Years ago, I spent some time working as a news reporter for a television station in Iowa. I started as an intern, young with no experience. My news director was wise enough, however, to send me to cover the innocuous stories of the day, which meant I reported on a lot of county 4-H fairs. I covered rhubarb pie recipes, lawn tractor pulls, and what the future might hold for Millie, the prize-winning sow. Turns out it was the refrigerated section of your local grocery store.
Well, these Pulitzer performances must have given my news director more confidence in me; and so in due time he sent me out to cover a murder trial in Nebraska and then an interview with a woman who had a tree go through her mobile home. I reported on a family who was busy pulling items out of a flooded home. I interviewed a soon-to-be unemployed farmer who tearfully fell victim to the farm crisis.
I was finally reporting on "breaking news," but I would often drive back home from the station bothered by the pain of those whom I had interviewed. It wasn't just breaking news; it was "heart-breaking news."
Now in a rather circuitous route I find myself no longer a television reporter but a pastor; even so, I still find myself dealing with breaking news, "heartbreaking news." In a single day, I can listen to someone who's going through a divorce, sit with a person who just lost their job, cry in the cancer clinic, travel to the non-profit that is struggling to find money for ministry and wrap it all up with an evening meeting that ends in prayer concerns for so many, many, many people.
Breaking new is all around and in our text today, "'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.'" This is breaking news, good news for the people of God! But note how the prophet cannot let this good news stand alone, but he must connect it to the heart-breaking news of the past.
For the Lord says, this new covenant, "'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 they broke, though I was their husband,' says the LORD."
Jeremiah and the Lord couldn't let the new covenant stand without the reminder of the pain of the old. Old wounds are plainly visible, look! "'I took them by the hand,' says the Lord." The image is set up to be touching, like a young couple hand in hand on their way down the aisle, or a young mother taking the hand of her little ones to get them safely to the other side. Whatever the image, it is intensely intimate; and it sets the dagger for the stabbing words that follow about the covenant that "they broke, though I was their husband."
I don't know why Jeremiah chose to temper the good news with the heartbreak of the past, but it reminds me of a story of a man who wakes every morning and sees the faded color photo of his wedding day. Every morning he wakes to this photo. It isn't a great photo, not even done by a professional, just a mere snapshot taken by someone in the congregation precisely at the time when the bride and groom were looking intently into each others eyes, and it echoes with the words, "Do you promise to love one another in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, sickness and in health throughout all your days?" Many years later that man still hears his voice every morning saying, "I do." The man said that "this snapshot photo went up in our bedroom soon after my wife, by her grace and the grace of God, let me back into our marriage. I made a mistake."
He said, "I have not dared to ask my wife why she put that photo up on the wall. Maybe she likes it, but maybe she also knows that I will see it and be reminded of the promise. The promise I broke."
When Jeremiah wrote down the words of the Lord to share with the people, the people weren't just waking to the reminders of the covenant that they broke, they had the reminders all around, every moment of every day. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down, the temple razed, people were pulled from their families, their homes, their worship and dragged to a foreign land.
"By the rivers of Babylon--there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of those songs of Zion!' How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137).
Every moment of every day was a reminder of how they broke the covenant. They were once God's "treasured possession," led out of Egypt "on the wings of eagles," they soared on God's love. All they needed to do was remember and respond in kind. "...love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6).
But loving with all your heart is not easy. We know this. There are in this world too many other loves competing for our heart's desire. I love golf. I love New York. I love my wife. I love my family. I love to travel. I love my Golden Retriever. I'd love to make more money. I'd love to get a bigger home. I'd love to get a new job. I'd love and I'd love and I'd love...and before too long loving God with all your heart and with all your soul becomes nothing more than a token of appreciation, a visit to worship every once in a while or a tax deduction at the end of the year.
The prophets warned about it. The Lord doesn't want your measly offerings, what does the Lord require of you? "But to but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Turn the desires of your heart back to the Lord, the Lord God who took you by the hand...walk again, hand in hand. They didn't get the message.
