“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” – Jeremiah 31.31-35
Our passage today is from Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived from about 640 B.C. to at least 560 B.C. He was a young man between the ages of 12 and 18 when he was called to the role of a prophet to Israel (Jeremiah 1.6-7), and he was most likely in his mid-twenties when God called him to a life of celibacy. He was born into a family of priests (Jeremiah 11.21-23, 12.6) who would one day oppose him and his ministry. He also had ministry friends, one of whom was Barauch.
Jeremiah was known to oppose the political and religious orders of his day. He was persecuted many times – put in chains (Jeremiah 20.2) as well as accused of treason, sedition, and desertion (Jeremiah 26, Jeremiah 37). He was plotted against (Jeremiah 12, Jeremiah 18). He was thrown into a cistern, and held under arrest by the temple guard (Jeremiah 38). And, as a result of his suffering we have the writings of Lamentations that express is struggle with God in the face of the opposition to his sermons.
Jeremiah’s writings are some of the most interesting among the prophets to me. They are filled with symbolic actions, props, and object lessons. They have stories, and other creative ways of expressing God’s word to a stubborn and hard-hearted people who were bent on not listening to what God was saying through this uniquely gifted prophet. Symbolic actions were common among the prophets, their creative ways of expressing God’s word was simply a part of their preaching.
Jeremiah was concerned that the people had forgotten God, and had no knowledge of him throughout the land. Even those who were bound by their spiritual duty to help the people live out the Covenant of Moses, even those folks did not know God. During Jeremiah’s ministry, he is not interested in introducing new ideas about God but his heart is to help Israel remember her Covenant. Jeremiah insists that the leaders follow the ancient pathways (Jeremiah 6.16), and return to her faithful relationship with the Creator God.
This passage today is placed in a group of chapters from 30 to 33, and these chapters have been called the Book of Consolation or the Book of Comfort. The primary aim of these chapters is to offer hope that in the future Jerusalem would one day be restored. Jeremiah understood that God’s patience would be strained to the limit, but God was compassionate, merciful, and longsuffering. God would one day restore Jerusalem and her people.
For us to fully understand the Covenant relationship that Jeremiah required of the people we have to look back to Moses. The blessings and the curses were spoken between the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal while the Hebrew people listened in the valley of decision. The Covenant between God and his people was determined by the faithfulness of the Hebrews toward their God. God would always uphold his side of the Covenant, but the people had to make their own choice. Jeremiah warned the people not to hold false confidence in God’s covenant because it was dependent upon the people’s response. God will only uphold his Covenant as far as the people remain faithful.
Poor Jeremiah. He warned the people, yet the people continued to be hard-hearted choosing instead to follow the voices of those who brought them comfort and reassurance. Jeremiah saw himself from the very beginning as a man like Moses – one called to a difficult task and uncertain of his voice being heard.
Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet” and he is quoted about 40 times in the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Revelation. When we read the troubles of Jesus, it is not hard to hear the story of the prophet Jeremiah who wept over the city of Jerusalem as did Jesus.
He is last heard of as an exile in Egypt during the deportation of the Hebrew people after the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 41.16-44.30). Although we do not know what happened to Jeremiah at the end of his days, we do know that his words live on to teach us today. And, the most important concept that Jeremiah reminds us of is Covenant.
God’s Covenant is with a Capital “C.” Covenants are like promises that require keeping. Some folks these days make promises without ever intending to keep them. Words don’t hold the same meaning with so much advertising. I’ve been reading a book this week by a preacher called William Willimon. He’s pretty well-known among Methodists. The book I am reading is Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life. And, in this book Willimon invites Christians to a lifetime of covenant accountability.
A little ‘c’ covenant is considered in our culture as a solemn agreement that is binding on all parties as a legally binding agreement such as a lease contract. I highlight the word binding because it has a sense of captivity or enslavement. Imagine for a moment being handcuffed to someone else until the debt is satisfied, or having someone walking around next to you 24-7-365. Having someone with you to make sure you honor your word describes what it’s like to be in a little ‘c’ covenant. Some synonyms are contract, arrangement, treaty, promise, pact, or settlement.
But the big ‘C’ Covenant is something much more! The big ‘C’ Covenant in the community of believers involves not only the outward practice of fulfilling an agreement, but the inward change required by the agreement. Little ‘c’ covenants are binding to our earthly responsibilities, but the big ‘C’ Covenant are binding in both the physical and the spiritual realms.
Sacraments are a good example of big ‘C’ Covenant keeping. There are two sacraments that United Methodist practice – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each sacrament is a form of participating in the Covenant that God has with his people. Sacraments remind us of our Covenant keeping responsibilities that call us to both the inward change and the outward actions.
God invites his people into Covenant relationship, and that Covenant demands an inward change and an outward response. For John Wesley a Methodist was one who loves God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Wesley expected his followers to give thanks in everything, and to have one’s heart lifted up to God at all times. A Methodist would possess a powerful kind of love that fulfilled the Great Commandment to love your neighbor as your very self. A Methodist would be pure in his heart, and his heart would allow only God to reign there. God would not have to compete with issues of work, money, human loves, or power.
