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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Preaching And Reading The Old Testament Lessons
With an Eye to the New
Few accounts are more instructive of the ways of God with his people Israel and with us than is the record of the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah that we find in the Old Testament. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet probably in 626 B.C. during the reign of good King Josiah in Judah. Jeremiah was a very young man at the time, unskilled in speaking and exceedingly reluctant to accept the call. The Lord equipped him with words, however, and set him under an irresistible compulsion to preach, assuring Jeremiah that he would always be accompanied and guarded by the presence of his Lord (cf. Jeremiah 1; 20:7--12).

The message that the young prophet was given to deliver was one of God's forthcoming judgment on Judah in the form of some mysterious foe from the north. Like his northern predecessor Hosea, Jeremiah portrayed Judah as the unfaithful son or bride of a loving and life--giving God (cf. Jeremiah 3:19--20). But Judah had been lured away from the Lord by the fertility gods of the baals. In 621 B.C., good King Josiah tried to eliminate all baal worship from Judah, but Josiah was tragically killed in battle in 609 B.C., and Judah slipped back into the old idolatrous ways. The despot Jehoiakim succeeded to the throne, and the nation's life was corrupted not only by syncretism and idolatry, but also by injustice, falsehoods, and the total neglect of the covenant with God and its commands.

Jeremiah leveled God's harshest words at his sinful people, accusing them of phony religion. Though they continued their religious practices, their worship was rotten to its core. In his famous Temple Sermon in 609 B.C., Jeremiah proclaimed, "Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!' - only to go on doing all these abominations?" (Jeremiah 7:9--10). The people repeatedly broke the covenant commands of the Decalogue, and yet claimed that God was on their side and would always be gracious to them. That's not an unknown phenomenon in our time too.

Jeremiah suffered horribly for his words of judgment on the populace. He was betrayed by his friends and driven from his hometown of Anathoth. He was constantly scorned and sneered at. One night he was subjected to imprisonment in the stocks. Another time he was thrown into a pit and left to die, rescued only at the last minute by a faithful follower. Toward the end of his life, he was imprisoned. And often he was so downcast that he despaired of both God and his own life, wishing that he had not been born. But he had to proclaim God's words of judgment that burned like fire in his bones.

During perhaps the first half of his long ministry, Jeremiah therefore urged his sinful people and their leaders to repent and turn, to abandon their idolatrous, unjust, and murderous ways, and to return in faithfulness to their covenant God. "Amend your ways and your doings" was his message, and God will not destroy you. The people's sin was totally unnatural. Even the birds know the times of their migrations, he pointed out, "but my people know not the ordinances of the Lord" (Jeremiah 8:7). "Can a maiden forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number," says the Lord (Jeremiah 2:32). Sin was unnatural.

As Jeremiah suffered through his ministry, however, he came to learn from the Lord the same lesson that the prophet Hosea had learned, that Judah was captive to sin and could not mend her ways (cf. Hoses 5:4). She was, as the Apostle Paul later would write, a slave of sin. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil," Jeremiah realized. The Judeans had no power in themselves to repent and return to the Lord. Their evil was too much with them, and they were imprisoned by it.

So often that is the case with us too, is it not? We want to be good Christians. We want to follow Christ. We want to do God's will as we read of it in the scriptures. But in Paul's words, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (Romans 7:18). Our sinful habits are too ingrained. It's so easy to do as we've been doing. After all, we're getting along pretty well and are reasonably comfortable. And besides, is God actually going to bring his judgment on any one of us? Like the Judeans, we are captive to our sin.

Jeremiah receives from the Lord, therefore, the remedy for our human enslavement. We cannot free ourselves from our sinful ways, but God can and he will. "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant." My people break all my covenant commands, but in the new covenant, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts." In other words, I will transform my people from the inside out. My ways will become a part of their very being, engraved on their hearts, and so they will want to follow my will and they will have the power to do so. "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." So all of their past deeds of wickedness will be forgotten and I will make of them new creations, who joyfully will walk in my ways and obey my voice.

In the last supper with his disciples, before our Lord Jesus was betrayed and crucified, he took the cup and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. All of you, drink of it." Jeremiah's prophetic words were fulfilled, you see. And now if any one of us is in Christ, we are those new creations that God promised through Jeremiah, the persons whom God has transformed from the inside out. He has poured his Spirit of the living Christ into our hearts, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. And by his Spirit, given his power, you and I now can be the faithful disciples of the Lord our God.

The Christian life, in faithfulness to the Lord, is not a fairy tale. In the power of God, by the Spirit of Christ, it can be lived. And thousands of our fellow Christians through the ages have lived it, to give to the world lives of truth and goodness and joy, and to render to their God the glory due his name. So as we approach Holy Week and that Last Supper with our crucified and risen Lord, drink of the new covenant in Christ, drink of it, all of you with me. And then praise the love of a God who has not abandoned us to our evil.

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