If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 26, 2012

A New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a book entitled Broken Covenant in which he proposed that America had broken its democratic covenant with its people. In its pursuit of individualism, material gain, and imperialism, America has not lived up to its covenant to pursue the general welfare of its people. Bellah’s lamentation is a prophetic cry in the wilderness of America’s broken covenant and commitments to social justice and the common good of the people.

Bellah’s cry resonates with the prophet Jeremiah’s lamentation of Israel’s broken covenant. Jeremiah had seen the sweeping reforms of Judah’s king Josiah seeking to bring the nation back in alignment with the Mosaic covenant. He grew disillusioned with Josiah’s Davidic successors, like King Jehoiakim. He decried reliance upon the “holy temple” as an empty symbol for Judah’s protection against their enemies. The prophet Jeremiah wailed against the injustices of Judah’s leaders, the abuse of the poor and powerless, and the unfaithfulness of her people, which he viewed as a breaking of God’s covenant.

For Jeremiah, even if the nation, Solomon’s temple, the Davidic throne, the holy city of Jerusalem might all vanish and the covenant be broken, still God could have a covenantal relationship with the people.

That’s because Jeremiah envisioned a coming day when a new covenant would be written upon their heart. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the Mosaic covenant, which they broke, like stone tablets dropped on the ground. This does not mean that it will have no relation to the old covenant made through Moses at Mount Sinai.

We are not talking about a new covenant doing away with the essence of old covenant. Jeremiah’s phrase, “new covenant,” may be where Christians derive the title the “New Testament,” but he was not talking about a new Christian covenant doing away or superseding the old Jewish covenant. The new covenant is not a trashing of God’s law for Israel and the prediction of a new covenant without any type of law.

Rather, it will be a new covenant in the sense that it will fulfill the original intent of the Sinai covenant. Jeremiah’s covenant is new in that it will not be written upon stone, but on the tablets of the heart.

What does it mean to have the law written upon our hearts? We might gain some insight from Jesus’ approach to the law in the Sermon on the Mount. When he said, “You have heard it said…” and quotes one of the Ten Commandments, and then says, “but I say unto you…” he doesn’t do away with the law, but rather goes deeper into the heart of the commandment. With some of the commands Jesus does some spiritual heart surgery by going deeper to address the disease within, the inner motivation, the spiritual disposition. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder. But I say don’t be angry against a brother or sister.

The law written on the heart goes beyond the outward commands, rules, regulations, written moral codes, do’s and don’ts. Those do not get to the heart of the matter, penetrating to the real intent of the law and human motives, and highlighting the spirit of the law. If that were our approach to the law we could simply say I have not murdered anyone, therefore I have been faithful to the law. That approach to the law focuses upon outward obedience, rather than inward spirit and a robust relationship with God. Faith simply becomes a matter of obeying the rules.

And don’t we all know people like that? People who live by the rule book, whether the rule book is the Bible, church customs and traditions, the way we have always done it before, or whatever? Living by the rules is not the same as living by the heart.

But, admit it, that approach is much easier than living by some kind of law written on the heart. It’s much easier to check off a list of rules what I have done and not done and feel like I have fulfilled my obligations. It’s kind of like what I used to do when I was a young boy in the Southern Baptist church. Each Sunday morning before going to church my mom would give me a small Sunday School envelope to put some money in for the Sunday School offering. And on the envelope was a checklist of things that we were supposed to mark; Tithe?....check....Read my Bible?....check....attend Sunday School....check....attend worship service?....check.... attend Training Union....check....attend Wednesday night prayer meeting?....check. I got 100%! Goody for me! I have fulfilled my Christian obligations for the week. That’s how some of us have approached the Christian life. I have done what is basically required of me, so that makes me a good Christian. I have fulfilled the “letter of the law.“ Don’t those kind of Christians that live their lives by the rule book just irk you? Particularly when its yourself?

Thank God, things are different now. We live in a different time, culture, and mindset than when we went to Sunday School as children. We follow our hearts, not some rule book. No more of that legalistic, Ten Commandments, no work on Sundays, check off the list Christianity."I’m spiritual, but not religious." That’s my mantra. Tithe….well, uh, I threw in a couple of bucks on Easter....Read my Bible....uh, maybe once last month to answer a friends question....attend Sunday School....isn’t that just for kids?....attend worship service....well, one out of four ain’t bad, it’s better than being a Lily and a Holly....Wednesday Night Prayer….what’s that all about? I don’t need anything on Wednesdays!

Hey, preacher, doesn’t your new covenant business do away with all those laws, rules, customs, and Christian obligations? Isn’t it all about having a right heart? I let Jesus into my heart a long time ago. Are you telling me that’s not enough? If I learned anything in Sunday School it’s that in Christ we are free from the law. So, I don’t need anyone, any book, or any rules telling me what do. I don’t have to be in church on Sunday to worship God. I can do that camping out in the woods underneath the stars. And I learned all I need to know about the Bible when I was a kid going to Sunday School. Who says we need to pray? Isn’t my life a prayer. And laws and rules just cramp my style. Isn’t that what you mean by a new covenant of the heart?

The new covenant, which Jeremiah envisions, is not like the Mosaic covenant written on tablets of stone. That covenant was broken. The new covenant is written on the heart. It’s not a covenant without moral guidelines, without Christian obligations, or without spiritual disciplines. It’s a covenant written on the heart. It doesn’t do away with the law, but gives it depth and meaning. It’s not an outward obedience, but is an inward obedience. It’s not a set of rules for us to check off and say we are good Christians. It is a deep inner relationship with God that shapes our behavior and actions.

The new covenant written on the heart is about a change of character from within, so that we respond to the ways of God as if by second nature. And when I say “second nature” I do not simply mean by force of repetition, though that has its place, such as in Christian disciplines and spiritual practices that form our habits. I’m talking about responding to God from “second nature” as a response from a new nature grounded in sustained, vibrant, intimate relationship with God that inscribes on our hearts God’s ways of love, grace, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

The new covenant is about a new community that corporately lives in God’s ways “by heart.” As children we learned how to read the Bible and know it “by heart,” meaning by memorization, or “by head.” As spiritually mature adults under this new covenant we will know God ways “by heart.” It is a covenant with a people who know how to live with one another and God “by heart” in faithfulness, in unity, and in trust.

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord....In that day we will no longer need to use the Bible as a rulebook, for God’s Word will be etched upon our hearts. We will no longer need written statements like “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” or leaders to admonish, recommend, and teach us how to work out our differences, for we will know to love and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in all our wondrous differences. We will no longer need to create laws against racism or protest police response to the death of an unarmed young, black man gunned down by a vigilante because he was walking while black, but we will have the laws of justice and equity inscribed upon our hearts.

The days are coming when we no longer need written mission statements to remind us that we are all called and sent by God into the world. We will no longer need preachers admonishing us to be faithful Christians, for that will be the desire of our heart. We will no longer need to be reminded or taught that we should love one another, and to love our enemies, for we will know how to do it “by heart.”

Behold, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. I will write my law on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another “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.

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