Revisiting Covenant

by susan on October 26, 2015

covenant rainbowWe shared a wonderful weekend of spiritual renewal together. We ate, played, listened and learned together. There was even time for skit performances and poetry writing!

Under the thought-provoking leadership of Dr. David Garber of the McAfee School of Theology, we explored the role of covenant in the Hebrew Bible and were asked to consider its relevance today. Here is the message of hope and challenge that was shared during Sunday’s worship gathering:

Revisiting Covenant
Dr. David Garber

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.  -Jeremiah 31:31-34, NRSV

Covenant … it’s such a strange, and maybe even scary word. For those of us who grew up in Christian communities, it’s a word that is, perhaps, awkwardly comfortable. We may have heard the terms “old covenant” or “new covenant” and thought that we kind of knew what they meant. We may understand on a surface level that the idea of covenant implies some sort of relationship with mutual responsibilities and mutual benefits. Those of us who may have drifted away from the church, however, may feel that the word covenant is, well, too “churchy.” Why don’t we exchange that word for what it really means? Why don’t we simply say “contract” or “agreement”?

Still, for others of us, the idea of covenant may be frightening because we are well aware of the level of commitment the concept implies. Many of us have endured broken relationships. We have watched friends abandon us during our greatest periods of need. We have seen family members who have left us too soon. We have witnessed community groups, or even churches, in which we placed our trust, prove to us that human communities are, well, all too human. Life is full of such losses, such times of exile. For some of us, the idea of covenant may agitate our fears of commitment or trigger our anxiety about trust. And, yet, here we are, here at the Well at Springfield, seeking to quench our thirst for community, our need for acceptance, and our hunger for an experience with the Holy.

As many of you are, I’m sure, fully aware, Christian communities all over North America are facing a crisis of faith. We exist in a culture that questions our relevance at best or is actively hostile to our ideals at worst. Our polls and statistics tell us that people are no longer claiming traditional religious labels like Christian, Jew, Buddhist, or Hindu. Instead, there is a rise of those who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” or the every increasing census category of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. At the same time, we live in a nation that is extremely divided in an ideological civil war. As citizens of this nation, we repeatedly reject the effort it takes to build relationships with those who do not see the world as we do. The Christian community rejects the culture, the culture rejects Christian community, and we reject anyone whose views make us uncomfortable.

Such is the state of exile in which we live in America.

To be fair and brutally honest, it is nowhere near the situation that Jeremiah’s community faced in and around 586 B.C.E. In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Judah had suffered tremendous loss. Under the leadership of Kings who consistently made poor choices, the people of Judah had witnessed a mass deportation of their leaders in 597 B.C.E., an event that solidified a new political reality. Babylon would be calling the shots in Judah from now on. Despite Jeremiah’s admonition to “submit to the yoke of Babylon,” King Zedekiah trusted so much in his own strength that he ignored the prophet and outwardly rebelled against the Babylonian empire, enticing the Babylonian army to lay siege to Jerusalem once more in 588 B.C.E. This time, the military oppression against Judah was far more severe. The army held Jerusalem in siege for almost a year and a half, waiting for the people inside the city to run out of food, to starve, to get sick, to die. When the people of Jerusalem were at their weakest point—2 Kings says when the “famine was great in the land”—the Babylonian army dealt their final blow. They invaded the city, killed those who resisted, captured its survivors, and dragged all of them back to live in exile in Babylon. Much like the Syrian refugees who we see fleeing their war-torn land, the people of Jerusalem had lost their homes, their livelihood, their families, and their religious communities and symbols. In the midst of their suffering, they, perhaps, lost any hope that the life as they knew it could be restored. To borrow an image from another prophet working in Jeremiah’s time, the people were dried up to their very core, to their very bones.

I honestly don’t know how I would feel about God in such a situation. If I imagine myself as a survivor of the siege and as a captive in Babylon, I’m not sure what I would do about this concept of “covenant.” Perhaps I would reject the notion entirely. If the God with whom I am in a covenant relationship with would allow—or even cause—this to happen to my community, my family, my friends, to me, I am not sure that I would have the strength to believe. I’m not sure I would even want to believe. If I did believe, I am not sure I would want to live in covenant with such a God.

