March 25, 2012

 

ON CONSCIENCE 

                                                       Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                            at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 25 March 2012 

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

 

So far this Lent our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have focussed on covenants, commitments that God has made with his people.  We have seen that the English word, “covenant”, is used to translate a concept in Hebrew that has to do with cutting or cleaving, or separation.  Four weeks ago we saw how God cleaved the Heavens with a rainbow, and we commented that, when we look at the sky rather than at the rainbow, that there is usually a distinct division between the darkness on one side of the rainbow and the brightness on the other.  At that time God made a promise to Noah and to all his descendants that he would never again destroy the World with a great flood.  Three weeks ago we read of a promise made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the Heavens.  This time there was a cleaving of some livestock, and God ratified this promise by passing through the divided parts of the slaughtered animals in the guise of a blazing lantern.  We also saw how God demanded that Abraham offer his promised and only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, and how Abraham, in total confidence that in fact the Lord God would prevent such a sacrifice, left his servant with the donkey with the parting words, “Wait here until we return.”  Such is the faithfulness of God in what he promises that Abraham knew that both he and Isaac would return from the altar of sacrifice.  Then two weeks ago, when the reading was from Exodus 20, we saw how the words spoken by God to Moses might better be understood as words of promise rather than words of command.  God cuts us a deal, carved in stone, that when we put him first, then we discover that he has promised that he will see to it that he will keep us doing the things that he promises in those seventeen verses of Exodus 20.  In other words, they are promises that we can be assured he will keep concerning us, rather than commandments that we most certainly break.  Last week we saw how when people do what God urges them to do, then the stumbling blocks in our way are removed.  When the people focussed on the bronze serpent that he had instructed Moses to mould, the powers of the snakes in the animal world were thwarted, and we saw also how the words of Jesus about being lifted up, whether by his enemies on a cross or by his Father into the Heavens, encourage us to gaze upon him and leave whatever besets us for him to deal with.

This week we have one of the loveliest passages in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, the words spoken through the prophet, Jeremiah, regarding a totally new covenant, a new promise that the LORD is about to make with the whole people of Israel, those who had long since be deported from the Holy Land and those who were about to be deported into exile in Babylon.  This time there is to be no cloven sky, no divided animals, no deal cut in stone and no bronze serpent.  There will be some carving, and God will cut a deal with the people of Israel, but it will not be recorded on a rock, but in their hearts, as Semitic people would say, or in their minds, as we would say.  Or we might say that God is about to give his people an awareness of conscience.

That word conscience, not available to the ancient Hebrews, is an interesting one.  It is made up of two Latin words, and basically means, “with knowledge.”  Conscience is something we acquire when we have knowledge.  Without knowledge there can be no active conscience.  But the question is, “Knowledge of what?”  Or, perhaps we should say, “Knowledge of whom?”  In this passage, the LORD, the Holy Spirit, speaking through the mouth of the prophet, Jeremiah, tells us, “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.”

Now, if we do not have to be taught by others, then who is it that will teach us?  The prophet is telling us that the LORD intends to “write upon our hearts” himself.  He intends to implant in each and every one of his people knowledge and awareness of himself.  Yet how is that to happen?  It will happen, indeed it does happen, when we have open hearts, or open minds.  Many people, including many churchgoing people have very closed minds and very closed hearts.  They believe that they already know all that it is necessary to know.  There is an entire book in the Hebrew Scriptures about just such a man.  His name was Job.  Oh, Job was a good man, or so everybody said, but Job thought he knew what God expected of him and so he did that.  It took God a long time to finally get through to Job.  It took a long conversation between God and Job, but as we all know, if we have ever read the book, that eventually Job was made to realize that he did not have all the answers.  No one man, from Pope to Archbishop to Parish Priest to Vestry Member to anyone else sitting in the pews knows all the answers.  But we can all know the LORD and be taught by him.  And moreover it does not take the brightest mind to understand something very simple about the LORD. 

The LORD is very patient and long-suffering.  He knows how too readily we mortals will assume unto ourselves that we are all-knowing and all-powerful.  Yet who is it that is the Omniscient and the Omnipotent?  When we recite the Creed, who is it that we affirm is the Creator and the Almighty?  It is no person present this morning, or absent!  We believe in one God, the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth of all that is, seen and unseen.  That’s the new version of the Creed.  The older version has this to say: I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, the Giver of Life, … who spake by the Prophets.  Whatever version we use, and on most Sundays we get to use both, it is very clear that God, whether as Father, Son or Holy Ghost, is the one who is anxious to write upon our hearts or in our minds or on our conscience what it is that he is seeking to do for us, in us and through us. 

Jeremiah puts it this way.  “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Let me again remind all of us that English is a wonderful language and that what we see in these words is not that God will forgive us our sins at some future date.  If that was his intention he would say, “I shall forgive their iniquity.”  But what he does say is, “I will forgive”.  He is doing so already, and let us be thankful that he is doing so on a continuous basis.  And then he adds, “[I will not] remember their sin.” 

“Remember”.  Most of you have heard me go on at length about that word.  “Remember” is not the opposite of “forget”, but of “dismember”.  When we die, as we all are going to, old age, sickness or some accident will have dismembered us to some degree.  But then God remembers us, as we say in that wonderful collect in the Burial Service,

            Remember, your servant, O Lord, according to the favour that you bear to  your
            people,  and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of you, he may go from
            strength to strength in the life of perfect service in your heavenly kingdom.

The Lord God remembers us, but Jeremiah assures us, or rather the Holy Spirit speaking through Jeremiah assures us, that the LORD will remember our sin no more.  That is a promise, a covenant into which God has freely chosen to enter with each of us.  Whether you like it or not, your sins are forgiven and the LORD remembers them no more.  He is not going to mention them ever again.  Your so-called friends and acquaintances might well recall them, but not the LORD. The prophet Isaiah teaches us that it does not matter how scarlet or crimson our sins and iniquities are, our record will be whiter than snow.  The redness of our debts to God is eliminated by the redness of the blood of Christ crucified, but that is a promise and a covenant to look at on another occasion in the not too dim and distant future 

The message in the covenant, the promise, that we are looking at today, is that your sins are forgiven and that your iniquities are no longer remembered by God.  That is his promise, and the law that he lives by is that promise.