those commandments. They were written on the scrolls and they read the scrolls. Well, sometimes they read the scrolls, sometimes not. Not often enough to remember. Not often enough to obey. Not often enough to have a vision of a neighborly economy. They had forgotten what they most needed to remember.
But now, says the poet, the Torah will not be written on a scroll that you can put down and disregard at your convenience. It will be written on your heart; it will be a part of you every day so that you cannot forget it or disregard it. Imagine, a torah written on the heart; the regulations of Deuteronomy written on your body. Commandments about debt cancellation inscribed on your flesh. So I have this image of the new life of God, the book of Deuteronomy etched on the very flesh of their hearts, like a surgical implant that will not go away. The people of God have a great temptation to forget; amnesia is present to us. But now, says the prophet, “a scroll is still a scroll is still a scroll; you must remember this, as time goes by,” a commandment is just a commandment is just a commandment. It is the claim God makes on our lives.
- And then the conclusion to the oracle, says Jeremiah, says God:
- I will forgive their iniquity,
- Their sin I will not remember.
The final word of divine possibility for a society in free fall is forgiveness. No more going back to what had failed. No more blame game. No more analysis of what went wrong. No more score keeping. Because God does not do blame, God does not analyze the failure, God does not keep score. God is looking ahead to new possibility that anticipates new obedience. God’s people can travel light into God future.
Well, it is all ancient history, sixth century BCE. Except that this is now our text. And this is now our Lent. And we have Lenten work to do. So it occurs to me that this text may give us a good agenda for Lenten work, issues to process as we grow in discipleship. Consider:
- Our Lenten work is to process the fact that the old ways have failed. The old way have included,
- The old way of greed in the domestic economy in which the big ones eat the little ones until the little ones are locked hopelessly into debt. That has not worked!
- The old way of ruthless power in international affairs has failed, because our great power has not made us safe or happy; and I will not even mention torture.
- The old way of small certitudes in the church has failed, because it is clear that our sectarian little formulations will not hold up in the big world of God’s inscrutable mercy.
The first Lenten task is to recognize that the whole package of greed and fear and violence and certitude is no way into the future. It has all failed.
- Our Lenten work is to process being staggered by God’s newness, real newness, not derived from what is old. So we are facing God’s new start-up that issues in worldly reality that fits none of our categories. And we dare say, after Jeremiah, that the summons before us is shot through with God’s fidelity. God is creating new modes of relationships, new economic possibility, new power arrangements, new ways of being neighbors, new ways of being church. Not says the prophet, a reperformance of what is old and failed. The new does indeed scare us; but it is God’s way!
- Our Lenten work is to go to the tattoo parlor of God have the commandments etched in our flesh. So it’s not “What’s in your wallet?” It “What’s on your heart?” Imagine the slow work of a scribe, syllable by syllable etching the commandments of Deuteronomy in our hearts so that we will not forget:
- Neighbor, neighbor, neighbor:
- No interest on loans,
- No long term debt;
- No burdensome collateral;
- No wage theft.
The summons is imagination of new neighborliness that requires new engagement, new generosity, new risk-taking for the neighbor, new practice and new policy.
- Our Lenten discipline is to consider this: The openness to newness depends on God’s good forgiveness for us and for our neighbors, total forgiveness, no more old burdens and accusations.
So here we are standing before this old poem of Jeremiah:
- Relinquish the old;
- Anticipate the new;
- Get etched to obedience;
- Let yourself be forgiven.
Imagine that when Jeremiah uttered this poem some turned away, too radical, too jarring, too demanding. But some stayed to listen. They stayed to listen and to pray and to change. And they said to the prophet:
Tell us more about the new possibility; Tell us more!
As we listen the Spirit does tell us more.