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.


Leveling and Straightening

Isaiah 40:1-11

I’ve recently developed a new appreciation for flat, smooth roads.

I bought something called a Trikke, which looks like an oversized kiddie scooter. It’s not for toddlers, however. Instead of a platform, there are two bars running from the front wheel to two back wheels. You stand over the two back wheels and hold on to a handlebar, which controls a long post attached to the front wheel.

The joints are all cambered; to make the Trikke go, you get it rolling by kicking the ground scooter-style and then twist and rock the whole thing to propel the inverted V forward. I got the Trikke for exercise. (I seem lately to be suffering from “fat pastor syndrome.”) Riding this contraption is a lot of fun, but frankly, I’m not yet very good at it.

The Trikke goes great downhill, of course. I can keep it going pretty well on a level, smooth surface, too. As for uphill—well, at least I get a lot of exercise pushing it, looking like Fred Flintstone starting his car as my feet scurry between the v-shaped bars.

Because of my Trikke experience, Isaiah 40:1-11 has taken on a whole new meaning for me. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we read there. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Not that the prophet was saying God would arrive in the Holy Land on a Trikke.  It’s just that I’ve developed a new appreciation for smoothing out those physical hills and rough places that also stand as symbols of life’s impediments, its pain and disappointment. (Overweight bicyclists, hikers and runners will probably understand this metaphor, too.)

The people of Judah, one of two kingdoms that had come out of a fractured Israel, certainly would have understood Isaiah’s words on both a literal and metaphorical level. In the 39th chapter, Isaiah had predicted the Babylonian conquest and the taking of God’s “chosen people” into captivity as punishment for their sins. In the 40th chapter, however, Isaiah seems to be addressing people already in captivity, separated from their homeland by a rugged stretch of desert.

While comprehensible, Isaiah’s words also must have sounded very strange. No hope seemed in sight for a captive people far from home. The idea of the God who had condemned them leading them home along an easily traversed highway must have seemed improbable, even on a metaphorical level.

Perhaps that explains verses 6 through 8, with their withered grass and faded flowers standing as Lamentations-like complaints about the temporary nature of life. When God seems far away and you see nothing but life’s pain, cynicism creeps in. Isaiah tries to reflect the mood of the times he lived in, as well as difficult times to come.

He also notes, however, that the word of our God will stand forever. It is a nugget of hope, both for the Jews trapped in bondage and for us today.

During this Advent season—this time of year when we re-experience the Jewish longing for a messiah, and our own longing for Jesus Christ’s return—we remember this passage from Isaiah for the encouragement it ultimately brings. God does come.

“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Eight centuries later, another prophet, John the Baptist, would evoke Isaiah’s words in proclaiming Jesus as the promised Savior. And it was God himself, we discovered, who would level and straighten the path through our rugged, sin-pocked deserts so we could return to a relationship with our creator.

God triumphs! He triumphs through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, with Jesus’ resurrection providing proof that sin and death are defeated.

Following God’s straight, smooth path requires only that we believe—no theological twisting and contorting, no pushing our way over the hills. Simple belief.