31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
A Reading from Jeremiah, the 31st chapter (31-34)
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No 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.
Today is Reformation 501… not as dramatic as Reformation 500 last year. We haven’t be preparing for this day like we did for Reformation last year. In fact, it has been a pretty quiet year for Reformation after we spent much of 2017 talking about it.
And in some ways, I think that Martin Luther would have mostly hated all the hoopla last year if he was alive to see it. A quiet Reformation might have been more his style, not because he was a quiet and subdued person, but because he wouldn’t want something about him or about our history as Lutherans to get in the way of preaching the gospel.
And in many ways, I think Luther would have been much more excited to celebrate with us here in the Interlake, the thing we are celebrating next week on All Saints. Congregations and people coming together in order ensure that the ministry of gospel goes on in our shared ministry congregations and communities would have been the kind of thing that Luther would have probably been in favour of.
Luther always wanted to defer to the gospel, to turn us back to the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us from sin and death.
And on this 501st anniversary of the Reformation do we ever need good news. North America is reeling once again from stories of terrorism and violence. Bombs in the mail being sent to the leaders of the Democratic Party and then another mass shooting… and another in a place of worship – this time in a synagogue in Pittsburg with 11 people dead and more wounded. Like the Reformation 501 years, this day does not come without violence.
And so in the midst of darkness, in order to do our best to follow Luther’s desire for gospel clarity, we hear again the same foundational texts of the Reformation. Romans 3, the part of St. Paul’s writings that sparked Luther’s imagination towards God’s radical gift of grace. And John’s declaration that the Son sets us free, the promise of freedom in the gospel. And of course, Psalm 46, the basis for the most famous of Luther’s hymns – A Mighty Fortress.
But what about Jeremiah, the somewhat familiar, but often overlooked reading of the bunch? If is perhaps appropriate to focus on these words from the Old Testament, words read in synagogues all over world that speak about the history of the people of Israel…
Jeremiah’s prophetic words written for the people of Israel during the violent times of Babylonian exile. Words about the covenant… the covenant that goes all the way back to the beginning. To Abraham and Sarah, to the promise of land, descendants and a relationship with God. And while usually a covenant is an agreement that places conditions on both parities, all the people of Israel had to do was not refuse. All the promises were coming from God, none from Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
And yet the people consistently turned away. It’s not surprising that did turn away, it is hard to believe in God in the midst of violence and oppression.
Yet, most of what comes before this passage in Jeremiah is a lot of God’s ranting and raving about the failings of the people. And eventually God decides that a new course is needed for God’s people. And so God’s makes a promise. A promise that rang true in the Reformation and a promise that rings true for us today.
So no, Jeremiah is the least famous of the Reformation readings, but it is none the less foundational. There is no radical gift of grace in Romans, no freedom in the Son of God in John, no A Mighty Fortress without Jeremiah.
The problem and struggle of the people of Israel and in Martin Luther’s day is the same as it ever was. A problem that stemmed back to the garden of Eden, and problem that we too bear.
As much as God tries and tries with us to draw us back to God, we continue to turn away. For the people of Israel, God promise of land, descendants and relationship first given to Abraham was always too unbelievable and also never enough. Whether it was Abraham’s own fear that God’s promises wouldn’t come true, or the people of Israel longing for Egypt and slavery as they wandered in desert, or the Israelites losing faith during the Babylonian exile.
During the Reformation it was a church that wanted to control God’s promises, to make mercy a commodity rather than a promised gift.
And today? We too struggle with covenant. It is too hard to trust, even in the midst of chaos and change, seeming decline and dying, that God’s promise are indeed for us too. The promised land seems to unreal, descendants to follow us in faith and carry the torch feels laughable. A God who loves sinners like us? Preposterous. A God who is relevant in a world that has mostly forgotten or doesn’t care anymore? Unimaginable.
It’s no wonder that God might be frustrated with us. We just don’t want to get it.
And so God does a different thing.
God starts all over again.
God brings us to the foundation.
God decides that a new covenant is needed. A simpler covenant. A simple relationship.
When in scripture, a prophet – such as Jeremiah – utters the words “Thus says the Lord” biblical scholars call it an oracle. A message of the divine, a direct speech from God. And so it behooves us to listen, to open our ears and hear what God is about say:
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.
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And with that, a new covenant comes into being. One that even the fickle Israelites cannot break. Or the people of 16th century Europe, or 21st century Pittsburg, or in Manitoba on Reformation Sunday in 2018.
A covenant made manifest in incarnation. In the God who becomes flesh, the God in Christ who comes to bring the Kingdom near to us. The God whom we try to put to death, and the God who rises again on the third day.
This new covenant, this new promise is now unbreakable. It is the promise of mercy, the promise of radical grace and forgiveness, the promise of that sin, suffering and death will no longer control us.
Because God is our God… we cannot be God in God’s place.
And we are God’s people, we have no other identity, nothing else lays claim to who we are, not the world, not ourselves, not guns or violence, not sin… not even death.
We are God’s people, we belong to the one who has chosen mercy and love for us.
And God reminds us of this truth each and every day, week after week, season after season.
God reminds us that we are God’s in the mercy and forgiveness that we hear proclaimed.
We are God’s in the Word announced in this assembly and in places of worship all over the world.
We are God’s in the Baptism that washes and renews us for life as God’s children.
We are God’s in the bread and wine, given so that we become the Body of Christ for the world.
Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.
This is the foundation of the truth proclaimed anew in the Reformation, just as it is became the new covenant with the people of the Israel.
And this is the precisely what God intends for us to hear on the 501st anniversary of the Reformation and on the day after yet another mass shooting, that we 21st Century Jews and Christians, Lutherans (and Anglicans) still belong to the God of Abraham and Sarah and Martin Luther.
That even when we try to turn away, that God’s promise is unbreakable.
Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.