- starting with God's covenant with Noah, displayed in a rainbow, in which God promises to no longer be a warring god;
- through the covenant with Abraham, in which God and Abraham publicly claim one another -- "I will be your God and you will be my people" -- and Abraham is promised land, children, and a reputation as the ancestor of a new nation;
- the continued covenant with Moses and the wandering Israelites after their escape from slavery in Egypt, a covenant written in stone with rules, because the people are no longer a small tribal family but a nomadic multitude who need to live in covenant with one another to survive that wilderness;
- and last Sunday, we read one of many stories of the covenant being tested, as the wandering people become impatient with God, and their fears of the wilderness cloud their ability to see God's goodness or to hold onto God's promises.
Today (with Jeremiah 31:31-34) we find ourselves in the midst of the years of exile -- an experience that spanned a generation, after the Babylonian Empire raided and invaded Israel, captured its leaders, killed so many citizens, destroyed the beloved temple in Jerusalem which was the central image of God's covenant with the people. As the exiled people struggle to survive from one day to the next, their faith struggles to survive as well. How do you continue to trust in God's covenant if you don't have the homeland that Abraham was promised? How do you experience God's presence if you don't have the beautiful temple that was first dreamed of in the wilderness? How do you continue to give witness to God's covenant if you don't have your community to remind you of God's laws and blessings?
The prophet Jeremiah struggles alongside the people for an understanding of God's covenant in light of the exile, but he maintains that God's covenant is reliable, that God will restore the people to their homeland. "Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O Israel. Again you shall take your tambourines and dance. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria. Again I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. And I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah; I will redefine it -- it will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors." (Jeremiah 31)
God promises that when the exiles return home, the covenant will be renewed and re-imagined. No longer will the covenant look like a husband (31:32) providing the security of a home and a name to his wife, as God first provided the security of home and name to Abraham. No longer will the covenant look like a teacher (31:34) enforcing the rules of behavior upon irresponsible students, as it did when God gave ten commandments to Moses and sent snakes to correct the people's complaining.
One gets the impression here in Jeremiah that God is assessing the whole scope of the covenant and seeing that it needs a significant update:
- God looks back at Noah and sees that the covenant made with a man on a boat does not meet all the needs of a nation now in exile;
- God looks at Moses and sees that the stone tablets given on a mountain were too easily broken, and the bronze snake on a pole was too easily idolized;
- God looks at the whole history of giving the people a concrete covenant that they could touch in stone or measure in acreage; a concrete covenant that could be maintained by memorizing rules and scripture verses, by faithfully attending to temple sacrifices and weekly worship. God sees that the concrete covenant of blessings and curses, rules and rituals is no longer enough -- the world of empires and exiles has become much more complicated.
So when God hears the people in exile lamenting, "Where is God's covenant? How can we know that God is with us without our temple? How can we experience God's covenant when we're not in our homeland?" God replies, "I will bring you home again. And when you get home, there will be a new covenant: you will be the new covenant, not the land, not the temple, not the laws. Each of you will have my covenant within you. Each of you will know that I am your God and you are mine. Each of you will be responsible for maintaining and nurturing this covenant, with me and with one another. You yourselves will bring the covenant to life," God says, "from where it is written on your hearts, so that when people see you, they see my covenant.
"When I restore you to your home as I have promised, then I will require you to respond by living out the covenant with all of your heart, soul and strength, to all people, from the least to the greatest. When you have your home and you have your temple, then I will ask you to bring my covenant to life for all people to see, for all people to be healed, for all nations to be renewed as you have been.
"My covenant within you will become a catalyst. No longer does this world need a covenant carved in stone. It needs a covenant embodied in flesh that will get up and move about and seek to gather in the blind and the lame, the elders and the young women with children, the widows and the proud kings, the Black and the white, the citizen and the immigrant, the rich and the poor, the arrogant and the disenfranchised, all sought out and gathered together by a covenant on the move, in order for me to love them. With my covenant written on your hearts, this will be your task: to embody my goodness to all people, for the sake of the healing of all nations. My covenant on your hearts will be a catalyst. I will make you my stewards for the work of restoration, for the work of change."
God will make a new covenant, and the covenant will be your catalyst.
I've been discouraged by politics lately -- government politics certainly, but also the politics of how we interact with one another, the isms that impact us, and our expectations for one another. I've been discouraged -- frustrated -- heartbroken -- by so much that's happening, and I've been especially discouraged because I can't imagine these things changing. The reality that the spirit of our nation bends toward power and violence seems too entrenched to change anytime soon.
But as I look with God at the scope of the covenant, through the lens of Jeremiah 31, I see afresh that the history of the covenant is a history of God's imagination. God could imagine a rescue for Noah when flood waters rose, and God could imagine relating to humanity from a perspective of compassion. God could imagine a new family for Abraham, even when Abraham was 99 years old. God could imagine building and healing a community even in the middle of a wilderness. God could imagine a restored home for the exiles. God can imagine renewal for discouraged people and freedom for those who are oppressed.
What I struggle to imagine, what we struggle to imagine and bring about, God has already imagined! And God has written the theme of it on our hearts with the covenant: that we belong to God, that God loves us, that God seeks healing for all people, and that we are God's embodiment of the covenant. Our hearts are called to embody God's heart.
I, you, we don't need to possess the fullness of imagination in order for the world to change. We need to believe that God possesses the holy imagination for change. We need to remember that God has made us living covenants, and let the covenant be our catalyst.