Jeremiah 30 & 31
This fall we have been exploring the importance of the idea of covenant in the Old Testament. I love the Old Testament. I love the poetry and the crazy stories. I love the imagery and the way that the words and situations from so long ago seem to echo in my life right now. So in addition to studying the Old Testament for the beauty and wisdom it contains, we also study it because it enhances our understanding of the New Testament. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible. Jesus’ religious community and worldview was shaped by the Old Testament, so we better understand Jesus when we understand the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is the unfolding story of one particular tribe of people’s relationship with God and understanding of God. The Old Testament is the unfolding story one particular tribe of people’s relationship with God and understanding of God. Those people go by many names: children of Abraham, Hebrews, nation of Israel, nation of Judah. I usually call them the Ancient Hebrews so that we don’t automatically equate them with the Jewish people of today. Although they are the religious ancestors of today’s Jews. Today’s Jewish faith has evolved from the faith of the Ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament.
These Ancient Hebrew people had a particular relationship with God and a particular understanding of themselves as people who belonged to God, even though throughout the Old Testament we read God saying that all the earth and all people belong to God. The way this relationship is often described is using the word “covenant.” In fact the word “Testament” is actually the same as the word “Covenant.” So even our Bible is sectioned into the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
A covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the people, and it shapes people’s identity and their conduct. When we are in a covenant, belonging shapes our behavior. We don’t earn our way into a covenant by the way we act. We are welcomed into a covenant and our sense of ourselves as people in covenant then influences how we choose to live our lives. Belonging shapes behavior.
There are five big covenants in the Old Testament. The first is with all of creation after the global flood in Genesis 9 where God promises never to destroy the earth again. The second is with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 where God promises that they will be blessed in order to be a blessing. This one has some signs and regulations, which say how the covenant gets carried out: the men in the covenant are circumcised and God offers descendants and land, so people who will continue in the covenant and a home base for them. The third covenant is with the Ancient Hebrews at Mt. Sinai where God again promises relationship. This reiteration of the covenant has a lot of regulations: the 10 commandments and 600 or so other laws. God says that when the people live according to this covenant the result will be that they will be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, which means that as a priest does, they will represent God to the rest of the world. That’s very important. As a people, they will show everyone else who God is and what it is like to live in a relationship of sacred commitment to God. Again they will do this in a particular location, a land. The fourth covenant is with King David where God promises that a descendant of David will always sit on the throne of Israel. As the whole nation was to represent God to the whole world, the ruler is to represent God to the people, demonstrating for them what it is like to live in a relationship of sacred commitment to God.
And here’s where things start to really go wrong. Because inevitably power and wealth are corrupting influences, and I have yet to meet anyone who can truly resist their lure. And the ancient kings can’t. They rack up wives and wealth and weapons and the nation splits into two kingdoms. And the people aren’t going to work harder than the leader does, so both of the kingdoms slide away from behavior that demonstrates their belonging. The prophets rail against lots of behaviors that are out of line with God’s way of living, that deny the covenant. I group those behaviors into three big categories: greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. Listen up, Americans.
The prophets warn them and warn them about what will happen. Nations that succumb to greed and violence and religious hypocrisy are internally weak. And/or the prophets say that God will now allow those practices to continue. God will do a hard reset. But the kingdoms don’t listen. They don’t change. Eventually both of the kingdoms are invaded and their governments are destroyed. In both kingdoms, the people are forcibly removed to live in the cities of the nations that invaded them, and this is known as the time of the exile. It is the biggest theological problem in the Old Testament. If you only know two things about the ancient Hebrews you should know about the exodus and the exile. You should know that God brought them out of bondage in Egpyt and that eventually they allowed themselves to be taken away in bondage again.
How could this happen to people who supposedly belong to God? They thought they were special because they had a land, and a king, and temple, and now they don’t have any of that. And does this mean that the covenant is broken? Are the people still blessed to be a blessing? Do they still represent to the world who God is and what it looks like to be in relationship with God? How is this possible if they don’t have a king to lead them in it? The exile has happened. The worst has happened. Their sense of identity has been totally challenged. What now?
Into this situation of total disruption, loss of identity and purpose, into this comes a new covenant. Just like after the flood in Genesis 9, which whether we like it or not the text says that God made the flood happen, after the flood there is a promise to never again destroy the earth even though the people are the same. And after the Exile, whether you want to call it natural consequences or an act of God, after the Exile there immediately is a promise of restoration.
We are going to read this morning from the book of Jeremiah, chapters 30 and 31, selected verses to give us a sense of what’s happening here. This is page 1223 in your pew Bibles. Again if you’re reading on your own, it’s the book of Jeremiah, starting in chapter 30 and skipping through to chapter 31. Let’s start in chapter 30 verse 3. Here’s God’s promise:
3 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. Skipping to verses 8 through 17: On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him. 9 But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel,
for I am going to save you from far away
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
and no one shall make him afraid.
For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you;
I will make an end of all the nations
among which I scattered you,
but of you I will not make an end.
I will chastise you in just measure,
and I will by no means leave you unpunished.
For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable;
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you,
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
because your sins are so numerous.
Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are so numerous,
I have done these things to you.
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
says the Lord,
Pause: So just as God took responsibility for the flood and then promised never to send a flood again, these verses have God taking responsibility for the Exile and then immediately promising restoration. Does anyone find that troubling? I did a little bit. If that was behavior done between equals, between people in mutual relationship, it would be manipulative bordering on abusive: to cause harm and then be the one who wants to heal the harm.
