by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.
On the first Sunday of Lent we looked at the covenant with Noah – the rainbow covenant that encompassed ‘all flesh’. On the next Sunday we looked at the covenant of Abraham, the promise of God claimed by the descendants of Abraham – the many nations and faiths that trace their ancestry from him. It is the history of monotheism, the belief in one God; and that belief in there being only one God has to include the belief that God is the God of all creation, of all flesh. Even when one group or nation claims the covenant with God as theirs, it can never be theirs alone.
In the third and fourth weeks, if we had continued following the lectionary, we would have been looking at the covenant of Moses – and indeed at Gartmore last week we spent a lot of time on the Exodus story. And the Exodus story can be used to suggest that God is the God of one people and is set against another people – and indeed it has been used in just that way. But what I was saying last week is that Exodus describes not ‘a’ story of liberation, but ‘the’ story of liberation – the story that has been read and understood by oppressed people down through the ages, the story of God’s favour to those who find themselves on the underside of history, those trampled underfoot by poverty and power.
But we can see down through history, and in the Exodus story, how that understanding tends to be lost in the very process of liberation. The God who hears the cry of the poor, and calls ‘let my people go’, becomes understood once freedom is accomplished as ‘our God’, the God who is on our side, the God who will sanction whatever atrocity we care to commit. So those who were once oppressed tend to colonise the God who came to their aid, claim God as their own to the exclusion of others, claim him even when they in their turn become oppressors.
But God remains the God of all flesh; and the covenant remains the covenant with all flesh. It is a covenant that puts our understanding of God in the places of suffering, with the victims of violence, on the side of the poor, in the cause of liberation. ‘Let my people go,’ is not a cry for a people or a nation or an ethnic group; it is the cry for justice wherever by whomsoever it is denied.
And so this week we reach the covenant of Jeremiah. ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.’ It is a new covenant with Israel and Judah, a renewed covenant with those who have forgotten what the covenant means. The scripture of the Hebrew bible tells again and again of how the people who are to carry with them the memory of God and God’s covenant continually lose the memory and go after other covenants, and are tempted by other ideas of what God might be about.
So they will lust after Baal, the thought that God is all about fertility; or they will pursue Mammon, the illusion that God and following God is about wealth and riches and possessions. Or they will be doing so well, become so comfortable, that they begin to believe there is no need for God, that they can do without God, that God can make no further demands on them, that the covenant is null and void – because it’s only for the weak. The strong and the proud, and they, have moved beyond all that.
And so, periodically, the people of Israel, who should be the carriers of a covenant, are reminded of what they have forgotten, and they are brought low – not only be Egypt, but by Assyria, or Persia, or Babylon. And every time they ask if it is now God who has forgotten his covenant; and every time they work away at reminding themselves of the God of justice, the God they have so often and so conveniently forgotten.
And Jeremiah speaks into one of those times, into perhaps the most significant time for the development of the monotheistic understanding of God. Jeremiah speaks to a nation in exile, to a people uprooted and seemingly abandoned, to a faith that asks where God has gone. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Jeremiah speaks of a time when there will be no more forgetting, of a time when the covenant of God will not be something of which they have to be constantly – or at least periodically – reminded. He tells them that God is with them no matter where they go, no matter the condition of their lives or their nation. In those days, says Jeremiah, you won’t need tablets of stone with the law written on them; in those days you will have taken the tablets, swallowed the covenant, digested the law. It will course through your veins, it will tingle in your nerves, you will feel it in your bones.