But the miracle of the God of Israel and Judah, the same God whom we as Christians have inherited through the work of Jesus Christ, is that despite our unbelief, despite our rejection of covenant with God, God still speaks words of hope and still works to repair that broken relationship. God did not even wait six hundred years to try to repair that relationship in the person of Jesus as many of us who are Christians would want to claim. No, God spoke of repairing that relationship even at the very moment when it was broken. God comes to Jeremiah, whom God had used previously to proclaim God’s judgment against the people, and tells the prophet to speak Holy words once again. This time, however, they are not words of judgment. Jeremiah is no longer plucking up or tearing down. No, now is the time for Jeremiah to build new faith and to plant new ideas. When the people are at their lowest, God does not come to them with an “I told you so.” God meets them with words of hope and encouragement.

God reimagines a relationship with the human community: “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” (v. 31) Notice how this promise doesn’t simply seek to restore the recently broken community of Judah alone. God’s vision of restoration is as broad as the suffering of the people is deep. God seeks to restore all of Israel and Judah, even including the people of the Northern Kingdom of Judah whom the Assyrians had exiled 150 years earlier.

Even as God promises to renew covenant with the whole people of Israel, God breaks with tradition: “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 had married them, says the LORD” (Jer 31:32). In restoring the relationship, God does not want to return to the same, dysfunctional, toxic patterns of the prior relationship. God is wise enough to know not to try to carry on as if nothing had happened. Instead, God promises something new, something innovative. God will not speak instructions into their ears. Instead, God will write God’s law on their hearts. God will infuse the core of the peoples’ very being with holy practices, and God will once again become a covenant partner with the people.

Notice also, that God’s vision for this new community is quite inclusive. Members of the covenant community will no longer have to correct each other because everyone will know the very heart of God. From the youngest to the oldest, the poorest to the richest, the weakest to the most powerful, all will know God and God’s capacity to forgive their sins and to embrace them once more. Jeremiah spoke these words of hope to a people during their time of deepest despair. I can imagine that these words might have been as difficult for them to hear as Jeremiah’s initial words of judgment. But Jeremiah remained faithful to his calling, just as God remained steadfast and faithful to God’s people.

Of course, the skeptic in me yearns to ask, but was there really a restoration? Did it really happen the way Jeremiah promised it would? I don’t know how to answer my skeptical self even at this moment. But what I do know is that the people of Judah mirrored the stubbornness of God, fool-heartedly committing themselves to remain in a covenant relationship with God and with each other.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the promises of God in Jeremiah 31 have not reached their full potential. As Christians, especially in light of the epistle to the Hebrews, it may be tempting to say that Jeremiah’s words of hope were completely fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus. But if we are honest with ourselves and our Christian sisters and brothers, we would know that even in the Christian community, the full potential of Jeremiah’s promises have not come to fruition. While we don’t have a realization of the full renewal of covenant community, what we do have in Jeremiah is an invitation. It is an invitation to hope again, an invitation to believe that covenant community with God and with each other is a goal that we must struggle to achieve.

In my all too few hours with you here at the Well at Springfield, I see the seeds of God’s renewal here in this community and in this age. God is doing something new here. I saw the signs of God’s covenant renewal in the ways in which you play with each other on a Friday evening, breaking bread (or in some cases trifles and rice krispy treats) with each other. I have seen it in the hospitality you have extended to me, taking me into your home, trusting me with your time, and humoring me when I ask you to step outside of your comfort zones when interpreting scripture. I see the seeds of renewal in the concerns that you have for the least of these in this world: a desire to restore people who have lost faith both here and abroad, a despair for those young women and men who suffer in systems of human trafficking and slavery, a yearning to see those fleeing from their homes in war-torn lands find new homes and possibilities to create new patterns of life. I also see the seeds of renewal in your stubbornness, in the way that despite the failings of the Christian community of the past, you have gathered here together to try something new once more.

As we learned at in our sessions this weekend, one essential element of covenant making and covenant renewal is ritual. Not ritual in the sense of an empty practice that one does by rote memory or simple habit, but a ritual that embodies and symbolizes what it means to claim this covenant relationship with God and with each other. I can think of no better practice in the Christian community to symbolize covenant renewal than the practice of communion. This single ancient tradition calls us to participate in the lives of all the Christ-followers who have preceded us and who have laid the foundations of our very faith. This tradition also signifies the promise that God first gave to the Israelites to nourish them in the desert and continues to give in different forms of expression to those who choose to remain in covenant with God. In the Christian tradition, Christ calls us to his table, where he might feed us the bread and waters of life. As we partake in this practice this morning, I invite you to consider how God may be calling you to participate in God’s promise of covenant. I invite you to reflect on the stubbornness of God’s love that refuses to let you go and on how you can extend that love within and beyond this covenant community.

Previous post:

Next post: