A Promise of Presence

Text: Jeremiah 31:27-34;

Luke 18:1-8

Sitting on my shelf is a book called the “Essential Jesus” where the author takes many of the sayings of Jesus and distils them down into a format that is easy to memorize. To date, it has given me the best version of the so-called Parable of the Persistent Widow that I have yet read.

In most Bibles, the story is short… but if anything a bit wordy… but when taken down to its elements, it is rather direct.

It goes something like this:

A widow with no shame confronted a judge with no conscience

Time and again she pleaded for vindication before him.

He finally gave in, because if even ethics didn’t bother him, she did.

Luke included this parable in his telling of the story of Jesus as a metaphor for encouraging early Christians to persevere in what were often very difficult times. When Luke was written, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and Christians for the first time had been persecuted in Rome under Nero. Darkness was gathering… and these fledgling communities of faith were caught up in the ensuing chaos at the times. We know from history that things got even worse.

With the destruction of the temple, the landscape in Israel had become even more radicalized. The Zealots pursued a campaign of terror, of if you’re not with us, you’re against us when it came to the Romans. Christians were caught in the middle… seen as Zealots by the Romans, and seen as Roman Stooges by the Zealots.

While Jesus himself delivered this parable more than thirty years earlier, Luke included it because of the encouragement it would give to the people at the time. “Don’t give up!” was his message. Don’t lose heart. Luke says… with the parable of the persistent widow showing that even justice can be rendered from the most unlikely of places.

Jeremiah is appropriate in Lent, moving from his despair and mourning of Judah’s fall from grace, to his sense of hopefulness, even in the midst of the darkest time Israel had ever known. But he doesn’t lose himself to the despair. Once all the changes begin happening around him, Jeremiah steps up and transforms into a prophet of great hope and optimism. When everything around him is ashes and rubble, he invests in the future, proclaims that God is doing something new… and not only is God doing something new, it will be so far beyond our imagining that we can only dare to dream of what those possibilities are. It’s a promise of presence.

There is this glorious line from Jeremiah that says “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.”

Jeremiah is looking forward to a time where people will simply know God in their living and breathing, and their very being. That humbleness and kindness will be part of our make-up. That we can genuinely look at one another, and see one another as living, breathing, children of God, no matter who we are… where we come from.

Don’t give up! Jeremiah says. God is there and God will be there, present with us, no matter what.

There is a wonderful picture that has been circulating long before the internet came along. When I was in high school, it was one of two pictures hanging above the computer monitor where I typed in the attendance records as a part-time job. The first picture was a typical computer picture that had a duck, looking very much like Disney’s Donald, with a large hammer held up behind his head while standing in front of a computer. The subtitle said, “Hit any key to continue.” –A perfect symbol for frustration… I think.

Yet beside it was this other one. You may have seen it. It also featured a water bird… likely a Heron or a Stork. In the stork’s mouth you can clearly see the arms and legs of a frog sticking out… with the forearms of the frog wrapped tightly around the bird’s neck. The subtitle on this one “Never Give Up!”

The fact that I remember it some twenty four years later means that it continues to have some resonance with me. The frustration that we often feel when things aren’t working the way we want to… where we are angry… wanting to hit any key with a sledgehammer and walk away…

…and right beside it… “Never Give Up!”

Yet when it comes to perseverance, there’s a few key points to remember. Jeremiah’s encouragement to the people of Judah was reminding them that even though things had fallen apart, God was still very much there with them. Yet it was taking a lesson to the people that they way it had always been had started working against them. They had become complacent in presuming that they knew the will of God, and yet they had gone so far off the rails that the only way that they would learn is if all of the stuff they took for granted was torn down and shown to be the shell that it was. God was reminding them of what matters. When all of this ancillary stuff is taken away, what is left? The people. The people are what is left… the people are what is important, and the relationships that we have with each other.

That’s why Jeremiah makes such a powerful statement, of proclaiming such a hope that not just that Israel would be restored. He goes waaaay past that! Way past that! Jeremiah proclaims that there will be a new covenant, a new promise… it won’t be like the previous covenant at all, because they broke it. God kept up his side of the bargain, but the people of Israel, both north kingdom and south, had forgotten what had made them unique. And now that everything was rubble and ash, it was not the time to give up, it wasn’t even time to re-build. It was time to build something entirely new from the ground up.

No matter how broken or shattered everything looked around them, Jeremiah was encouraging them, and telling them that they should not give up.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, and destroy… so I will watch over them to build and to plant…

This is not a re-building that Jeremiah is talking about. This is a truly new build… where we are building on people. No matter how dark it gets, Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. God is there and will be there.

Yet notice what Jeremiah doesn’t say. Notice what Luke doesn’t say… this is not about sticking to your guns no matter what. There is a huge difference between standing your ground at all costs, verses not giving up. Had the early church been about sticking to their guns and holding their ground, they would have gone the way of the Zealots… wiped out by the Romans.

No… like the people carried off into exile half a millennium earlier, they had to find new ways to adapt to their new circumstances, to discover what really mattered, and find new ways to be the Church of Christ.

For you and I, what does this mean? First off, it is a reminder that no matter how dark things may seem, our light in our lives is Jesus. Jeremiah spoke about writing a new covenant on our hearts… well this is it. It is a light that can never be taken away from us. Not only is it there to light our way, but it also helps us to see that that light, that covenant, that presence of Christ is present in every last one of us. We are at our best when we recognize that and realize that, and treat every single person we meet. Maybe that’s what the persistent widow saw… some small spark of light… that promise of presence, and why she never gave up hope. It is a lesson that two thousand years later, we are still learning.