“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of a Jacob!”
God is a God of covenants. There was a covenant with Noah after the flood. Never again will I curse the ground because of humankind (Gen. 8:21). Remember the covenant with Abraham. God tells him, I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous. … You shall be the ancestor of [many] nations (Gen. 17:2, 4). Of course, there’s the covenant with Moses. I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation (Exodus 34:10). And let’s not forget the covenant with King David. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).
The covenant is deeper than just some agreement and requires more of each party. The covenant is more personal than a contract and more binding. And when the covenant is with God, it can be trusted without reservation.
Herein lies the problem when we turn to Jeremiah 31. For starters, The Lord says the new covenant will be with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob. Ancient Israel was comprised of 12 tribes – descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. The 10 northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. They intermarried with other nations the Assyrians had conquered and were essentially lost to history. The only remnant in the land was a mixed race people – Jewish and other. They lived in Samaria. In the New Testament, Jesus has encounters with these Samaritans and even features a Samaritan in one of his most popular parables.
How can God say he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel? There is no more house of Israel. Sure, God is God. But, exile is exile. Some problems are too big. Aren’t they?
The remaining two tribes, the southern tribes make up the house of Judah and are the location of the city of Zion, Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 31, these tribes have gone the way of their northern cousins. They have been taken in exile and anticipate being lost.
The walls of the city fell and Solomon’s amazing temple was completely destroyed in 587BC. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Landed folks [Israel – even if it is just Judah, two of what was originally 12 tribes] – Landed folks want to cling to continuity and believe that old forms will continue. But the wrenching of 587 and the discernment of the prophets [Jeremiah, 2nd Isaiah, Ezekiel] are about discontinuity. The land is really lost and history is really ended.”[i]
God told Noah he would never again curse the land. The Babylonians have ravaged the land. God told Abraham he would be the ancestor of many nations. The one nation begun in Abraham’s name has been lost. God told Moses he would do marvels unlike any ever seen, but that was 1500 years prior to this event, the crushing of the people. When Babylon came and the walls fell, where were the marvels of God? God told David, your kingdom shall be forever. David’s descendant, Zedekiah was forced to watch as Babylonian soldiers executed his sons. Then, after seeing that, they gouged out his eyes, so that the last thing he ever saw would be the death of his own children. Then, the king was chained and dragged off to Babylon.
See how each covenant ended? What do those Jews in exile hear when they hear Jeremiah speak God’s word? “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant.” A covenant with a people – the house of Israel – that are no more. What kind of covenant is that? A covenant with the house of Judah in exile. Can they still be the people of God while living in Babylon? What do those exiles hear in this promise? Do they dare believe it? Do they dare hope? Can they trust this covenant God?
Jeremiah does. This exile has happened and the former covenants appear lost because God’s people have turned away from God. This is not happening because Babylon or Assyria is stronger than God. This is not happening because God is flippant. God is not fickle. What God promised to Noah and Moses and Abraham and David is as true as it ever was. Jeremiah said it and I claim those promises today, October 16, 2016. Under the midnight shadow of exile, Jeremiah trusts God and calls the people to see God at work even in this time of death.
I wonder if the discontent in America right now makes it hard to see God at work. I wonder if our land is a long way on the path of entry into a time of death. I couldn’t identify the number of different ways people in our country are divided, but I’ll discuss just one. Keep in mind, this is one description among many; one example of how culture in America is shifting dramatically.
Until this century, America was led by white men. At the end of the 20th century, a few women, like Sandra Day O’Conner and a few African Americans, like Colin Powell and Andrew Young and Barbara Jordan broke into the leadership dominion of white men. Still, white men owned the companies, got elected, and hammered the judges’ gavels.
The hegemony, the domination of white men is ending. Some people in our country are perfectly comfortable with this. I am. I am comfortable with women in positions of leadership and power – if they are qualified to be there. And many are. I am happy to yield authority to people of color if they merit having that authority. And many do. Qualified leaders are found in both genders and in all races. I welcome a culture shift that makes space for qualified leaders to have opportunities.
Some are terrified of it. They feel like they are losing the America they thought was theirs. In a sense, they are. By the middle of this century, white people will not have a numerical majority in the United States. By the time we are 2/3 of the way through this century, the largest group of American citizens will be Hispanic. It is ludicrous to think we could reach back to the halcyon days of the 1950’s. Those days were only idyllic for a segment of our population. In the 2050’s, that segment will lack the power to enforce their will. In 2016, our nation feels this shift happening. Those who fear the shift will fight it.
Crisis is defined as a turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.[ii] In this crisis, can God be trusted? For the people of Judah, when the crisis of 587 BC ended in exile, it felt like death. But Jeremiah stood up and said, yes death, but after death, covenant. Can the covenant God still be trusted?
We know this covenant God through Jesus, the crucified, resurrected one. Jesus is where we meet this God, but Jesus ascended after the resurrection and left things in the hands of his church. The church is supposed to be the body of Christ on earth giving witness to God’s goodness and love and salvation. We point a dying world to the God who saves. But, we are full of broken, sinful people who snipe at one another. The forces that divide American culture are as much inside the church, inside the body of Christ as they are outside it.
