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27 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 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. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 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.
One of the most loved stories from the Hebrew Scriptures is the call of Jeremiah. You know the story - the word of the Lord came to the young, unsuspecting prophet saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
And in an entirely honest and relatable response, Jeremiah tries to wiggle out of it, replying: “Oh, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But not letting him off the hook, God says - “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
And this is usually where we stop when we read this story, because what comes next is the message that God gives Jeremiah to share- and it is not a message anyone is very enthusiastic to hear.
The Lord puts out his hand and touches his mouth and says:
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Pluck, break, destroy, overthrow are the four verbs that drive the next 29 chapters of the story.
While Jeremiah weeps, prays, and pleads, the people continue to forget God.
They continue to oppress the immigrant, the widow, the orphan. They continue to shed innocent blood even while entering God’s house and acting as if they are walking in God’s way. They continue to forget the promises made at Sinai. They trade living water for broken cisterns. And the consequence is Babylon. The consequence is exile. Pluck, break, destroy, overthrow.
This brings us to where we found ourselves in the text last week – Israel 900 miles from Jerusalem trying to make sense of their tragic new displaced reality. Israel, 900 miles away from their destroyed temple trying to figure out their relationship with God, or maybe even their non-relationship with God.
Into this moment enters the false prophet Hananiah who is all too happy to proclaim what their itching ears and shattered hearts so desperately want to hear: we won’t be here long! In two year’s time we’ll be back home and it will be like we never left. The people will worship at the temple, the king will rule from his throne, Babylon will be no more! Things aren’t that bad, Hananiah says – exile is just a blip in the story.
Within the year, however, Hananiah will be dead and so too the promise of a quick return – the promise on which all their hopes hung.
Again, the prophet Jeremiah speaks the truths people need to hear but don’t really want to: buckle up, settle in, we’re going to be here for awhile. Build houses, get married. Have children, seek the welfare of the city you find yourself in.
It’s an important message for our ears today – that we would bloom where we’re planted,
that we would seek the welfare of our here and now, that we not sacrifice the gift and opportunity of the present moment for some abstract, pie-in-the-sky future pipedream proclaimed by false prophets.
Our well-being is tied to the well-being of the world around us right now, no matter where that is. Absolutely yes to all of this.
And yet, when we turn the page to chapter 30 of Jeremiah, we do turn the page from present reality to future promise.
Jeremiah now actually has good news to share about return to the land. The days are surely coming when exile will end, return will happen, animals and humans will again fill the land, new vineyards will thrive, their fruit will be enjoyed, and tambourines will accompany the dancing of a people who know God and rejoice.
We turn the page from pluck, break, destroy, overthrow and now the verbs that drive the story are build and plant.
If you’re paying attention, you might wonder why a promise of return to the land on the lips of Hananiah was so thoroughly condemned, but then so celebrated when Jeremiah proclaims it.
And if you’re asking that question, then I think you’re asking the right question.
The difference between Hananiah’s message and Jeremiah’s is critical.
The kind of return that Hananiah promised to exiled Israel was a return to status quo: a return to old ways, a return to an imagined, glorified greatness that glossed over all the problems within that history.
Hananiah’s promise was an invitation to denial. Denial of the harshness of their current reality. Denial of their history that got them into the situation in the first place.
The Hananiahs of our world still whisper these promises that keep us looking backwards with anxiety, false hope, and denial, trying our hardest to skip over the true reality of the exile we find ourselves in.
While Hananiah wanted to make exile a quick side-plot in the story, Jeremiah, in his relentless commitment to truth-telling, will not allow the people to indulge in denial, but instead digs in.
Instead of a blip in the story, exile becomes the fertile ground where everyone is surprised by new growth
Hananiah proclaimed return. Jeremiah proclaimed new. The only way out of exile is through it, and the people will not return the way they came. God is doing a new thing.
The new thing God is doing is new on many fronts:
It looks like a new solidarity – return to the land is envisioned for both the house of Judah and the house of Israel – old divisions will be reconciled and healed, what was broken will be made whole.
The new thing God is doing looks like a new egalitarianism – all people, from the least to the greatest will know and follow God, with no need for a mediator or teacher. God’s law will be written on hearts instead of stone
The new thing God is doing is built on a new foundation of forgiveness. The conventional wisdom of the day was captured in the proverb they told that said:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
Meaning, the children pay for the sins of the parents. The current generation suffers for the sins of their predecessors.
But in this new thing God is up to, the old proverb is made null and void.
Forgiveness liberates them from the old story. A new generation is free to walk a different way, not bound to the mistakes of the past.
This is not to say that they are set free to forget, or deny, or avoid the past, after all, they are still in exile and there are still very real consequences from those past generational mistakes.But the new work of God, built on honesty and forgiveness, opens the door to a new way forward.
And while this new way forward is a promise made to exiled Israel thousands of years ago, this is the newness that we are invited into through Jesus Christ.
We are invited into this new work of God every time we gather at the table and hear the words of Christ proclaiming: “this cup is the new covenant”.
At the table, instead of sour grapes we are given the juice of good grapes, and the promise of forgiveness, wholeness, and welcome.
Without exile, there is no new work of God. Without death, there is no resurrection.
So, may we pay attention. May we deny the easy promises of Hananiah that would have us stuck looking backwards. Candy-coated promises that would deny our past and our present, and so too our future.
Instead, may we look forward with eyes and hearts open to both the hard reality of our world, but also open to the promise of newness that continually calls us forward and surprises us even in the darkest times.
Hear the good news again this morning, friends: we have been buried with Christ in order that we might be raised to new life with him. Alleluia. Amen.