A NEW COVENANT
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on October 20, 2013 (Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for 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. – Jeremiah 31:27-34
During the months of August and September we have been reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Today we return once again to that great prophet, and one of the most remarkable of his visions.
The word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah as a youth, calling him to be a prophet. He is a great example that one is never too young to hear God’s call; no one is too young to serve, or to speak the truth of God to a faith community. The commission that Jeremiah received was:
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
That commission was lived out in the ministry of Jeremiah. The people of Jerusalem and Judah had been through the “plucking up, breaking down, overthrowing, destruction and evil.” Jeremiah warned the people and their rulers that, because of hundreds of years of disobedience to the God who had given them freedom and a land of their own, their kingdom would be conquered by the Babylonian Empire – the great world power of the sixth century BCE. Their great city of Jerusalem and the holy temple built by King Solomon would be destroyed, and many of them would be taken captive to live in the strange land of Babylon. And it all happened as Jeremiah had warned.
But a generation later, Jeremiah talks of the time to build and plant:
“And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:28)
Like planting a field in the spring. Like building a new house on an old foundation. He encourages them with the hope that they would be able to return to their homes, and their land would again be prosperous. Like that popular song from the time of the Great Depression in this country: “Happy Days are Here Again.”
But they were a defeated and dejected people by then, who believed that God was punishing them for the sins of their ancestors. Jeremiah quotes a popular proverb of the time:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
The survivors and exiles probably thought they were going to continue to suffer for the disobedience of their parents and grandparents, but Jeremiah assures them a time will come when they will get to choose whether to live in relationship with God, or go it on their own. They will get a clean slate, and will prosper or suffer according to their choices and actions. They would not be victims of fate.
And then, the prophet sees a time when God would make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah – the remnants of what had once been a great kingdom. In order to understand the significance of a new covenant, it is important to have some background in the story of God’s people. That story, which is narrated in the Bible, begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and all living things, and then creating humankind in order that they might be in a loving, trusting relationship with their Creator.
But very soon afterwards, the first people rebelled against God, doing what was not good for them. They damaged the intimate relationship that was intended from the very beginning. The ancestors of our faith have always believed that humans desire – even need to be in relationship with God. We are empty without it. And yet, paradoxically, most people damage and refuse that relationship.
Ever since the first humans disobeyed God and rebelled, God has been trying to restore the relationship. Those attempts haven’t always worked – but they are instructive for us. At one point, things got so bad that God decided to save the very best family he could find on earth, and a pair of every kind of animal, and destroy the rest with a flood and start over. It’s the story of Noah and the ark. It didn’t work – people were soon getting into all kinds of trouble again.
God decided not to try that again, although sometimes we are tempted to repeat the mistake –thinking that life would be so much better if we could get rid of all the “bad” people: lock up all criminals, close the borders to foreigners and immigrants, vote all of the opposition out of office, etc. But we would still have problems. Why? We’ll get to that.
The next approach that God tried was to enter into a long-term committed relationship with one particular man and his family. God made a covenant with Abraham and his wife Sarah and their descendants, hoping to reestablish the kind of relationship God had hoped to have with humanity all along. The terms of the relationship were, “I will be your God; you will be my people – for the long haul. I will bless you with a place to live, and with countless descendants. That covenant relationship was passed down from generation to generation. It was further defined with the commandments given to Moses. It was confirmed in the promise that they would always have a king descended from King David to rule over them.
That was the first covenant. God has kept it faithfully for more than 30 centuries. But the people did not. They constantly followed other gods, or pretended they didn’t need God — and they lived as if they neither feared God nor had respect for people (like that unjust judge in Luke’s parable). That’s what got them into trouble.
The problem is the human heart (meaning our will). People are capable of amazing acts of love, courage, compassion, and selflessness. But they are also capable great selfishness, cowardice, and finding perverse pleasure in the suffering of others. And – this is the key – they are capable of great self-deception and justification of the evil they do. I should know, I have done some stupid things that seemed like a good idea at the time! We all do well to remember that we are both – saints and sinners.
Most people tend to look at the world as if it is inhabited by two kinds of people: good and evil. And of course, every person believes they are with the good folks! But the reality is that we are all both – good and evil. Even the best of us. And so, even the best of us can get into trouble (how many times on news stories do we here of people who have done terrible things, and their family members or neighbors saying, “He was such a nice person!”) That is why we need some help; we need to be saved – from ourselves.
And so, when Jeremiah looked to a day when God would make a new covenant with God’s people, the terms of the covenant were the same. God’s part was the same. What was new was that God would change the hearts of the people. He spoke of God “putting the law within them… writing it on our hearts. The people would truly know, and love God.
I don’t know quite how Jeremiah might have imagined this happening. But what I believe is that our faith in Christ makes this a possibility.
For one thing, we see in the life of Jesus an example of what it means to live in covenant with God. It means access to God’s power, and compassion for all people. It means a willingness to trust God even through suffering and death – the cross, believing that they are never the final word.
But more than just being a good example, in some mysterious way the risen Christ can come to live in us – helping us to live as God’s people even when we might not normally do so. I think this is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the Galatians:
“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
This mysterious indwelling of Christ may begin with our baptism, but it is something that we must desire and nurture throughout our lives. It is nurtured in community with others, and in ministering to the needs of others. It is nurtured in worship, and sacrament, and prayer. Father Thomas Keating, in teaching about contemplative prayer, says that we must “consent to God’s presence and action within.”
This new covenant is offered to us in Christ. We remember how, at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus took a cup of wine, and after he blessed it he gave it to them and said, “Take and drink; this is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”
This is an amazing gift. But I believe it is important to correct a misunderstanding that has led to terrible things over the centuries. Many Christians have claimed that the old covenant – the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants – the Jewish people – has been ended and replaced with a new covenant in Christ. Jews would dispute that – they believe the first covenant is still valid, and they live in that covenant. The United Church of Christ may still be the only major Christian denomination that has gone on record as saying that old relationship still holds. The Jewish people are still God’s covenant people. But we have been invited to enter into covenant relationship with God through our faith in Christ. The new covenant doesn’t replace the old one; it extends it.
May our desire be to live and grow in that saving covenant relationship that offers us, as our United Church of Christ statement of faith says,
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
God’s presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in God’s realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God!
Robert J. von Trebra