"Reframing Covenant"
Nick Larson
Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · March 22, 2015
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
 
Psalm Litany
Based on Psalm 119
 
Oh, how we love your will! It is our meditation all the day long.
Your commandments make us wise, giving us understanding.
We do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught us.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
 
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
 
Pastoral Prayer
LeAnn Sapp
 
Due to technical difficulties, the pastoral prayer was not captured
on the CD recording. Therefore, it cannot be transcribed here.
 
Act of Confession
 
As we turn around and reframe our lives before the presence of God, we offer the truth about ourselves, the ways in which we have broken relationship with God and our neighbor:
 
You have loved us with a passionate, steadfast love, but we have turned away. You have called us to relationships of love and justice with our neighbor, but we have harmed and left the good undone. Forgive us, graceful Presence, and liberate us from all those things that keep us separated from you and alienated from our neighbor. Amen.
 
The Lord’s Prayer
 
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 
The Scripture
Jeremiah 31:31-34
 
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.
 
This is the Word of the Lord for us today.
Thanks be to God.
 
The Message
Reframing Covenant
Nick Larson
 
In one of my favorite movies of all time, “The Shawshank Redemption,” a lifelong convict nicknamed Red (played by Morgan Freeman), keeps telling his fellow prisoner, Andy (Tim Robbins), to stop talking about hope, since in prison, hope is a dangerous thing. Red says it’s better to live without hope than to have a hope that will torment you by virtue of it’s not being fulfilled.
 
But then at one point in the story, Andy barricades himself in the warden’s office, flips on the Shawshank prison P.A. system, and plays a portion of a Mozart opera, bringing the entire prison to a standstill, as each prisoner listens to the aria. And even Red, the one, who resisted all talk of hopes or dreams, cannot resist this spot of beauty. And so Red muses, “I have no idea, to this day, what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. For the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank was free.”
 
Whether we know it or not, at any given moment, what we all want most to know about life is that we are loved, that there is meaning. The things we most dearly want to know have a whole lot to do with the things we most intently feel and long for. Those things that can’t be taught, they are things that we just know. They are written somewhere deeper than our minds, perhaps our very hearts.
 
Our text this morning is situated in a place much like Shawshank Prison, where hope was likely not mentioned much, in the midst of a season of failure in ancient Israel.

Let me paint you the picture: the city of Jerusalem has been conquered and burned, the temple has been destroyed, the monarchy has been terminated, and the leading citizens deported into exile. This all came about, says Jeremiah, because Israel broke the “old” covenant of Mt. Sinai – that one Moses brought down from the mountain.

Yet, it has been a long period in the life of Israel, failing to follow the commandments of Sinai. Israel, over time, began not to take justice seriously, and did not ground its life in the God of the Exodus. Those stories of deliverance faded from active memory, and Israel had become like all the other nation states of their time. And like many others, the big dog, Babylon, conquered them.

Their stages of grief can almost be tracked in the literature of the Exile. In a sense, it was as if time had stopped, a numbing weariness had set in, remorse and despair shrouded every day in the strange and alien land of Babylon. Just pages earlier, Jeremiah told them to get comfortable, and build houses, because they were going to be here a while. Assuredly, it must have seemed that the future had been severed from the present. Hope had been lost.
 
Yet it was into such a situation, that these prophetic words rang, and out of the mouth of that same weeping prophet came our words of promise. To them, it must have seemed like he was singing in Italian, and yet, like that aria played for ears unable to comprehend, they knew; they heard the beauty of this new covenant.

Yet in this promise, there is both continuity and discontinuity with what has come before. The continuity lies in the character of God and the love God continues to have for a wayward people. God was reminding Israel that God would not abandon them forever. God will not forget God's promises made so long ago at Sinai:

"I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God." (Exodus 29:45)
"And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people." (Leviticus 26:12)
 
The relationship is not new. Israel knows this God, and God knows these people. The promises Jeremiah speaks build on a long and shared history between YHWH and Israel, a history marked by wavering on the part of the people and by faithfulness on the part of YHWH. God continues to love this wayward people; they continue to be God's treasured possession. In this new covenant, there is, indeed, continuity with what has come before.
 
The discontinuity, of course, is implied with the term, "new." This is a new covenant with Israel, not like the covenant at Sinai. Still, what is new about this covenant is not so much its content, but the means by which God will bring it about.
 
The old covenant, written on stone tablets and scrolls, will be replaced by the new covenant, written in flesh. And we, as Christians, have come to know this promise in the light of the arrival of Jesus, Immanuel – God with us.
 
The Hebrew word here for covenant, berit, means something like the English term, contract. In the Bible, covenant is used for various legal agreements, including marriage, slavery, solemn friendship, and especially treaties.  
 
So when God pledges God’s self to Israel at Sinai, you might understand God as entering into a treaty with them. In the Book of Exodus, we find the beginnings of the formalized covenant relationship between the Israelites and their God. After Egypt, the Israelites find themselves lost in the wilderness. Eventually, they arrive at Mount Sinai where they live for nearly a year. Upon their arrival, Moses makes his first of several trips up the mountain. On one of those trips, God announces the elements of a covenant with the Israelites: The well-known Ten Commandments. In these Ten Commandments, God outlined the aspects of covenant relationship with the Israelites. So what went wrong?
 
