Series: “Plans for God’s Good Future”
As a “newbie” to smart technology, I continue to be amazed at the immense capabilities I have at my disposal with something as small as my smartphone. Not a week goes by that I don’t discover some new application that delivers on its promise to make my life go so much smoother and so much easier.
For example, it’s actually been a couple of years now since I discovered the “Notes” application on my smartphone. Most of you were likely way ahead of me in this discovery, but the capability I have with this app to jot down names and numbers and notes of all kinds has been nothing short of a godsend. There’s no telling how much scrap paper and gum wrappers and post-it notes I have been delivered from because of how I can now take my smartphone and “tap, tap, tap” jot something down for safekeeping.
I know I can’t be alone in feeling this enormous sense of gratitude. Many of you will remember what it was like when you had to look for anything to write something on because you couldn’t trust yourself to remember it.
Looking back on all of the improvisations we came up with during those days, I don’t know of any that was on one hand more creative and on the other more foolish than, when all else failed, writing something down on your hand. Did you ever do that? Did you ever find it necessary to write down a name or a number, an address or a measurement on your hand? It probably made you feel a little silly to do so, but you have to admit that it did the trick so that you were able to hold on to that information for as long as you needed it. Of course, that’s an option that would no longer be on the table in a day when we’re being instructed to wash our hands fifty times a day and also to hold off using them to touch our face and mouth. So, we instead continue to look for other ways to keep important matters not just close at hand, but also close at heart.
This tendency for things to slip away from us has evidently always been a concern going back in time even to the days of the prophet Jeremiah. As in our day, people in Jeremiah’s day struggled to hold on to vital matters because of their having to be preoccupied with headaches and heartaches and burdens and responsibilities. For them, as for us today, life just constantly seemed to get in the way of essential concerns so that if they didn’t come up with a way to preserve them they couldn’t guarantee that those essential concerns wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of their everyday affairs.
In this section of Jeremiah’s prophecy he is addressing the exiles in Babylon, the people who were taken out of Jerusalem when the city fell to the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It is a part of a section that students of the Old Testament call “the Book of Consolation,” a series of short salvation messages, which taken together pointed the exiles beyond their resignation of ever getting out of Babylon and making it home to Zion and the Holy City. It came to them at a time when Jerusalem was but a faint memory and the notion of being God’s Chosen People was on the verge of slipping away. It was an encouraging word as to how God was about to do something that only God could do – an act of salvation that would draw His people back into relationship with Him.
“’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. 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…’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel…’ 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.’”
Did you hear what God said to the exiles? “I will make a new covenant…and will write it on their hearts.” God will do something only God can do that will draw His people back into relationship with Him. A covenant that is written down on tablets of stone can be lost or broken or set aside to be ignored. But a covenant that is written down on the heart is one that will last forever.
This is the sort of God we have been called upon to worship and serve – a God who is merciful and kind, a God who is faithful and true, a God who never gives up on those He created to be in fellowship with Him, a God whose love is so steadfast and constant that it ultimately finds a way to bring His wayward people back to where He can be their God and they can be His people, even when they have forgotten what all of that means.
The theological word for this work that only God can do is “grace,” and as the song puts it, it is truly amazing – so much so that we wrestle to comprehend it, particularly in a day when people base their lives on merit and favor and scratching other people’s back so that other people will scratch theirs. But then in the life of every believer the time comes when it dawns upon us and God stamps something on our hearts that we never could have written by ourselves so that for the rest of our days upon this earth and all the way into eternity we are captivated by this love that simply will not let us go.
Have you had that sort of experience? Has God laid something on your heart that gives you the assurance that He is always near to you in your time of need to give you help and to give you hope? Or, do you still labor under the misconception of the majority of people today that in this life we get what we deserve – a misconception that leads to perpetual frustration and the feeling that we always need to be doing something more, though what that something is we never can say for sure? How much better it is to go through life being open to the presence of God who does in us something only God can do to release us from our captivity, deliver us from our bondage, and bring us back into relationship with Him.
This is the message Will Campbell did his best to get over to his good friend P.D. East in Campbell’s autobiographical story, Brother to a Dragonfly. How to describe Will Campbell? The New York Times obituary page referred to him as “a renegade preacher and author, who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950’s, quit organized religion and fought injustice with…a storyteller’s arsenal of autobiographical tales and fictional histories” (“Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88,” 6/4/13). An ordained Southern Baptist minister, back in the day when Southern Baptists actually had more than their share of maverick ministers, Campbell always seemed to relish playing the role of the contrarian when it came to matters of faith and practice, except on rare occasions when he found it necessary to bear witness to God’s marvelous, infinite, matchless grace in Jesus Christ, such as the time he found himself confronted by his friend, P.D. East, who was the editor of the Dothan Eagle newspaper. East, an avowed nonbeliever, demanded that Campbell define the Christian message, and to do so in ten words or less, a query that would challenge any believer, minister or otherwise. Campbell thought for a moment and then came out with this definition, which only took eight words: “We’re all illegitimate (though he didn’t use that exact word), but God loves us anyway” (Brother to a Dragonfly, p. 220).
Indeed He does. We know that because of how He sent Jesus to do something on the cross we could never do for ourselves. Out of His love for us otherwise hopeless sinners, God gave Jesus to suffer death upon a cross that, in the words of Jeremiah’s prophecy, He might “forgive (our) wickedness and…remember (our) sins no more.”
In fact, you’ll remember that Thursday night before his death on Friday, when Jesus gathered with his disciples in an upper room to share with them a Last Supper, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying “This bread is my body, broken for you.” And then after they had finished eating, he took the cup, blessed it as well, and then passing it to his disciples said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Do you remember those old fountain pens that people used to write with? They made for the most wonderful script, if you could keep from getting the ink on your hands. Otherwise, they were quite messy.
There’s an old hymn we sing that’s still in our new hymnal. They didn’t leave it out like so many modern hymnals have, because it’s words are so messy; and today we don’t like messy. “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” God in his grace does the plunging, and we illegitimate sinners are better for it because by it we are forgiven and restored into a place of relationship with our Creator God.
If you’re here this morning and you’re weary from laboring under the impossible burden of trying to remember all that you think you need to be doing in order to earn God’s favor so that you have become discouraged and despondent over what seems to you to be a hopeless future, take heart. No, let me rephrase that. Let God take your heart and write upon it in the shed blood of Jesus a message of His love for you and His desire to do in your life what only He can do.
Only then will you be drawn closer to God by a grace that will never let you go and a forgiveness that will transform you in ways you will never be able to forget.