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. It’s a phrase that speaks of hope almost realized, but a hope not known, and so we wistfully say the one that got away with an ounce of despair.
If we listen closely this morning, it’s a phrase we can hear echoes of in our scripture lesson. They’re the people who got away. The relationship that got away. The dreams and desires I had for them that got away. The hopes and fears of all the years, rather than met in thee tonight as the Christmas carol says, are the ones that got away.
Let’s hear God speak through the prophet Jeremiah as we continue our sermon series on covenants: a look at God’s promises.
The one that got away.
A few years ago, I got introduced to a new band 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 can 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. She’s saying 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 I had simply never known you, wish our history had never been; 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 existed. Perhaps we can all relate to having someone in our lives of whom we would say: 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 that 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’s quite a history; one that is probably all too familiar for most of us.
A history that also speaks to the relationship between God and the chosen people; the ones God claimed through Abraham, the ones to whom God is speaking through the prophet Jeremiah.
Throughout their history, even from the beginning of time with Adam and Eve, God has given chances over and over again. God has provided redemption over and over again. God has granted forgiveness, mercy, and grace, over and over again. There’s a long history here. A history where God says throughout the prophets, “I can’t see you and not see the past, not see the history of pain and hurt and suffering.” That’s largely because they hear God’s call to keep the commandments, to keep the teachings, to love God and love neighbor as we said last week, but over and over again, they choose to do otherwise, loving other gods and oppressing their neighbors.
This leaves God heart-broken and grieving. It’s easy to imagine after hundreds of years of this that God would utter the phrase, wistfully, “I wish you were the one that got away.”
By this moment in Jeremiah, God has given them up to their own devices. God allows the natural consequences of their apostasy, their idolatry, their sinfulness, to catch up with them. The result is the exile. Babylon comes and destroys Judah, destroys the temple, destroys Jerusalem, and hauls off the leaders of Judean society, their best and brightest, to the city of Babylon, where they are forced to live. And so, once again, they cry out to God for salvation. And God is exhausted. Every time they get in trouble, they cry out to God for help, only to forget God once things are good.
Jeremiah, like all the Old Testament prophets, is frank with the people as they cry out from exile: 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.
And so will God save them this time? Will God provide a way for them? Or has God given up on his promises to them through Abraham? Will God renege on his covenant? Have the people simply done too much wrong, for too long, exhausting and breaking the heart of God finally for good, that God will now walk away?
That’s exactly what the people in exile are asking. They’re wondering, “Is God saying of us, 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; a different one, a new one. It feels, here at the beginning of our scripture for this morning, like God’s starting over. This people 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. I’ll leave them behind. Let’s do this again with a new people under a new covenant.
And so, it’s easy to hear echoes of that phrase in our scripture this morning: I wish you were the ones that got away.
If this interpretation is true, it means God is capable of breaking promises. It means that if a people, or even if we as individuals, sin enough, are apostate enough, reject God enough, that God can walk away from us, saying that he’ll go find someone else to be in a relationship. It means that we can cause God to be a jilted lover, abandoning us and walking away from covenant promises to us.
I grew up with this idea that God could abandon promises God makes. 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 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.”
My question is the question of the people sitting in exile; the people to whom Jeremiah writes. Maybe it’s your question, too. Maybe you’re asking it now or maybe you’ve asked it in your past. Can God break promises to us? Would God ever say to us as individuals or as a community, “I wish you were the ones that got away.”
Put another way: 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. It seems increasingly so that no relationship is forever. So maybe not even our divine-human relationship. Can we really believe that God would never say to us, “I wish you were the one that got away?”
Let’s look more closely at our scripture this morning. Instead of saying “I wish you were the one that got away,” God is actually saying, “I wish you never got away.” Hear the words of verse 33 again: “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.” This is a promise made to the House of Israel, to the Israelites, to the Jews sitting in exile. This isn’t a new promise for a new people; no, this is God doubling-down on relationship with his 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. I will not abandon you, I still want you, I still love you, I wish you never got away.”
Not I wish you were the one that got away.
No, God says, I wish you never got away.
To the people who had abandoned him, abused their relationship with him, squandered opportunities, and tried to take advantage of his grace and love; to that people who now sit in exile, a result of their own choices, God says, “I wish you never got away.” God says to them, right there at the end of our scripture, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.”
They don’t deserve it. There’s no good reason for God to treat them in this way. Save one; the reason we’ve been examining during this Lenten season: God keeps God’s promises.
God made a promise to them to always be their God. Just as we said when we looked at the covenant God made with Abraham, God claimed them as his people, forever. What’s new here is the how: instead of rote adherence to the law, God will be on their hearts, God will be with them inside of their very beings. The basics still remain the same: love God, love neighbor, as we examined last week in the Ten Commandments. And there are consequences that remain for us for failure to uphold the law.
But, what’s new is that God will implant the law within us. As Christians, here’s how we understand that: at baptism, we note that this new covenant comes true for us when God claims us and imparts the Holy Spirit into our lives.
So, just as with Abraham, God claims us. We carry the image of God, we have the Holy Spirit within us; we are the walking, talking, breathing, living embodiment of this fact: God keeps God’s promises.
This means to matter how far we’ve strayed, like these Judeans, no matter how idolatrous we might have been, no matter how much we’ve rejected God in the past, no matter how much sin we have in our lives, no matter how much we’ve failed to love God and love neighbor, God still claims us, God’s promises are still for us; God says to us today and all days, “I wish you never got away.”
I wish you never got away. 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 even still, 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.”
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. You may have gotten away, but God is ready with open arms to receive you back. God says even to you, I wish you never got away.
If you, like the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, tend to cry out to God for help when things are hard and then forget God when things are good, know that God will always receive you back into relationship. God hasn’t gone anywhere. But out of respect for the relationship and the fact that God has saved you over and over again, and will continue to do so, choose to maintain healthy relationship. Pray daily. Keep the commandments, not to keep God happy, but out of respect, knowing that, just as we said last week, that is the way to maintain healthy relationship. Love God, love neighbor.
Whenever we struggle in our relationships with God, we can rest on the promise made here, a promise built on the covenant promises we’ve been examining, that God will never abandon us. Scripture says over and over again, “never will I leave you, nor forsake you.” That’s a promise made to us today here in Jeremiah.
So no matter where you are in your relationship with God, rest on the promises of God. Rest in this promise, made here in Jeremiah, that God will always be our God, that God is within our very beings, that God has claimed us as his own and made us in his image. God loves us so much that God will always welcome us back into relationship, no matter how far we’ve strayed.
Never will God say to us, I wish you were the one that got away.
Always, we can hear the voice of God instead saying, “I wish you never got away, for I will forgive your iniquity, and remember your sins no more.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.