March 25, 2012

A New Covenant

Passage: Jeremiah 31:31, 33b-34

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. ... 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. 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.

Context makes a big difference in how you hear things that are said.  If I said to my wife, “you are a nice woman”, it sounds a little lame and even half-hearted. (Or what might be said following a disagreement and you are trying to end things on a positive note).   If our three year-old granddaughter snuggles up next to her grandmother—this same woman—and says, “You’re a nice Nana”—well, this is the sort of thing you write in a book so you can recall it and how that little voice made your heart soar.

The new covenant that the Lord promised he would make with the house of Israel is the kind of thing that makes hearts soar.  It foresees an idyllic time when the presence of God with his people is so direct and evident that no one will need to be taught—they will all know me.   Every barrier or division of people will be at an end—from the least of them to the greatest.  Everyone will know their sins forgiven.  All the pain of this sin-riddled life will be a distant memory—God will remember their sin no more.  The context out of which Jeremiah uttered this promise of God may surprise us.  Difficulties make it hard for us to see the vestiges of good that remain; disaster make us wonder if the good we thought we saw was merely illusion.

1.  Simon Montefiore, in his book Jerusalem: The Biography, recounts well the context of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry.  “According to chronicles of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 697 (BCE) he besieged the city of Jerusalem and, on what we would call March 16 of that year, he took the city and captured the king.  Nebuchadnezzar plundered the temple and deported the king and 10,000 nobles, artisans and young men to Babylon. ...

In Jerusalem Nebuchadnezzar placed the exiled king’s uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne.  In 594, Zedekiah visited Babylon to make obeisance to Nebuchadnezzar, but on his return he launched a rebellion, haunted by the prophet Jeremiah, who warned that the Babylonians would destroy the city.  Nebuchadnezzar marched southwards.  Zedekiah appealed to the Egyptians, who sent meagre forces that were soon defeated.  Inside Jerusalem, Jeremiah, observing the panic and paranoia, tried to escape but was arrested at the gates.  The king, torn between asking his advice and executing him for treason, imprisoned him in the dungeons under the royal palace.  For eighteen months, Nebuchadnezzar ravaged Judah, leaving Jerusalem until last.

In 587, Nebuchadnezzar encircled Jerusalem with forts and a siege wall.  “The famine,” wrote Jeremiah, “was sore in the city.”  Young children “faint for hunger at the top of every street,” and there were hints of cannibalism: ...  Even the rich were soon desperate, wrote the author of Lamentations:  “they that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills,” searching for food.  People wandered the streets, dazed, “like blind men.”  Archaeologists have found a sewer pipe that dated from the siege:  the Judeans usually lived on lentils, wheat and barley, but the pipe’s contents showed that people were living on plants and herbs, diseased with whipworm and tapeworm.

On the 9th of the Jewish month of Ab, August 586, after eighteen months, Nebuchadnezzar broke into the city, which was set on fire, probably with flamed torches and burning arrows.   Yet the fire that consumed the houses also baked the clay bullae, the seal of the bureaucracy, so hard that they have survived to this day among the burned houses.  Jerusalem suffered the infernal depredations of fallen cities.  Those that were killed were luckier than those who starved:  (I will spare you the awful details).   Edomites from the south poured into the city to loot, party and gloat in the wreckage...  The Edomites, according to Psalm 137, encouraged the Babylonians to [“Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”] ... The Babylonians ravaged Jerusalem while, beneath the royal palace, Jeremiah survived in his dungeon.  (Jerusalem p. 47-48)

2. The Lord said of the new covenant: “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”.  The devastation that came upon Israel—according to the Biblical story—is the result of abandoning the ways of God, they broke the covenant.  In some sense this is also true of the devastations in our world.  The atrocities of the inhumane treatment of humans to one another generally arise from the evil of the human heart; it is not typically from following the way God has showed us to walk in company with him.

When you read the work of the prophet Jeremiah in the context of the historic events to which his prophesy speaks, it should be noted that up to the point of the siege his ministry was a call to repentance; to turn from the path they were on to their God.  Jeremiah is pleading for repentance so the day of destruction may be averted.  Once the siege begins there is a change to a looking forward in hope—this is when the new covenant is promised.  God even instructs Jeremiah to buy a field during the siege as a sign of hope ahead.  Note that God doesn’t abandon them even in this moment of great disarray and disaster.  “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel”—the same house of Israel that broke the previous covenant.

3. I am sure that for many of the residents of Jerusalem the collapse seemed sudden; King Zedekiah  had a court filled with prophets willing to say what he wanted to hear—“the king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land.”  When a sign goes up on a house in your neighbourhood announcing foreclosure it seems sudden; the collapse catches us by surprise.  What we know is that the economic troubles that gave rise to this moment have been going on for some time—even a long time.  Still, the collapse feels like a sudden jolt.

Canada is a country we describe as part of a constellation of countries known as Western democracy: the word “Western” is a word that describes the emergence of cultures profoundly influenced by the Church.  It bespeaks the history of Christianity in the divide of east and west; Constantinople and Rome.  All Protestant churches are descendents of the Western side of the church.  The freedoms we enjoy are the product of the confluence of forces—Judaeo-Christian world view contributing much—that has emerged in the culture we call Western.