Jeremiah hints—actually, he fairly well declares—that what went wrong was a lack of internalizing the true nature of God. Somehow, God and the Israelites remained oddly separated from each other. Maybe that’s part of the reason why they sent Moses up the mountain at Sinai, even as they kept a very safe distance (a distance that proved dangerous in the end as it led them to swap out God for a Golden Calf).
 
And then there were all those laws that kept everyone well away from the inner sanctum of the temple where God was said to sit on the Ark—these laws were necessary, perhaps, but they did have a tendency to eclipse certain other features about God that the people were supposed to pick up on and mediate on.
 
They were supposed to internalize the idea that God is love, that God is grace, that God has great enthusiasm for human life and is powerfully intent on seeing that life flourish. And yet, they didn’t.
 
But then the great turn emerges in our texts, God declares that covenant is not about the rules that are kept (although not discarding them), but that covenant is about something more.

This is where it is paramount that we pay attention to the images used in Jeremiah 31, we see they are predominantly familial rather than political or military. We begin to see that the new covenant is not a treaty; it is a binding, a sacred bond created. It is a new beginning for the old covenant. That rather than continue to see Israel run away from God, we see God promise to run towards Israel and the world in sickness and in health.
 
We, as Christians, probably, and correctly, jump to hearing the promise of the new Covenant spoken at the last supper by Jesus. We see it as a continuation of the narrative of God seeking out the lost and the messed up, and offering further forgiveness without cause. Knowing that while we often fail at our committed covenant relationships, God is ever in pursuit of us.
 
The poetic writer here anticipates that in time to come all will “know God.” The phrase here does not signify technical theological information. Nor does it just mean emotional intimacy with God. It speaks of an orientation, a way of being in the world that is defined by revered scholar Walter Brueggemann as “a readiness to treasure this relationship with God that defines our attitudes, actions, and policies.”
 
A recognition that our life pivots on this defining relationship is a drastic alternative to a life lived in pursuit of commodities. The failure of ancient Jerusalem (and our own social failure in our current economy) is because we have thought that enough control would make us safe and happy. 
 
Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we now seek something beyond control. We seek an embrace of a healthy family nature of the relationship with one another and with God. We seek to belong and be known by others and by Christ.
 
I suspect that is why Jeremiah uses family language to describe this new covenant. So let’s push that further…because when it comes to family, we shouldn’t stop to ask what the cost of assistance is, we just provide it. Who would ever dream of counting the hours invested in raising our children? Of course not; we just throw ourselves into it.

When it comes to family, we don’t ask how we are going to benefit from something, we just offer it. Who would ask about the return on our investment when it comes to our children’s education? No one; we just wonder how we can get them where they need to go.
 
Anything that you would ask for/with family…you must also be willing to offer. That’s what makes that relationship real.
 
That’s the type of relationship that Jesus invites his followers into with him. Just remember, when Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, he, himself, asked her for a drink of water, and yet that was exactly what he was offering to her. He asks to use her bucket to draw a sip of water, yet he is willing to offer her himself in return, the everlasting water that quenches every thirst.
 
When we begin to embody this new covenant, we reframe the way we see our relationship with God. It isn’t that the old covenant doesn’t matter or needs to be thrown out, because in fact the rules themselves get fulfilled in the newfound relationship that is possible through forgiveness and reconciliation.
 
God through Jeremiah and Jesus at the Last Supper, remind us that God is a God who constantly wipes the slate clean, that forgives, and remembers our sins no more. It goes the extra mile for us every time, willing to let our failures go, to let everyone’s shortcoming go, in return for honest relationship that doesn’t require rules, because it’s the way family should be.
 
Reframed covenant is a calling to go the extra mile for those you covenant with, like those in this community of faith where we covenant in discipleship together. We need to learn to behave in ways where rules don’t matter, as much as how we treat each other.
 
It is as if Jesus comes strolling along through the prison of our lives, touching each bar, door, and cage releasing us back into life. God’s new covenant shows us that there is an end to these rules turned-self-constructed-walls. With the touch of love, these walls disappear. Instead, Jesus is inviting us to join in the everlasting love song with our God.
 
We can begin to live into our covenant with Christ in how we embody Jesus’ dream right now. Can we do things for each other that family often does?
 
Are we prepared to fight over the check for a chili cook-off, so that everyone else might eat for free? Are we prepared to park further away from the door on Sunday morning, so that those among us who need to park closer can? Are we prepared to give more of our time, talent, and finances with fewer and fewer expectations that ‘benefits’ will come our way? Are we willing to show up and serve in less desirable roles because we were asked?
 
Are we willing to be like Andy Dufrane in Shawshank Prison, where despite the personal cost, we are willing to lock the door of the office, to put on a song that many people won’t understand just to reinvigorate hope in everyone else?
Maybe that’s what the knowledge of God that Jeremiah talks about here means, and that Jesus, asks us… to go beyond just what we know to what we also need to feel and to understand – not understand in the cerebral pathways of our brains, but in the deepest fibers of our very being.
 
That God is love, that dear friends… and the day is surely coming when all will know the Lord, the Lord of Love. There will be a day when we won’t have to teach it to one another any longer, and instead we can simply embrace that all are forgiven and united in Christ.
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.
                                                 
The Benediction
Nick Larson
 
Go forth, this week, with compassion and justice in your heart. Give voice to the silent, strength to the weak. See one another; love one another; care for one another. Because it is all that easy, and it is all that hard. Go forth with the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the compassion of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

 

Last Published: March 23, 2015 10:06 PM