Failing our Way to Grace
October 20, 2019
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 121; Ephesians 2:1-10
Last Sunday we took a quick tour through a portion of the Old Testament, calling to mind the exile from Judah and the annihilation that followed. Back on Mount Sinai, in the book of Exodus, God had established a covenant with his people when he handed Moses the commandments. The general idea was that God’s people would follow the rules and God would deal mercifully with His people. But the old covenant perhaps didn’t fully take into account how prone to failure people are. As the generations passed, the Israelites just kept moving further and further away from God. God sent judges, kings and prophets in an attempt to call His people back to Him, to no avail. So when the Babylonians destroy the city of Jerusalem… the temple, the Old Covenant is in tatters. The relationship between God and his people seems almost severed – seems being the key word here.
I’m guessing most of us know about severed relationships, maybe personally or in our extended family. Sometimes the grievous failure inflicted upon someone else is so large and so destructive that in order to preserve health, maybe even sanity, a relationship must be broken. Addiction is often a culprit. Incest. Serial infidelity. In fact, the Old Testament uses that very analogy saying Israel has been repeatedly unfaithful in her relationship with God. And so despite God doing all in his power to bring Israel back home, she has nonetheless turned her back on her God.
The subsequent exile and the destruction of Jerusalem is God saying “Enough already! The Old Covenant I made with you is ruined. Your failures have broken the promise.” But thankfully, this is not the end of the story. This morning’s lectionary passage from Jeremiah is found just two chapters later then our text from last week. I probably can’t overstate how important this passage from Jeremiah 31 is to us.
Elmer Martens, theologian and author of the Believers commentary on Jeremiah writes, “In some ways this passage is the apex of Old Testament salvation history. It has been described as ‘one of the most profound and most moving passages in the entire Bible.’ It looks back to the covenant at Sinai, and forward to the work of the Messiah. Quoted in full in Hebrews 8:7-12, this is the longest Old Testament passage repeated in the New Testament. In fact, it is from the mention of ‘new covenant’ in this passage that we get the designation, the New Testament…”
Reading this text now from the NRSV…“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.”
Something new is being introduced into the equation here. God isn’t finished with us. God just realizes that in order for this relationship to work going forward, things are going to have to look a little different. Notice in these scripture words the emphasis is entirely on everything God is going to do to make this covenant work. God is going to have to account for our failure and give something more. God has been supplying this particular something in full measure right from the start, but it wasn’t necessarily named as a foundational piece of the old covenant. That’s what’s changing. God is making things official. In order for any kind of covenant to work between God and God’s creation, the bedrock will need to be all about…grace.
I did some study on the concept of grace in the Old Testament this last week. It was a short study. The Old Testament doesn’t talk about grace very much. The NIV and the NRSV each have only 3-5 direct references to the word “grace” understood as God’s unmerited favor or the gift of God’s saving mercy. The KJV has more mentions of “grace”, but most of those are references to “finding grace in someone’s sight”, which has a slightly different connotation. However, both the KJV and the NRSV translate Jeremiah 31:2 using the word, “grace”.
Reading now from the NRSV, Jeremiah 31:1-3 – “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Chapter 31 in Jeremiah, that goes on to outline the stipulations of the new covenant, begins with a word of grace and as we read how this new covenant will look, we find grace stamped all over it. However, this is a new covenant not yet fully realized. It points to the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah, but it also points to a time in our future, still being realized, when all of God’s creation will know God and love God, when this entire world will be redeemed by the grace of God.
Until that point, God will continue to deal with a lot of failure, brokenness, frailty and we will continue to deal with the repercussions of our limitations. Fortunately, our God is an artist. That’s an image for God you don’t hear very often. But God is infinitely creative and God does something surprising with human failure.
You know, the Bible is filled with absolutely failure after failure. You can’t read but a few pages before you trip over someone’s mistake and most often it’s a mistake with tremendous consequences. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve failing miserably. As we continue on, we read about Noah’s failure, Abraham and Sarah’s failures, Isaac and Rebecca’s failure, Jacob’s failure, Moses’ failures, Saul’s failures, David’s failures. It’s just one after the other.
