I wish you were the one that got away | Sermon from August 19, 2018

Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34

The one that got away. It’s a phrase uttered wistfully, wishing for something that didn’t end up being. She’s the one who got away. Or that’s the deal that got away. The fleeting opportunity that got away without coming to fruition. It’s a phrase that speaks of hope almost realized, and yet still of hope. The one that got away might, one day, be the one that got realized, the hope that came to fruition. And so we say the phrase: The one that got away.

A few years ago, I got introduced to a new band that I’m in love with. They’re called The Civil Wars, a now defunct female-male duo that sings folk music with a rock beat. Their music often has a haunting quality to it. So much so that I find myself thinking and dwelling on lyrics for hours later. Such was the case with these lyrics:

Oh, if I could go back in time

When you only held me in my mind

Just a longing gone without a trace

Oh, I wish I’d never ever seen your face

I wish you were the one

Wish you were the one that got away

How deep must the pain and hurt be that the singer could say, “I wish you were the one that got away.” The depth of the hurt sat with me. Somehow, the person the singer references had hurt her so badly, the wound was so deep, she feels her life would have been better had they never been together, if they had never even met. She wishes he was the one that got away.

It’s like she’s saying I wish the hope you’d introduced into my life had never been. I don’t want relationship with you because it simply hurts too much. There’s too much pain, there’s too much history, there are too many chances given and squandered, there are too many sins forgiven and promises broken. Relationship is so beyond the state of repair that I wish you were the one that got away.

Maybe you can relate. I certainly can. There are relationships in my life that I wish were the ones that had gotten away. I wish I’d never had to experience relationship with him. I wish she’d gotten away so that the pain would never have been. Relationship was so deeply, painfully, cutting that I wish the relationship had never been. I can relate: I wish you were the one that got away.

The phrase speaks to a history. Between two people, or even in a community of people, a relationship lasted long enough for there to be a history of hurt and forgiveness, a history of chances given and squandered, a history of hopeful new beginnings and devastating endings. There’s a history that now characterizes the relationship. That history says, “I can’t see you and not see the past, not see the history of pain and hurt and suffering. I can’t see you and not see the sleepless nights, the tear-soaked pillows, the broken dishes or hear the raised voices and name calling. The history is so deep, so long, so painful, I wish I’d never seen your face. I wish you were a longing gone without a trace. I wish you were the one that got away.

That history, that long, painful, up and down history is the history of God and the people of Israel. Over and over again, God gives them chances to redeem their relationship and they squander them. At moments, there are hopeful new beginnings, always quickly followed by devastating endings. God forgives over and over again, and yet the people eventually squander that forgiveness.

That’s where Jeremiah speaks to the people. The world is falling apart literally for the Israelites. Some blame God and say to God, “I wish you were the one that got away.” Others blame God’s messenger, and Jeremiah often finds himself in danger or, at least, often ostracized from society. They tell Jeremiah they wish he was the one that got away.

But Jeremiah is frank with the people: God isn’t happy with you. Over and over again, God has given you chances, and you’ve squandered them. Over and over again, God has endured the pain caused by broken relationship, and yet still maintained covenant promises to always be your God, to maintain relationship with you. The hurt God feels is so deeply, painfully, cutting, that God cannot remain silent about the people’s promises broken, chances squandered, and sins committed.

We can easily imagine God saying to the people at this point, “I wish you were the people that got away. I wish I could go back in time when you only held me in your mind, just a longing gone without a trace. Oh, I wish I’d never seen your ancestors’ faces, I wish you were the ones, I wish you were the ones that got away.”

It may sound harsh, but we couldn’t blame God for this, could we? We end relationships ourselves for far smaller infractions. The recorded history Jeremiah references, from the first kings to his time, spans almost 500 years. God has endured 500 years of promises broken, sins committed, chances squandered, all of which have hurt the heart of God deeply. It seems like now’s the time for God to call it quits, saying “I chose the wrong people. I wish you were the ones that got away, but now I’ll forget your faces, and choose a new people under a new covenant.”

In fact, we can imagine reading the scripture in just this way. After all, God starts out saying “a time is coming…when I will make a new covenant…” A new covenant, one not like the one with the ancestors of the Israelites and the Judahites; a different one, a new one. It feels, here at the beginning of our scripture for this morning, like God’s starting over. This didn’t work out; let’s start again. God says, I wish they were the ones that got away. But no matter. I’ve learned from my mistakes. Let’s do this again.

From this reading, it seems like the people had simply screwed up too much and now God would leave them behind. It’s like God does, in fact, wish the Israelites were the ones that got away. So now it’s time to start over.

I grew up with this idea that God could abandon promises God makes. The people had committed so many sins that God had left covenant relationship behind. This means, undoubtedly, that God can wash God’s hands of a people, of a relationship, and simply walk away, abandoning the people.

But as I got older, I started to wonder, “what does that mean for me?! If I screw up too much, will God leave relationship with me? Can I sin so much that relationship between God and I will be irreparable?” Would God ever say to me, “I wish you were the one that got away?”

I lived much of my life with that fear. I wonder if you can relate? That fear that says that God’s love for me has limits. I have to be good, I have to make sure I’m following the rules, set forth by Jesus and interpreted by my church community, or else I might screw up so much, even without knowing it, that God will say to me, “I wish you were the one that got away.”

