shocking grace

Once again this year University Hill Congregation has prepared an online daily Lenten Devotional. This is the seventeenth year in which members of the congregation have been invited to host a scripture passage and to listen for a Word from God on behalf of us all. You can read more about this tradition here. This year I was invited to host Jeremiah 31:31-34. This is my contribution ...

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant …. for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

We are accustomed to singing of grace as “amazing”. That it is. But here, when Jeremiah discovers it – hears it – on the lips of the LORD (“Yahweh”) it is shocking. Jeremiah is well known for preaching “Jeremiads” – sermons filled with rage and judgment. The LORD is furious with the ways in which God’s own people systematize injustice and whitewash its sin with religious rituals. The LORD is the source of the coming downfall and exile.

Then here, at the great turn in the book of Jeremiah, comes news of shocking grace. The LORD will make a new covenant, a new relationship, a new future together. This news is first and foremost for the people of Israel. But later, as the apostle Paul announces to his Gentile congregations, in Jesus Christ the God of Israel breaks ancient ethnic borders and invites all people to enter into this sacred covenant, rooted in mercy.

Over the years I have noticed how we preachers (and more) tend to domesticate the love of God. The shock of the news is lost as it becomes a truism that God is merciful. Yes, the adjective most commonly used in the Old Testament to describe the LORD (‘hesed’) is translated “steadfast love”. But this reveals the narrative quality of God’s love. Grace is steadfast because it is discovered over time. The steadfast love of the LORD is not a universal value. Grace is an experience that can only be described by telling the story of a long-term relationship.

It makes me think of so many hard and surprising life journeys I have been privileged to accompany as a pastor. I have walked alongside parishioners who have known what it is to have broken trust with a partner, a parent or a child and who wonder if forgiveness is ever possible. I have listened to those who have been wounded by one they trusted and who long to hear a repentant turn, a confession and then to find it possible to forgive. Together we as a church and nation strain forward for reconciliation with First Nation sisters and brothers. We wonder if a new covenant with those we have collectively wronged is possible.

Then comes Jeremiah, the prophet who names all the reasons that the relationship has been irrevocably damaged, with the shocking news – “the days are surely coming … I will forgive.”

Prayer – “You, who are known by your steadfast love, remake and renew our relationships with You and with one another through your shocking mercy, made known in Jesus Christ. Amen.

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