I don`t think I`m alone in being able to describe what February feels like in a way that many us would understand and agree with. Maybe, like me, you`re one of those people who really struggles with the lack of daylight and the continuing cold. Maybe like me, you really look forward to the lighter days of Springtime.
As you may know, the word we use for Lent has its origins in an ancient word for Spring. So, it`s not fanciful to say that entering into Lent may well be accompanied a similar sense of dissatisfaction and longing. A desire to shed any interior heaviness and a longing for springtime.
This is one of the reasons, I think, that our pattern of Sunday readings includes those verses from Jeremiah, which we heard this morning. Listening to Jeremiah the forthright Prophet… who addresses the people of God in their experience of exile with a distinct message of hope, is presented to us as an invitation. Jeremiah speaks the Lord`s Word to them in their profound dissatisfaction with their lot… in their painful experience of distressed memories and regret. And Jeremiah brings them what one of my colleagues called, “News of new-ness”.
Firstly, he there`s an air of anticipation. It`s just over the horizon; he says, “The days are surely coming….” Then he fleshes out the content of his message. “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”. Just like the changing weather we experience at this time of year, there`s something in the wind. Change is on the way. The Lord`s promise is the making of “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.
Now if we`re going to understand why this matters we have to remember that this was the perennial issue between the Lord and his people. Time and again he had revealed himself as the Covenant-making God. He declared and demonstrated his complete faithfulness to them and invited their response… but as ever they proved fickle. The Prophet Hosea records the Lord`s lament: “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early”. (Hosea 6.4) God`s people has proved incapable of fidelity. But now things were going to change.
So, why should this matter to us and how can their situation help us enter more fully into Lent? Well, again, the situation Israel found themselves in invites US to become aware of any undercurrent of dissatisfaction that we`re experiencing. Any sense that life`s not quite right. Any sense of wistfulness; personally and as a Church.
Now, this isn`t so that we can have a good wallow…. No, when we hear a Prophet such as Jeremiah say something like: “The days are surely coming…” the point is that he`s speaking in the name the Lord who is actually present in that very place of dis-ease. Paradoxically the February gloom has more to teach us that we sometimes realise. As I`ve often said the great deception is that all truly `religious` experience equates to feeling good. But on the contrary… those things we might regard as negative are often as not the place we may best learn to pray. So, for example, that`s why it`s sometimes said, “Thank God for your enemies because they teach you far more about yourself than your friends…”
Then secondly, notice the Lord`s prescription for their dissatisfaction is a new Covenant. The thing to notice is that `Covenant` is relationship language. What was really troubling God`s people was not their exterior circumstances but their `interior condition` The Lord Jesus criticised the people of his day by quoting the Prophet Isaiah “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15.8) The heart of the issue is a breakdown in relationship. In our own case the problem is always idolatry… it`s the refusal to allow God to BE God.
Of course, part of the temptation in places of dissatisfaction is the inclination to make resolutions, work harder, become anxious and busy. But just notice what`s going on. The Lord says, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. There`s no mention here of what Israel has to do. Because no matter how wistful we might be… What`s needed is something only he can bring about. This is why thirdly, Lent stands out as what we might call “receiving time”.
One of the questions we need to keep close to mind is: “What is the Lord wanting to give me in this holy season… ?” Part of the answer to that question is of course that he wants to give us himself… entirely, and utterly. Isn`t that what we see as we sit before Christ on that Cross on Good Friday?
The sceptics of course, will say: “Oh, it`ll never work…. I`ll never change… And besides I don`t want to if it means I have to get all religious…” But as if to anticipate the complaints of – “We tried all that before”, Jeremiah tells the story – OUR story – of being led out of slavery in Egypt. The Lord is by any means naïve about our infidelity; our caprice when it come to the things of God. He doesn`t mince his words… It was “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,” says the Lord. In other words, we have a record, an appalling catalogue of ingratitude really, …. and yet he never gives up on his people.
BUT….. (And it`s an important BUT!) Despite this. in verse 33 he says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: …” He promises to do something…. So, that`s where we need to ask, “What should we be looking for?” What are the likely signs of Spring… What seeds of a renewed faith are being planted during this Lenten Season?
Well, firstly, I think Lent is working when you begin to get a perhaps deeper awareness of the character of God you are dealing with. Just hold onto those few words: “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.”
This is tender and committed language. Intimate, not distant language. Lent has done its work if we begin to take steps to realise that the Lord God never gives up on us; that we never change his view of us…
Secondly, a renewed faith will take very seriously the notion that the Lord is at work within us (Philippians 2.13). Lent is working when you realise that you`re in for extended heart surgery. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”. – These are not idle words, they are a promise. But our daily, our continuing prayer has to be “Come Holy Spirit”… Or in the words of the Psalm “Create in me a clean heart O God.”
Then, thirdly notice it`s not just about “me and Jesus”. The Lord says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”. The proof of renewal in faith is a deeper appreciation that being `in Christ` means being `one OF` the people of God. The tell-tale sign is in the language we use. Clergy get this all the time. When people tell me things like, “You have such and such a problem… or You need to do this, that or the other” I know they`ve not got it yet. Because “You” needs to become “We”.
And then fourthly, notice that stunning promise. “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”. (v34) I`ve known people who have carried burdens around with them for years; people who are often at worship but who have simply never been able to forgive themselves or others. Somehow the penny just hasn`t dropped.
Now these are difficult things to touch upon; sometimes they take a considerable time to work through, I quite understand. The tragedy is when we fail to grasp that this God who makes Covenant with his people is in the forgiveness business. “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”. (v34) So, in these days in which we approach Holy Week and reflect on all that was done let`s draw these things together:
Firstly, don`t seek to squash any undercurrent of dissatisfaction you`re experiencing. Rather than a sign of the Lord`s absence it could be his moment with you.
Because secondly, notice the Lord`s prescription for the dissatisfaction is not a better organised diary and busyness but a new Covenant. His constant desire is that we draw closer to him.
And the question is not, “What can we do for Him?” so much as “What does he want to give us? Again, Lent stands out as what we might call “receiving time”. “The days are surely coming” says the Lord… I`m inviting you to enter more deeply into these next couple of weeks… as days of genuine encounter with the Lord. And to be open to the signs of His springtime…
He is the one who is faithful; in spite of our frequent infidelity to him.
He is the one who wants to offer us heart surgery…. to re-make us from within.
Who wants to give us a deeper appreciation of what it means to be one OF his people… And who says, no matter what burden we carry to the cross… “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”.