I am not, I think, a pessimist.  For most of my life the word Canada was synonymous with the word stable; perhaps I didn’t think it invincible but its continuance I certainly took for granted.  To be clear I am not prophesying immanent doom.  I have, however, noted the stresses and strains on our friends among the Western democracies of the world caused by governments borrowing huge amounts of money to pay for a present that future generations cannot afford nor sustain.  For all intents and purposes the foreclosure sign has been posted in Athens.

We have made wealth our god thinking that throwing enough money at problems will solve them; thinking that money will solve societal ills; believing that somehow if people don’t have to worry about money then heaven on earth will arise—and the bonus is we don’t have to put up with the God who created us.  We have turned away for our Saviour’s life giving advice: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well”.

And it isn’t just in the theatre of economics where we have created problems for ourselves.  Rev. Joe Boot is the guest preacher for 2012 at the Ecumenical Lenten worship services sponsored but our local Ministerial Association.  He is the pastor of a congregation in Toronto; he made the comment that about half of his congregation is under 30 years of age.  He said, in substance, that young people are hungry for something of significance to hold on to.

In his book “how then shall we answer” Boot describes the reality of our culture this way: “In our contemporary situation, there is a growing loneliness.  This generation have been instructed in the philosophies of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and godlessness.  Our culture celebrates sin.  This reality should grieve us, stir us, and motivate us, but most of all is should move us to compassion.  When people are without God despair can seem rational and suicide can appear reasonable.  Blaise Pascal gives us this vivid description of what the world might look like from an unbeliever’s perspective”
“Imagine a number of prisoners on death row, some of whom are killed each day in the sight of others.  The remaining ones see their condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn.  This is a picture of the human condition.”

This is indeed a horrific image, but it reveals spiritual reality.  People’s experience of death row takes many forms: broken lives, ruined relationships, guilt, loneliness, fear, and hopelessness.  ... C.S, Lewis wrote that despair can simply be the result of “the routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes”.”

Boot calls this the “context principle”—the reasonableness of any action, emotion or thought is largely determined by the context in which it takes place.  We employ this principle when we dress up for a banquet in a shirt and tie rather that wearing swimming shorts and a pair of slippers. So what is the ultimate context in which life unfolds?  Do we live in a meaningful world created by God who grants our actions ultimate significance of do we not?  I wonder how the philosophies in which our children are schooled will play out in their lives.  What is the ultimate context?  We school, for example, our children in the science of evolution that is predicated on an understanding that human life emerged on the principle of the survival of the fittest.  If “survival of the fittest” is taught as our ultimate context; is there a logical connection between this and the problem of bullying in our schools?  It is perilous to ignore God.

I am not saying that Canada is on the verge of ultimate collapse.  I do know that borrowing money to pay for things we cannot afford passing the debt to future generations will not end well.  I am also convinced that championing philosophies that, at bottom, regard life as pointless undermines the joy of our humanness created by God for us to enjoy.  The seeds planted by philosophies of hopelessness issue in a harvest of great unhappiness.

4.  About 600 years after God’s promise of the new covenant was announced by Jeremiah—uttered as he anticipated the awful day when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem—a first-century Galilean Rabbi was in Jerusalem for the Passover.  It was just prior to another awful day; a day that would be marked as the very hinge of history itself.  Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal with his friends and at that meal he took the cup of wine and said “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Friends, do we believe that God’s word of hope announced in the midst of the evils of this world is hope for the world?  Is it our conviction that the new covenant promised long ago/now fulfilled in Jesus Christ is solace in disaster?  Is the answer to the loneliness, hopelessness, and insignificance felt by so many; is the answer the One lifting this cup in his hand announcing that he himself is this new covenant?  Our world desperately needs the church to be profoundly excited about Jesus Christ.

I invite you to take note of the principle actor in this new covenant; note that this covenant is completely from one end to the other what God will do.  “This is the new covenant I will make ... and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God... for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more.”  The difference between this covenant and the former appears to be that the new covenant  envisions a time when sin will be purged from our hearts such that it will never be broken; the previous covenant was one Israel broke.  The new covenant looks forward to that great consummation of all things; to the resurrected life where sin is purged forever.

The great theme of the new covenant is that God takes the initiative to fulfill it for us; what was impossible for humans—to purge ourselves of sin—is done for us by God.  God reconciles the world to himself; our sin blinds us to the fact that the root of our problem is alienation from God such that we would never seek such reconciliation.  The cure—the new covenant in my blood, said our Lord—shows us our disease.  It is not something we can cure but what he cures for us.

Some may object that such a future appears to take away my free will; my freedom to live my own life seems to be erased in the law of God written on my heart.  For those who have been in love we know that freedom that comes from having another person totally inhabit our thoughts and feelings; the idea that our freedom has been taken away is absurd.  Having the law of love firmly engraved in one’s heart is the essence of freedom; freedom to be who you truly are.
One final point; because Jesus in this new covenant fulfilled then the promises are not merely future but also now.  There is a now/not yet character to this covenant.  Yes, we will battle sin here but in Christ the promise of his presence is that the grip of sin has been broken in our lives now.  We do not battle despair alone; hopefulness is the character of life in him and what Jesus is fulfilling in our lives.  The Apostle Paul said, “we have this treasure in clay jars ... perplexed, but not driven to despair.”

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; And he (Jesus) did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.