Lent 5 • Jeremiah 31:31–34 • March 25, 2012
By Robert Rosin
The Grace is in the Details
“Have I got a deal for you.” No sooner do we hear those words than we stiffen and step back. Too good to be true? Probably. So often—too often—talk is cheap, and, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. So those who heard Jeremiah, God’s prophet, must have been stunned at the offer set forth, especially given their circumstances with the northern tribes gone and the south staring at the handwriting on the wall with Jerusalem set to fall. But they shouldn’t balk, for given what they heard from God who chastened them, there is now only one proper response: run as fast as they can and embrace the message of another covenant, of a new and better bond the likes of which they had never heard or seen before. This is no snake oil. This is balm for the soul, and, with God doing all the talking, there is no doubt it is true.
Earlier God had made Israel his people and at Sinai had cut a covenant etched in stone. Following on his saving act, the Exodus, that covenant made clear both what God would do and how Israel would look as his people; they are asked to do nothing in holding up their end but are simply shown the path to walk. How could they fail? They managed, as already in Sinai’s wilderness and for generations after, they wandered rather than walked. Logically God should, by rights, toss them aside; instead with but a remnant left, he promises a new covenant, one devoid of onerous fine print, one with no devil in the details, one instead with grace and love in abundance beyond even that which God had given before. “But” is such a wonderful word, a Gospel word. By rights, rejection, but…But, in contrast, on the other hand, on the contrary, nevertheless, God loves and saves.
So that there is no mistaking the commitment, God is not satisfied simply to fill ears with words or even to write again on stone. Nothing less than words on hearts will do. It cannot get any more intimate and personal than that. There will be about as much distance between God and people as there is between wallpaper and wall: none. But don’t think God’s promises are cosmetic, mere decoration, or (to mix metaphors) simply window dressing. His promises remake his people from top to bottom.
But things will get worse first, and Jeremiah’s hearers will need patience to hold fast in faith, trusting that God’s promise makes the future as good as a present reality. Yet that may be easier said than done with the kingdom in decline, Jerusalem about to fall, and their status as God’s chosen open to question. In times of stress, people often say they look for something to believe in, yet they act otherwise, fashioning a religion that may seem demanding but is actually within their grasp, within their competence, albeit posing a challenge. Theodore Adorno was one of the gurus of Critical Theory, a twentieth century approach to dissecting literature and learning. As Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleagues sought to find out what really made life tick behind the visible veneer, they first leaned heavily to the socio-economic but then broadened their critiques. Adorno, no fan of Christianity or theology in general, still understood that any theology worth its salt had to be more than a human concoction, no matter how demanding. “If religion is only human, and its form is man’s form, it follows that everything in religion is true,” he wrote. That is, human beings in effect will try to domesticate religion, talking in lofty terms but making it something they can finally manage or comprehend and so declare it true. But the message Jeremiah has for God’s covenant people is beyond mere intellectual comprehension. Sure, they can grasp the bare words, but the message is astounding: Why them? Why now given all they had done? Why to such an ultimate extent? It boggles the mind. It is peace and grace beyond human understanding.
Luther knew why this happens: God’s love is fundamentally different. In his 1518 Heidelberg Theses, Luther noted that God’s love does not find its object but creates its object—human love finds its object. In other words, we love people or things because we find in them something loveable, something attractive. You marry your spouse not because you detest the person, but because that person is somehow attractive. But what does God see in his people in Jeremiah’s day or in ours? They/we are by nature sinful and unclean. Nevertheless—there is that “but” gospel word again—God does not find but makes that which he wants to love. That’s grace. Israel cannot really imagine it. Nor can we. Yet God continued to pledge his faithfulness all the way to the ultimate fulfillment of Jeremiah’s words that came in Christ.
Does he have a deal for us? Indeed! Don’t walk—run! Run to the font, to the rail, and to the place wherever those promises sound forth, sure to rest easy on our hearts.