Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last winter, the Huffington Post published an article by Richard Paul Evans, called, “How I Saved My Marriage.” Evans tells the story of how he and his wife Keri struggled in their marriage. Like many couples, they came to a point where it was difficult to remember what had initially drawn them together; they were different in so many ways, and the longer they were married, the more extreme their differences seemed. They found themselves fighting so often that they couldn’t remember a time when their relationship was peaceful. Their usual stance became defensive, and they built emotional fortresses around their hearts. They sometimes talked about divorce.
Richard is an author and often goes on book tours, so he started welcoming the chance to travel for work; it was a respite from the tension at home. Of course, they would all pay for it when he came home and needed to re-enter the family dynamic.
Once when he was on book tour, things came to a head. He and Keri had a fight, and she hung up on him. He felt alone and lonely, frustrated and angry. He says he had reached his limit.
That’s when he turned to God. “I don’t know if you could call it prayer,” he said. “…maybe shouting at God isn’t prayer…but whatever I was engaged in, I’ll never forget it.” He stood in the shower and yelled at God that his marriage was wrong, that he couldn’t do it anymore. As much as he hated the idea of divorce, the pain of being together was too much. Finally, hoarse and broken, he sat down and began to cry. In the depths of his despair, he began to pray as he had never done before. He prayed late into the night. He prayed the next day on the flight home. He prayed as he walked in the door to a cold wife who barely even acknowledged him. That night, as he lay in bed, just inches from his wife and yet miles apart, inspiration came, and he knew what he would do.
The next day when he woke up, he turned to his wife and asked, “How can I make your day better?” She looked at him angrily and snapped, “What?”“How can I make your day better?”“You can’t,” she said. “Why are you asking that?” “I just want to know what I can do to make your day better,” he said. She looked at him cynically and said, “You want to do something? Go clean the kitchen.” So he got up and cleaned the kitchen.
The next morning he turned to her and asked the same thing. “What can I do to make your day better?” She narrowed her eyes and said, “Clean the garage.” He took a deep breath. His day was already full, and he knew she had made the request in spite. But he got up and spent the next two hours cleaning the garage.
The following morning, he asked her again. “What can I do to make your day better?” “Nothing!” she said. He asked the next day. And the next. And the next. Then, during the second week, something happened – a miracle, he calls it. When he asked what he could do to make her day better, his wife’s eyes welled up with tears, and she began to cry. “You’re not the problem,” she said. “I am.” She put her head against his chest and said, “I’m sorry I’m hard to live with ….Maybe we could just spend some time together.” And so they did, a little bit at a time. He continued to ask the question, “How can I make your day better?” And she began to ask him, “What do you need from me?”
- The walls between them began to fall. Slowly, but surely. Keeping score became unimportant.
- He found another way to be faithful to her. He disrupted their usual pattern of behavior, and he built on the promises they had made.
- Hearts began to change.
We sometimes talk about marriage as a covenant. A covenant is a contract, an agreement between two parties, a promise made. It’s formal enough to say out loud and to put in writing: you’ll do this, and I’ll do that. In the ancient Near East, when covenants were made between countries, they were inscribed in clay or stone and read regularly as reminders that this is what we have promised. We might talk about decisions being “written in stone,” but we know now as they knew then that stone tablets can be broken. Scrolls or pieces of paper can be lost or ignored, even burned or tossed into the sea.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah uses the metaphor of marriage, the most intimate of covenants, and God says:
“The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah.
It won’t be like the one I made with their ancestors,
the one that they broke, even though I was their husband.
I will find a new way to be faithful to them. I will forget their past;
I will forget their sin, and they will know me.
Human metaphors are never fully adequate for describing God, especially when we put ourselves in the place of God. Yet it’s through images that we know – that we can relate to – that our imaginations get stretched, and we come to know God more deeply.
In a marriage that was deeply troubled, Richard Evans could have walked away from his wife and wiped the slate clean in that way. But instead, he wiped the slate clean and began again with her. Instead of holding onto grudges and keeping score of past offenses, he forgot the past. And then he related in a new way. He asked, “How can I make your day better?”
The story of our God is a story of promises: a promise to Noah, a promise to Abraham and Sarah, a promise to the people of Israel. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” “Through you, I will bless the world.” Each of these promises matter and builds on the previous one, but the covenant that truly defines the people of God and makes them a people is rooted in God’s defining act of liberation. When the people of God were enslaved in Egypt, God heard their cries and brought them through the water to freedom. In love, God freely acted to bring liberation. And then God gave them a covenant, an understanding of how to live in this new way, the Ten Commandments – not a list of do’s and don’t’s, but a way to create a community of shalom. To live into the fullness of God’s blessing depends on people’s willingness to respond to God with their whole lives.
But the people of Ancient Israel forgot about God. They turned away from God and toward other options that proved to be empty and unable to sustain them. They began to exploit one another for their own economic gain. They cared little about social justice. They allied themselves with kings they hoped would protect them. We’re not so different from the ancient Israelites, I’m afraid.
In 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar sent his army in and sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In the process, he destroyed the people’s belief that Jerusalem was invincible, and hauled the people off into exile.
God called Jeremiah to speak a word of truth to the people. In the 40 years that he was a prophet, most of his words were harsh, but these words of promise came when the people found themselves in exile:
“The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with you.
It won’t be like the one I made with your ancestors,
the one that they broke, even though I was their husband.
I will find a new way to be faithful to you. I will forget their past;
I will forget your sin, and you will know me.
This is our seventh and final week in the sermon series, “God Is(n’t),” in which we’ve been exploring texts and images that help us understand and articulate who God is. If there’s anything I think we’ve learned, any pattern we have detected, it’s that God is a God of second chances. That God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Once again, God draws near to us and redeems us. Rather than turning away or leaving us behind, God begins anew – building on what is already there and finding a new way to be faithful to us.
Today is Reformation Sunday when we commemorate the beginning of the church’s Reformation 499 years ago when Martin Luther rediscovered something in Scripture: The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us.
Unlike the ancient Israelites who had forgotten God, Martin Luther had been a tortured soul who had agonized over the fact that he could never be good enough on his own. He could never live up to God’s expectations. Through Scripture, Martin Luther came to realize that this God who knew every single thing about him loved him anyway. God was not keeping score. When Luther realized that it wasn’t up to him, it changed his heart. He no longer feared God but learned to trust God. And he could live into the fullness of God’s blessing, into the potential for which God had created him.
That’s what God longs for us – to be in relationship with God – to love God and to love our neighbors.
Once again, God draws near to us and redeems us. God doesn’t turn away from us or leave us behind. Instead, God begins anew – building on what is already there and continuing to be faithful to us. Not bound by our shortcomings or inability to be faithful to God, God wipes the slate clean and remembers our sin no more. Life springs from what seemed to be dead. God’s gracious love opens the way for us to know God, to respond from the heart, to be God’s people. Thanks be to God, our God is forgetful. And we have second chances. Amen.