And this covenant is one rooted in forgiveness; it grows from the realisation of wrongdoing. It blossoms in the sands of the wilderness, in the arid wastes of regret. It spreads through a life which notices where it has gone wrong, where it forgot about the requirement for justice, where it forgot about breadth of the covenant, where it forgot about the greatness of God.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
The covenant is not a covenant that saves us from the world, or separates us from the world, or allows us to lord it over the world; the covenant is one which connects us to the world, which writes the law on our hearts, which does not allow us to forget that God is the God of justice and liberation – of us from others and, just as likely, of others from us.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
And so Jesus and his followers head for Jerusalem in the midst of a festival that celebrates deliverance and liberation, celebrates the God of the covenant, but celebrates in the midst of ambiguity. In the chapter of John’s gospel before the one we read from this morning, Jesus has ceased walking about openly because of the danger it puts him in. And, because of that danger, those who went to Jerusalem were pretty sure Jesus would not be there. So in the midst of a celebration of the God who frees the oppressed, the God who, many hoped, would soon free Israel from the oppression of Rome, there is a tale of oppression – a tale that tells of a lack of freedom, a tale of fear and foreboding, a tale of hope and hopelessness.
Earlier in the same chapter as this morning’s reading, Jesus is in Bethany being anointed by expensive ointment, and the subject of a dispute about the use of resources, about whether or not the life to which Jesus calls us has room for celebration and extravagance. Jesus has then entered Jerusalem, in the event we will remember next Sunday, and the crowds have come to see both him and Lazarus, because he has raised Lazarus from the dead. And the Pharisees have begun to despair at Jesus’ popularity.
In the midst of all this some Greeks appear, asking to see Jesus. And it’s not clear in John’s telling if they ever do. But we do. Because Jesus’ answer to Philip and to Andrew is a talk about glory; it’s a talk about what it means to embody the covenant of God, to have the covenant written on a heart, lived in a life.
Jesus talks about the way to the life of God, the way of the life of God; he talks about the commitment that is involved, the commitment to be planted in the life of the world, to take on the life of the world, so that the life of the world can grow and blossom. Jesus speaks about how the covenant of God’s promise must be lived in self-giving, in self-denial, in self-sacrifice.
‘The days are surely coming,’ said Jeremiah; and the testimony of Jesus of Nazareth is that in him the days have come. In him there is seen a life lived with the law written on a heart, a life in which the full glory of God’s covenant is revealed. But it’s not the life that people imagined it might be; it’s not a life in which special favour is bestowed, not a life in which great earthly glory is displayed, nor a life in which suffering and fear and death are avoided.
Because this covenant is one with and for all flesh, it cannot be embodied in a life that is anything else but one lived for all flesh. Because the God being revealed is the one and only God, that God must be for all creation. Because the call of God is for all people, it is all people who will be summoned to the cross.
‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’
And because Jeremiah’s new covenant is one in which the failings of humanity are overcome in the forgiveness of God, that covenant – now embodied in this human life – must be lived as forgiveness: spoken, acted, symbolised. And the word spoken, the action undertaken, the symbol offered, are all found in, on, and through the cross. And that fact troubles Jesus’ soul; it makes him afraid, it urges him to say it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, a misconception.
But the cross of Calvary, to which we now turn over the next two weeks, is the covenant; the cross is the life of the covenant; the cross is all the world’s injustice and oppression and violence, overcome by the covenant of God’s forgiveness, the covenant made flesh for all flesh.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
The mistake, the misunderstanding, and the misconception are to be found in the attempts – before Jesus of Nazareth’s earthly life and since – to narrow the covenant, to identify it with one group of people over against another, to suggest that there are those whom God loves, and those God does not love.
Even today there are Muslims telling other Muslims they are not really Muslims, Jews telling other Jews they are not really Jews, Christians telling other Christians they are not really Christians; and those from all of these communities and others telling the rest of the world that the only way to God’s love is their way.
But the God of the covenant is not to be identified like that. The God of the covenant is the God of life, who takes sides with those who are denied life, those whose lives are oppressed or stolen. The God of the covenant is the God who brings down the mighty and empties the rich – exactly because the thrones of the mighty and the riches of the rich are the means of denying life to others.
The God of the covenant offers his own life for the life of the world, the whole world. The God of the covenant gathers all people, so that all people may share that life – and celebrate it. As Isaiah puts it: ‘then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.