Words Worth Hearing: You Will Know Me

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 22, 2015
Taken from Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)

Today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah centers on the notion of covenant. Covenants in the Old Testament were based on what historians have called “suzerainty treaties.” In ancient times, a suzerainty treaty was a solemn agreement made between two groups of people, many times between two parties of unequal status and power, like between a powerful, sovereign people and neighboring subservient regions. This treaty bound the two parties into mutual obligations: the suzerain allowed the neighboring subjects to live on a grant of land and promised military support and protection over the land. In exchange, the subjects were expected to follow the laws set down by the suzerain and to pay homage and tributes to their lord. Blessings on the subjects would occur from following the treaty. Dire consequences, or curses, would occur if the subjects broke the stipulations of the treaty, or if the subjects pledged their allegiance to another lord. In medieval times, a feudal lord functioned in a similar manner to a suzerain, offering protection to vassals who paid tribute in order to continue living on the land that belonged to the lord.

In Old Testament times, covenants between God and God’s people were understood in the context of these ancient suzerainty treaties. A covenant was an agreement between God (the lord) and the ancient Israelites (the vassals), in which God promised to protect them if they kept God’s law and were faithful to God. God made a covenant to Abraham and his descendants to live in a promised land. After God freed the Israelites from another sovereign (Pharoah), God made a covenant with them to be their Lord. The “ten commandments” were the opening words of that covenant carved in tablets of stone. In Exodus 29:45-46, the Lord says, “I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” Later, the people of God understood Jerusalem to be the city of God, and the Temple as the place where this sovereign LORD dwelled among them. Because of that, some assumed that Jerusalem would never fall into the hands of enemies of God’s people, because the protection of their almighty sovereign would always be with them.

That was a wrong assumption. Jeremiah was a prophet called by God to remind God’s people of their part of the covenant.  He was nicknamed the “weeping prophet” because he repeatedly warned the Israelites of the impending disaster due to their sin in breaking God’s covenant and worshiping false gods. Jeremiah was the bearer of bad news that nobody wanted to hear. They ignored Jeremiah and as a result, they broke the covenant made with God.

Around 600 years before the birth of Christ, the Babylonians lay siege and captured Jerusalem, the holy city of God; destroyed the Temple, the dwelling place of Yahweh; and exiled God’s people from the Promised Land. In the eyes of many of the Jews, God had abandoned them to their enemies. God had “left the building.” So now that Jeremiah’s prophesies had come true, and the people were reaping the consequences of their sin, what words of the Lord would Jeremiah now utter? Would he gloat? Would he say, “I told you so!”? Would God say, “Ha! That’s what you get for breaking my covenant!”?

What happens when a marital relationship falls apart? What happens when the vows and promises so eagerly and earnestly exchanged “to love and honor” each other are violated and broken by one of the parties? When I’ve counseled couples who were struggling in their marriage, I’ve seen how, in their lives, the first flames of love have been reduced to smoldering coals of resentment. I’ve heard many of them say: “I’ve been hurt and betrayed. My heart is hardened. We’re going in different directions. I don’t know this person any more, and this person doesn’t know me. We are two strangers living in one house.” Sometimes, one of them will say, “Forget it! I’m out of this relationship!”

One might expect God to say the same thing to the wayward Israelites. Instead, the Lord God said, “The days are coming, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.” In those days, a husband had much greater power in the marital relationship, and could write a bill of divorce if he no longer fancied his wife because of some “indecency” in her (Deuteronomy 24:1a). But in a surprising and unexpected turn, the Lord God would NOT act that same way toward God’s people. Instead of saying, “Forget it! We’re done!”, the One who had all the power in this relationship declared, “I won’t spare you the consequences of sin. But regarding our relationship, let’s try again, and let’s do it differently this time.”

A marriage, or any other relationship for that matter, veers into dangerous territory when each partner keeps a record of all the times when the other person “broke the rules” and messed up. Consider the story of a couple, married for 15 years, who began having more than the usual disagreements. For instance, he was growing increasingly annoyed with her sloppiness, and she was bothered by the way he was late to everything. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the husband had. For one month they planned to drop a slip of paper into his and hers “Fault” boxes. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The man was diligent in his efforts and approach: “leaving the jelly top off the jar,” “wet towels on the shower floor,” “dirty socks not in hamper,” on and on until the end of the month. The woman was equally diligent about writing notes for his box. At the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The wife reflected on what she had done wrong. Then the husband opened his box and began reading dozens of identical notes.  The first one read, “I love you!” The second one read, “I love you!” In fact, all of them read, “I love you!”

