"The Divine Experiment" – Jeremiah 31:31-34
A friend earned her PhD in Biology from Northwestern University. It took her six years to obtain her doctorate – two years in the classroom and four years in a laboratory. As best I understood, her lab work involved growing E.Coli bacteria and replacing that bacteria’s DNA with the DNA of a hormone used to fight cancer cells. It took her over three years to complete her experiment. Three years...one experiment.
That was hard for me to imagine, given the extent of my science education where we never had to wait longer than a weekend to see what bacteria our petri dishes had produced. She said most of her time and energy over those years was spent trying to create the optimal environment for the bacteria to grow. It involved constant trial and error; repeating the process after adjusting certain variables.
I told her I found it hard to imagine dedicating years of hard work towards creating an optimal environment for something to succeed; and waiting so long to see the finished product. She quickly countered, saying, “How is that any different from being a parent, or a pastor?”
That’s an interesting and wonderful way to think about my work as a parent and a pastor. Indeed, I have and will continue to dedicate years of constant attention and care in order to create an optimal environment for my children and the church to succeed. Even if you’re not a parent or a pastor, most of the things you are involved in and passionate about likely require a long-term experimental approach.
Our faith is no different.
This idea serves as a helpful frame of reference to understand today’s scripture from Jeremiah. In this text, Jeremiah explains God’s long-range approach to the experiment of guiding the human race. Jeremiah tells us how the original experiment went wrong and how God's planning to adjust some variables of the environment so that humanity could grow and flourish.
The experiment has undergone several iterations. The original approach as told through the stories of Genesis was that God gave only one prohibition – to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The hypothesis of that experiment was that humans would live in peace and harmony with all creation so long as they avoided indulging in things that would make them more like God.
That experiment failed rather quickly.
Later the prohibitions expanded to include the ten commandments inscribed in stone, which were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The hypothesis of that experiment was that by giving laws inscribed in stone, the people would live in peace with one another and remain faithful to God.
Already by the end of the book of Exodus (only the second book in the Bible), it is clear the experiment needs to restart yet again because despite having the law inscribed on stone tablets, the people cannot remain faithful to God. They repeatedly worship other gods and they put their faith in things like money and power and idols. God needs to adjust some variables in order to create the optimal environment for peace and love.
This is the message Jeremiah brought to the Israelites not long after 587 BCE – the year in which the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and God’s chosen people were in crisis. You see, the Temple was the outward sign of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites. As they watched the Temple fall, they thought God was abandoning them.
Jeremiah, a prophet of God, had spent his prophetic life weeping and throwing things (literally), trying to get the people to see that their idolatrous ways will lead to God’s judgment.
But, following the destruction of the Temple (which he predicted) Jeremiah didn’t stop to say “I told you so.” Instead, he relayed some good news from God. Jeremiah informed the people it was their infidelity, not God’s infidelity, that led to the disorder and desolation. God had not abandoned them. Better yet, God was about to reset the experiment by creating a new covenant.
Covenant are different from contracts between two consenting parties. The ancient covenants are much more unilateral: one party (God) is much more powerful than the other (God’s people), and so the more powerful party sets the terms by which the two parties will relate. A covenant doesn’t require the weaker party’s consent, and there is no room for negotiation.
This new covenant is not an equal partnership. In fact, it is entirely one-sided, and that is good news for God’s people, since they have nothing to offer God.
The reason the old covenant didn’t work was because God had an extraordinarily high estimation of the ability of humanity to comply with the law it embraced. Apparently the God who created us didn’t realize the depth to which we would be predisposed to break God’s covenant, even when it is in our best interest to keep it. Despite being spurned and betrayed, God takes the initiative to renew the covenant.
Jeremiah announces that God adjusted a variable in the environment and is restarting the experiment with a new hypothesis: That by giving laws inscribed on human hearts, the people will live in peace with one another and remain faithful to God. The stone tablets are out, replaced by a call for a divinely-inspired moral consciousness to dictate human behavior.
Where sin was once written, now God's instruction, God's own will and desires, will be written not on stone, but in our flesh.
God’s new approach towards his people reminds me of parenting. After all, parenting is more than just giving a list of rules for our children to blindly follow; instead, it is about leading by example and teaching a child to embody the principles that you want to see in them. Give any child a list of rules that they are bound to break, and watch as they grow to despise you or despise themselves. Pledge your unconditional support, on the other hand, and watch they flourish.
The new covenant is not built on rules written in stone but on relationship written on the heart. The people belong to God and have God’s law guiding them.
No longer will people simply know about God - all the right words, all the right theology. Jeremiah proclaims the days are surely coming when the people, from the least to the greatest, will know God - and will know God intimately.
Jeremiah says this will be possible because God will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more. This new experiment, this second chance, this new covenant between God and his people, is only possible because God is gracious.
You might think this sounds a little too utopian and optimistic. Jeremiah certainly painted a beautiful picture of belonging and forgiveness; but 2,500 years have passed since Jeremiah’s prophetic announcement about a new covenant; and you could say we are no different than the people whom God covenanted with on Mt. Sinai. We break this covenant with God. We continually pursue wealth and power and prioritize our selfish needs over our neighbors. But the difference is that here today, in the midst of the new covenant, God has pledged eternal forgiveness.
We have not arrived at the utopia that Jeremiah prophesied; but thanks to God’s work in the world we are headed in the right direction. The God of creation revealed in scripture promises abundant life for the human experiment, as well as the entirety of God’s creation.
And so, here at the end of the season of Lent, this passage begs us to explore the ways that we need the law of love to be written on our hearts. More importantly, it sets up our exploration in just two weeks of how the power of the resurrection can find a home in our hearts so that we, and those around us, can truly live a new life.
So we can thank Jeremiah. Instead of yet another word of judgment, we receive a lavish promise and unexpected good news:
God will bring newness out of destruction;
God will bring hope where there is no hope;
God will bring life out of death;
and God will make a way where there is no way.
What a beautiful promise we are allowed and expected to live into.