You would think this record of human limitation, our propensity to sin and doubt would produce a hope-starved account of our relationship with God. But this isn’t the case at all. Instead the Old Testament offers us a beautiful and richly woven narrative in which the steady stream of human failures gives the whole a surprisingly pleasing texture. In essence, God transforms the failures into an abiding testament of God’s faithfulness and love.
And so we come to this passage in Jeremiah and we see an example of how all the frayed pieces fit together to create something more. God acknowledges human brokenness and mourns the peoples’ lack of faith. But this is not the stopping point, it is the beginning. God continues, explaining his desire and will to covenant with the people, writing the law upon their hearts and binding Himself to all humanity in everlasting relationship. God concludes saying, “All people will know me, from the least to the greatest, and I will offer unlimited forgiveness (grace), and remember their sins, their failures, no more.”
It’s not as if the flow of human failure slows to a trickle from this point on either. Israel and Judah continue to get things wrong and by the time Jesus enters the scene, the ruling class in Judaism, the Pharisees and Sadducees fail to offer prophetic leadership and instead are leading the people dangerously astray. The disciples fail in their lack of vision. Fast forward to the eve of crucifixion and we find Peter, James and John failing to stay awake in the Garden, failing to provide companionship for their friend in need. Peter fails, denying Jesus three times. But God accepts that human failure is inevitable, and rather than approach failure as an obstacle, God promises to continue weaving failure into the very fabric of creation, using it to bring forth new life, new promise.
And he does this with a totally unexpected and grace-filled artistic flourish. God decides…to fail right along with us. At the last supper with his disciples, Jesus talks about his broken body and his spilled blood that he will offer up on our behalf. Jesus allows himself to be broken. And what is the greatest failure, the end none of us are able to escape? Inevitably, our physical bodies wear out. They fail us. We die. Not only is Jesus broken, he dies. This is the scandal of the cross – the cross represented failure of all failures, shameful death. That God sent his only begotten Son into this world and allowed the world to kill his beloved, allowed failure to bring forth new life. It is little wonder the cross has been a stumbling block for believers for centuries. Why would God choose failure as the context for resurrection? Because it couldn‘t be otherwise, could it? Only failure truly provides the means for resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross blanketed the ages in God’s unlimited grace. For it is failure that gives birth to grace…always…always.
If this is true, then the follow-up question is, why not keep failing if there is such an abundance of unending grace? In fact, in Romans 6:1, Paul addresses that very issue when he writes, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” He then quickly follows up with, “By no means!” Failure is not the component we’re supposed to be embracing here. Failure…sin, wounds. It hurts. It scars. To say we can sin all we want because grace will cover us is actually a true statement. But it would be similar to saying, “I’m going to keep hitting my thumb with a hammer because I know my doctor can treat it and make it better.” Yes, that’s true too, but you’re also not in your right mind if that’s your perspective.
We can all breathe a sigh of immeasurable relief. Because we’re human, we know we’re going to mess up, we’re going to fail. But God’s grace has us covered. And it’s that wholeness and healing and forgiveness and grace we embrace for the strength and the courage to carry on. It’s the thread of God’s grace that takes all our shortcomings and weaknesses and creates something beautiful to behold.
And often, so often, when we all get together to work at this, we have a name for that beautiful thing we create when we accept the grace God offers and allow it to transform our lives together in creative and unexpected ways. We call it, church. I’m going to guess this is what has made the mission supper one of our favorite days of the church year for how many years now? A lot! Because we bring our messy selves all together. Our grievances. Our grumbles. Our weariness. Our busyness. And we turn all of that over to God and almost without realizing we’re doing it, we send up silent prayers that we might be filled with God’s grace and glory so we can do this amazing thing together in service to our community and our world. Then we gather at all different times on Saturday, but there is a spirit of joy and anticipation present. That grace transforms all the frailties into fun. We have fun together. We give ourselves fully to giving and we have fun. And by the end of the night and even into the next morning, we are exhausted. But it is the best kind of tired. Because our efforts and our very selves have been blessed with an extra-large portion of God’s unending grace. And it’s pretty marvelous! I’m going to invite Marieanna up here now and let’s stand now to sing, #151, “Marvelous Grace”…