The true Methodist keeps all the commandments (Exodus 20). The first four commands help us know how to live out our loyalty to God – worship God alone, no idolatry, no misuse of his name, and Sabbath keeping. (Our Christmas Eve service talked about the wisdom of how we use Jesus’ name.) The final six commandments are focused on right relationships with our neighbors – honoring parents, no murdering, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, and no coveting. It’s really all about expressing love from the inside out. And, that’s Wesley’s next point. Methodist do everything to the glory of God, and in all things accepts the doctrine of God.
Covenant keeping is essential to being a Christian, a Methodist. Today begins a season of accountable discipleship in our church family. You and I have to ask ourselves from time to time: How is my Christian walk? Am I living out what I believe? From time to time we need to review a checklist of sorts. We need to evaluate if our lives are matching up with the commands and admonitions we profess.
The goal of covenant discipleship is that we are transformed into the image of Christ. We are to let the mind of Christ be shaped and formed inside of us (Philippines 2.5). As we submit to the transforming leadership of Christ, we are then able to live in community rightly. As Methodist our discipleship goal is to become holy as Christ is holy. Personal and social holiness depends on how much we allow Christ to transform our thinking. We have to take time to think about God, pray to God, listen for God’s voice, and serve God with our hands and feet.
When we live, good lives it is easy to fall into wrong-headed thinking. A man named Henri Nouwen understood this trap. In his book In the Name of Jesus he offers one temptation that I believe all Christian face – the temptation of being relevant to the people in the community and to our families. There is a chasm between what we believe to be Christian behavior and what God requires of his people. Natural thought comes in direct conflict with holiness and must be captivated and reigned in by the Spirit of Almighty God.
A good example of wrong-headed thinking comes from a story of a couple in the early church. You can read the story in Acts 5. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were members in the early church. They were under Peter’s leadership and guidance. At this time in the life of the church the people were giving much of themselves and many of their possesses to help the poor and needy among them. This couple had made a commitment to the church, yet, when it came time to give what they had promised the couple reasoned that it would be okay to only give part of what they had planned.
Well, on that day Peter receives the amount of money that Ananias and his wife Sapphira decided on to give the church as a form of tithe. They decided together that they would withhold a certain amount and give the rest to the church. It seemed like a good plan to them, and according to Peter it was certainly their right to keep some for themselves. But the problem didn’t come with the amount of money given, but with the condition of Ananias and Sapphira’s hearts. Peter first confronts Ananias who has just handed over the money to him – Ananias, you have lied to the Holy Spirit. And, in that moment Ananias dropped dead.
But this is not the end of the story. About three hours later Sapphira walks in and sees Peter, and Peter sees her. Sapphira has not been told what has happened to her husband. Peter inquires of her – is this the amount that you received for the land you sold? Sapphira responds – yes! Peter is beside himself responding with – how could you scheme with your husband to do such a deed!
Peter then conveys the news about her husband, and she falls down dead as well. Both were carried off that day and buried. We can only imagine what the church must have felt that day. That day turned the church into a place where many were joining to a place where only the truthful disciples dared to belong.
But let me not leave us with this dread of death upon us. There is another Ananias in the book of Acts. This Ananias also struggles to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Ananias was a man who was following God, minding his own spiritual business, when he is asked by God in a vision to go on a mission.
Ananias complains to the Lord that his mission is too dangerous. The man he is told to heal is the very one who is arresting all those who call on the name of the Lord. But the Lord compels Ananias to go for this man – Saul of Tarsus – will carry the name of Jesus to other nations and he will suffer for his namesake.
The first couple – Ananias and Sapphira – made choices to lie to the church about their finances, and to make themselves look more important and holy than they truly were. The second Ananias reluctantly, yet obediently, obeyed the request of Jesus to heal a man who was imprisoning and murdering Christians. The couple died because of their scheming and deceit, but Saul of Tarsus lived to bring the Gospel to the nations.
The inward condition of the heart is only discernable by God. You and I might look good or evil on the outside, but only God has the final word on the inward condition of our souls.
Both of these people were living in Covenant Community with God and his people. The couple seemed to be living right, while Saul was completely out of line with God’s will. God had mercy on the man Saul, but did not allow the inward deceit and scheming of a couple to corrupt the fondling church community. Our task today is taking an honest look within our hearts to see where there are places in our thinking that look more like the couple of Ananias and Sapphira, and the old Saul – and allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and minds to be more like Christ Jesus.
Steve Seamands in his book Ministry in the Image of God discusses the problem of the inward self, stating that we all have a false self that needs to come to the cross for redemptive healing. The couple truly captures our ego-centered nature of fallen humanity. How do we manage our self-interests in light of God’s Kingdom? Our sinful self-orientation must be owned, and surrendered to God. Dying to our self – our wants, desires, and rights – is the hardest thing we will ever do.
Being in Covenant relationship with God means we will be asked to surrender our deepest convictions about life, and replace those convictions about how we understand life with God’s Word. This exchange of the old self for the new self in Christ will cost you everything.
In our Judeo-Christian culture Covenant has lost its meaning. But today, we remember what it means to live in Covenant relationship by joining John Wesley in his Covenant commitment. Let us pray, and respond with the words of Wesley’s Covenant.