by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Fifth Sunday of Lent

The current issue of National Geographic is devoted to the topic of race. As usual, the print and online editions of the issue include several thought provoking articles and incredible photos. The cover story focuses on fraternal twins—one is black, one is white. Another piece tells the story of Hazelton, Pennsylvania and the convergence there of a new generation of immigrants with the descendants of persons who immigrated two or three generations ago. There’s also a story about the genetic basis of race—(There isn’t one!)—and another one about the role racial bias plays in shaping how communities organize, govern, and police themselves. The issue is an important work of journalism.

Susan Goldberg, National Geographic’s Editor-in-Chief, contributed a piece to the issue on race that truly stands out. With a level of humility and self-awareness rarely displayed publicly by leaders of esteemed cultural institutions, Goldberg shined a light on National Geographic’s complicity in shaping and perpetuating racist assumptions throughout its history. The editor’s column carries a justifiably striking headline, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

Goldberg acknowledges that National Geographic did little to challenge cultural assumptions and privileges that made its brand possible. Quoting historian John Edwin Mason, she writes,
Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures…Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority.


The magazine covered the American South for decades without addressing Jim Crowe.

The magazine covered South Africa for decades without addressing apartheid.

The magazine perpetuated clichés about ignorant native, “nobles savages,” and exotic beauties.

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” writes Goldberg, “but when we decided to devote [a magazine] to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

This is a remarkable statement—remarkable for its candor, remarkable for the wisdom it displays, remarkable, I believe, for what it can teach us about living faithfully and authentically before God.

“To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

Call it what you will—soul searching, being held accountable, letting go of privilege—Goldberg’s column displays the skills that the scripture say lead to confession, and confession puts us in a position to receive and embrace the blessed future secured for us by God’s grace.

This is the insight that becomes our touchstone with the ministry of one of God’s great prophets—the Prophet Jeremiah.

The First Lesson from scripture we read this morning conveys one of the Bible’s most cherished promises.

“I will put my law within them,” said the Lord through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

With this, we catch a glimpse of the intimacy God desires. This is not a deity who extracts conformity through compulsion. This is the Lord who desires faithfulness through transformation, the Holy One revealed to God’s people in just and righteous actions.

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.

What we’ve read this morning goes hand-in-hand with another promise conveyed by Jeremiah and other actions he took.

Jeremiah said,
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to given you a future with hope.

For heaven’s sake, Jeremiah invested in real estate in the middle of a war zone.

Taken together, these would seem to characterize Jeremiah as a great optimist—someone who was able to stay positive when everything seemed to be falling apart.

It might seem like that, but such a reading of Jeremiah is far to simplistic. It leads us to think of the prophet as naïve, in denial of his circumstances, one who would gaslight his neighbors’ real and legitimate concerns.

“Oh, don’t worry about that Babylonian army that’s raging its way over our countryside and will soon destroy our capital city. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Oh, don’t worry about loosing your job and that terrible diagnosis. Everything will work out.”

That’s not Jeremiah’s message. That’s not what Jeremiah calls hope.

No, Jeremiah is a revealer of reality—a reality capable of bringing pain and hurt to us in horrific measure. The prophet refused to sugar coat or deny even the most difficult truths.

Preaching at a time when war and political tumult befell God’s people with devastating spiritual consequences, Jeremiah’s commitment to wrestling with and communicating these hard truths became legendary. He went into the darkness with God’s people so deeply that some called him the Weeping Prophet. Others said he was the Prophet of Doom. But through it all, Jeremiah sought God. He listened for God. He wanted to know what God was doing and he passionately pursued the answer to his questions, even if the truth was a bitter pill, even if the truth hurt.

Jeremiah stood on the truth, not an empty promise, so there’s nothing cheap or Pollyanna about the hope that lifted his spirit. Jeremiah’s hope was a gift from God.

God offers that same gift to us today.

It’s the gift of truth and authenticity, the gift of being able to lay aside pretense and pride, of being able to acknowledge the difficult and, at times, tragic realities and circumstances into which life takes us while claiming the promise that these circumstances do not define us.

We are more than what we’ve been through, more than what we’re going through, because we are beloved children of God. We are created in God’s image and the Creator is capable of writing something new and life giving on our hearts.

“I will put my law within them,” said the Lord through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The news that God would write a holy law on their hearts was really good news for Jeremiah’s community because these were a people who recognized that everything external, everything visible, everything about their everyday lives was falling to pieces.

Even still, they were not alone.

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.

If we would claim this promise, then we must be grounded in the reality about ourselves that leads to confession, too.

We must seek and stand on the truth, not empty promises.

“To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

Back in National Geographic, Susan Goldberg concludes her piece with a reminder that the pursuit of truth isn’t always easy, but it’s so much better than trying to build your future on a lie.

She writes,
Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, “It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”

As people of faith, we might add that’s it’s hard to glory in the cross when we’re unwilling to acknowledge our need for grace.

It’s hard to sing the song of salvation when whispers of shame and regret catch our ear.

It’s hard to preach Resurrection without being honest about death.

To rise up with Jesus on Easter, we must acknowledge the agony of crucifixion.

But take heart. Even during the sober season of Lent, our story remains one of astounding joy. It’s the Good News that God perfectly loves imperfect people like you and me and empowers us to be agents of reconciliation and healing in a hurting, broken, and divided world.

In that story we find the grace that sets us free to be honest about where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and who we are. We find the gift of our true, loved, blessed, and forgiven selves.

We find God.

We find each other.

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.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.