NEW DAY, NEW COVENANT
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 31:27-34
Well, now, what has become of our “Weeping Prophet”? If not optimistic, Jeremiah at least has taken a turn toward the hopeful in today’s text. He has left the gloom and despair, the pain and destruction of exile long enough to bring a word about a new day and a new covenant.
This section of Jeremiah, beginning with chapter 30, is known as the “Book of Consolation.” Jeremiah, in the midst of the dire predictions he brings to Judah, is still touched with a deep empathy for his people, for their failures, for their pain, for their suffering, for their desires. Like God, he feels with the people, suffering when they suffer. That is why he is known as the “Weeping Prophet.” Perhaps one attraction to Jeremiah over the centuries has been this capacity to see the harsh realities of life around him at the same time he holds a vision of a new day and a new covenant. Some prophets just proclaim their hard word and let the chips fall. Jeremiah is a man of both hard truth and deep compassion. He cares about the pain and possibility of his people as much as he cares about their failures and consequences. It seems very much to foreshadow the way that Jesus walked this earth.
The new day is surely coming, he reassures the people – a new day when God will replenish the earth, will redeem all of Creation. Ultimately, salvation is not just for God’s wayward people, it will somehow be for all that God has made. It has taken Jeremiah 29 painful chapters to get to this element of his prophecy.
If you go back to chapter one, to the language of his call, you will find that he was given a six-point charge. The first four points of his charge as God’s spokesperson, God’s representative, were “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” However, the final elements of his charge were “to build and plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). I don’t think Jeremiah’s charge was so much literally to engage in these activities himself as to lay out for his people the inevitability of each – first, the plucking up and pulling down, the destruction and the overthrow, through which they all experienced the same anguish; and then these great words of hope for building and planting to which God and God’s people would ultimately turn.
A new day is coming, a day of hope and promise, a day in which Jeremiah claims “thus says the Lord: I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10-14).
It seems that this promised new day is tied closely to a new covenant. But is it truly a new covenant, or is it a new approach to a covenant that is as old as creation? More than one commentator argues that there has never been more than one basic covenant between God and humanity. It is that fundamental agreement that God will be our God if we will be God’s people. The trouble is we have tried to make that covenant conditional when God’s forgiveness and grace have been constant and unconditional. We have burdened this covenant of loving relationship with expectations and demands, with laws and codes, with rules and regulations, with systems of reward and punishment. The evidence of this is clear in the very ancient words that we claim as sacred scripture. A huge part of Jeremiah’s prophetic enterprise is to convince his people that they are being seiged, killed and carried into exile because they have failed to keep God’s laws. They have broken the ancient covenant. It’s simply a system of punishment and reward. When they mess up, God smites them. Then, when they say they’re sorry, God forgives them and makes everything nice again.
But we know God doesn’t work that way. We know it from our own experience. Of course there are consequences for our behavior, but God doesn’t pull strings of reward and punishment like some cosmic puppeteer. What we label good or bad happens to people we also label good or bad, and it happens indiscriminately. Is there another way to look at this ancient covenant that is more consonant with what we know of life?
It seems to me the essence of covenant is this: God brought creation into being as an original blessing and called it good. God created human beings in God’s image and likeness and called us good. In a profoundly simple sense God desires nothing more to than to live in communion with us, to be our God as we are God’s people.
It is a relationship of deep and transforming intimacy. It is a relationship characterized by nothing more – and nothing less – than love. In fact, the writer of Jeremiah describes God as husband to Israel. When the word translated “know” in the phrase, “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…,’” the word thus translated is the one that often means sexual intimacy. There is no need to obsess over the literalness of the language. The point is that we are made to be in the most profound, intimate relationship imaginable with God.
Of course that kind of relationship will have a radical affect on how we live our lives. Bruce Epperly writes that this text asks us to see “a vision that God acts in ways that invite us to be part of a greater adventure, companionship with God in healing the world.” God delights in sharing life and care for creation with us. Epperly continues, “[Our] alignment with divine evolving order, sharing the good news of an open-spirited gospel that reflects a living, moving God, and prayerful persistence in seeking the greatest good are all responses to God’s vision of Shalom,” of the peace and well-being, healing and wholeness God desires for all creation (Bruce Epperly, “Prayer, Scripture, and the Law of our Being,” The Adventurous Lectionary, 10-20-2013, patheos. com).
This is the new covenant that leads to God’s new day, or rather the new approach to the ancient covenant built into the very nature of things that will take us to that day. No more unrealistic expectations and demands, binding laws and codes, restricting rules and regulations, impossible, oppressive systems of reward and punishment! We are invited to live in the dangerous freedom and close embrace of God who loves us and desires the best for us and from us in the living of our lives.
Jeremiah’s ancient wisdom is absolutely contemporary and draws us toward God’s amazing future of abundant life. It invites us to work with God in the building of that future. Last week, Pastor Tripp said, “I want to know how to live here and now but as someone who believes that God is here and that the Kingdom is now.” Isn’t this a desire we hold in common as children of God and followers of Christ? I hear this as a desire for the new day and the new covenant that Jeremiah promises
Epperly again writes, “Jeremiah aspires toward a heart-felt relationship with God in which we do the good as a result of our relationship with God.” He says, “Jeremiah imagines a new day for Israel. Divine help is on the way. The broken country can be healed. Alienation can give way to reconciliation. The law…can become our deepest reality, written on our hearts.” In response to this deep desire to know God and God’s way, he says, “…the prophet imagines a day in which the nation will walk with God again. The laws of God, written in our hearts, will no longer be a source of dissonance, but flow out of our relationship with God. Every action can reflect the intimacy we feel toward our Creator and Lawgiver. Law is no longer an external judge or something we need to live up to, it is the inspiration to a new way of life, loving justice and walking humbly in relationship with God” (Epperly, op. cit.)
A new day, a new covenant. Can you see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, imagine it? A day and a way in which God will dwell in us and we will dwell in God. Thrilling, frightening, challenging, appealing! It is coming. See it breaking through? May it be fulfilled in us – and soon. Amen.