You may remember that one of the first sermons I preached after coming to this church included the message that I was not, or at least probably not, a “wild-eyed prophet.” If you want a good example of what a wild-eyed prophet looks like however, you’d be hard pressed to do any better than Jeremiah. The messages that God gave him to speak were often dark and angry, reflecting the troubled times in which he lived. At seminary, my Old Testament professor, Dr. Bill Holliday, was an internationally renowned Jeremiah scholar. He made a point of telling us that our usual images of tame prophets are way off base. If we wanted to get an accurate picture of Jeremiah, he said, we should probably think along the lines of the Ayatollah Khomeini. And as far as Jeremiah’s message is concerned, think of the Leprechaun from the movie, Finnian’s Rainbow, you who went around crying: “Dooooooom & Glooooooom.”
For reasons I have never been able to quite understand, there have always been plenty of ministers who seem think that Jeremiah is a great model for preaching. I remember an old cartoon that first appeared in Leadership magazine. It showed a wizened old preacher, standing in front of a full-length mirror, obviously practicing his upcoming sermon. With a finger of judgment raised above his head, and a look of divine wrath on his face, he was shouting out the word: “Brrrrrrimmmmmstooooonnne.” That would be Jeremiah. He was not exactly a warm, fuzzy guy.
However, there are exceptions to every rule and this morning’s passage is one of them. After all of the condemnation of Israel for her manifold sins, after justifying their being exiled to Babylon as God’s righteous punishment, suddenly we discover a side of Jeremiah that is positively encouraging, even compassionate. This passage is part of what is called Jeremiah’s “book of comfort or consolation.” The days are coming when your exile will end, he says, when you will return to the Holy Land, to be planted as seeds of the new nation of Israel. God will make a new covenant with you, written on your hearts, not on stone tablets. Your iniquity will be forgiven. Your sin forgotten. Thus, saith the Lord. Compared with the doom and gloom of Jeremiah’s earlier chapters, this is a downright hopeful prophesy.
What does it mean though? “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” That word “covenant” isn’t particularly common these days, although it’s found frequently in the bible. A covenant is a formal agreement, a treaty or a contract between two parties. The bible talks about the covenant of God with Abraham, in which Abraham’s children would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. And there’s the covenant with Noah, in which God vowed never again to flood the earth. There was the covenant of God with David, in which David was promised that his kingdom would never end. There are quite a few covenants in the bible.
The one we’re concerned with here though, is the one made with Moses at Mount Sinai. When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, an entirely new relationship was established between God and Israel. It was a relationship based, for the first time ever, on a clear set of rules. The idea was that God would be the protector and preserver of Israel, so long as they followed the law. And the law was rather clearly laid out. This was a very new idea. The old understanding was that God could do pretty much whatever God wanted to. It’s like the queen in Alice in Wonderland. “All Ways Are My Ways!” If life was chaotic, if some people got more than others, if God’s moods seemed to change like the weather, well, that was just too bad. The people didn’t really have any say in the matter.
But, after Sinai, a whole new understanding of the people’s relationship with God came into being. Once we had the law, not only was Israel bound to obey God, but God, also, was bound. The covenant, the agreement, was that if the people did their part, God would fulfill the divine side of the bargain as well. Can you imagine what that meant for the people? For the first time ever, they began to have a measure of control over their lives, at least in their own minds. All we have to do is follow the rules, and God will make sure that nothing bad happens. Basically, they were striking a bargain with God. We’ll do our part, but then you have to take care of us.
Does this sound familiar? It very well might. Bargaining is one of the stages described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her famous book on Death and Dying. “Oh God, if only you will take this cancer from me, I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I’ll do my part, if only you will do yours.” We can certainly understand and sympathize with someone offering this kind of prayer out of a fear of dying. The problem is it doesn’t make for a very good relationship with God does it. If you don’t get well God has failed you, and if you do, you get to spend the rest of your life going to church out of fear that you’ll get cancer again if you stop.