That’s the fear of the people of God, the Jews, as they sit in exile. Can we really believe that this God of ours would never stop seeking us? Even though we’ve screwed up so much? Even though we’re clearly undeserving? After so many chances that we’ve squandered, after so many promises that we’ve broken, after so many sins that we’ve committed, could relationship really be repaired? Does God still want us? Does God still love us?

In a world where so many relationships fail, where so many relationships leave behind bitter, painful, memories, it’s hard to imagine a relationship, even with our divine creator, that can never falter nor fail. Can we really believe that this God of ours would never leave relationship with us? Can we really believe that this God of ours would never stop seeking us? Would never stop pursuing us? Would never say to us, “I wish you were the one that got away?”

In our scripture this morning, instead of saying “I wish you were the one that got away,” God says, “I wish you never got away.” Hear the words of verse 33: “But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days – declares the LORD: I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

Clearly, God is not starting over. God is not saying to the people “I wish you were the ones that got away.” They haven’t screwed up so much that God will leave them. Even though they’ve squandered their chances, broken promises, committed many sins, God is not abandoning God’s promise to their ancestors to be their God and for them to be God’s people.

Instead, God says loudly and clearly, “I will be their God. I will be the God of the House of Israel, the Jews. I will not abandon you, I still want you, I still love you, I wish you never got away.”

So can we really believe that this God of ours would never stop seeking us? Would never stop pursuing us? Would never say to us, “I wish you were the one that got away?”

We can cling to the covenant promises of Jeremiah because it reveals the character of God. This God of ours doesn’t break promises, this God of ours never abandons relationship, no matter how many chances we’ve squandered, no matter how many sins we’ve committed, no matter how many promises we’ve broken.

Maybe today, you’re the one who got away. You’ve broken promises, squandered opportunity, desecrated the image of God. You think that God says to you, “I can’t see you and not see the past, not see the history of pain and hurt and suffering. I can’t see you and not see the sleepless nights, the tear-soaked pillows, the broken dishes or hear the raised voices and name calling. Our history is so deep, so long, so painful, I wish I’d never seen your face. I wish you were a longing gone without a trace. I wish you were the one that got away.” But that is simply not the case. God says, I wish you never got away. Even now, return to me, for I am still your God.

God says to all of us this morning, loudly and clearly, “I will be your God. I will be the God of you and your house. I will not abandon you, I still want you, I still love you, I wish you never got away.”

I wish you never got away. That’s what God says to us this day through the prophet Jeremiah. I wish you never got away, for you have always been a part of me. God has put God’s Teaching, knowledge of God, into the depths of our very beings for we are created in God’s image. We carry around the very image of the God we abandon, the God we squander, the God we hurt.

And yet, says God, I have inscribed myself on your hearts. You are my people. You already know what you should do. So do it. Even now, return to me, for I wish you never got away.

Too often, we focus on what we can do for God to maintain relationship with God. But hear again what God says in Jeremiah: “I will put my Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts.”

The action here is God’s. I will put, I will inscribe. The action isn’t ours. We focus so much on what we can do for God, when God’s call is much simpler. Look inside of yourself and find that inscription. Hit the pause button on life and sense the Teaching inscribed on your heart. God’s image, God’s teaching, a divine spark, lies inscribed on our hearts.

As human beings, created in the image of God, we carry around with us that inscription whether we mean to or not. The question is, are we responding to that inscription? Do we believe that God really says to us, “I wish you never got away” no matter the sins we’ve committed? No matter how long it’s been since we talked? No matter what?

God calls to us from inside our hearts, where God has been all along. We may try to get away, we may even feel like the one who got away, but God’s inscription remains on our hearts. God has always been there, calling out our names, speaking to us saying, “I wish you never got away.”

There’s a longing inscribed on our hearts that comes up from our innermost being. That’s God’s love for us. “Love is, and always was, the longing placed inside our hearts to know and be known by God.” (All Sons and Daughters EP cover) God is our God, and we are God’s people. God will never break that relationship. No matter the chances we’ve squandered, no matter the promises we’ve broken, no matter the sins we’ve committed, God is our God and we are God’s people, marked inside our inmost being with the inscription of God; bearers of the image of God. When we become the one that got away, all we need do is pause our lives long enough to turn inside, to our hearts, to hear God calling our our names in the stillness.

If you’re the one that got away, God says to you this morning, “I wish you never got away.” Nowhere in God’s thoughts or heart is the wish that you were the one that got away. There’s no rejection, only acceptance of you as God’s beloved child, God’s image, that divine spark. Return today. Come forward to the altar as we close our worship and give your life back. You may have gotten away, but God is ready with open arms to receive you back. I wish you never got away.

This day, no matter where you stand in your relationship with God, pause your life. Respond to that longing, that inscription on your heart, of God that cries from your innermost being. Keep a practice of silence, tune out the world, turn inward, and listen to your heart. In listening in the stillness of pausing our lives, we will hear the cry of the inscription of God that lies there. “No matter if you’re the one that got away, God says, Even now, return to me. I wish you never got away, for you will always be my child.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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