Sermon text: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & John 8: 31-36
When I was young I played every possible sport that I could get my hands on. Soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming, golf, floor hockey, football—these were the sports of my youth. The thing is, when you’re exposed to so many different sports as a child, and when you’re on so many different sports teams, you’re bound to be on some excellent teams and some very, very poor teams.
One particular team I played for, in Pony League, was absolutely horrendous. My first year on the team we certainly had a losing record. In my second year I don’t think we won two games. Our team was in the basement of the league. But then, in my third and final year on this baseball team, we won the league championship. “From worst to first,” that’s what our coach kept telling us.
When I look back on that championship season I remember how cocky we all became. We were winning games left and right. We couldn’t be stopped. We had suffered for two long years, and now, this was our time, this was our moment, and you couldn’t take it away from us.
The longer and longer the season went on, the more we forgot our past failures. And by the end of the season it was like that old team never existed. We acted like we had always been perfect, like we had always been winners.
The old memories of failure faded and the new memories of success were embraced. In fact, faded is too soft… I’d say now that the old memories were forgotten. We completely erased the memory of how horrible we had played. We deleted the losing records from our brains. It was like they vanished from the record books. All we could remember was how awesome we were. How else do you expect 14 year old boys to act?
Have you ever experienced that? Did you have a moment in time when you forgot just how bad things were in the past? Gloss over them like it was no big deal?
We have bad memories, all of us do. But we usually don’t like to remember the bad things in our lives and instead we tend to overemphasize the good memories. Or perhaps the best way to put it is that we have selective memories. We condition our brains to forget the bad and remember the good.
Or, if we’re different, we program our brains to ignore the good and fixate only the bad. That can certainly happen. That was Martin Luther’s problem when he was an Augustinian monk. At the beginning of his life Luther had a selective memory. Luther was so afraid of God’s wrath and judgment that he fell into despair over his sinfulness. He constantly fasted, prayed, and confessed his sins. It has been said that he entered the confessional so frequently and tried to remember ever last sin so fervently that his confessors grew tired of him, bored of him.
Brother Martin forgot God’s promise. He forgot God’s love. Or perhaps he never knew them because of the religious practices of his day. Luther said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
In our Gospel lesson today, the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking with also had a bad memory. Or maybe they had a selective memory. They forgot themselves. They forgot that the Exodus story, the story of the Israelites escaping the slavery of Egypt and crossing the wilderness for forty years was at the heart their identity. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?”
So what is God to do with a people who have selective memory? What is God to do with folks who constantly forget the bad, or constantly forget the good, or constantly forget the very thing that is central to their identity? It’s like we cannot help ourselves. We cannot get out of our own way. We are in bondage to sin, we are slaves to sin, and we cannot free ourselves. What’s God to do?
In Jeremiah we hear how God writes his law on the people’s hearts. They will no longer need their brains to remember everything that God commands and all the promises that God gifts. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
Before this moment God’s law what written on different mediums. Moses received the 10 Commandments on stone tablets and the rest of the 603 commandments were written down on scrolls. Through the law God had established his covenant. This was a contract of how God and Israel would act together. This was an agreement.
However, like all the other covenants of the day, treaties written between hostile nations on clay, stone, and paper, this agreement was quickly discarded, and Israel forgot their arrangement. They are losing their identity. What is God to do?
God decides to internalize his message. This new covenant is not written on stone or clay or papyrus…instead it is written on the people’s hearts. Since it is written on their hearts it will be a natural relationship—one that they will feel drawn to. It is an agreement that they can remember, one that they can internalize, one that cannot be thrown away. Because the law is written on their hearts, their ability to respond will be natural. Their relationship with God will be innate, something that is hardwired into their being.
In the end Israel’s knowledge of God, their relationship and their status, will not rely on their own efforts and ability. Instead, their knowledge of God is a gift. It is something written on their hearts from birth. Their knowledge of God is something they will receive apart from their own efforts and ability.
God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Because this is written on their hearts they do not have to remember. They will not have to earn their identity. Instead, God gives them this wonderful present. There is nothing they can do to receive this title. They are God’s people. God is their God.
God intervenes. In a time when God could judge and smite he creates a new covenant. When the people are searching for answers God writes one on their hearts. When the people desire truth God provides it, and the truth shall make them free.
So it shall be for us, who are also God’s chosen and elect. Although there are times when we struggle, although there are times when we are confused about our identity, although there are times when we don’t remember or when we selectively remember…God remembers us. Jesus frees us. God claims us.
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
We are God’s people and we did nothing to earn it. God made us this way. God wrote this promise on our hearts.
So maybe we are bad at remembering. Perhaps we remember only what we want to remember. But God ensures us that we will know God. We will know the truth that is Jesus Christ. We will know that we are all God’s children. And by this knowledge, by this identity, we will be free. AMEN