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Reformation Sunday A Sermon
Jeremiah 31: 3-34, John 8: 31-36
25, 2020


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Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

John 8:31-36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord … These are familiar words from the prophet Jeremiah to a people who have been battered and exiled and are wondering if their God has also been defeated or if their God even loves them anymore. But Yahweh speaks, and it is good news! Not only has Yahweh not been defeated, but the Lord is preparing to do a wonderful new thing: notice there is nothing here about defeating an enemy or punishing their captors. This promise has to do with covenant; it has to do with restoring relationship. The God who created them, walked with them, delivered them and made them a mighty nation once upon a time was about to renew and reform them. Yahweh was about to write the law on their hearts. The heart is a very important thing in Jeremiah’s book – he uses the word 65 times. And at a time when there was little known about the physiology of the human body, there were some interesting ideas about the heart: it, and not the mind, was considered the seat of intellect. It was the residing place of a person’s will, their reasoning, discernment and judgment. When Yahweh promises King Solomon the ability to discern between good and evil, the actual Hebrew phrase spoken literally means, “a hearing heart.” So the promise that God makes here to write the law on their hearts is a gift to return them back to right relationship with God – a new relationship and a better one.

When we talk about the heart in metaphorical terms, we usual talk about someone’s passion. “She has a real heart for working with the poor. His heart for treating the sick is so evident.” Sometimes we marvel at people for whom these acts of love come so naturally. According to Jeremiah, God has written these intentions on our hearts, making it a matter of habit for them … of prayerfully seeking God’s call and gifts so that gratitude and generosity flow out as naturally as the breath we breathe.

I dare say that this promise is still an important one to all of us. It is a promise that often takes time, a process. For Martin Luther, the process was painstaking. His call to the priesthood was but the beginning of the excruciating trial whereby God was writing the law onto his heart. Luther agonized over his life as not being good enough to earn God’s love and salvation. And just when it seemed that God was carving the letters indelibly into Luther’s heart, the Church makes a strong effort to offer people another way out – at least people who had the money to purchase their way out! The selling of indulgences captured the hearts of people like Luther who were told by that very church that they would never in their life do enough good works to offset their sinfulness. But … have I got a deal for you!!! The moment you drop your coin in this coffer, the soul of your intended loved one will spring from purgatory into the indescribable joy of heaven! This promise was not made out of concern for these beloved children of God, but out of greed for funding church projects of the time.

Luther had a heart for the Gospel. He stood up and spoke, shaking voice and all, to the authorities who could order his death at any time. He encouraged the common, everyday people to do things that had gotten people punished before – like owning a copy of the scriptures in one’s own language, daring to criticize the Pope and his bishops, or argue with the economic engine of the indulgence sellers. Through prayer, study and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, Luther confidently spoke the truth in the face of opposition. Modeling Jesus, he knew that the truth makes us free. The truth about our slavery to sin, and the truth about the free gift of grace that breaks the chains of that slavery. The law may be written on our hearts, but it is not the law that frees us from this slavery. Jesus does that, through his holy and innocent blood. So that now, living by God’s law can be as natural as any habit that we don’t even think about when we do it.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul called Jesus a sacrifice of atonement. This reference is to the mercy seat – the lid that rested on the vessel which held the Ten Commandments – the ark of the covenant. Once a year on Yom Kippur, the high priest would sacrifice an animal and sprinkle the blood on top of the mercy seat. This was the sacrifice of atonement, and this spot was in the Holy of Holies. Paul tells us that God has transformed the Holy of Holies from the lid of the ark to the cross and calvary. Jesus’ crucifixion is the holiest of places, the spot where the bonds that hold us enslaved to our own sinful thoughts, words and deeds are broken.

On this Sunday each year we are reminded that the God that begun a covenant with all of creation thousands of years ago has taken the initiative to renew that covenant whenever God’s people get caught up in the ways of sin, death and the devil, as Luther often called them. And we hear again the promise that the days are surely coming when God will do these things again. They are coming and they are here. Through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, we guilty people have been declared righteous. Our covenant with God is not only re-joined each day, it is renewed and refreshed. As things change in the world around us, God’s love changes so that more and more of God’s beloved children can know and experience the truth of Jesus’ free gift of grace … and in so knowing that truth, are set free day after day.

Our response, then, to this wonderful good news is to habitualize the passion that resides in our hearts for love, justice, joy and peace. Luther’s quote that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does is more evident and truer today. Political and ideological division, disrespect, pandemic, racism, violence, shootings, mental health, suicides, economic uncertainty … these are things that are eating away at our communities right now, and can stifle our passion to share the love of Jesus. But listen to what Luther wrote in a letter to a friend, Pastor Johann Hess, from Breslau about the plague that was running rampant in Europe at that time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.

It is that last line that is typical Luther. Standing up to the opponents of his day – from the Pope to the indulgence sellers, even to those tiny fleas that rode the rats and infested humans at such a high rate – he relied on the truth that had set him free, free to live for those who needed God’s love and mercy most. Thanks be to God for the truth of our salvation by grace through faith, and for the witnesses who have lived out of that freedom so that we may be so bold to do so as well. Amen.