This is our fourth week of tracing the covenant theme through this Lenten season. First, we looked at the covenant with Noah which took effect after the flood. At this time of a brand new beginning, God establishes a covenant with Noah and all creation that he will never again bring about such wholesale destruction and loss of life, and the rainbow is established as the sign of the covenant.
Next we looked at the covenant with Abram, a time of new beginnings when God calls a specific family to go to a new place and become the people by whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This got sidetracked a few generations down the road when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, setting in motion the events which would take the Hebrew people out of the land of promise and into Egypt, where they would end up enslaved for many years. After 430 years in Egypt, the people called out to God for help, and God sent Moses to lead them out.
After bringing them out of Egypt, God brought the people to Mt.Sinai, where he established a new covenant with them for this new beginning when they would return to the land of Promise and become a great nation. Having already brought them out of Egypt, God promised to bring them to the land and to always be with them. In response the people were to be obedient to the Ten Commandments which God gave them. Other laws were given as well, and obedience now became the big challenge for Israel.
A challenge which they were not up to, any more than we are. They went through continuing cycles of rebellion and disobedience and punishment and repentance and restoration. Prophets continually warned about the disaster that loomed if Israel did not get its act in order. But no heed was paid, and it was time for the ultimate punishment, exile in Babylon.
Which brings us to today’s chapter in the covenant story. The prophet Jeremiah was gloom and doom from the get go, so much so that he was ostracized and eventually was put in prison for unpatriotic activities for criticizing the king and the priests and the people and saying the end was at hand.
But toward the end of Jeremiah God gives him some glimpses of hope for the future to pass on. Chapters 30 and 31 are called “The Little Book of Consolations,” and contain these hopeful prophecies, by far the most important of which is the one which Jacky read earlier. It had a particular meaning for the people of Israel in that day, but it also was appropriated by Paul and the New Testament and became a cornerstone of New Testament understanding of the covenant.
In these chapters Jeremiah turns to the imagic language of poetry to describe his vision of God’s restoration. It begins in this way: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.”
And a bit further along: “Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord; they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord; your children shall come back to their own country.”
Interspersed throughout is the language of covenant: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” And, “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.” And, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”
In spite of the nation’s turning from God and the resulting exile into Babylon, God has never broken covenant with his people. When their pride has been proven to be ill-founded and they have in despair cried out to God, God speaks tenderly to them that they will be restored. He will still be their God and they will still be his people.
But it will not be exactly the same. After exile, Jeremiah proclaims, God will institute a new covenant. Instead of being written on stone, the law of the covenant will be written on each person’s heart. No one will have to be taught by someone else, but they will all know God, from the greatest to the least. Jeremiah quotes what he has heard from God: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The new covenant is going to be different. The covenant imposed from without, written on stone, has not worked. Even though the law was a gracious gift to give the people safe boundaries within which to live, it was something people resented and rebelled against. The new covenant will be internalized rather than imposed externally. The law will be written on people’s hearts. What does that mean? Do you know what it means to take something to heart? It means it is not what someone else is telling you to do anymore, it is what you want to do.
The new covenant written on hearts that Jeremiah foresaw still had the law at the heart of it. The difference is that instead of being an external authority it would become internalized within us. Listen to the way the prophet Ezekiel described it to the people while they were in exile in Babylon. He quotes God as saying, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
The theory behind this is good. A good analogy is when a young person gets to the age of moving out of the house and no longer being subject to the rules and decisions of parents each day. If that young person comes to the point where he or she sees the good and the value in the rules they have been living under and chooses to appropriate those guidelines in his or her own decision making, then the law has been written in that person’s heart. The law is no longer an external authority but an accepted, internal guide. The person has “bought in” to the system. The problem is that adults who buy in and accept the law are still regularly subject to temptation and failure to comply, and this proved to be abundantly true with Israel.
It truly was not from lack of trying. After the return from exile there was a paranoia about failure in this area. We went into exile because we failed to be obedient to the law, so we need to make sure never to do that again. So people started trying to parse out what the precise implications of every law were – what all was prohibited, what all was allowed, and it just became more and more burdensome. And this state continued for the 500 years leading up to Jesus Christ. The attempt to inscribe the law on everyone’s hearts became oppressive and was ultimately ineffective in building the kind of covenant relationship God yearned for with his people.
So yet another covenant beginning would be required, which we will look at two weeks from today. Language and imagery from the new covenant we have looked at today will be incorporated in it in an important way to help Christians come to see that the ultimate fulfillment of this new covenant God would make with his people would come in Jesus Christ. The passage I read from II Corinthians is a fascinating look at how Paul contrasted the old covenant with the new, the stone with the Spirit. He says that whenever Moses is read, whenever the law is read, a veil lies over people’s minds; but when a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. So next time we will look at the new covenant fulfilled and realized in the person of Jesus the Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 15, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church