“Would you like to lose weight while you sleep?”
This question was written in big bold letters across the front of a brochure a parishioner slid under my office door years ago. In case you’re worried I took offense, I didn’t. The woman who left the brochure asked ahead of time if I was interested. I wasn’t interested so much as I was curious—but I didn’t tell her that.
“Would you like to lose weight while you sleep?”
Could there be anything more perfect? I mean who doesn’t want to wake up every morning a little lighter than the day before? Imagine no calorie counting or Monday morning weigh ins. No living room Zumba. No celery in place of potato chips.
Lose weight while snoozing—it couldn’t get any easier!
And by easier, what I really mean is it couldn’t get any more seductive. It’s tantalizing, isn’t it, to imagine that we could achieve something so desirable as weight loss without putting in any more effort than fluffing a pillow and bedding down for the night.
That ease of achievement is not unlike the allure of buying a winning Powerball and lottery ticket. Or appearing on TV game show and walking away 30 minutes later with a house full of new furniture.
The kid in us who grew up wishing on stars, the part of us that hopes for things to drop in our laps, can easily misunderstand our lesson this morning. So let’s spend a little time together reflecting.
“I will put the law within them and I will write it on their hearts,” we hear God proclaiming this morning through the prophet Jeremiah. God was speaking to God’s own people languishing in exile.
Here’s how this happened. Over the course of generations, the sense of being in covenant with God had grown dim. Gestures of faithfulness gradually became more rote and less fulfilling. Some of God’s people began dabbling in worship of other gods. Caring for the most vulnerable in the community was no longer a way to simultaneously show love for God and neighbor but was now reduced to a burden and an afterthought. The laws God had given generations beforehand, laws meant not to inhibit the fullness of life but rather expand it, those laws over time grew faint and meaningless.
In a nutshell, the people had slowly but surely fallen asleep and as they slept, they lost and lost and lost.
The prophet Jeremiah was witness to the tail end of this spiritual descent.
The sizable nations surrounding little Judah and tiny Israel—Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—had all been puffing up their chests and throwing their weight around.
And what had long been the best defense of God’s people—their faith, their relationship with the Divine—was now as groggy and limp as a child roused too early.
Jeremiah had tried to awaken his people from their slumber. But he was unsuccessful. So he was left to watch and grieve as God’s people were overtaken and Israel’s best and brightest were forced to leave and live in exile in Babylon.
This is something we’ve seen happen in this nation as indigenous people were scooped up and left to languish on land they had no cultural or spiritual connections to. Except that indigenous people experienced this not because of their sin or waywardness but because of the sin and waywardness of colonizers.
Jeremiah wasn’t the only one paying attention to what happened. Nor was he the only one clutching his heart in grief. God, too, watched and grieved. Watched and grieved—and then as we hear this morning—reached out to a suffering people with a new covenant, a new way to be in a mutually fulfilling relationship.
God reached out then for the same reason God has always reached out: because leaving us to languish is not God’s way. It is always God’s nature to respond in love when our practices and priorities get us into trouble and cause us to lose our way.
God reached out to a nation in exile, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Once again.
I have to think that given the loss of relationship with God that resulted in exile, given how long and how often the people had failed to live with God and one another as God intended, this gracious move on God’s part had to have taken time to sink in.
Why? Because in their spiritual despair and desolation, in their humiliation and hardship, what the exiles were expecting to hear God say was something along the lines of “I’m so done with you people. I’m so over this.”
Because, to be honest, their getting dumped would have made sense. The people had failed, utterly and completely. They had stomped all over the covenant of mutual love and faithfulness God had established with them through their forebears at Mt. Sinai.
What Israel and Judah had done to God, their covenant partner, was not all that different from a spouse who completely forgets their wedding vows or who lets the ink on the marriage license grow so faint as to be unreadable.
But God didn’t say “I’m done.” Quite the opposite.
God said “I am making a new covenant with you. And this one, you can’t lose. This covenant, you can’t forget. This one will be woven into the fabric of who you are. From now on, my laws of love will be written on your hearts where you can’t possibly lose sight of them.”
Think about this for a minute. Rather than give up on this relationship, rather than throw in the towel, rather than say to a people “You made this disastrous bed, now lie in it,” God doubled down on the relationship God had with God’s chosen, Israel and Judah.
Does this doubling down make God needy? Is God like the person who simply can’t let go when their lover trashes the relationship, the spurned one who grovels and pleads and abandons all self-respect because they can’t live with the thought of being alone, of not having this person who has many times proven to an unworthy partner?
Absolutely not. God’s need here is more like the kind we see in a caring coach who knows what we are truly capable of and so keeps stepping up to help us succeed when we’ve let her—and ourselves—down.
God in our lesson today is like a committed teacher who knows we have it in us to excel and so keeps revising lesson plans and coming up with new methodologies to bring out the very best in us.
God’s need in Jeremiah today is like the best kind of boss or mentor, the one who knows we’re far more gifted than we ourselves realize and who, instead of firing us, comes along side us to help us see what he sees, what she sees, so that we can be and become what we have it in us to be and become.
That’s love, not lack. That’s love, not need, not something incomplete in God.
It’s the kind of love that goes the distance, no matter how difficult the going gets. It’s the kind of love we see in Jesus as he puts one foot in front of the other through Holy Week, even as he is betrayed by one of his own, as his closest friends fall away, even as the shadows lengthen and swallow him up. Even as everything seems lost.
Years ago someone asked me what I would be doing if I knew I could not fail. He thought his question was clever and that asking it would make him seem deep.
I told this fellow I wasn’t interested in his question. The question that mattered to me what this: What would I be doing if I knew God would not fail me.
The God who won’t fail us is the God we see this morning. The God who says to a people who have messed up and know they have messed up, who have fallen asleep spiritually and have woken up in a land not of their choosing, a people who have loved badly and as a result have lost, to these people God says not adios but welcome home.
“Welcome home to my heart, which is where your hearts are found. I’m giving you the key. I’m writing a law of love deep within you, one that you can’t forget, one that you can’t lose track of, that you can’t leave out in the sun like an old marriage license where the lettering, along with the meaning, becomes so faint as to be unreadable.”
How can we not love this God? And want this God to succeed every bit as much as this God wants us to succeed?
How can we not, each and every morning when we rise, rub the sleep from our eyes and say to God: “We didn’t lose you while we slept. Here you are. Here we are. Together let’s make dreams come true. Together, let’s make your realm of love and justice come alive, here one earth as it already is in heaven. This, O God, we can and will do together.”
This yes to a life with God and God’s own isn’t easy. Not by a long shot. It doesn’t just fall in our laps. But there is nothing sweeter, nothing more beautiful, nothing more fulfilling. Taste this life, this life with God and God’s people, and there’s nothing more satisfying. Nothing else that could possibly do.
But I suspect you already know this.