March 29, 2009
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
The prophetic text from Jeremiah 31 that we heard this morning tells us about a “new covenant” – a new relationship that God makes with God’s people. This promise came at a time when Israel was in exile in Babylon, having lost all the things that made Israel God’s people and a nation. Gone was their land, their temple, and their king… all the things that had come to them on the promises of God. And Jeremiah was telling them that they had lost all these things because of their unfaithfulness to God… because they had turned away to other gods and idols.
But even in this time of despair, when they came face-to-face with the fact that they had failed in their relationship with God and the result was exile… God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles, and God announced that there would be a new covenant. God was going to establish a new relationship with God’s people.
The new covenant was going to be different from the one God made with Israel at Sinai after bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt. Remember that covenant? — the one that we associate with the ten commandments? There were two essential elements in that earlier covenant: First, God chose the Hebrew People (former slaves) to be in a special relationship with God. It was on God’s initiative that the people were given this opportunity to be the people of God. And second, Israel’s role in the relationship was to respond to God’s action by accepting the commandments given by God, and obeying them.
Of course, we know very well that accepting the commandments is one thing… and obeying them is quite another! The Bible is full of the stories of Israel’s continual disloyalty to God — how they failed over and over to fulfil their part of the covenant. At the same time, we can read about how God continued to be faithful to the people… how God repeatedly punished them for their sin, but when the people repented, God consistently forgave them and renewed the relationship.
If you start reading the messages of the prophets of Israel, you see how they consistently point out the people’s sins and failings, and how they called the people to change their ways so as not to receive the judgement and punishment of God. The earlier covenant is very much like a legal contract… If you break the covenant, you must suffer the consequences. That’s why the prophets interpreted bad things happening to God’s people as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God.
But Jeremiah says that this new covenant that God is making is going to be different. Verse 32 says, “It will not be like the covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.” Of course, we notice the reality there… that the people did not live in faithfulness to the previous covenants. They didn’t live according to the commandments — even though they were in that relationship of love and commitment, a relationship that Jeremiah compares to that between a husband and a wife.
So, how will the new covenant be different? Instead of a set of commandments and rules written on tablets of stone or read aloud in places of public worship… instead God says: “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.” By inscribing the laws on the people’s hearts, God was acting to transform their very being. In a sense, God was taking responsibility for both sides of the covenant. God was faithful and loving towards the people, and God changed the people’s hearts to give them the ability to love in return — to love both God and their neighbours in God’s way. On God’s initiative the covenant was made with Israel, and by God’s grace and action in the lives of the people, the people were enabled to fulfil their part of the covenant and respond to God.
In a discussion on this text earlier this week, one person said that it made her think of the Holy Spirit. Not only God’s law, but God’s love, God’s wisdom, and God’s very presence come to live within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the ability to share God’s love in words and in action. The Spirit gives us the words to pray when we do not know how to pray. The Spirit fills us with the courage we need to live the challenging, risk-taking way of Jesus in the world today. If the new relationship that we have with God is experienced through the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives, then that’s a relationship where God is not a far-away ruler-giver and judge. That’s a relationship where God is right here with us, around us, within us, and working through us.
In this season of Lent, when so many people create new rules for themselves as to how they will improve themselves and follow God’s laws more strictly… I can’t help but think that maybe God just wants us to draw close in relationship once again. It’s like we are being reminded by God… “Hey! I’m right with you. I’m beside you. I’m within you… right in your heart.” And God is calling us to participate in the relationship… to talk to God, to listen to God, to live in relationship with God throughout each day and week. Like a husband or wife who wants to share in the life of their spouse… like a partner who misses hearing the other’s voice, who longs to share their thoughts and reflections with their spouse, who simply longs for the other to participate in the relationship…
In the Gospel reading, we hear about some Greeks who go up to Jerusalem and who go looking for Jesus. They want to see him. They want to talk to him. They want to listen to his teachings, I imagine. And though we don’t get to listen in on their conversation with Jesus, we do notice, by the fact that they were coming, that Jesus did not only come into the world for his own community — the Jews. We hear Jesus talk about his mission to draw ALL people to himself — to draw all people into relationship with God.
He explains that building that relationship with all people is not easy. As a human person within the world, preaching about God, teaching people how to live, helping and healing and being with the people — Jesus built many relationships of love between people and God. And yet, he could only do so much in that way… and he seemed to know that in order to mend so many more relationships, in order to draw ALL people to God, he had to be willing to give up his own life.
In less than two weeks, we will gather to remember Jesus’ last week in our world. We’ll meet with him and his friends at the table of his last supper with them, and we’ll remember the events leading up to his death on a cross. Once again, we will likely feel the horror of what human hands and hearts did to the man who was God among us… and we might pause to wonder at the fact that we call it “Good Friday” — the day that our leader and Lord was executed.
In our Sunday morning bible study right now, we are exploring six different biblical models for understanding how Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us — how that terrible event is transformed into something we can today call “good”, how all people are drawn into relationship with God through it.
The Gospel uses the metaphor of a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies so that it can grow, and grow, and bear much fruit. And without getting into a long discussion of the various theological models of salvation… we can certainly see how Jesus’ death has been the beginning of life for many… how Jesus’ death and resurrection have served to build the community of followers of his way… how Jesus’ willingness to fully give himself for the world has drawn so many people into relationship with God.
And of course, as John’s Gospel emphasizes, though Jesus is no longer physically with us in the world… God has sent the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and our lives with love. God continues to be with us in that relationship of love… and God continues to call us to participate in that relationship.
I read about an Hassidic story that tells of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading the sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”
In these final days and weeks of Lent, let us gift thanks for the gift of God’s law and God’s Spirit within us. May this be for us (and for all people) a time of drawing close to God once again. Amen.