During the time of Jeremiah, when God had every right to recall and recount each sin of God’s people, instead God chose to say, “I love you!” In the Old Testament, no less than eight times does God pronounce: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In this passage, God says, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It is God’s way of saying over and over again, “I love you!” that aims to open the minds and soften the hearts of God’s people. God is saying, “I want you to know me.”

In ancient times, people thought the gods were incomprehensible, inscrutable, fickle, and capricious. But here, we have the Lord God of Israel who says, “You will all know me.” The Hebrew word for “know” is yadá and it refers not just to head knowledge; yadá is knowledge based on experience and relationship. This is not knowledge about God; this is intimate, personal knowledge of God that reveals the depth of God’s heart while at the same time acknowledging an inexhaustible and uncontrollable mystery.

“They will all know me” declares the Lord, “from the least of them to the greatest.” All people — regardless of race, gender, social economic status — will have the same personal, intimate knowledge of God. No one group of people has an “in” with God, which means in God’s eyes, we are equal: equally flawed, equally sinners, equally loved, equally forgiven. This knowledge of God becomes a basis for reconciliation among people of different ethnic communities and races, of different backgrounds and perspectives. Given what happened here on the Corner Wednesday with Martese Johnson, it looks like we all have a ways to go toward having a knowledge of God that leads to the reconciliation among the peoples.

The knowledge that God talks about requires vulnerability. You can’t be known from a distance. You can only be known if you’re willing to bridge the gap between you and your beloved, if you’re willing to be deeply transparent, and if you’re willing to forgive. I think that’s why God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Now, I don’t think this is a case of divine “forgive and forget.” The Hebrew word for “remember” means “to bring to the present” or “to make present.” Therefore, when God forgives our sins, God doesn’t say, “they never happened”; instead, God chooses NOT to bring those past sins to the present in order to continually remind and condemn us today. {The English word “re-member” suggests that we take something that is no longer a part of us and re-attach it as a member of who we are still.} Fighting couples often bring the past into the present and use it against each other: “Remember that time ten years ago when you did such-and-such to me?” God will have no such conversations. Neither does God say, “Forget it! We’re done!” Instead God is saying, “I will forgive, and I will not rehash a record of past wrongs.”

Marie de Medici was the Italian-born wife of King Henri IV of France. After her husband’s death, she became queen and served as the steward for their son Louis and guiding Cardinal Richelieu as he gained influence. In her later years, however, she experienced the betrayal of both her son and her protégé. On her deathbed Marie vowed to forgive all of her enemies, including Cardinal Richelieu. “Madam,” asked her attendant, “as a mark of reconciliation, will you send him the bracelet you wear on your arm?” After some consideration, she firmly replied: “No, that would be too much.” True forgiveness is hard to extend because it demands that people let go of something they value — not a piece of jewelry, but pride, perhaps, or a sense of justice, or a desire for revenge.[1]

Forgiveness is costly for human beings, but I believe that it is less costly than unforgiveness. Similarly, God’s promise of forgiveness is costly to God, but it is less costly than unforgiveness. As Christians, we believe God sent God’s only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, as the mark of divine reconciliation. When early Christian writers reflected on this passage from Jeremiah, they saw the fulfillment of God’s promise of forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. In chapter 8 of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the author used this passage from Jeremiah verbatim while identifying Jesus Christ as the bringer of this new covenant that is written in our hearts. God sent Jesus Christ to earth, a vulnerable human being to bridge the gap between God and God’s beloved people. God sent Jesus Christ to us, so that we may truly know God as the powerful One who is faithful in the midst of our faithlessness, as the vulnerable One who forgives even when we have a hard time accepting that divine forgiveness, and as the liberating One who chooses to remember our sins no more so that we’re liberated to do the same for others.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are reminded of the relentless, persistent, and gracious pursuit of a sovereign God on behalf of God’s wayward people. And today, God speaks these words worth hearing: “You will know me.”

In Christ, you will know me, says our sovereign God, when you allow me to write my law into your hearts so that I will be your God and you can be my people.

In Christ, you will know me, says our merciful God, when you accept my forgiveness which empowers you to forgive and reconcile with others.

In Christ, you will know me, says our gracious God, when you allow me to take away your past hurts and resentments, so that you are freed from having to re-member and carry them around with you today.

You will know me, declares the Lord, for, in Christ, I will forgive your wickedness and will remember your sins no more.  Amen.

[1] Daily Walk, Mary 27, 1992, taken from http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/f/forgiveness.htm.