A little story about expectations.
In a little town not too far from where I grew up there was a café. It was just one of those small town greasy spoons, the kind that used to occupy the downtown of every little rural community. Above the door the sign read, “The Best Burgers In the County.”
But, if “truth in advertising” were to be employed, the sign outside the door would have been changed long ago. For in truth, that café had the worst burgers in the county, or at very least the most inconsistent!
Around any given table, if 4 or 5 people had ordered a burger and dared to raise the top of their bun, they would each find a different issue. Some would be overcooked, some underdone, each formed by hand and so some would be tightly packed and dry, while others crumbled and fell apart as you lifted it. You might order your burger any way you like, but it would always be a mystery as to how it actually looked when it showed up on the plate.
Actually, the sign behind the counter above the swinging door to the kitchen was more truthful, if less appealing. That sign read,
“This ain’t no Burger King, you’ll get it our way, or you won’t get the ______thing at all!”
Despite all this, at 12:00 noon every day, six days a week, the old man who ran the hardware store across the street would come in for lunch and order a hamburger.
Day in and day out, he would order the same lunch, and each day the burger he got would be a little different, but never quite right.
When asked why in the world he kept ordering a burger at this place, he simply smiled and winked through his thick glasses, and said, “well, sooner or later I figure they’ll mess up and get it right, and when they do I want to be the one to tell them.”
What does this little amusing story about hamburgers and expectations have to do with the scripture for today?
In the lesson from Jeremiah today, God is talking about covenants. God talks about promises made long ago and promises that are yet to come.
Much of Israel’s history could be compared to that café sign. What they proclaimed to be did not match very well what they actually were.
Outwardly, they proclaimed that they were governed by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But looking around at the political intrigue of kings and priests, it was apparent that they followed their own inclinations.
Outwardly, they understood themselves to be the covenant people, who delighted in the Lord’s law and who followed God’s direction.
Inwardly, they were humans who schemed and dreamed and followed the law when it was convenient for their own purposes and used it as a club against those who did not conform.
In short, for Israel (as for us!) the actions of the people did not live up to the promise of the sign on the outside. No matter how convincing and appealing that sign on the outside may be that proclaims who you are, the real test is whether you live up to what you profess to be inside.
If you are going to have a sign that says, “The Best Burgers In The County”, then you had best produce such a burger.
If you are going go by the phrase, “We are the Chosen People, the Covenant People of God,” you had best keep up your end of that covenant with that God who has chosen you.
In Jeremiah’s time, that covenant had indeed been broken, and the penalty was death.
The death of their nation.
The death of their dreams and hopes.
The death of their normal and comfortable way of life.
And we might say that is just what they should expect for having failed to live up to what they proclaimed themselves to be.
That is no different from our expectations.
When we do something wrong, we also expect the worst. The bigger our offense, the bigger the “Oh-oh” we commit, the greater the punishment we expect. To have broken the covenant with God is about as bad as it can get.
But now, see what God does in Jeremiah.
The talk of punishment is simply not there.
Instead, something amazing happens, something completely unexpected. Instead of applying the rules of the old covenant and doubling down on them, instead of holding these people accountable for how they have failed to live up to the expectation God had of them, God decides instead to give a new promise.
“Behold, the days are surely coming” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant…” And the hallmark of this new covenant — it will be written now, on their hearts instead of on tablets of stone. In this new covenant God promises, “I will forgive their sins, and remember their iniquity no more.”
What a strange God!
When a covenant is broken by one party, no one expects the other party to have any responsibility for fixing the situation!
The first bad burger you had in a place that advertises “the best burgers in the county” should have resulted in you never eating there again!
You might even become an “extraordinary communicator” spreading the word far and wide of warning to others. “Don’t go in there!”
But our God ends up being like that old hardware store owner.
Our God comes back again and again, to see what we are doing this time.
Our God keeps trying it with us, not because he likes what we put out all the time, but because God appears to have confidence that one day we will get it right – maybe even accidentally, and God wants to be there when we do to let us know it!
Over and over again God comes back to God’s people, through the prophets, through the priests and the scribes and the Pharisees, through Jesus and the disciples and the Word of God revealed in scripture.
God will use the full array of witnesses available to drive home what God is really all about.
Over and over again the good news of this new covenant is delivered. “They shall know me, and I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more.”
Our God is a persistent God.
Our God is a God who is persistent in extending forgiveness to people.
Our God is a God whose memory for wrongdoing is exceedingly short, and whose passion for caring and loving is exceedingly long.
Our God is a God who cares passionately about people.
For what other reason, would God send a new covenant?
For what other reason, would God send his own and only Son?
Here, you see, in Jesus; God is showing us what God has long hoped and dreamed that God would find in us, find us doing as God’s covenant people.
Here, in Jesus, God shows us the one who “looks the way we ought to look.”
God lifts up Jesus for all to see.
Here is the example of an abundant life.
Here is the example of a covenant kept, a promised fulfilled.
Here is the example of a life well-lived in service, and in concern for justice, and in obedience to compassion.
God lifts Jesus up so that we all may see, and we all may be drawn to him, and in drawing near to Jesus be given a glimpse of that new Kingdom, that new covenant promised.
This is the good news that we really need to hear and see in our world right now, because so much of life seems to be about punishing and giving up on things.
We struggle with issues of immigration, and human rights, and personal morality, and corruption in government and too often we hear those who are ready to tell us who should be shipped out, who should be rounded up, and who should be excluded.
This world clamors to make someone pay the penalty, for someone to take the fall.
Or we disparage of the whole thing, you can’t trust politicians, or this group, or that group, or the institutional church, so why even try anymore.
We turn off the news.
We turn further and further in on ourselves, and into our own silos of belief and information.
The world is going to hell in a handbasket, why even bother with it anymore. We even call it a “God-forsaken world.”
But it is precisely into this kind of world clamoring for someone to pay the price, discouraged with its own performance, saying it is one thing but acting like it is something else that God sends Jesus.
The sign of the New Covenant is not perfection, it is human. The Word made flesh to dwell among us.
The sign of the new covenant is not us getting everything right all the time.
No, the sign of the new covenant is Jesus, and the way of the servant who goes to the cross, the very sign of brokenness itself, lifted up for all to see.
Here is a sign we can live up to, for it calls us not to be perfect, or to be tough, or to do it all right, but to simply look to the graciousness of God found in Christ Jesus and to live a reflection of Jesus’ life.
Look to the Cross and find there the God who knows all about brokenness and death.
Look to the Cross and behold Jesus, who knows a thing or two about suffering and loneliness, about being persecuted and rejected, a thing or two about loss, and who knows about confusion, fear and every emotion you so often feel welling up inside of you.
Our God is a persistent God, persistent in loving, persistent in coming to us.
Our God comes back again and again to sample what we have done as God’s people, waiting with longing for that day when we offer something close to what God hopes for. And when we do it, when we even get close, God smiles and calls us his children and says, “well done.”
That café may never have the best burgers in the county, but that doesn’t stop that old hardware store owner with the thick glasses from hoping and coming back again and again.
We may never get God’s vision for the Kingdom right in this life, but that doesn’t keep God from coming back to us again and again, offering the new covenant in Jesus’ body and blood.
Someday, we will have such things written on our hearts, and God will be there to tell us.
In such hope God lives and continues to come to us, in love.