Following an oracle about a new ethic of personal responsibility, we find in Jeremiah 31 the announcement of a new covenant: a new picture of the relationship between God and God’s people. Something ‘new’ is not a frequent theme in the Hebrew Bible until it emerges with the prophets. Parallel to the new covenant of Jeremiah, two other significant references are the ‘new thing’ and ‘the new creation’ in Isaiah 43 and 65, and the ‘new heart’ and ‘new spirit’ of Ezekiel 18.
The style of Jeremiah varies – sometimes it reads like poetry, sometimes like prose. Jeremiah was a prophet – a preacher – and he had a scribe, Baruch, who took notes for posterity. We don’t know if they intended their work to end up being part of a timeless international best-seller, but that’s what happened.
Jeremiah 31:31 The days are surely coming, says God, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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 God. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says God: 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. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know God,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says God; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
I want to play with this reading a little. I could only imagine how this sermon might have been preached to Hebrews two and a half thousand years ago – Jews who were living in exile. So next I had to imagine what Jeremiah might have had to say to us this morning.
I am going to pretend to speak for Jeremiah, who in turn was speaking for God, so don’t be put off when it sounds like I’m talking as though I was God. I’m confused in a lot of ways, but that’s not one of them.
So let’s imagine the sequel — Jeremiah II – God Tries Again.
I’m bringing you into a new covenant, says God, into a new committed relationship of love and trust. I offer myself to you for the rest of time. This new covenant will not be like the old one that I made with your ancestors. In those days, my people were in Egypt – broken and suffering. They were being oppressed by a people who hated them and used them as slaves. And I was heartbroken. So I reached out my hands in love – wiped away the tears from their eyes – cradled them in my arms – took them out of that country to a place of safety and healing.
And when their wounds were healed, I offered to commit myself to them, fully and forever. In return, I wanted them to be faithful to me alone and to live lives of justice and righteousness – to show all people the light of my love. And so we entered into a binding covenant relationship, into marriage. I loved them and cherished them and gave them every good thing. Whatever they needed I gave them and kept them safe from harm. I was their God and they were my people.
But despite my love and my faithfulness, they broke covenant with me – tore up our marriage certificate. And my heart was torn in two. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched the life and vitality draining from their faces – cast aside on the garbage heap of humanity. And yet they still ran away from the warmth and safety of my arms. I was grieved – my heart shattered – but I still loved them. My love never died.
So I decided to offer a completely new covenant – one with a human face. I became one of you and I came and lived amongst you. I found the same agonies and frustrations that I had felt when your ancestors betrayed me. I experienced the struggles of living in your culture and the pressures from every side to compromise your integrity and your faith. I felt the pain, grief and deep wounds of your broken families – your abused and molested children – your neglected and oppressed peoples – those who grew up in emotional nightmares, starved of genuine love. And I wept again because I was living in the agony and destruction of a world that scorned my love and was now reaping the fruits of its own betrayal.
So I stood amidst the decay of death and called for life. I called for healing – for peace – for justice – for righteousness. And I lived it. And I helped fragile, hurting people to live it too. And the powers of death rose up and tore me apart. The powers of darkness who could not stand the light screamed and spat and clawed and they broke my body and tore the life from my being. The husk of the seed was broken open to kill it. But the tender sprout that came from the seed in the darkness reached out to the light. My love renews not because of the destruction but in spite of it.
Out of all the devastating losses in this life continually comes my everlasting love and mercy. Take my body – I have given it for you. Take my blood – it was poured out so that you might have life and have it to the full. Take my resurrection – own it as a new person and claim rebirth into everlasting life. These are the symbols of the new covenant – the symbols of the depth of my love for you – the symbols of the commitment I am offering you.
This is the covenant I am inviting you into in these days, says God.
I take you in my arms and call you precious – forgive all the sins of your past – erase the memory of your unfaithfulness. Deep within your hearts, I write the law of life – the law of love and right relations. I pour into your hearts my Holy Spirit and she will bear within you her fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness. I love you and I offer you this commitment – this promise of myself.
I will be your God and you will be my people, says God.
I have called you, not only as individuals, but to be mine as a people. The Holy Spirit will begin to reconcile you with each other – to bind you together as a covenant people. You will begin again to love and care for others, and to be faithful to me. My righteousness, my justice, my mercy and my love will be seen by the entire world as you live it out faithfully.
You will know me intimately. No longer will you need to teach one another, or say to each other “Know God,” for you shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. You who are nothing in the eyes of this world will feel my love. You who are great and wealthy can have the same – but only the same. And you must accept these others as your brothers and sisters. None of you will be left in the shadows, groping for someone to take your hand and lead you to the light.
These are the things to come, says God – they are now beginning and they will come to fulfillment. This is the covenant I am bringing you into in these days and this is the future that I am promising to you. We will be committed to one another in marriage, in a covenant relationship forever. I love you – I have chosen you – I want only the best for you and all people.
This is the new covenant sealed with my body, my blood, my tears and my resurrection. Accept my promise – accept my commitment to you – accept the new covenant.
And I will be your God and you will be my people, says God.