Jeremiah 31:31-34; Galatians 1:1-12
We have reached the conclusion of our series on Reform, but as with most things related to reformation, the end is really only the beginning. Once we learn the cycle of reform, we begin to look for the new future God wants to bring to his people and we anticipate what life might look like within it.
The life cycle of a revival reminds us that we are always in process. If we look at Josiah’s reform, we see how it conforms to the historical patterns we see throughout history. Revival begins with the Word of God stoking the fire in a leader, who in turn brings it back to the people. That is usually followed by significant growth in large numbers as people respond to the Word. Those numbers then require some necessary organization that leads to institutionalization and bureaucracy—usually the beginning of the end of revival. Eventually, that institutionalization leads to stagnation and death—to dark times awaiting another movement of revival.
Josiah was impacted by the Word and brought it to the people. They began to follow the covenant, and the work of reorganizing Israel’s life around that covenant began. But it didn’t take long after Josiah’s sudden death in battle for things to stagnate and die.
Our own Methodist movement follows a similar pattern. There was the great revival in England sparked by the Wesleys in the mid-eighteenth century. Massive numbers of people flocked to the Methodist movement, which required more organization (classes and bands). But after Wesley’s death in 1791, Methodism switched from being a reform movement within the Church of England to being a separate church with its own bureaucracy. The very beliefs and practices that sparked the movement were set aside in order for the church to fit in with the surrounding culture—and that has led to stagnation and near death. I believe that’s where we are today: in need of a new revival.
Now, revival can happen at any point on this life cycle—indeed, it’s far better to start a new wave when you are cresting the old one. But if at any point the church forgets who it is and who it works for, it will either burn out or sell out. The church’s life cycle MUST be continually interrupted with revival!
But how do you live in the midst of the end of one cycle and the beginning of another? That was the question facing the faithful people of God who, after the death of Josiah, soon found themselves experiencing the exile that God had warned them about through the prophetess Hulda and many of the other prophets. How would they hold on and prepare for a new wave of reform and revival?
They would do so by holding on to the good news that was preached by the prophets, particularly the prophet Jeremiah who emerged during the time of Josiah and wrote to the people in exile. Jeremiah had been scorned and persecuted by Josiah’s successors, but he stuck to the prophetic message and task in spite of the hardship. He warned about the lessons of exile as a consequence for Israel’s sin, but he also brought a message of good news and hope, part of which we read in our Old Testament lesson:
A New Covenant
“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah,” wrote the prophet (Jeremiah 31:31). This is the only time a “new covenant” is mentioned in the Old Testament, and God says that it will be unlike the old one, the covenant of Moses written on tablets of stone. This covenant will be written on the hearts of God’s people—a transformation that won’t take place because of a new and better set of laws, but because God’s people are transformed from the inside out by a changed and renewed heart. That’s where authentic obedience springs from—from a new life and a new worldview. It’s the difference between obeying rules written in a code (where loopholes can always be found) and obeying out of a deep sense of personal integrity—knowing who you are and who you belong to.
In Jeremiah 32:39-40, the prophet expands on God’s new covenant, saying, “I [God] will give then one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to stop treating them graciously.”
The old covenant had been marked by circumcision of the flesh—an external mark that revealed God’s claim on his people. But even in Deuteronomy, the scroll which Josiah would have read to his people, God tells the people to “circumcise your hearts and stop being so stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Preparation for revival involves a change of heart, being open to the good news that God is about to do a new thing.
And what is that new thing that God is about to do? For the Israelites, it would involve a return from exile and restoration as God’s people—a movement that involved the forgiveness of their many sins and the opportunity for rebirth and new life—life the way that God had intended for them in the beginning. It wasn’t about simply restoring the old covenant way of life, but about God acting in a new way to bring his own mission of revival and reform to bear through his people for the whole world.
The “Good News”
How will God accomplish this? Israel expected that a Messiah would come and lead them into this new future, who would end the exile and liberate them politically. What they didn’t expect was that this Messiah would be God himself, come in human flesh, who would break the cycle of sin, stagnation, and death by dying himself and rising to new life, ushering in God’s promised kingdom. In a way, Josiah’s reform and Jeremiah’s preaching (along with the preaching of the other prophets) paves the way for this message to be heard by those who were paying attention.
In other words, God was about to bring revival, forgiveness of sins, a new future in a new world, and he was going to do it through the suffering of his own self-giving love.
That’s the good news that we know as the “gospel.” Reform in the church has always begun when we return to an understanding of the reality of this good news. It’s the message that has sustained the church in dark times, and it will sustain us again as we look for the beginning of a new revival. Recapturing the gospel is the way that we restart the cycle of reform.
Galatians: Returning to the Gospel
This is what Paul is driving at in his letter to the Galatians. We are going to look at this letter in some detail during our Lenten study, which begins on February 21, but it’s important to see Paul as wanting to interrupt the cycle of revival by calling the church at Galatia back to the actual gospel. Paul writes to a church that has started to double back on to the old covenant, on to the old categories of law and circumcision. Paul sees these not as a way forward, but as a way of negating the good news of what God had done in Jesus.
