covenant

Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

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 covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—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 of Israel after 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.


The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.


The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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May Such Be Done to Me

Genesis 15:1-21

Father Abraham—at this point in the story, simply Abram—is remembered as the archetype of the faithful man. It’s good to know, however, that even our best examples have moments of doubt and insecurity.

It’s also good to know just how far God is willing to go to reassure the faithful when they waver.

A Starry Promise

Abram already had heard powerful promises from God and had seen God work in mighty ways. But like so many of us, Abram seems to have allowed his doubts to creep up on him in the night.

Specifically, God had promised Abram numerous descendants, despite the advanced ages he and his wife had reached without having children. So God led Abram into a vision, one that begins with the words, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

With that powerful assurance, Abram felt secure enough to pour out his confusion and fear to God. Abram complained a household slave seemed to be his only possible human heir. Abram still had not held a son of his own despite following God’s lead in every way.

Rather than chastising Abram for wavering, God restated his promise in a powerfully visual way. Leading Abram out into the desert night, God showed Abram a clear sky studded with twinkling points of light, the Milky Way ribbon twisting among them. God told the fearful man, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”

It was enough, we are told. Abram believed. God saw Abram as righteous because of his renewed faith. We see that God doesn’t condemn our wavering minds if we’re willing to take our doubts to him.

That story of a starry night reminds me of a time when I was wavering, unsure of the call into ministry I felt I was hearing. I was on a work-related trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. I also was trying to decide whether to leave my public relations career, uproot my family and go to seminary.

I stood on a beach in the dead of the night, the sky brilliant with stars. “God,” I said, “I could use some kind of a sign—anything.” At that moment, a shooting star streaked across the sky.

I also remember thinking, “God, I’m not sure what that means.” I was wavering that much. But I did sense God was with me, and the experience helped me better trust my own seemingly illogical desires.

I’ve learned to seek and welcome those little moments of reassurance in the night. Often, they come after the anxiety that follows failure or confusion. Sometimes they’re vivid, like a shooting star. Other times, they are soft, like a whispered word. They are always a comfort, however, and they leave me anticipating the sunrise.

A Morning of Renewal

We don’t talk much about the morning after Abram’s vision. That’s because the Bible doesn’t tell us any real details about it. The morning is implied, however. We’ve witnessed a night scene, and the next scene happens in broad daylight, before sunset.

It’s good as we read this story to slow down a little and imagine what it must have been like to awaken from such a vision. Thanks to God, despair had found repair and turned into strength. That morning must have seemed like a great gift, an opportunity to begin again with a sense of purpose and trust in God.

I doubt if Abram thought he needed much else from God that morning. Biblical visions seem to be powerful moments for their recipients, events more real than everyday life. The blur of a normal day will wear down the sharp reality of a vision, but the dulling effect usually takes awhile.

There was no opportunity, however, for a regular day to dull Abram’s vision. When God begins pouring out grace, it often comes in surprisingly large doses. At some point in what I imagine to be a blissful day, God showed up again, this time with a connected promise about the land Abram’s descendants would possess.

A Night of Covenant

The language and imagery God used would have been familiar to Abram, employing structures similar to human covenants of the Ancient Near East, intense promises binding the parties for life.

While the sun was still up, God told Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram and cut them in two, laying the opposing pieces so someone could walk between them. A turtledove and a pigeon completed the bloody walkway’s borders. It was gruesome work; Abram had to drive away the vultures until the sun set.

As it grew dark, the eerie arrangement communicated a primitive, clear message for anyone entering a covenant. A party to an agreement, by walking between the pieces, was saying, “If I break this covenant, may such be done to me.” In Abram’s day, if the agreement was between two people of unequal power—say, a farmer and a king—the weaker party might have to make the walk alone.

Abram must have wondered when God would ask him to walk the walk.

The Firepot and the Torch

The Firepot and the Torch

But instead, something strange happened. After sunset, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the pieces. It was not Abram who made the walk. It was the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one in control of all things, who said, “May such be done to me.”

Obviously, it’s not the kind of promise God had to make. It was, however, a remarkable message about how much our creator loves us. His desire to reassure us as he draws us back into a relationship despite our sin is stronger than we can imagine.

Another Blood-Soaked Walk

God’s walk between the bloody carcasses prefigured another walk he did not have to make: the walk to Calvary, to the cross. To fulfill all his promises to Abram—in particular, the promise that Abram’s descendants would bless the whole world—God came among us as Jesus Christ.

There is no way we, in our sinful states, could demand such humility from God. God chose to suppress his infinite strength and masquerade as weak and broken solely for our benefit. In the process, death vented its full wrath where it had no right to do so, and its power was broken.

In other words, there were terrors that should have been visited on us for our sins. But God said, “May such be done to me, instead.”

Through God’s unmerited love, we are both saved and reassured.