Jeremiah 31:31-34New International Version (NIV)
31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 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,” declares the Lord.
33 “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. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
One of the reasons we observe Lent is to reflect on our own shortcomings as human beings, our own sinfulness. The problem with this is we get stuck on this subject. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it is important to spend time thinking about all of the areas in our lives where we could use some improvement. We need to love deeper, we need to share more freely. We need to lust less, hate less, lie, cheat, and steal less. We all sin and we all know it. And we need to do what we can to sin less.
But if we stop there, with this self-reflection and inward search for improvement, I think we are missing the point.
Today’s passage is a part of a larger message from God to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was active during the Babylonian Exile, where the Bible tells us that God removes his protective hand from Israel and allows the Babylonians to conquer this small nation. Now the Israelites were being taken into captivity, into exile, into a strange land among strangers. They were far away from their homes, far away from their families, far away from their temple, and it seemed like they were far away from their God.
The Babylonian Exile becomes the Old Testament equivalent of an extended Lent. God says, Remember all that I did for you and your ancestors. Remember that I brought your ancestors out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Remember that I was like a faithful husband, but you, Israel, were unfaithful. We had a covenant, but you broke it.
Nobody likes to think about their failures. These are not exactly the times in our lives that we want to spend a lot of our free time reflecting upon. It would be much easier to just forget them and move on. But the way I see it, we can ignore our mistakes, including our sins, and very likely repeat the same mistakes, or we can take the less comfortable route. We can remember those sins and mistakes in effort to avoid making them again.
I readily admit that I fail to remember my own mistakes from time to time. I was looking for a light example where I repeatedly make the same mistake even though my wife reminds me quite often of how I am supposed to be doing something. So I asked Sonya if there is anything that I keep forgetting, even though she keeps reminding me. I thought I was in a pretty good position because I always put the toilet seat down. But I also realized that I was inviting her to criticize my actions and that this had the potential to not end well! Let’s just say that the evening didn’t end with us drinking hot coco and snuggling on the couch. There are certain articles of clothing that I am not supposed to put through the dryer because they will shrink. She asks me to put dishes directly into the dishwasher rather than leaving them in the sink. And why do I feel the need to leave my pajamas in a pile on the floor in the morning when I get dressed rather than hanging them up like she has asked a million times?
I know what I am supposed to do, but sometimes I forget or simply get distracted by something shiny out of the corner of my eye. I would very much like to not have to relive the times that I have had to apologize for ruining a sweater or pair of pants by drying them. And not matter how many times I joke that Sonya’s sweater now will fit Hadley, it doesn’t get any better. I know that I need to remember my shortcomings to avoid making those same mistakes again. I need to be consciously aware of my past mistakes.
So the Israelites are going to have some time to think about their mistakes and how they can do better, and I encourage you to do the same. But when we stop there, we develop some really unhealthy habits.
Have you ever met someone who always talks about their mistakes and failures? They walk around with a “Woe is me” kind of attitude. Nothing I do is ever good enough. I can’t get it right, I can’t win, I can’t get ahead. The strange things is, you or I might look at that person and think that they have a lot going for them. Oh, you own a house in the mountains, drive a Ferrari, and are married to a supermodel? But your NCAA Men’s Tournament bracket was busted after the first round. Right, you just can’t get ahead, can you.
So we need to find some place in the middle. We remember our mistakes and our sins. But we don’t remember them so we can beat ourselves up over them. We remember them so we can move forward and make progress. As the old saying says, those who fail to remember the past are destined to repeat it.
But where is God in all of this? If God is expecting Israel to think about what they have done, what is God doing in the midst of all of this remembering? God is making more covenants, that’s what God is doing. Look at verse 33, “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.”
So the people keep failing, they keep sinning, they keep making mistakes. In one breath God is mentioning the covenant that he had made with the people on Mt. Sinai—and remember that when God made that covenant with the people they were down at the bottom of the mountain making a golden calf to worship as an idol—and then with the next breath God is saying that he is going to give it another try. It is almost like somewhere along the way God forgot that people can’t be trusted. It is almost like God forgot that we are going to sin and make mistakes and even make idols that we will worship instead of him. It is almost like God forgot all of the times that we have failed him in the past. And it is almost like that because it is exactly like that. God has forgotten. Look at verse 34, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
No, I don’t think that God actually forgets anything. But this is a powerful phrase, especially when you consider the way it is used throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word for “remember” is “zakar.” Zakar is used throughout the Hebrew Bible like in the 10 Commandments where God says, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.”
