The Days Are Surely Coming

+ A sermon for Reformation Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 27, 2019 +

Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Audio: LINK

Horace Vernet, “Jeremiah on the ruins of Jerusalem” (1844)

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant” with my people.
These words from the Prophet Jeremiah were written to a people whose world had been shaken.
A people whose nation had been conquered, whose temple had been destroyed, who were living in exile in a foreign land.
A people whose future suddenly looked uncertain at best.
It was a scary time when everything they had known, everything they had relied on, even the way they worshiped had fundamentally shifted.
It was a time when the people needed something to hold onto and craved certainty about their future.
It was to these peoples that the Prophet brought a word of comfort and hope and promise.
Comfort that their God has not abandoned them but abides with them despite the uncertainty and loss.
A hope that God is doing something new in their midst.
And promise that the day is surely coming when all will be made right.

Jeremiah gives a vision for that time when God will renew the covenant with the people and all people will know God so personally, so intimately, that God’s law will be written within us and our inmost parts shall know the Lord.
944151fb54b8bd92dd982a0b5cc78197_XLAnd the prophet tells us that when every person knows the Lord and embodies God’s teachings, we will be transformed: our relationships with God, our relationship with each other, our relationship with the whole creation will finally and fully reflect God’s hopes and dreams for us.
Jeremiah calls his people to look with hope toward the promised day when our God will finally transform the world.
He is proclaiming that despite the fundamental shifts that are happening all around them, they can cling to a steadfast certainty in a God who is abiding with them and doing a new thing.

Now for nearly two millennia, Christians have assumed that this promised day was realized in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
With this text’s annual reading on Reformation Sunday, we Lutherans may wonder if the prophecy was fulfilled 500 years ago through the work of Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchthon, and the reformers.
But not only do I think our Jewish siblings, the original hearers of this promise, would take issue with those interpretations, but I think there’s a reason we still hear these words every year on this day.
Jeremiah reminds us that this day is not a celebration of something in the past, but of what is happening now as we look to the future.
Just like Christmas and Easter remind us how God is still breaking in and bringing new life into the world, Reformation Sunday cannot simply commemorate an event that happened 500 years ago, but should push us to see where God is still actively reforming us, reforming the Church, and reforming the world.
This day invites us to explore where the Spirit is boldly moving in and around us in new and exciting ways so we can partner with God in the world’s transformation.
And it reminds us that no matter the changes around us, no matter what the future may look like, we have a steadfast promise from our God who will always be with us and will surely bring us into the future God has designed.

The late Phyllis Tickle once wrote that within the Christian tradition, we have a sort of pattern where every 500 years or so the Church goes through what she calls a “rummage sale” and experiences a fundamental shift.
4f5ee2_1bd446ebfee6492c9c5aa04076ea5c24_mv2During these shifts, old ways of doing things are questioned and evaluated and new practices and spiritualities are established. She points to Emperor Constantine in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Great Schism in the 11th century, and of course the Reformation in the 16th century as examples of these shifts.
I imagine that each of these dramatic changes provided plenty of fear and anxiety for the people living through them.
Each one made the future suddenly uncertain as the things that once seemed stable and grounded were called into question.
But through all these changes, the words of the Prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people, assuring them that God had not abandoned them, but abides with them and is working within and around them doing a new thing.
That despite the fundamental shifts, they could trust that God is bringing the world a little closer to that promised future God has envisioned.

Now, you may have noticed that we are around 500 years since the most recent rummage sale and according to Tickle, we are in the midst of another one right now.
She calls this current time the Great Emergence when the Church is again questioning our traditions and old ways of doing things and may be witnessing something new emerging.
And here, for us living in the middle of all that, it can be a scary time to be the church.
The things that once seemed stable, that grounded us, now all of a sudden seem uncertain.
We see an aging membership that keeps declining in numbers.
We see some churches closing and others struggling to stay afloat.
We see what used to be, full pews, an active Sunday School, a prominent place in society, and we long for that past to be our future.

But I think that this is also an exciting time to be the church!
We who trust in the promise of Christ’s resurrection get to seek out where God is breathing new life into the church and the world.
We hear Jeremiah proclaim to us God’s abiding presence with us and we look for those promised days that are surely coming. And we get to partner with God in creating that new world.
This is a time when we get to dream with God open to new possibilities and ideas as we imagine together the world as it could be.

5243869147_a2909ff0bc_oSo as we commemorate the last great rummage sale, we as heirs of that Reformation can celebrate at least one of the ways the church was transformed.
At that time the church was seen as the way to make us right with God.
The church was the way to repay the debts of our sins and find forgiveness.
But in our reading from Romans, Martin Luther and the other reformers found and proclaimed another assurance from our God that was have been freed from whatever binds us.
We have been liberated from any debts or sins that would try to separate us from our God.
We have been given an identity that can never be taken away: beloved child of God, members of Christ’s body, co-workers in God’s church on earth, and partners in God’s transformation that is making that surely coming new world a reality in this world.
And in this light, we can see the law not as a task-list or a means of justification before God, but as a gift, as teachings that show us God’s hope for humanity, for how we relate with each other and with the whole creation, a vision of those surely coming days when all people will live in peace and harmony with each other and with the whole creation.
So on this day we celebrate that we are no longer bound by what has happened in past and we are no longer limited by fears and doubts and uncertainties because we have been liberated by our God and freed to partner in doing God’s new thing.
We rejoice because we have been given a gift from God: a gift of grace, a gift of promise, a gift of new life that we can experience through trusting in the power of this gift.
Trusting that God is ever with us, trusting in the freedom Christ has proclaimed to us, trusting that nothing can ever prevent us from realizing the vision God has for our world.

Our ancestors knew the power of this gospel.
They knew the potency of its proclamation for the transformation of the world.
It liberated them from trying to please God and instead use their labors to make God’s vision for the world a reality.
No longer did they have to view God’s teachings as a checklist to get into heaven but as a blueprint for manifesting God’s reign on earth.
As Christian historian Diana Butler Bass writes:

“The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice. Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually. The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity. The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society. Protestants were not content with the status quo. They felt a deep discomfort within. They knew things were not right. And they set out to change the world.”

And so on this Reformation Sunday, we as heirs of this reformation don’t look back at what is past, but look boldly into the future.
We who have heard this gospel of liberation celebrate not only what God has done, but also what God is doing within and among us today.
We who have experienced God’s hopes us look forward toward those surely coming days that God has promised and we ask ourselves how we will use our gift of freedom to make those days a reality.

In many ways, that’s the question that this congregation has been asking during the past year and well before that as well.
It’s a question we will ask ourselves again this afternoon.
We are taking a deep look at our future not really sure what it may look like.
We are on the cusp of taking the next step into that undefined future to which we have been called.
And it’s scary! We know it is!
We crave certainty, we long for consistency, we want to know what this new emergence might mean for us.
fan-or-followerBut in our fear, in our uncertainty, in our willingness to explore these massive changes, we hear the voice of our God speaking to us again today: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will do something new and transform the world—and I want you to be a part of it.’

In the spirit of those reformers we remember today, we are boldly looking into the future not fully sure what it will mean for us, but fully committing ourselves to follow Christ as we serve our neighbors and care for creation.
Longing for those surely coming days when God’s transformation will finally be complete, we take our place as partners with God, assured that we are never alone.
Emboldened by the Holy Spirit moving within and around us, we are stepping into the forefront of Christ’s church that is emerging into this world confident that wherever we go God is leading us.

Thanks be to God!

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