Here’s what I think is really happening here: this is not a relationship between equals. God is God and we are not. God sets the terms of the covenant. God is the good and loving parent and as much as we may hate this, we are all always children to God. And sometimes good parents do this. I myself have done it. If Sammy is doing something that is not good for him, or using something in a way it shouldn’t be used, I tell him to change his behavior or I will have to take it away. You don’t get to smash play-doh into the carpet. You don’t get to draw on the walls. And when he persists, I take the thing away. And that gets his attention, let’s him know that behavior really is not acceptable. And once the reality of the loss settles in, I usually give the thing back. Because really I want him to have it. I just don’t want him to abuse it. I think this is a fair and for me very helpful way to understand what God does in the Old Testament. I get that it’s extreme, more extreme than taking away a toy. But you know what? Greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy are extreme and there’s not a lot of ways to stop them from happening outside of shutting the whole system down and restarting it.
Let’s keep reading in chapter 31, verses 1 through 6. At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with your tambourines
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. (Best image ever!)
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”
And now we’re coming to the point in verses 31 through 34.
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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. 33 But 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. 34 No 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.
From strength to strength – may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
After all of that, God promises to make a new covenant. That particular phrase “new covenant” only shows up only here in the whole Old Testament. But I bet it’s familiar to you because I say it every time we celebrate Communion. The gospel writers Matthew and Luke, the apostle Paul and whoever wrote the book of Hebrews, they grab onto this new covenant language, which is why this final covenant it such an important idea for Christians in particular.
Now you remember that one of our core values is to be progressive? So let me try to put together some progressive theology for us about this new covenant. Jeremiah says that this new covenant will not be like the covenant made after the exodus. This is not like the Mt Sinai covenant, the 10 commandments covenant. Not saying that one was bad, but this one is different. So what was distinctive about the Sinai covenant? The covenant at Mt Sinai had a lot of covenant regulations: a lot of specifics given by God to the people about how the covenant is enacted. 600-some-odd laws, the result of which is that the people stay in the land and all the world recognizes who God is and what it looks like to live in relationship to God. The covenant at Mt Sinai was regulated by what we and the Jews call “The Law.”
And Jeremiah is saying that this new covenant won’t be like that. In this new covenant, the law will be within, written on hearts; and God will be their God and they will be God’s people, for they shall all know God.
Friends, the difference between these two covenants is the difference between external motivation and internal motivation. When we are externally motivated, we are doing something to either get a tangible reward or avoid a punishment. I want to lose weight because I want people to think I look great. External motivation. When we are internally motivated, we want to achieve the goal for its own sake. I want to lose weight because I want to be healthy for myself. Internal motivation? Do you follow me?
In an externally-motivated covenant with God, the people, WE, are are doing the behaviors because we’re going to get a reward or avoid a punishment. The people get to keep their land. We get to go to heaven. We don’t get sent to hell. We see ourselves as better or more important than everyone else because we follow the rules. All of those are external motivations. And it works. The problem is, external motivation only works for the short term. You can only scare people or bribe people for so long before they quit.
In an internally-motivated covenant with God, the people, WE are doing the behaviors that spring from our belonging to God simply because we find internal meaning in the identity of belonging to God. We love God, we love each other, we love the world, and we want to be those kind of people. Not because it’s going to get us anything tangible, in fact Jesus is pretty clear that we’ll probably suffer for it, but just because we love this life for its own sake. That’s internal motivation. That’s the new covenant, no longer written down specifically for us as a list of rules we can follow, but written on our hearts. The only promise in this new covenant is the promise of belonging to God and one another and the deep internal satisfaction that comes from that.
In this new covenant, we still keep The Law. The Law itself isn’t bad. It’s good. The Law is the mechanism by which a community can demonstrate who God is and what God’s way of life looks like. The Law was originally designed to to demonstrate the relationship of belonging between God and people. The Law is good. However, if we keep the Law in order to prove that we are better than other people because we keep the rules, we will never be satisfied because we will never be perfect. We will never keep all the rules. On the other hand, if we keep the Law because we love God and we trust in God’s love for us, we will be fulfilled. We keep the Law from the heart and not from a written code. We will never be successful at living well until we have internalized our belonging to God and one another, and even then we won’t be perfect at it. But that’s OK because being perfect isn’t the point. The point is doing what the Law was designed to do, which is to demonstrate the relationship of belonging between God and people. When we keep the Law from the heart, we are a holy community who show the world who God is and the fulfillment that comes from life with God.
Now the reason the New Testament authors get so wound up about this new covenant is because of Jesus. At the last supper Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Blood is the sign of covenant. Jesus is the sign of the new covenant. Christ does in his person what the Law was originally designed to do, which is again, to demonstrate a relationship of belonging between God and people. When we see the faithfulness of Jesus to all that he came to do, even unto death; and then we see how God the Source confirmed and vindicated and honored that faithfulness – when we see all that, it sparks trust in us that we actually do belong to God. Jesus shows us what it looks like to belong to God, even through suffering, and how living in relationship to God brings real fulfillment in life. Jesus brings the Law to fullness, to fulfillment. And the power of his life, death, and resurrection opens a door in us to finally fully trust that we too belong to God. And then our motivation to live for God becomes internal and not external. We enter into the new covenant. Amen.