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, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of the one who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: 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, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
Of all the unfulfilled prophecy of scripture, I think that our reading for today is the most heartbreaking. The promise that God’s people would come to a place where there might be peace in every aspect of life. No more sin, no more evil, no more suffering or questions. There would only be the surety of God’s goodness and the wonderful joy of human participation in that divine economy of grace. The future when the past does not affect the present, for all has been wiped away except what was good and worthy.
The future painted by Jeremiah here is something that God’s people have always sought after. We all want to live in a world where we do what we ought to. Even at our most downtrodden and in those moments we do what we want, knowing that it is not right, we want to be good. The acknowledgement of the conflict within us is something that Paul gives as evidence for the work of God within us. When we can see ourselves resisting temptation it is a sign of our own strength and our growth. God has given all people a conscience, and that conscience is refined by the Spirit into something corrective. We do not live in guilt and doubt, but we take every opportunity to serve one another in love to grow and to change.
Yet, the promise here is not the gradual change of the soul over a long time, but an immediate realization of a new world. This is a dream within the heart of God, one that will see fruition someday. This dream is that the saving grace of God will finally eradicate sin from creation, a clean attempt to remake the world as it should be. The people of God would be unable to err because all that was within them was goodness and light. This is done all through God reaching down and scooping out the things within us that have gone awry, and nurturing all that is right. An infusion of goodness to match that of our example in Christ, the perfection of the human condition into a perfect divine reflection.
Different people have seen this miraculous flip switching at different times in a person’s life. We in the Methodist Tradition usually see the language here regarding the instantaneous nature of our sanctification as actually reflecting a prolonged process. The Hebrew here, after all, while seemingly immediate, only says that God “Will,” write upon our hearts, not how long the transcription process takes. So, Wesley and many a Wesleyan after his example insist in a slow transformation through the constant discipline of our hearts. In pursuing holiness, we are transformed into what we ought to be. Unsatisfied with this, the holiness movement, led by innovators like Phoebe Palmer, suggested that when we come to the altar and confess our faith for the first time, we ought to never sin again – having laid it all down, we should at once be made whole.
I want us to see something of use in both these understandings. There is a trap that the earnest practitioner of holiness can fall into. Since we are all aware that we are on a journey, not where we need to be yet but well on our way, we can be comfortable not making much progress. That goes beyond issues of faith to anything we practice. I have not made the hats I ought to have since I started knitting, and I still only know how to work in one color and with one kind of cast-on. I should be farther along in that art I enjoy, so imagine the holiness I would rather put off for another day.
This lack of practice that can come from being overly comfortable with the process rather than the outcome requires us to claim some of our urgency back. We never know when our life will end, and I want to end my life in the best possible place I can spiritually. I want to know God as much as I can while I live, to treat others with the love and respect that only holiness and insight can give, to be transformed fully while there is air in my lungs. We must be urgent in our pursuit of holiness, because our time is limited on this earth.
What of the other end of the spectrum? Among the holiness school there ought to be a greater adherence to God’s ways, and I think there often is. Some of the kindest people I know, who excel in showing God’s love to the world, are Pentecostal or Pentecostal-Adjacent. I know that hearing about some of the hooping and hollering and Spirit filled altar calls of this congregation, many of y’all weren’t far from that tradition back in the day. The United Brethren on the corner of 19th and Pride were, what I think would classically be called, “Holy Fools.” The Spirit led you to do what you were gonna do in worship, and ain’t no one gonna stop it.
The immediacy of action that the Pentecostal mindset calls people to is invaluable. The problem, at least how I see it, is that it can also make us stagnant in a different way. While we see in our Methodist tendencies of holiness a risk of losing momentum to eventuality, the immediacy of altar theology means that we can imagine the work is already done the second we stand up. On the other side of the coin from the Holiness mindset that embodies grace, kindness and love, are the people who let their holiness become “Holier-than-thou-ness.” We’ll be talking about humility more next week, but I will suffice it to say that we all know people who get a drop of the Spirit and then decide everything else they ever thought is anointed and of God.
I, as may be shocking to you all, despite my love and appreciation for the ecstatic traditions of the faith, am not an ecstatic in any way shape of form. Put in other ways, while I feel the Spirit in my words and my teachings and my life, the Spirit does not manifest in some of those more Pentecostal tendencies. I have not had much occasion for holy shouting or dancing, my hands usually stay about a few inches to my side in acts of worship, and seldom do I enter that lovely flexile swing of many of the good Baptist preachers I worked alongside in the Baptist Convention. For me, I embody many of the aspects of the old-guard of Episcopal Adjacent ministry. Full of energy, but an energy that does not leave the six inches around my body.
I bring that up to say that I am a biased interpreter in this respect. The Spirit works gradually in the soul, that is something I know. I also know that I am someone who carries the Spirit in a way different form other people I know. It manifests differently in my preaching than it does in other ministers I know, sometimes in how animated I am, or how demure. In the same way, the Spirit manifests in our pursuit of holiness differently. There are some, Wesley even admits, who may receive instantaneous sanctification when they come to the faith. For those people, maybe they can stand up from an altar and ne’er sin again.
I am not a soul such as that, nor do I think most of us gathered together here are. In truth, the slow walk of righteousness is something that can become an excuse, but is more often simply a reality. We will all know a day we do not sin, but it will not usually be on this side of eternity. Likewise, even those who are perfected are not immune from accidental evildoing, so to see an immediate transformation as the only way to be, or the normative way to be, seems strange to me.
The ideal would be immediate transformation, we cannot deny that. I wonder then, what we are doing that keeps us from growing. Do we cling to habits and mindsets we know are wrong? Why hold onto the dead past when a new and abundant life is in front of us? The pen has been places against our hearts, God is writing the goodness and grace necessary for us to live out the life we are called to, so why are we constantly shoving the divine instrument away? Why do we keep fighting, keep cursing one another, keep feeding into the evils of this world? We have the power, the full force of the Spirit of God and the Gospel of Christ to live out the Will of God. We are more than conquerors, yet we yield power over to time or to pretension rather than striving to be holy. Let us all think hard what we are doing now, and let the fire of the Spirit burning beneath our heart send us forward to really change, and not to sit still in our error. – Amen.