Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: Jeremiah 31:31-34
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. (Jeremiah 31:33)
Covenant. That’s a word we hear used often, in church. But I wonder how many of us truly understand the depth of its meaning.
In law, a covenant is an agreement between two or more parties to do—or not do—some specified thing. And/or, a covenant is an incidental clause in a larger agreement, or contract.
In ecclesiastical language—church language—a covenant is a solemn pact between people who agree to work together on behalf of the gospel.
In the Bible, though, the word “covenant” has an even deeper meaning; it refers to certain kinds of promises made by God to the human race. And here’s where we note an important distinction.
In civil law—and even in church law—a covenant is really a sort of contract. It is created with the idea that it can be broken or annulled. Human agreements—whatever language we use to describe them—are made to be broken.
God’s covenants with humanity, however … Well, they were never intended to be broken. If you are even slightly familiar with the Bible, you likely know about some of the ways God has made covenant with humankind.
You may remember that it all began with a rainbow. God placed the bow in the sky as a sign of his promise to never again flood the world to the point of utter destruction. The covenant with Noah was a unilateral, universal promise that has never been broken by God. The sign of that covenant was—and is—a rainbow.
When God expanded the covenantal relationship through Abraham, God promised him and Sarah that they would be the parents of a multitude of nations. To this aged couple, God promised countless offspring: “Look towards heaven and count the stars … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). Once again—in retrospect—we can see how true God has been to this covenant. Through the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah today number well over four billion!
Later, after the Israelites were freed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, God saw that the loyalty he desired from his people could be best expressed through a certain way of living. For his chosen people, the living out of God’s covenantal relationship meant abiding by the Ten Commandments. These commandments were given through Moses on Mount Sinai, written on tablets of stone by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18). Very impressive! But the most incredible thing about the Ten Commandments is this: even if the commandments are broken, the relationship is not destroyed!
The commandments are a gift to us, so that we may feel the depth of the covenant. Fortunately, God’s ability to sustain the covenantal relationship overrides our inability to obey the commandments. Even when we fail, God does not.
No matter how bitterly we complain about our circumstances, God is always there with an answer to our prayers. God’s answer may not always be what we expect—or even want—but God is there, ready to help the human creature manage and survive the challenges of earthly living.
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, we hear the prophet speak about a new kind of covenant. Now, at first it may seem like there’s nothing all that new about this “new” covenant. God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is an idea to which God has been true for countless generations.
But what’s different here is that God will write his law upon our hearts! In other words, before we even know how to breathe, we know that we belong to God.
Awareness of God’s covenant is simply a part of who we are. Even for those who later claim to be atheists, this awareness appears to be a starting point. The mere fact they need to state their unbelief shows that it is an important issue for them—just as it is for the rest of us. That’s why religion is a touchy subject.
Ever noticed? When it comes to belief or unbelief in the living God, people get wildly passionate—if not downright angry! Why is that? It’s because belief or unbelief in God matters! Deep down inside, we know God is real.
For medical researchers like Dr. Melvin Morse—who writes about this in his book, Where God Lives*—the “God Spot” is within the human brain (specifically, in the right temporal lobe). At least, that’s what he says. No matter. Whether it’s inscribed upon the heart, or the brain, or the gut, the point is this: God’s covenantal love is now a part of us!
Long before the psychologists and the neuroscientists reached their sophisticated understandings of brain chemistry and the human psyche, God had the whole thing covered. God’s love for us is written upon our hearts, and our connectedness to the divine covenant emanates from the very core of our being.
Here is the depth of God’s covenant with us. God’s promise is not a contract, liable to be broken at the whim of either party. No. God’s promise is a covenant that has not been—and will not be—broken.
God’s love is something we do not have to earn. It is freely given, just as parents freely offer love to their children. This is the newness of the covenant described by Jeremiah—and the novelty does not wear off.
And so the “new covenant” has the character of a gift. The new covenant is not only written upon our hearts—it is also made flesh in the person of Jesus, who shows us God’s heart. In Christ, God has already done all the work required to seal his unbreakable, unending covenant with us. All we have to do is accept, in faith, the gift being so freely offered.
So—accept it! Receive it. It is meant for you. And God’s love is the greatest gift of all.
* Where God Lives by Melvin Morse, M.D., and Paul Perry. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.