Every moment of every day, the loss of Jerusalem, the temple in ruins by the rivers of Babylon, the reasons for all these events were interpreted through the theological lens of a covenant that they broke.
Those in exile realized there was no going back. Like the politician caught in an indiscretion and removed from office and told never to serve again, the exiles believed they were no longer set apart, no longer holy, no longer the children of God. They were like everyone else. "By the rivers of Babylon--there we sat down and there we wept."
It is into this oppressive gloom that the words of Jeremiah must have broken through like the sun! "'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....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.'"
Breaking news! God does it again and again with love. We see this in our scriptures. Adam and Eve naked and ashamed in the garden, but there is God, lovingly knitting clothes. Cain becomes a wanderer, but lovingly he bares a mark that keeps him safe. Jacob walks with a limp but also a blessing. Moses told he will never enter into the Promised Land; but at the end of his life, the Lord takes him by the hand up to the mountain and shows him the whole land, from Gilead as far as Dan and it is all good. God shines through all that is shattered and broken.
I'm reminded of an invitation I had to go visit a high security prison for youth. I was invited to take part in the yolkfellow ministry they had there. The invitation came from a man who every other week would drive out to the prison to share his faith with the young men incarcerated there.
So I went with him, down and out of town and around an evening mountain bend; and, suddenly, there it was, the prison, a 16-story monument to the brokenness of this world. "It's the tallest building in Burke County," he said. "Surreal," I said, looking at the razor wire and the bright lights.
We entered in through the buzzers, the gates and the security wands. We were then led to room, a cafeteria setting, tables and chairs, with prisoners in orange uniforms.
"What's next?" I asked. It was then I learned I was flying solo. He said, "Well, find a table, introduce yourself, read a scripture, talk about it, pray with them."
Well, that seemed simple enough--introduce, scripture, talk, pray. I was nervous, but I can do this. Introduce, scripture, talk, pray. I can do this.
I scanned the room to find what I thought to be the least intimidating young man in the room, and my eyes fell on one who could easily have been the youngest one in the room, boyish face, hair parted neatly, round glasses, intelligent looking. I went to him. I sat down at his table and introduced myself.
"My name is Donovan, what's yours?" "Michael," he said. I told him I was a visitor to the program and a bit nervous.
He didn't say anything to me, which made me more nervous, and then he said, "It's my first time down here too."
"Can I ask why you're in here?" I said, figuring he would tell some story of a car stolen or maybe a drug trade. He didn't. He didn't even look at me when he said, "I killed my father."
I was stunned. I probably even had a look on my face that said, "Man, you should be in prison." I mean I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I stammered out some attempt to understand.
"Was your father abusive?" I said.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said.
I sat in silence for a second or a minute, and then he lifted a finger from the table and pointed it directly at my Bible and asked, "Is there anything in there that can help me?"
What do you think was my answer? I guess I'm asking you, "What kind of Lord do we have?" Is our Lord one who tells the breaking news, "Young man kills father, will spend years in prison, there's nothing more that can be done. Details at 11:00." Or is our Lord one who somehow and in some way is able to let his love and mercy shine through all the broken places in this world?
All I know is that I am tired of the breaking news...divorce, cancers, sickness, loss of jobs. I don't need to see the headlines. I see them everyday, but I have found in the life one who sits down at a table, introduces himself, shares a good word and then he breaks, broken body, spilled blood, hear now the breaking news. It is the good news!
"'The days are surely coming,' says the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant...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 sins no more.'"
Let us pray.
Holy God, we know that we are your hearts desire and we are your heartbreak. We have broken your covenant. We have not followed your ways. Our hearts have been filled with other loves, loves that we pursue with passion. We neglect you, often only remembering you when we ourselves are broken. But it is into our brokenness, one from another, that your love surprises us by filling in the gaps and making us whole. Help us to remember your grace. Write it on our hearts. To you we give all praise and glory. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.