Perhaps by this fifth Sunday in Lent you’re getting as tired of covenant as our Israelite ancestors did. God’s first covenant was with Noah, after the flood. In it, God promised never again to destroy creation. (Rainbow) Later, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising the 99 year old man descendants more numerous than the grains of sand on the shore. (Sand)
Then, a few hundred years after that, God gave the people Ten Commandments, the laws that offered guidance on how to keep our end of the covenant. (Commandments) Then—just a few years after that–our ancestors rebelled. (Snake) Are we surprised? My guess is that no parent in the room is surprised. Create a rule for your children and what happens? They test it, right?
Poor God. From the beginning all God wanted was to be in relationship with human beings. And human beings—from the beginning–were testing the limits of that relationship. God kept God’s end of the covenant; human beings…not so much.
Today we get yet another version of the covenant. God is nothing if not creative! And persistent. Every time the covenant stopped working, God created another one.
This covenant comes through the prophet Jeremiah. Listen.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house ofIsraeland the house ofJudah. 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 thelandofEgypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house ofIsraelafter 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. No 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. (Jer. 31:31-34)
(Heart) “I will put my law within them,” God says. “I will write it on their hearts.” “No longer shall they teach one another, or say… ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
Parents, again, you get this, don’t you? How does rule-making go with your children? Rules are very concrete at the beginning, right? Let’s say, someone gives your child a gift. What’s your automatic response? “What do we say, Jackie?” Thank you. Another gift: “What do we say?” Thank you? And another: “What do we say?” Thank you. (Cue eye roll.) Then one day, the child receives a gift and before the words can even form in your mind, your child says, “Thank you!”…the words full of meaning and true gratitude.
That’s what seems to happen here. God has tried several forms of the covenant with the people, all of them focused on external actions. “Don’t kill, steal, lie, covet…” With this latest version of the covenant, though, knowledge of God goes deeper. Now, people won’t have to consult a rule book or a stone tablet to know how to behave. Now, they’ll know God so well—and love God so much—that they’ll simply live their lives in ways that seek to please God. And they’ll do so, not because God said so, but because they want to.
I know it’s been a stretch for some of us to have stayed in the Old Testament for so many weeks. Jesus says some hard things in the New Testament, but he’s a whole lot easier to deal with than the God we often encounter in the Old Testament. Killing most of humanity in a flood? Sending serpents? Sending an infant to a couple in their 90s? Talk about cruel! The God who does all that is hard for us to relate to, much less to trust and love.
But before we dismiss these covenant stories out of hand, there are two things I hope we don’t miss.
The first thing is the fact that God constantly adapts the covenant to the new circumstances of the people. Having no covenant—this is before the flood—didn’t work, so God made the covenant with Noah. Eventually, the people needed more clarity, so God made the covenant with Abraham. That worked for a while, but then the people needed, like, clarity, so God gave them the Ten Commandments. And now, after centuries of maturing in their relationship with God, the people are ready to go deeper… which is why God now writes God’s laws on their hearts.
Sometimes, it’s easy to think of God as this stoic stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t change at all. Looking at these covenant texts in the Old Testament, though, we see a God who is constantly adapting and trying to keep the relationship with the people fresh. Whatever it takes at each stage of the relationship to keep things vital, God does.
At the same time that God continually adapts to the people, there is one unwavering constant. This is the second thing not to miss in these covenant texts. Listen again to the end of v. 33: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Sound familiar? Sam, read Genesis 12:7 for us. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring.” Again in the next verse God tells Abraham, “I will be [the people’s] God.”
The constant in everything we’ve been reading the past several weeks is that God wants to be God to us. God wants to be in relationship with us. And because God wants to be in relationship with us, God is willing to do whatever it takes to make the relationship with us work—put a rainbow in the sky, promise offspring to childless nonagenarians, set the law in stone, send serpents to get our attention, write God’s law on our hearts, or become one of us in the person of Jesus. (Cross) Despite the ways we fail to keep covenant, God remains true, God remains steadfast, God always keeps God’s end of the covenant.
I wonder why. Why would God work so hard at staying in relationship with us? I’ve been thinking about this…and there is only one answer that makes sense. Why does God remain faithful in covenant with us? Why does God adapt the covenant when we need that? God attends the covenant so faithfully because God loves us. God wants to stay in relationship with us. God always is willing to do God’s part to remain faithful to us. Because God loves us.
Do you believe that? Do you believe in God’s love for human beings? Do you believe in God’s love for you? And when I say believe, I’m not talking about giving intellectual assent to the idea of a benevolent being in the universe who has positive regard for you. When I say “believe,” I’m asking, Do you give 100% of yourself to the reality that God, creator of the universe, creator of you, loves you?
When I was a student at Emory, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to teach for a year. In a class I attended, he talked about another class he’d been teaching. He was teaching seminary students, right? He was THE Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right? So, everything he said—every thing he said—those seminary students wrote down, heads to paper, pens scratching away.
At one point, the Archbishop interrupted his own lecture to say, “Stop! Look at me! Don’t you know that God loves you?” In that moment, he knew that they believed more in his words than their own. He knew that grace, a true experience of God’s love for them, still was eluding them. In that moment, he recognized that those ministry students were working hard at learning everything they could about God…but they weren’t stopping to experience God’s deep love for them.
Addressing the difficulty most of us have believing—with all of our being–in God’s love for us, James Finley writes: “The beloved says from the other side of the door, “Open the door and come in, so we can experience just how one we might become.” You stand outside the door, reading one more book about how to open the door. You note in your journal one more thought about what it might be like to walk through the door. And all the while the longings of your heart remain unconsummated.”
Do you ever feel like that? Like, if you read just one more book, take just one more class, participate in just one more service project, copiously record the words of one more truly holy person…if you do just one more thing, then you will at last be able to feel God’s love? To know—with your whole being—that God is with you and, not only that God is with you, but that there is no place God would rather be? Do you ever find yourself desperate to feel God’s love?
From the beginning, God has wanted nothing more than to be in relationship with us. That’s why God worked so hard throughout the centuries revamping the covenant…God kept doing whatever it took to let the people know that God would always be there. What joy it gives God when we open the door of our heart and receive God’s love!
If you struggle to believe, not only in your head, but in your whole being, in God’s love for you, hear the rest of James Finley’s words. It is an invitation. “Let today be the day you open the door of your heart to God, whose heart from all eternity, is open to you….God has left the door unlocked and even slightly ajar. God is waiting for you to open it and come walking through to experience that oneness with God that is the fullness of life itself.” (from Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God)
“Let today—today!–be the day you open the door of your heart to God. Because God’s heart, from all eternity, is open to you.” What I’m trying to say is that One fact remains that does not change: God has loved you, loves you now, and will always love you. This is the good news that brings us new life. Thanks be to God!”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012