The New Covenant

March 22, 2015

Bible Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34 |

Throughout the season of Lent our Old Testament readings have highlighted a series of covenants established by God. So today, on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, I’d like to look back at these covenants and to discover in them how they have all anticipated the “New Covenant” that was read today from the prophet Jeremiah.

The first covenant was with Noah, or more precisely, it was a covenant between God and the entire creation (Genesis 9:8-17). It happened after God had destroyed all the land and most of the creatures through the flood waters. But when it was all over, God makes a promise: he says he will never again destroy the earth by flood. And as a sign of the promise, he placed his bow in the clouds. Now, most of us are so familiar with the picturesque imagery of the rainbow that we don’t actually listen to the words any more. But listen: it says he placed his bow in the clouds, not a rainbow, but a bow. And what is a bow? but a weapon of war, of violence. When it rains, and the light shines through, it repeats the promise that these rains will not destroy; God has laid his weapon aside and given this reminder to himself of his promise. The grounding principal for God, in what will become a long series of covenants, is that – even in the face of total human depravity and violence – God’s answer will not, cannot, be our destruction. Never again. From here on out, all the covenants will be oriented towards our salvation.

What intrigues me about how the artists depicted the rainbow is that they didn’t make it bow shaped at all, but instead a circle. Now, on the one hand it totally undermines the language of the story because it’s lost its symbolism as a bow-shaped reminder. But, on the other hand, it reminds me of when I once saw a rainbow from an airplane. To my amazement, it wasn’t bow-shaped at all, but a circle. It’s only the horizon that creates the illusion of a bow; seen from above a rainbow is a perfect circle which (quite elegantly) is referred to as a “glory”. Think about this: as we commonly perceive God as being “up in heaven looking down at us,” it’s as if to say, when God sees the reminder of the rainbow, God is seeing something entirely different than what we’re seeing. Can it be that what we see as the violence of God, God might very well see as something else? What do I mean by that? I hardly know, other than to say that God’s perspective is not the same as ours. We can only perceive the world and its events through such a narrow lens, and God views it through the wisdom of eternity. If God is love, and (as subsequent covenants will insist) God is bent towards our redemption, then any doctrine of God that concludes in wrath and retribution must be a faulty doctrine. The bow has been laid aside and the glory of God’s love remains ever before him.

The second covenant was that which God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). God sees in Abraham a distinct righteousness and promises that from him and his wife Sarah, God would make a great nation, and that his children would be as numerous as the stars. Despite the fact that they were aged and barren, they would become the beginning point of a new humanity that lives in distinct relationship with God. And so it was and so it is: for all the Abrahamic faith traditions agree – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that Abraham is their righteous patriarch, and the generations have indeed multiplied like the stars.

Again, the artists’ portrayal of this covenant intrigues me. The tiny mirrors suggest a starlit sky – the multitude of Abraham’s offspring, into which we gentiles have also been grafted as part of the covenant family. But you can also interpret it as a mirror that’s been shattered into tiny shards. Each of the pieces is now so small that you can only see the tiniest bit of light reflecting in them. For – yes – Abraham’s descendants have multiplied, but so have our divisions. The history of the children of Abraham is filled with bloodshed and warfare. We cannot figure out how to live into the unity of God, but in his name we are willing to perpetrate endless atrocities.

The third covenant had the potential to chart a better course. It came in the days of Moses, after God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He brings them to Mt. Sinai where he makes them this promise:

You are now a free people. And although I am God of all the earth, I choose you as a distinct people. I will be your God and you will serve as a kingdom of priests – a holy nation – to demonstrate to the whole world what righteousness and holiness look like. So I give you this law to follow, to show you the way. If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession (paraphrased, Exodus 19:4-6).

And the Israelites reply, “Yes! We will do everything the Lord has said” (Exodus 19:8).

And, I believe, they entered into the covenant faithfully, fully intending to be the righteous nation God called them to be. But it didn’t last. Within a matter of days they’re worshipping the Golden Calf, the predecessor of all betrayals and infidelities, not only for Israel, but us as well. We want to be faithful; we make earnest declarations of faith and intention, yet – when anxiety and fear set in – we are quick to pivot towards our worst self.

Again, I look at the artists’ representation of this covenant: the ten stones representing the Ten Commandments, the epitome of the law. On the one hand, stones symbolize stability and grounding – the elemental sureness of God’s good intention for his people: Follow this and you will live. On this you can depend. And yet, these stones also appear to be tumbling down, as though dropped and cascading. The Mosaic Covenant was, after all, a conditional covenant. If Israel were to drop it, then the covenant would be void, and they could expect destruction: foreign conquest and exile – which is exactly what happened.

And yet, even with that threat, there was hope.

In the book of Deuteronomy (a retelling of the law around which the Mosaic Covenant was built), God tells them again and again “to circumcise their hearts.” Circumcision is, of course, the language of covenant. The meaning is clear: “In your hearts – in your spirit and in your will – you must be obedient to the covenant.” And the onus is on them: you must circumcise your heart, of your own resource or volition; if you do not, then you will be exiled. But then something fascinating happens: the language of Deuteronomy shifts. At one point it no longer speaks of “if you disobey”, but rather “when you disobey” – as if it were a foregone conclusion that Israel never would be able to uphold their end of the covenant. They never would find within themselves the resource or resolve to maintain a circumcised heart. But at that point – at the point of inevitable exile – God says,

“When all these blessings and curses … come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God…then the Lord will restore you and have compassion on you….The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:1-3a, 6).

So long as it depends on us to maintain an obedient heart, we shall be forever vulnerable to infidelity. We do not have it within ourselves to uphold our end of the covenant, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. And God gives us our season to try our best. But in the end, the best we will do is to repent with humility for our failures. And at that point, God steps in with mercy, and says, “Welcome, child. Welcome home. Let me do for you what you could not do for yourself.”

And it is this spirit that brings us to the New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah:

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. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors … a covenant that they broke….This is the covenant that I will make:…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…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 31:31-34).

The difference between this covenant and those that came before is that the New Covenant is no longer vulnerable to the limitations of human faith. This covenant relies entirely upon God. And how can this be? but through Christ. Christ the fully human, Christ the fully divine, has become both agents of the covenant. He is the God who initiates our redemption. And he is the human who – at long last – is faithful and blameless. The law of God is inscribed on his heart, and at his incarnation he melds himself to us. “My heart is your heart. It is the nature of God to be one, and having become flesh and blood, I now make myself one with you. My righteousness I pour into you like water to a thirsty land.”

Christ is the New Covenant. And so we discover Christ centered and exalted amongst all the covenants. By his cross we see first the incarnation – that, in Jesus, the human and the divine have made their perfect union, have wrought an eternal peace. But by his cross we see also his sacrifice: the shocking irony that by merging his holiness to us, Jesus should also absorb our sin and brokenness, stumbling beneath their weight and dying on the cross. What manner of God are we worshiping who would choose, not simply to heal, but who’s healing must include such total solidarity? God is not making cute little dolls to display in a curio cabinet called earth. God is making creatures who are and shall be one with God’s own self. He gives himself to us entirely through Christ, and – also through Christ – takes us on entirely, even if our sickness should infect and destroy him.

Jeremiah’s New Covenant is thorough and glorious, but comes at a hideous cost. And with this promise before us we limp through the final days of Lent leading us into Holy Week, where we will stand witness again to the horror and wonder of the New Covenant made manifest in the life and death and life of again of Jesus, our Christ.

 

 

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