The problem was that some missionaries had visited Galatia after Paul and essentially said that he hadn’t given them the real gospel. They insisted that Gentile converts needed to get circumcised in the flesh before they could become real Christians (which is an interesting church growth strategy!). Remember that for Jews, circumcision was a badge of membership in God’s people, and even the Romans acknowledged this practice as being a Jewish one.
We’re not sure exactly why these missionaries wanted to reinstitute circumcision, but there may have been practical reasons for doing so. Judaism was a “legal” religion in the Roman empire, but Christianity was not, thus these missionaries may have thought that circumcision would limit the persecution the Christians might experience because they could claim to be Jews. More likely, however, these missionaries simply wanted to bring these new converts under the old covenant, forcing them to keep the law that they had kept.
But Paul, who was a Pharisaic Jew, opposed this vigorously. Galatians is an epistolary form of a theological smackdown on bad theology. For him, going back to circumcision is going backward in the cycle of revival and reform—it negates the new covenant God had promised in Jesus. For Paul, the coming of Christ launched a new age—the “time” promised by Jeremiah and the other prophets—where God’s new covenant would be written on people’s circumcised hearts.
Jesus had launched a new age, a new Exodus with a new Passover—bringing liberation for both Jews and Gentiles from slavery to sin and death and the forgiveness of sins that sets people free from their self-imposed exile from God. Remember that last week we looked at the fact that Jesus gave his disciples a meal, a new Passover, by which to remember him and his mission. He said, “This is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”—this is the new covenant God promised, and Paul says it has now been fulfilled in Christ.
Look at how he begins the argument in Galatians. He begins by saying that he wasn’t sent by human authority, nor did he receive the gospel from a human authority, but that he received it from the God who raised Jesus from the dead. He will go on later in chapter one to recount the story of how he became an apostle—how this Jew of Jews came to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and the hope of the world.
In verses 3-5, then, he reminds the Galatian church of the outline of the gospel he received: 1) Christ gave himself for our sins, 2) so he could deliver us from the present evil age 3) according to the will of the Father. For Paul, a cosmic shift has taken place in the coming of Jesus. In his crucifixion and resurrection, the power of this evil age has been dealt with, and this is God’s plan for the redemption of the whole creation.
And so, Paul says to the Galatians and to us, celebrate! You are part of this new world, this new covenant, this new age, this new creation! Reject the false gospels that want to keep you enslaved (and there are many). It’s not about adhering to a gospel that makes you more palatable to the rest of the world. Look at verse 10—“Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave.” It’s about staying true to the new covenant and living and proclaiming the gospel. This is what revival always comes down to—will we live in God’s new world, the world made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus, or will we continue to cycle back to the old one? Are we moving forward, or are we moving backward?
The Gospel Changes Everything
In our next series, The Message of the Cross, we’re going to look at how the death of Jesus ushers in this new reality, this new covenant. So often, when the church has been at the end of a cycle of revival, it has either made Jesus’ death merely a symbol of martyrdom to a social cause on the one hand or, on the other, simply a theological transaction by which believers get to heaven when they die. Neither view captures the fullness of what God did in Christ.
Indeed, the death of Jesus changed everything—and we must understand that in its fullness if we are ever to experience the revival that the cross has brought to the world.
It’s a key message in these days when revival seems far away. It’s a dark time for the church in western culture, and it is likely to get darker. The old reform movements like Methodism and Lutheranism are in the midst of stagnation and even death.
But in my mind, that’s the perfect soil in which revival and reform can be reborn! It’s not about looking to the past to try and recapture the old ways, but about embracing the new thing that God has done and is doing. It’s not just about external shifts and techniques, but about being willing to be cut to the heart by the truth of the gospel. It’s not about compromising with the culture in order to be seen as “relevant,” but about being slaves of Christ, who set us free to be the people we are meant to be.
Last week, we launched a new vision team and a new visioning process for TLUMC. You will be hearing more about this, and you will have opportunities this spring and summer to take some surveys and engage in conversation about the future of the church. While it seems like things around us are crumbling, I believe that God is going to do a new thing right here. I can’t wait to see what it is. What I do know is that it probably won’t look much like what we did in the past, or even what we’re doing in the present. The gospel doesn’t change, but we must if we are going to reach our community with its truth.
So, I’m asking you to get ready. Look deep into your own heart and allow the truth of the gospel to impact you. As we begin the Lenten season, a season of preparation, may you be especially attentive to the Word of God and the way God is calling us to walk. It is the way of the cross, the way of Exodus, the way out of exile, and the way to new life.
When we double down on seeing our own hearts changed by the gospel, revival will not be far behind. May it be so with us. Amen.
Richter, Sandra. “Josiah’s Awakening.” Lecture at the New Room Conference, Franklin, TN. September 21, 2017.