Ultimately, that’s what Israel discovered as well. Having the commandments didn’t keep bad things from happening. They just gave the prophets an excuse for blaming the people whenever something went wrong. “It is because of your sin that God has brought on this famine, started this war, cast you into exile, or what have you.” That was exactly Jeremiah’s message in relation to the invasion of the Babylonians. In the history of Israel from Moses onward, over and over again life falls apart for the people, and over and over again their prophets make it out to be their fault. It was very much a “blaming the victim” approach. “If only you had obeyed the law like you promised you would.” I clearly remember when the AIDS crisis first began making headlines. I was appalled to read letters to the editor in our local newspapers out in Illinois saying that AIDS was God’s just punishment on homosexuals. All these years later, some of us are still blaming the people for every human tragedy.
You’d think we would know better by now. Especially considering the bible itself went on to a new, more compassionate understanding: a New Covenant. By the time of Jeremiah, the covenant of the commandments had been around for something like eight hundred years, and even he could see that is wasn’t working. The law was not doing what it was supposed to do. It wasn’t keeping the people in line. It wasn’t making them more faithful. That’s why Jeremiah began talking about a new covenant: not new set of rules, but a new relationship with God. It was to be a relationship of love and trust, written on our hearts, not hanging over our heads. Years later, when Jesus came along, he became for us the embodiment of this new covenant. What is the greatest commandment? Not to obey God. Not to spend our lives caught up in the legalistic pursuit of the old covenant, worrying at every step whether we might have offended against the rules and waiting for the hammer to fall. No, the greatest commandment is to love God, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to allow our obedience to arise from that love and trust. The new covenant represents a completely different relationship with God.
What does all this have to do with us? Well, a lot of time has passed since Jeremiah, but the fact is, this is where a lot of us still live: in the tension between the old covenant and the new one. The old covenant is based on fear of punishment, the new covenant on the freedom and joy of love. Most of us have one foot firmly planted in each covenant.
We claim, joyously, in our theology, to be people of the new covenant. This is, at any rate, what we aspire to. But it isn’t easy, is it? It isn’t easy to live in love, trust and joy. Under ideal circumstances, that is where we would all prefer to be. The problem is that we can never be certain that our love, trust and joy will not leave us vulnerable to the world’s threats. The problem is still control. Just like our ancient Israelite ancestors, we want to bargain for a measure of control over our lives. We want to make a deal with God that says, “If I do my part, you have to promise to do yours. You have to promise that I will be safe.” But underneath it all, at the heart of this bargain, lies the fear of the old covenant. The truth is that whether we live in fear or in love, sometimes bad things are going to happen, whether we’re good people or not.
There’s a story I like that makes this point. After her husband’s death and funeral, the widow was going through the usual posthumous affairs of “winding things up,” which included arranging for an appropriate gravestone. She had chosen to have inscribed on the stone the tender words: “May he rest in peace.” But a few days after placing the order however, she learned that her husband had had more than a working relationship with his secretary and, what’s more, had left a generous chunk of their estate to this woman.
The widow was furious. She stormed out to the stoneworks where the gravestone had been ordered. She told the stone mason not to put that inscription on the stone. Too late, he said. It had already been chiseled into the granite that very morning. In agitation, the widow looked around at other stones and her eyes rested on one of them. She asked the man, “Is there enough room to add something?” He said yes, if it wasn’t too long. “Then,” she said, “add that line from the stone over there.” And that was how her unfaithful husband came to have a gravestone that read: “May he rest in peace … until we meet again.”
We do so want to live in relationships of love and trust. As this story makes clear though, loving and trusting isn’t the same as controlling. It’s understandable that we would want to protect ourselves from the bad things that might happen. But the fact is, living in fear doesn’t keep bad things from happening either. So, we have a choice. We can live under the laws of the old covenant, or we can embrace the freedom of the new. Either way, we can’t keep bad things from happening. But for my money, living in love, in trust, with an open heart, and in faithfulness to God, is a far better way to live, and far more in keeping with the Spirit of Christ. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make with you a new covenant. It will no longer be on tablets of stone, but I will write in upon your hearts. I will be your God, and you shall be my people.