A New Covenant
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.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I have a cousin who lovesd sloths. When you think of a sloth, what do you think of? I’d bet a small, furry creature. Likely clinging to a tree with incredibly long claws. Probably munching on some leaves or flowers with a goofy grin that God placed on its face through millions of years of evolution.
Not too long ago, at least in terms of the cosmic timeline, some ancient sloth ancestors were shaped more like tanks and, apparently, huge fans of old steak. Mylodons, or Giant Ground Sloths, bumbled around on the ground and ate meat as a part of their diet. Scavengers rather than hunters, the meat Mylodons consumed as a part of their diet was likely the leftovers from ice age predators like Saber-Toothed Tigers.
Still with long nails, fur, and we sure hope that goofy smile, they were something like the sloths we know today, but they were bound to the ground, cleaning up others’ old meals. Clearly Mylodons weren’t exactly the same as their present-day counterparts.
Sloths are connected to their ancestors, but they’re not carbon copies. The same is true for us. We are connected to our ancestors, biological and spiritual, and that shapes who we are today. But it does not mean we’re just the same as those who came before us, nor do our ancestors absolutely determine who we will be.
Jeremiah 31 is one of many people’s favorite chapters in the Bible. It’s a retrospective of God’s engagement with the Israelite community. Who could have known what would happen over the next several centuries as the Israelites left Egypt to go on an adventure with the God of their ancestors?
Almost immediately, it seems, many people fell short of God’s expectations and worshiped a golden calf. In response, Moses called together the Levites who went through the camp, slaughtering neighbor and kin. Referencing this early catastrophe, the Lord proclaimed through Jeremiah that those who escaped the sword found grace in the wilderness. From this beginning, God-through-Jeremiah described the tumultuous history of God and God’s people.
God told the people to look forward to a time when Israel and Judah would again be one entity, when the people in the hills of Ephraim would say to themselves that they should go to Zion. The Tribe of Ephraim had sided with the Northern Kingdom of Israel against Judah and was complicit in the idolatrous worship at Bethel/Beth-aven. God promised to become a father to Israel and bring back those who were scattered by Assyria. Moreover, God promised to console the weeping mothers and to redeem Rachel’s children who had been carried off to a foreign land.
As the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus, how could they have imagined wandering in the wilderness for 40 years; an even longer period of back-and-forth conquest of the promised land; and a short period of unified monarchy, followed by civil war, foreign intrigues, captivity and exile? After all that, God would resettle them in the Holy Land. As they marched triumphantly out of Egypt, they were in store for an adventure, but they had no idea what kind it would be.
So when we get to today’s part of Jeremiah we hear about after this adventure, God promised through Jeremiah to do a new thing. No longer would the rules of God’s covenant relationship with the people be written on stone or papyrus—they would be inscribed on their hearts. Indeed, that seems to have come to pass, at least partially.
The suffering that the Israelites and Judahites experienced as a result of God’s punishment of their sins provoked a central concern over the next several centuries for meticulously keeping Mosaic law and honoring God’s word.
It’s Reformation Weekend, where as a church we give thanks for the reform movement started by Martin Luther and others in the 16th century. One of the many themes that pops up at this time each year is freedom, often connected to these words in John: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
It’s important for us to ask two questions: What are we set free from? What are we set free for?All too often, Reformation becomes a chance to bash on other Christians. Often Roman Catholicism becomes a target, as though our freedom has fully severed us from our church ancestors. At other times, Evangelicals draw our angst, as though our spiritual descendants have no connection to the reform movement Luther started. Whatever our freedom is from, it is not from our connections, nor our history, nor those who come after us.
But because of Christ’s intervention, we are free for more than our ancestors could imagine or determine. Just a few verses before, some disciples wonder how they, descendants of Abraham, might still need freedom. Their confusion ultimately points to the crux of the scripture: we are connected to the legacy of our ancestors, but we are not absolutely beholden to it. Christ frees us from the worst and for the best.
This is true biologically. Think, for instance, of someone like me with a mental illness. Thanks to my DNA ancestry, I’m biologically predisposed to a shortage of natural serotonin that leads me to battle bipolar disorder.
That connection lives on in me. Yet, thanks to medication and counselors, changes to diet and exercise, and adding faith practices like meditation, my future is not determined by those ancestors alone. Reform is possible in my life thanks to the influence of others, especially through medical, relational, and physical intervention.
This is also true spiritually. Our tradition is full of profound contributions and desperate failures. The Lutheran reformation paved the way for some of the first schools for girls in Europe, robust social safety nets, and increased knowledge of religion by lay practitioners. But Luther’s writings also included terribly anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric, as well as critiques of peasants who took political authority into their own hands. Such passages became rallying cries for racial purists in Nazi Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.
Even in our Reformation celebrations, the goodness of our tradition is accompanied by the failures. We are not free from that tainted legacy. But, because of God’s work in Jesus Christ, we are free for reform, to make a new way that admits our connection to that past and sets a different course for the future.
Our ancestors’ failures are real, as are their triumphs. But neither is certain for us at this present moment, in this new day calling for new reform. Like today’s sloths, we can climb from the ground of our ancestors to the sky of our future, reforming and evolving into the creatures God calls us to become.
There is an art to letting go, to releasing what is known and safe in exchange for that which breaks us open to new life. Whether we like it or not, we practice this art, with varying degrees of success, all the time.
- When children learn to walk, they leave behind the world of crawling.
- When we receive an unwelcome diagnosis, our bodies and schedules surrender familiar ways of being to a “new normal.”
- As a pastor, I’ve been witnesses at bedsides, holding hands when the person in front of us breathes their last and the world stills for a moment in awe and loss.
We are all artists who journey with those who have come to the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
By this time in the season, the uncomfortable wildernesses of Covid seems to have outstayed their welcome. We are usually more than ready to enter the bright, brassy celebration of Easter, but there are a few things that we must encounter first. We must pay close attention to Jesus’s example of letting go because it patterns our communal Christian life together. We are a people who do not proceed from life into death because, as a people of resurrection, we are always walking through death into new life. Whether we are talking about personal obstacles or church traditions, over and again, we are asked to relinquish the things that keep us buried in death and to embrace glory and the call to life, afresh and anew.