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 The Internal Covenant

Sermon - 3/25/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 31:31-34

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,
and 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 tambourines,
   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 to 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. 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. . . . . wait :)

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 their own.

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.


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