God left things in the mouths of prophets and in the workings of imperfect churches? Really God? Can the covenant God be trusted? Jeremiah says yes.
I will make a new covenant says the Lord. The next God says is it will not be like the old covenant, the one made in the wilderness. Exile bore similarities to Egypt. The people were slaves under Pharaoh, far from the land God promised to Abraham. Now they’ve sinned and they are in a forced exile in Babylon, far from the land God promised to Abraham. God gave Moses the power to lead the people east to Canaan. Couldn’t God give Jeremiah or more likely Ezekiel the same power to lead the people west, back to the Promised Land? No, Jeremiah says. This is not going to be like the old covenant, the one they broke repeatedly. There is no going back. The Red Sea will not be parted for us again.
The promises made in the covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David – those promises will be kept. But it won’t look like what we may have thought it would look like. Read through the New Testament and then go through history from the days of the New Testament up to now.
Many point to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, as an outline for God’s future plans. At the end of Revelation, the faithful, those who are saved, are not gathered unto God in a new Garden of Eden. We don’t go back to Eden.
Church leadership literature sometimes calls the church to revert back to the way the church functioned in the 1st century, in the decades immediately after the resurrection. But, the New Testament reveals that the early church was full of conflict – conflict we don’t want. Just as Revelation does not promise a return to Eden, it does not offer vision anything like the early church.
What we find in Revelation is something new because God is a God of the new. This is why going forward with God is an act of faith. Noah, got on that ark not knowing if he’d ever get off. Abraham trusted God before he ever saw evidence of the covenant. Moses led a nation into the desert and their best moments in the desert came when they had nothing and had to live in total dependence on God. David’s best moments with God came when he was hiding in a cave from people who had armies bigger than his and who sought his life. None of these great people in the history of the faith tried to retreat back to an earlier, greater time. In the valley of the shadow of death, they trusted God with everything. They were all in with God.
Jeremiah looks at exiled Judah – a people who feel completely lost and feel that they have lost everything and he invokes one of the matriarchs, Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob. Jeremiah’s 31:15 says, “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” In Jeremiah, this poetry means that exile is the end of God’s people. The Gospel writer Matthew quotes this verse when he describes King Herod’s evil act of murdering all the toddlers in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy Jesus. Rachel is weeping for her children.
Nothing should lessen the weight of the tragedy either in Matthew or Jeremiah. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed nations and enslaved people in 587BC. King Herod murdered children to keep hold of his fragile, fleeting power in the days of Jesus’ infancy. God did not bring about either evil, but acted in both. Our rebellion always leads to evil, and as our evil brings about death, God always brings about a new thing.
Jeremiah quotes God who says, the days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant. This will even include the house of Israel who you thought was lost because God can bring new life even where there are only dead, dry bones.
A new covenant; and, says God, this will not be like the old covenant. Promises to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David will be kept, but it won’t look as we thought it would. It will be new. The new promises of God will look unlike anything we have ever imagined just as growing divisions will make our country look different than it looked previously. But we are unafraid. We know that who is in the white house or in the congress or on the Supreme Court does not determine who we are. The resurrected Christ determines who we are.
It’s a new covenant. It’s not like the old. We remember the past, but don’t long for it. Yes remember, but no, don’t reach back. Our God is a God of the new. So then, what is the new, promised covenant?
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. They shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (31:33-34).
Included in the observation from Walter Brueggemann I shared at the beginning is that the prophetic message is about discontinuity. Things won’t be as they were. The world is changing and the prophet is the one who sees it ahead of everyone else and speaks it sometimes before people are ready to hear it. One reality though never changes. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to Jeremiah to the days of Jesus’ birth to the days of the early church to the experiences of God’s church throughout history up to our day and time as we strive to be God’s people in a time of dramatic and scary change, God delivers. God saves. God is present. God heals. God brings life out of death.
Rachel is weeping for her children. God responds in Jeremiah 31:16, keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord, [and] there is a hope for your future. With knowledge of God planted in their hearts, they can point the world to Him whether they are in Babylon or in Egypt or in Jerusalem.
With the Holy Spirit of God in us, planting God’s word in our hearts and making us new creations, we can count on God’s salvation today. It’s not a future promise. Salvation is a present reality that calls us to share Christ with the world however the world is, and draws us forward into the future, anticipating the day when the Kingdom comes in full.
Can we trust the covenant God? There is nothing else we can do for although we were born of this earth, born in sin, we have been born again, made new, called into a new covenant with the God of the new. Amid the disorienting journey into death our culture is on, we followers of the Covenant God, proclaim life. Jesus Christ is Lord and all who repent and turn to him can have salvation, life in his name. No government, power, or temptation is able to threaten that promise. We stand on it and from that we stand join Jeremiah as hope-announcers, proclaimers of good news.