Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
We come this
morning to the 5th and final covenant in our series, looking at the
covenants found in the Hebrew scriptures. We began of course with the
covenant with Noah, the covenant made with all creation, then the
covenant with Abraham and Sarah in which God says "I will be there God
and they will be my people", which is kind of the covenant 'formula'
that is repeated throughout scripture thereafter. Then the covenant with
Moses from which we get the 10 Commandments, and then last week the
Davidic covenant, the covenant from David, from which we get the whole
concept of a Kingdom of God and the notion of a Messiah.
And so this morning we come to final one that we find in Jeremiah, that
is often called the 'new covenant'. But before I read the text, I need
to give a little background on it. Most of the prophets in Hebrew
Scriptures have both a word of doom, and a word of hope. Doom -- 'if you
continue to ignore the way of God, and specifically the way of God's
justice, then doom will come upon the nation'. Hope -- 'in those times
of great distress when all appears lost, the prophet brings a word that
God will not abandon us'.
Reinhold Niebuhr kind of summarized this two sides of the same coin with
a little aphorism that "God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the
afflicted". When I was up at the memorial service for Bob Caldwell in
Portland, because his wife is a good friend of mine, he was the Editor
for the Oregonian, someone shared that that was an aphorism that
described the job description of journalists (I hadn't heard that
before). Evidently they felt that was part of their task.
Jeremiah is unique in that we can see precisely when this turn from doom
to hope occurs -- in fact, we even have a year for it: 586 B.C.E.
(before our common era), because that's when Babylonia defeated Judah,
and Jerusalem was destroyed, the the Temple torn down, all the
upper-echelon of princes, royalty, the priests, the scribes, were taken
off into captivity. And that's when Jeremiah changes his tune and begins
to sing of hope, that God will not abandon God's people. And so in
chapter 31, for instance, that's written specifically for the people
living in exile we read:
At that time,
says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel,
they shall be my people. [There
it is again, that covenantal formula]
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
Again you shall take* your
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
‘Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
But in their return
to the homeland, Jeremiah does not foresee a return to the previous
covenant, when God's authority on earth is represented through the laws
of Moses and through the King. Instead, Jeremiah foresees something
radically different -- that God will now relate to the people in a new
way. And it's much more than a new covenant, it's a new way of
covenanting, a new way of relating to God.
And so we read in our text for this morning, from Chapter 31, versus 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. 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.
The 'big idea' that
I have said throughout this series is that continents are about
relationships. And that relationship is summed-up in that covenantal
formula 'I will be their God and they will be my people'. Its repeated
three times in this chapter, including in the text for this morning.
So, this new covenant isn't really new after all, it's just the old
covenant re-packaged, right? Kind of like my shampoo -- I go to buy my
shampoo, and the same brand that I've always bought for years, and
they've changed the bottle, and it always confuses me. "New and
improved" :) And I bring it home, and I try it out, and it looks the
same, it feels the same, it smells the same, it tastes the same. . . . .
Come to find out, the only thing they've changed is the lid! It's got a
new delivery system, that pump, instead of pouring. My good friend Don
Kahle, who writes a column on Friday in the Register Guard (and ever the
cynic) says he is convinced it's because they discovered with those
pumps about 3% of the product remains in the bottom of the bottle. And
therefore you will now buy 3% more, and up go the profits.
So, this covenant is kind of like that. . . . only it's not. It's about
something much more fundamental than packaging. It's not simply a new
delivery system. It's a whole new way of understanding our relationship
with God, one that is internal rather than external. One that comes from
within, out of our own motivation and desire, not from external laws or
rulers or priests or ministers.
Now, one important disclaimer I have to make about this, because
sometimes we refer to Christian faith as being the faith in the 'new
covenant', because we have a new covenant and Jews have the old
covenant, the Old Testament. Folks, you've heard me say this before --
that's blatantly false, if not anti-Semitic. I would just point out
these two things in relationship to this text -- first of all, this new
covenant rose within the Jewish tradition, 600 years before Jesus. It's
very Jewish. Indeed, it's the foundation in many ways of modern Judaism.
And secondly, Christians are among those most guilty of relying on the
external, on authoritative laws and rulers, to impose their Christian
values on others.
Professor of Old Testament
literature, Verna Limpky, sums it up well in his commentary on this
text, saying "For many Christians, God's law is little more than words
in a book, and far from being an integral part of their very being, they
still busy themselves in serving God chiefly through outward ritual,
shallow lip-service, or self-righteous moralism's. Surely, true
knowledge of God is as rare and sporadic among Christians today as it
was among the people of Jeremiah's day".
Well, I hope it doesn't apply to us. This new way of relationship to God
that comes from the heart and is internalized in every person sounds a
lot like that fourth 'great awakening' that Diana Butler-Bass talks
about. For those of us who went last week to hear her over at the
Methodist Church, which she describes in her new book "Christianity
after Religion". A great book. I'm not suggesting that Jeremiah was
predicting something that is just now coming to fruition (as if that
would be much comfort to people 2,600 years ago living in exile).
Rather, what we are witnessing today, in some of the shifting of culture
from religion to spirituality, is part of that same human desire to be
connected with God that's been there from the beginning of time. To seek
that satisfying relationship within the divine that gives us direction
and a sense of meaning and purpose to life.
So here it is what Butler-Bass and many others who study the trends in
society are seeing: she describes it in terms of 'weather vs climate'.
