The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 18, 2018
Jerimiah 31: 31-34
One month ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, my sermon was focused on the “rainbow covenant” that God made with all living things in the wake (literally) of the great flood. The ark was beached on dry ground and its inhabitants had trooped out. In this covenant, God promised never to wipe out humanity again––never to annihilate all living things. Fast forward through the eons of the history of Israel and we find ourselves, in our biblical passage assigned for today, learning about God’s new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. As with the older covenant, the message to us is one of unending grace and mercy.
The image that comes to my mind for this new covenant is one in which God is a landlord in a very popular and expensive real estate market, and this landlord decides, on their own volition, not only to renew the lease, but to make it permanent and open-ended––this lease is good for eternity! Not only that, but the landlord is sweetening the deal, maybe reducing the rent, or adding unbelievable upgrades and amenities. This just became a property fit for royalty––and it’s yours! Super Cheap! It has nothing to do with your own deserving; in fact, you have not been a model tenant. But the landlord believes in you and wants to see you thrive. The landlord even loves you, and holds you in their heart as most special. There are, indeed, kind people in the world, but this landlord is unique in the universe, and has chosen you to receive such infinite blessing. All we humble tenants can do is say, “Wow!” Is say, “Thank you!” And try to do better.
The calamity from which the house of Israel was now recovering was their military defeat, the sacking of Jerusalem, and their forced march into exile in Babylon and elsewhere. They had stayed captives in those places for a few generations, until Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon and its ruler Nebuchadnezzar, and he told the Israelites they could leave for home. They straggled back, glad to be home, but they found the place in ruins, including the Jerusalem Temple.
I wonder if they thought ruefully about God’s earlier covenant with Noah and all of them––how God had promised never to annihilate the people again. I wonder if they muttered to God under their breaths, “You didn’t annihilate us, but you came as close as possible without crossing the line.” The biblical prophets, such as Jeremiah, whose words we read today, wrote that the devastation of Israel and Judah, and the exile, were a logical result of the people’s sinfulness. So many of God’s laws had been broken, the rulers had been corrupt. The sinfulness of the people was the only way to reconcile their special relationship with God with the destruction that befell them. Jeremiah said that God’s promises are solid; it is the people’s part of the bargain that went wrong.
And so we are to hear it as added grace, greater mercy, that God would choose not only to remain covenanted to us but to even expand the terms of the covenant. God is not only renewing the lease but sweetening it, too. The first thing promised is that we humans will no longer need to instruct one another in the ways of God. Certainly, some of us will always go to seminary or study religion somewhere, and we will be in a position to share information but, says God, in the days to come the very law of God will be written upon people’s hearts. There will be a new inner commitment to God’s ways and a heart-deep understanding of them, too. God’s law won’t be written on tablets of stone but within the center of every person, the beating source of our lives, our loves, our compassion, our sense of justice. The very Spirit of God will beat within us and move our hearts to be obedient. We shall all know God, says Jeremiah, from the least of us to the greatest.
Another promise of God is of never-ending forgiveness, of God never remembering our sins from this time forward. What grace and mercy are in this promise! How about that––to have all ours sins and shortcomings forgotten! This means that we have a new start with no past. No past! Without the shackles that bind us to our old misdeeds, we are truly liberated, we are freed; just think what we each can become! We are unhooked from old tethers, free to soar. Praise God for such grace and mercy!
Yet another promise of God that Jeremiah shares with us is that the new covenant is ever-renewing. It exists now, and it will exist in perpetuity. In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, there is a paradox related to how we live––God’s promises are in effect now, and will also be completed later. We live in the “herenow,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, and in the hereafter–between the already and the not-yet. An ever-renewing covenant is one that stays effective, that is in effect through all the vagaries of our lives, that never goes out of date. There is no expiration date on these promises. They expand like an ever expanding universe. We shall be God’s people––the covenant adapts to every situation in order to keep that statement true. This is a comment about God’s expansiveness, flexibility, and close attention to all that we endure and become.
I would lift up three more things to consider in relation to this text, for strength and nurture to last the rest of our days. One is what this text proclaims about companionship, accompaniment, and presence to all who understand their community to be in a diaspora experience. The Hebrews began that experience for themselves with the exile. Pushed from their homeland, they migrated as far as they had to in many directions with the fall of their kingdoms. Not everyone made the journey home (for many reasons) after the vanquishing of Babylon by Persia. The global diaspora of the Jewish people remains to this day. Our text references this with the words the “house” of Israel and the “house” of Judah––the language of “nation” is gone. The new reality is that the physical nation no longer defines the community; no geographic reference can encompass the community. The beloved community is spread far and wide. It is made up of “houses” in many locations; the community makes its home everywhere.
I think that our text from Jeremiah provides legitimacy and strength to all who know their own beloved community to be in diaspora. There is a geographical place that is a historical home, but home now exists all over the place. God’s promises are in effect for Jews and for all lovers of God, no matter how far they are from their historic home, no matter how much the place they live today is truly home. This is a covenant with a portable house rather than a fixed address, as so many communities today live within places that are not their original address. The forced and chosen journeys we make are understood by God, and the goodness of our lives wherever we now find ourselves is blessed, loved, and provided for by God.
Another lesson in love that I receive from our text has to do with regret. Almost all of us live with that, and probably all of us should. But how it can limit us! The prophecy of Jeremiah that God will forgive and will also forget the wrongdoings of our past, present, and future, is indescribably good news. Think of all the things you regret. If you are like me, the most painful ones are actually the smallest. The small meannesses, the barbed comment coming from my own singed ego and not from any shortcoming of another. Maybe on your mind is a much larger regret of an action taken or not taken, of opportunities missed in which to have spoken the truth, of people who left us before a word of grace could be spoken. “I will forgive your iniquity and remember your sin no more,” says our God. This is our chance, my friends, to hear God’s words and be free.
And a final grace note to highlight from today’s text is the imperative of our hope. We have been promised so much by our God; much of it we may find to be still in formation, as yet to be fulfilled. A favorite quote of mine is from Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers. He said, “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” Indeed, hope and patience are twin sisters, inseparable, they need one another. If we are to hope, we must be patient, and if we are to be patient, we must live in hope.
As our Lenten journey moves into its final stages, we hope indeed––we, who are Christian, wait for the fulfillment of God’s many promises in the person of Christ. We prepare for the agony that he is about to face while we live in hope for the resurrection we understand to come. We know that every one of God’s promises does not preclude the fact of suffering in our own lives and those of the people we love. God does not promise, in any covenant, including that made in the person of Jesus, that our lives will be free of suffering, but rather that any suffering will be worth it. Even our savior, Jesus Christ, most obedient of all, did not have a way around the darkness. We shall be God’s people, the people whom God loves, not because we are spared the challenges of living but because we know in every moment that we are sustained by God Almighty.
In hope, joy, and perseverance, let us then live as God’s people.
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