The interesting thing about zakar is that it isn’t just a mental action. When we remember something, it is something that takes place in our heads. “Do you remember when we went ice skating and I fell and broke my wrist?” That act of remembering takes place entirely in your brain. But zakar also requires a physical action. It is more like, “Remember to get a loaf of bread on your way home,” than “Remember when I fell and broke my wrist?” To remember the Sabbath Day does not simply mean to recall the last day of rest like, “Oh yes, I had a good nap and then watched golf on television.” No, to remember the Sabbath Day means to take action, or maybe to take no action! To remember the Sabbath Day means to observe it, to respond accordingly to what has previously been done.
When God says that he will remember the sins of the people no more, he isn’t saying that he is just going forget about the actions of the people. God is saying I will not act upon your sins, I will not remember them and respond accordingly.
What would be the proper response to the Israelites? They have disserted God; God refers to himself as a faithful husband and elsewhere the Israelites are called a prostitute, an unfaithful wife. According to the Hebrew Law, unfaithful spouses could be divorced or worse, executed! But God isn’t about to divorce his people. And God isn’t looking to wipe us off the face of the earth.
Repeatedly, God shows his love for his people. God continually says, I’m not giving up on you. I couldn’t. I love you too much. Rather than giving up on us, God adjusts his methods. The last time, when God gave the covenant at Sinai, he wrote the covenant on stone tablets. This time, God is going to write the covenant on the hearts of his people. Verse 33, “‘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.’”
The covenant had been external, written on stone tablets. Now it was to be within the people. And this covenantal bond is such that all will know it, from the least to the greatest.
I’m pretty sure that we are awaiting the complete revelation of that covenant, because not all people know it. But we know it. And just as important for us during Lent and all year long is not only remembering our sins and shortcomings, but remembering that God doesn’t remember them.
I was challenged last week in a conversation about God’s love. Someone told me, “I’ve been a part of the church all my life, and I’ve heard countless sermons on God’s love. But there is always a ‘so what’ that follows each message. Every pastor says, ‘God loves you this much, so…’ So go out and love others. So go out and feed the hungry. So go out and preach the Gospel.”
My friend wasn’t saying that there was anything wrong with saying those things. It is never wrong to love others, feed the hungry, or preach the Gospel. But when we end a sermon on God’s love with a “so what,” we take the emphasis off God’s love and put it on our action. So those who like practical sermons where I tell you exactly what you need to do, be prepared to be disappointed. I’m not doing that today. Today I just want to tell you that God loves you. God loves you so much that though we are told to remember our shortcomings and sins, God remembers not.
Brennan Manning tells a story in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel about a nun who was having visions of Jesus in her dreams, and these visions were so lifelike that she felt that she needed to tell others. So she tells some others in her convent, and they are moved by her stories and the excitement with which she tells them. She continues to have visions and she continues to tell others about her visions.
Word finally gets to the bishop about this woman’s visions and he comes to investigate a bit, thinking perhaps a true miracle is taking place. And when he meets with the nun he tells her that the next time she has a vision of Jesus that she is to ask Jesus what it is that the bishop confessed at his last time in confession. If Jesus was really coming to this woman in her dreams, he would know what it was that the bishop had confessed.
A few days went by and the bishop received word that the nun had another vision. Wanting to hear this in person the bishop went to the convent and sat down with the nun. He said to her, “So you had another vision. Did you remember to ask Jesus what I confessed at my last confession?”
The nun replied, “Yes, sir. I did.”
“Well,” said the bishop. “What was is answer?”
The nun said, “When I asked him what you confessed at your last confession he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
Do you want to know how much God loves you? God loves you enough to forget, to not remember your sins. My wife forgives me when I shrink her sweaters and jeans, but I don’t think I would go so far as to say that she forgets. But when it comes to our sins, God “lo zakar,” God remembers not. Sure, we remember or shortcomings, our sins, and our mistakes so that we do not repeat them. But God promises with a covenant written upon our hearts that he has already forgotten. May we live with that reality today and always.