This week I spent time with three different families discussing plans to celebrate their loved ones lives. In two of these visits I was meeting the family for the first time. Those funerals present a challenge, how to get to know enough about the person who has died to make the service a meaningful time as family and friends celebrate a life. In 26 years I have learned questions to ask, to be patient with the responses and to keep asking for stories. Facts only go so far, obituaries are limited, only stories reveal the character and personality of the woman or man we mourn.
Likewise, when we Christians gather to talk about God and our faith in God the most important part of our discussion should be what kind of a God we are talking about. It’s all well and good to be happy that we are together praising our God but shouldn’t we have some sense what we are praising? For instance if we are praising a God who punishes and judges others different than us I think some of us would not be comfortable offering praise in that context. For instance whenever I hear atheist United Church Minister Greta Vosper describe the God she does not believe in I think, “most Christians don’t believe in the Santa-like God she claims to debunk.” A God who sits in the sky in a large fancy chair moving humans and events around like a chess player with no regard to circumstance or justice is not a God most of Christendom would affirm.
Doug Hall, the author of the study I am leading on Tuesday nights puts it this way, “It makes all the difference in the world what kind of a God we believe in. Some of the gods people believe in are harmless enough; others present enormous social as well as personal problems. Think about Jonestown or Waco or the “Heaven’s Gate” cult. Think about the gods that sanctioned racism and sexism and war. Think too about the gods that make people so fixated on “heaven” that they don’t care at all about the fate of the earth only their own personal “salvation”—which unfortunately is what much of Christianity on this continent amounts to still today…In short, the really important question that has to be put to all believers in God is, what exactly do you mean by God?”
And this brings us to our lectionary text for the day, Jeremiah 31:31-34, a passage that concerns a new covenant that is etched on our hearts. Jeremiah is all about defining what kind of a God we believe in. For Jeremiah is reacting to one assumption about who God is and offering up a new definition of God’s identity, not a radically new understanding of God but rather one with a story.
References to “old” and “new” covenants here do not refer to the Old and New Testaments. Rather the purpose of this text was to offer a covenant full of hope and promise to the beleaguered and depressed Hebrew community living in Babylonia. Jeremiah has God promise both a new day and a new covenant for the exiled houses of Judah and Israel. This day that he refers to was the “Day of the LORD” a concept philosophically rooted in the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year. Most scholars agree that the powers-that-be never allowed the radical Jubilee to be enacted. Instead it went underground and emerged as a story, a vision, a dream of a “day” when God’s will, God’s realm, would finally be present or made manifest on earth. And though the actual word “Jubilee” was never used after it occurred in Leviticus (perhaps out of fear of reprisals by wealthy landowners and Royalty) it emerged time and again in coded language such as the “day” or “age” or “year” of the Lord. In its earliest usage, the “day of the Lord” evidently carried hopeful Jubilee themes of the time when debts would be canceled, slaves freed, stolen land was returned, and all of Creation would revert back to its original owner (and ultimately to God).
The meaning of the original covenant God made with Moses at Mt. Sinai was the central event for all Israelite life. God promised to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and in return they promised to act like liberated people. That meant two things: worshiping only this God of the liberation story and treating others in the same manner that they had been treated by God. They were to live lives that were different from those of the other nations. They were a liberated people and their only requirement was that they were to act like it: they should be different from their brutal neighbours. This is the basic theological assumption of much of the Hebrew scriptures (including Jeremiah).
Deuteronomy contains a number of statements of this theology. For example, why should you love a stranger? “You shall...love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (15:15). Their redemption from slavery was the theological backbone for ethical conduct with the weak and the marginalized. However, as numerous prophetic voices point out, the Hebrew people repeatedly broke their end of the covenant, following after other gods and oppressing their neighbors.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the LORD? (Jer. 5:27b-28)
[T]hey sell the righteous (or “the innocent”) for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals---they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2:6-7a)
According to Jeremiah, for those who respond to this new covenant written on the heart, two radical things will occur. First they will no longer need to learn of God from others, for they will now “know the LORD” from the inside, “from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34b). An important point to make here is that for Jeremiah, to know the LORD, is not a mere act of religious education.
The biblical understanding of the "heart" is that it is the centre of human intellect and will, knowing what is right and having the desire to do it. Under the old covenant, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone and posted for all to see (Exodus 24:12).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be liberated people. And he showed them how that principle showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.”
On Thursday 10 members of Bethany sat together at the Brunswick Street Mission Breakfast. As a change from the first nine breakfasts there was no one speaker, no well-known name from elsewhere who might attract a large crowd but also command a large speaking fee. Instead this year there were four short presentations from persons who had been on the receiving end of the Mission’s generousity. One speaker really stood out for me. Lori shared that she had come from a “good” home only to fall into an abusive relationship, one that left her broken, her child taken from her. At one point early in the story she referenced her “walk with God.” It was clear from the reference that God was leading her somewhere. Several times when she described the troubles of her life she mentioned feeling “lost” and “losing my way.” When she graduated from university with a Bachelors of Sociology and her graduation photo appeared on the screen there was an audible cheer from the audience. In a quiet and sure voice Lori continued, “And I am now back on my walk with God.”
I am not opposed to the Ten Commandments. They do provide some useful definition of who God is. They are far superior to some of the definitions I have heard over my lifetime “my God is a God who gives me things when I love HIM” or “my God protects me and my family because we love HIM so much” or “my God loves this country and I know HE would never let harm come to us.” This kind of domestication of God, this definition of a God who loves us and is indifferent to others not like us, does not resonate with me or many other believers.
But even the Ten Commandments can be manipulated to one’s own ends, as any laws can and do. Witness Jesus who fed the hungry on the Sabbath only to run afoul of the legal types who reminded him of the law to honour the Sabbath. Jesus responds, “we were not made for the law, the law was made for us.”
What is deep within all of us is a new covenant of love that is found in the liberation story of Moses and his people. Just as a family struggling to articulate who their loved is can only find true expression in a story those of us who love God can only really describe our God with a story like the Exodus or Lori’s walk to a new life.
My friends you have this law written on your hearts, it calls you to liberation from whatever and whoever holds you down. Maybe it is you. Maybe you are holding yourself down with self-doubt. Whoever is keeping you enslaved it is time to listen to that new covenant and break free. Moreover, we are called in our deepest heart to help set others free as well. When we support the local church, the Mission, our Mission and Service Fund, in ways that make the Exodus story come alive again, we living out this new covenant.
My God is calling me to liberation. SHE is breathing new life into me every day. And I can see signs of that life here in this church each time we make that covenant come alive. Thanks be God, Amen.