a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
preached on March 25, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Sometimes it is just best to start over. Some days when everything keeps going wrong it would be best to stop, go back to bed, and get up again – if we could. Some moments when things are messed up beyond belief, the best way out is to start from the beginning again. And with some situations, the best way to bring about change is to be patient and wait for something to come to an end so that a new thing can begin. No matter how you approach it, when things start going wrong or getting weird, sometimes you just need a new start.
Jeremiah was thinking about just this kind of fresh start in our reading today. His first listeners were faced with the challenges of life in a world that was literally crumbling around them. Their nation had been disintegrating under weak and uninspired leadership for many years, and finally they suffered a great siege at the hands of their largest enemy before surrendering to the armies of Babylon. The leaders and other important people had been carted away to Babylon so that the core of the society would be broken apart. And the beautiful and important temple that stood at the center of religious and civic life in Jerusalem lay in total ruin.
In the midst of all this, Jeremiah offered them this word from the Lord, the promise of a fresh start. A new covenant would bring the people back together and restore the war-torn land. A new way of living out the law would shape their life together. It hadn’t worked before, because there was always a little separation between the people and the law. Now, though, the law would be so integral to their being that it would be within them, written on their hearts. With this, they would a new connection to God that would be real and true and full and complete, linking them to one another and to God always. They needed this new way of life and living – they needed this fresh start – and the prophet promised that God would give it to them and make them whole again.
All this didn’t come into being overnight – it took a good forty years before the exiles returned home from Babylon, and even then it wasn’t a return to exactly what it had been before. Even so, God kept God’s promises and brought them a new covenant for a new day and age, a new way of life that would make things different and show God’s way again. They had a new covenant – a now covenant – as God welcomed them into fullness of life as only God could make possible.
For centuries, the church has read this text as part of its own story. We have connected the new covenant to Jesus and viewed him as the fulfillment of this prophecy, making it all about our own fresh start and often forgetting that God had already worked great restoration in Israel and Judah in bringing home the exiles and restoring the people there. While the new covenant that Jeremiah describes finds its greatest fulfillment in Jesus Christ, we are not the only heirs of this covenant.
Even so, we in the church have seen incredible things in this wonderful image of new life over the centuries. The new covenant reminds us that things were broken and Jesus made them whole. It reminds us that God is working with people all around the world, not just the chosen people of Israel. And the new covenant reminds us Christians that we too need to have a closer, more real relationship with God each and every step of the way.
However, this can seem so disconnected from us as the church today. This act of salvation and transformation took place nearly two thousand years ago. We haven’t broken the covenant, have we? This isn’t our problem, is it? Jesus is among us already, and there is not much for us to do other than to try to live all that out. But what if the prophet were speaking to us? What if these words were not only just fulfilled in the days after the exile or in the time of Jesus? What if we need a new day to start over, too? What if God is planning to make a new covenant with us just as God did with the people of Israel and Judah and with the church? What if God is putting the law within us and writing it on our hearts?
While we’re certainly not facing the difficulties of those who first heard these words, I think we could certainly stand to have a new way before us. The world is conflicted beyond what it ever seems to have been before. The ways of life and faith that we have known are just not working for people in the same way that they once did. People are longing for a new covenant – a now covenant – that is real and true and full and complete in these days, not just the days of old.
What would this look like? How would we like to see things different in the life of faith? How can we envision God at work among us today? How can we join in what God is doing now to remake us and our world?
Writer Diana Butler Bass has been dissecting the dramatic changes in the church in recent years. Her most recent book, Christianity After Religion, suggests that the old structures of the church are starting to fall apart – and not just our old buildings! People are not looking for the same sort of life of faith that they once sought. Churches of every sort are on the decline and have been for a surprisingly long time. While there is a substantial increase in people who say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” they find little point in being active in the community of faith as they see it.
She suggests, to borrow and apply the language of our scripture for today, that we need a new covenant – a new way of life with the world – for the church to be relevant in the twenty-first century and beyond. People are longing for a place where they can feel welcome and loved and known by others and by God. People are longing for communities that encourage them in intentional practices like prayer and engage them in action for justice and peace in the world. And people are longing for new language that more accurately reflects our historic way of a thoughtful, engaged, and trusting faith rather than intellectual assent to confusing doctrines.
While we need something dramatically new to take hold, it seems that we have the grounding of this in our past life together. Just as Jeremiah promised that the new covenant would be built upon the old, that the law would now be written on their hearts, Bass suggests that we too can reclaim much of what the church has been in ways that engage those who least expect it. And so the new covenant, the now covenant, becomes real in our midst, not necessarily in increasing the number of people in our pews but in recognizing how God’s presence is taking hold in our world and in our church – with the law within us, written on our hearts, and the full knowledge of God before us, beside us, and with us, ready to restore us and make all things new as we join in the work of justice, peace, and grace in these Lenten days and beyond.
So may God guide us in this new way, in this new covenant, in this now covenant, even as we walk the way of the cross and open us to the power and the possibility of God’s new life taking hold here and now and always until our Lord Jesus comes again to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.