March 25, 2012
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Several years ago when the news hit about the benefits of taking ginkoba and ginseng to improve memory my parents immediately went out and bought some. They were both struggling with the memory loss that can come with growing older, and if there was a natural way to help stem the forgetful tide, they would willingly try it. There was only one problem with their plan. They bought the ginkoba … but they kept forgetting to take it. It seems that in order for it help memory, buying ginkoba is not enough. You actually have to take it too.
Much to my parents’ dismay, that has become a long standing joke in my extended family. But I can’t laugh too hard at them. I have my own issues with forgetfulness as well. I have been known to search high and low, and with increasing consternation, for my sunglasses only to discover them on top of my head. I’ve set my wallet and purses and other bags on top of my car and driven off. And Alice can attest that when I’m talking to someone, I constantly ask,” have I told you this story before?” Because I know that I’m starting to repeat myself, and that completely freaks me out because that means I’m turning into my mother, and that is a whole other story.
I suspect that most of this is the natural forgetting that comes with age. And some of it is funny. But there are other kinds of forgetting that isn’t. I read just a day or two ago how scientists at MIT have discovered that blocking an enzyme, which is overproduced in Alzheimer’s patients, could help in the treatment of this terrible disease that affects over 5 million Americans alone. Some forgetting isn’t natural or normal.
Even though I hate how I forget things more and more these days, I wish there were some parts of my life that I could forget. There are things that I’ve said and done that still literally make me cringe with embarrassment or shame. I read once that it was believed that when we die, we review our entire life, as though it were a movie rolling on a screen before us.
I don’t know how much validity I can give to that claim, but I do remember that upon hearing that my first thought was, “O boy I hope not!” Because even though there are aspects of my life I’d like to relive – such as seeing my kids being born – there are many other events I have no desire to see again. I wish I wouldn’t have been there the first time. I wish I could just forget.
There seems to be a bad kind of forgetting and a good kind. Forgetting is the underlying theme that I hear in these verses from the prophet Jeremiah. The context of this passage, as I understand it, is that up until these verses God’s people have been paying for the sins of their ancestors. The people’s complaint has been that God never forgets sins of the past, and new generations continue to pay for the transgressions of the old.
When will they stop being punished for the sins of their parents? When will God finally forget?
In the verses immediately before our passage God is assuring the people that he has forgotten. No more are you going to be judged for the sins of those who have gone before you. No more will your teeth be set on edge because someone in the past ate sour grapes. From now on it falls on you. There will be new life in your midst, God says. Humans and animals will once again multiply. I have brought judgment on you for your wrongdoing, but I will also bring blessing on you. I have plucked up, but I will also plant.
One commentator wrote that God is reversing the previous relationship with Judah and Israel. No longer will their relationship with God be based on disobedience, but on a new covenant.
Verses 31 through 34, which are the verses we are dealing with specifically with today, are some of the most famous and most recognized verses from all of Jeremiah. Many scholars see this as the gospel before the gospel. God, speaking through Jeremiah, promises the people a new covenant. And this new covenant isn’t going to be like the old one. God took them out of Egypt by the hand. God led them in what they were supposed to do and walked them through how they were supposed to live. God gave them the Law, but they broke it and broke their relationship with him over and over and over.
In this new covenant, God isn’t just going to give them the Law in document form. That Law will be written on their hearts. That Law will be within them. They will not have to teach one another the law. It won’t be reduced to a simple course of study. Teaching the Law will not even be necessary. Instead the people will fully and absolutely know the Lord. They will finally and completely be his people and he will be their God. All of them will know the Lord, from the least in society to the greatest. All of them will know the Lord. And God will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
And remember their sin no more. This new covenant is God’s new amnesia. It is selective amnesia to be sure, but God promises to both forgive and forget. In this new covenant God’s memory for sin will be short. It is a new covenant based on God’s amnesia, God’s willing decision to forget.
Now what is a covenant? The word is used over and over again in the Bible, but do we fully understand its meaning? Especially because we live in a world of contracts. We live in a contractual society. As one writer put it, a contract specifies failures. Think about any contract that you’ve ever entered into. When I sign a contract with someone, I am agreeing to do certain things. If I fail to do those things, then I am in breach of contract and could lose whatever it is that I have agreed to lose. Whether it’s my job, my house, my car, etc.
But a covenant is something completely different. A covenant doesn’t specify failure, it specifies promise. It specifies promise. It specifies the faithfulness of God, in spite of how we go astray. It specifies that God has promised to be with us, that God has promised to forgive our sins and to forget them. But the covenant God makes with us is not one-sided. It’s not just handed down to us on high, and we’re in. We have our side to uphold. We are called upon to love God, to know God with our whole heart, mind and soul. We are called to love neighbor, to do what is right in spite of how easy it is to do what is wrong. We are called to give our whole lives to this new covenant. And, perhaps hardest of all – at least for me – we are called to trust that God will be faithful.
Other differences that I see between contract and covenant are that contracts seem to have a time limit. Contracts end. Covenants do not. The covenants that God made with Abraham did not end when God made a covenant with David, and the Davidic covenant did not end when this covenant was made through the prophet Jeremiah. The covenants of God flow into one another, all finally being fulfilled with the coming of God’s son.
So in this new covenant that we read in Jeremiah, it seems that God covenants, God promises, not only to forgive our sins but to forget them. God covenants to develop amnesia when it comes to the past.
God forgives and forgets. Can we do the same? As we move into these last stages of the Lenten journey, can we both forgive and forget? Can we develop amnesia when it comes to the ways we’ve hurt or harmed or disregarded one another? Can we be intentional in our forgetting just as God is intentional in forgetting?
Think for a moment about one thing that you would really like to forget. It could be something that you’ve done to someone or had done to you; something you’ve said; something you regret. Whatever it is, find hope in the belief that God forgets. God doesn’t forget us, but God, through grace, forgets our sins. We are covered by God’s promise to develop amnesia. That is our hope. That is our assurance. That is the new covenant in which we live and move and have our being. Our sins are forgiven. Our transgressions are forgotten. This is the good news! We are covered by God’s amnesia. Let all God’s children say “Amen!”