Now because of all the discussion of climate change, I think we all
understand the distinction now, that weather is not climate, that
whether changes from day-to-day, so we can have 6 inches of snow on the
first day of spring and it can be bright and sunny a couple days later.
Climate, on the other hand, is part of the overall trend, the long
pattern, changes very slowly over time.
She suggests that the 'weather' of
any one church might be stormy in one place and sunny in another church.
So if we're over here, we may think why can't we be that church over
there where the sun is always shining? In her last book, "Christianity
for the Rest of Us", she shares the good news that in fact that is
possible. That there are (unlike the real weather), there are some
things we can do to change the church's 'weather'.
But that's different than 'climate' change, and she says the "Climate of
our culture around issues of faith is changing. And it's changing
dramatically. And sometimes that feels very threatening to us, that
we're losing something that is very familiar and comfortable, and we
don't know what the future holds".
Butler-Bass sees this not as a threat but an opportunity for
transformation. The change that she is referring to is a dramatic drop
in church attendance, across the board, across all denominations (no one
is exempt), and just a general overall lack of interest, of declining
interest in organized religion. That's on the one hand. And on the other
hand, paradoxically, there is a dramatic rise, increase in spirituality.
In the last 20 years, the number of people who say they have no
religious affiliation has doubled, and for those under the age of 30 it
doubles again. At the same time, those who have an interest in
spirituality has increased at an equal if not faster rate. And those who
have been studying this cultural shift say that in the public realm,
spirituality is associated with private thought and practice, whereas
religion is associated with institutions, with formalized ritual, with
doctrine and dogma.
Given the many public scandals that
we have witnessed in recent decades within that organized religion,
disputes over doctrine, misdeeds of clergy and the like, and you add to
that all of the the revelations from science about the universe. John
Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopalian bishop, says that first
Copernicus and Galileo made God homeless. They peered into the heavens
and discovered there's nothing out there but other celestial bodies.
Carl Sagan says "If Jesus ascended into the heavens at the speed of
light, he has not yet left our galaxy". Think about it, that's how big
it is. And there's a lot more universe out there. Then you add to that
Newton and Darwin, Spong says, made God unemployed -- you know, the
universe works just fine without any divine intervention.
So the fact that faith even exists at all in the 21st century may itself
be a miracle. Theologian Harvey Cox notes that faith today is not just
surviving, faith is resurgent -- it's dogma that is dying. It's
institutions that are dying, not faith. Cox, as a product of religious
institutions, says "Originally I was very suspicious about this trend
towards spirituality and away from religion, but as I explored what it
means to people I discovered that people want to have access to the
sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding.
They want a more direct experience of God and spirit".
In other words, people are finding what Jeremiah describes -- the
presence of God. Not in a building a Temple, or an institution, not in
doctrines and ritual, but written on their hearts. And so the hope for
religion, the hope for the Church, Butler-Bass says, is that we too are
transformed and renewed by the Spirit.
Now, none of this should be new to us, because we have been talking
about this for some time. As our slogan says, that we adopted a few
years ago, that we seek to be transforming lives, transforming
Christianity, and transforming the world.
You see, it's religion that transforms us, it's the spirit. And we all
need that transformation as much as anybody.
Spong says that the word religion doesn't even occur in the Bible. And
so we can do with a whole lot less religion and a whole lot more spirit.
People are tired of religion that looks like nothing more than
justification for prejudice, political viewpoints, self-serving
promotion, and condemnation of anyone else's view that is different from
Dietrich Bonheoffer, writing from his
prison cell in Germany in 1943, about a year before his execution,
wrote: "Jesus does not call people to a new religion, but to life".
Spong (by the way, can you pick up that I just went to hear Spong
recently? He was in Salem speaking at the Westar Institute -- I find him
intriguing, I don't always agree with him, but I've always found him a
great storyteller, very passionate, so picked up some of his ideas from
him) goes even further, he says if Jesus does not call us to be more
religious or even more spiritual, Jesus calls us to wholeness. To claim
our full humanity, created in the image of God in every aspect.
Religious, spiritual, economic, social, sexual, every aspect of our
humanity, to claim that wholeness.
Parker Palmer, a popular Quaker author, notes that such wholeness comes
through the heart because the heart is where all our ways of knowing
converge. He writes: "The heart is where we integrate what we know in
our minds and what we know in our bones. The place where our knowledge
can become more fully human".
"No longer shall they have to teach one another", says God through
Jeremiah, "for they shall already know me", from within.
Spiritual awakenings always start within, Butler-Bass says. "Did not our
hearts burn within us?", say the two on the road to Emmaus, after they
had encountered the risen Christ. "I will write my law upon their
hearts", "Be still and know I am God", says the Psalmist.
You see, transformation is not something you can impose by doctrine, or
legislate by law, or demand by decree, it has to come from within, from
a change of heart.
So each week, I've introduced an image to go with the covenant of the
week. The rainbow for Noah's covenant (using my Mom's watercolor
painting). The magic slippers of Dorothy that bring us back home for the
covenant of Abraham. The Wizard of Oz for that covenant with Moses and
the giving of the law. The intersection of church and state for the
covenant of David (I ran out of Oz metaphors :). And it's tempting to go
back to Oz this week, the Tin-Man and the heart, it's perfect, it fits.
But instead of that image, I want to give you a video. It's one a found
in Butler-Bass's book, and its a poem entitled "The Lost Generation".
What do you think? Did you wonder if
I'd lost my marbles in the first part of that? :)
We too, you see, can change the world, when we discover what God has
placed upon our hearts.