(Jeremiah 31:27-34) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, October 20, 2019 – UBC Digby
Again, welcome to this Baptist Church today. You know where in history we find the first Baptists? No, it is not John the Baptist. In Genesis 13 a man named Lot said to his uncle, Abraham, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine!”
Well, we believers may not agree all the time, but we do have good news for the world. Hope for the hopeless, future for the failures, God for the godless, life for the dead: this is our message.
This is our ninth and final sermon from the text of Jeremiah: prophet to the Hebrew people when all was lost. Their days of great hope were over. The days of prosperity were done. The days of having a united kingdom were long gone. The days of their holy Temple in Jerusalem were coming to an end. The days of having a King were crashing forever. And all the promises of a wonderful life for the Jews forever into the future seemed to be broken.
It was six hundred years before Jesus, some 2,600 years ago, in the Middle East. An empire called Babylon was taking over and smashing the Hebrews. Jeremiah lived through it all, preaching for forty years before and during the disaster.
We have these fifty pages in our Bibles from Jeremiah. A lot of those pages are sad and severe warnings. Warnings of really bad times to come. The end of their way of life as a people. Even the end of their religious life, as they knew it.
But we end with these prophetic words from the middle of Jeremiah, a couple chapters that get called ‘The Book of Consolation.’ Because there is good news here. Even when all is lost – all is not lost!
It centres on this message of Jeremiah about a new covenant. A new agreement between Almighty God and the weak and broken people.
We have a lot of ways of talking about how God connects with people, what the relationship can be like. One of the Biblical ways is through covenants.
There were several big Biblical covenants through the centuries. The little image in the centre window, high up in front of you, is a ship at sea: Noah’s Ark. The covenant of God with Noah was shown with a rainbow – never again will God destroy life on earth.
Later, God cut a covenant with father Abraham, promising that he would have many, many descendants, and Abram’s people would be people to bless the world. The blessing people. Maybe we can think of that altar with smoke upon it up here as a reminder of that covenant with Abram.
Another covenant, or agreement, in the Bible story, is with Moses and the people sojourning in the desert. At the heart of that agreement are the Ten Commandments, which I can see pictured in a stained glass window at the back of this room.
What’s the next big development in Bible history with a special agreement? The Hebrews get their own king and a kingdom. This we see in God’s covenant with David, who was such an important early king for them. The window with the musical instrument here might remind us of King David, known for playing it.
I gave a series of sermons nineteen months ago about these covenants. Including the one spoken here by Jeremiah. Prophet Jeremiah, who spent his life warning the nation about how they were going to be destroyed – despite all the wonderful promises of the past. Warning them about why they were going to get ruined too – for giving up on the right ways of God.
In the days of Jeremiah the prophet, all was lost. Yet, in the midst of it all, Jeremiah does give hope. The ‘Book of Consolation,’ chapters 30 and 31. Here, the word of the LORD is this: there will be a New Covenant.
I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… But this is the covenant: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… No 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. (Jer. 31)
We keep reading this story as a sacred story because it becomes true, again and again. It is saying something real, that does not go stale. Our story tells us, again and again, God is a God of new beginnings. This happens for groups. It happens for individuals.
Meet Elissar: She is a young woman who faced significant challenges growing up in Lebanon. Although she was not raised in a Christian home, Elissar encountered the gospel at a critical time in her life.
“Christ came to me while I was at the bottom of a deep pit. I was caught in drug addiction and immoral sin, but I refused to view myself as a sinner. I was better than the rest, I thought. It wasn’t my fault. It was the result of what others had done to me,” she says. “Despite my stubbornness, the God of the impossible came into my heart right after I heard the gospel. I asked him to reign over my heart, and he changed me.”
Today, Elissar is one of the many students who attend Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), which is a small seminary located in Beirut. “My vision is to deliver the gospel to every woman in my community who is oblivious to God’s love and her value in him,” Elissar says. “I also long to see the children of my community being transformed into the image of Christ, becoming a light within their homes.” (Mosaic, Spring 2019, Bearing Fruit in the Arab World: The Ministry of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary – Elie Haddad, CBM Team Leader for the Middle East and North Africa; President of ABTS)
People have complete dead-ends in their lives, yet they can become something beautiful for God. The disasters of our past can be touched. I used to be shocked by a friend who, when he would pray, would ask, “And Jesus, reach back through time and do such and such…” WHAT? But I have begun to understand.
I have told you the story before (March 18, 2018) of author Richard Foster, back in his early days as a pastor. In his congregation was a man who was troubled, had been troubled for years, since the second world war. One fateful night on a battlefield he saw his whole small company of men get shot down, one by one, trying to escape. He alone survived. He had never been able to sleep much since.
One day, he told his pastor, Richard Foster, about the experience. And asked: where was God that night? Why were their desperate prayers not answered? In the conversation, Foster counselled the man, suggesting Jesus could go back in his terrible memory of that moment, go back in time with him right now, if the man wanted.
And so they spent some prayer time going back to that terrible night, step by step, with Jesus at the man’s side. Somehow, there was some relief in that experience, and healing of the trauma began. The man even started sleeping again, sleeping through the night. He was able to smile again. To live.
“They shall all know Me,” says God, in the new covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah. Knowing God becomes real when our lives are changed, from the inside out!
And there are such new beginnings – big and small – for groups of people who are discovering how God walks with them.
When the historic Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, N.S., decided to change its name last year, it didn’t go unnoticed.
Now called New Horizons Baptist Church, images of the iconic clapboard building with arched windows flashed across television screens, appeared in local newspapers and sparked discussions on social media. The message was clear: the church was taking a bold stance against injustice by severing ties with the street’s controversial name.
Located on the west side of Cornwallis Street, the predominately African-Canadian church was named for its geographical location.
Established in 1832, the church was founded by Rev. Richard Preston, the son of a slave who came to Nova Scotia from Virginia. Originally known as the African Baptist Church, it provided an alternative place of worship for African-Canadians facing restrictions and discrimination in other churches. The church later became the place of worship for Viola Desmond, a Canadian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a Nova Scotian theatre in 1946. Viola was recently commemorated on $10 Canadian banknotes.
Pastor, Dr. Rhonda Britton, explains: “Our church was founded out of racism, so the people who decided to step out and start their own church were doing a new thing. They had a new vision for who they could be as people working in the kingdom of God. For them, this was a new horizon… So we kind of picked up on that [unknowingly]. God still has a lot more work for us to do.” (Nicolette Beharie, More Than Just a Name: A Church Stands in Solidarity with the Mi’Kmaq Community, Mosaic, Spring 2019, pp. 10-11)
The God of new things changes things. Of course, in Christianity, we know the way Jesus spoke of the New Covenant. “This is the new covenant in my blood,” He even said. To know Jesus is to know God. This is the genius of our particular Faith. This way the Creator comes into what is created – as part of it, a human. The new agreement between people and God is a person who is also God. How better could we find our way out of life’s dead-ends?
God with us: God one of us. AMEN!