THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
March 22, 2015
“Something Old, Something New”
In a season of failure and disappointment, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people of something on the horizon.
For most of us, we live in a territory marked by privilege and exceptionalism. Lent is a time for honesty. Not only about ourselves, but our society, our world. Such honesty may well disrupt the illusion of well-being.1
I recently heard about Oklahoma legislator, Dan Fisher, who introduced legislation to ban AP courses in that state because they “omit American exceptionalism.” Fisher said the current structure of Advanced Placement history courses focus on “what is bad about America.” The Tulsa World newspaper contradicts him, saying that the course teaches the full range of American History, ‘the good, the bad, and the exceptional.’ But it isn’t only in Oklahoma where there is resistance to naming how we have failed one another. We do this to ourselves, our families, and our communities all the time.
Against the prevailing, self preserving, idea that we are doing just fine, thank-you, the prophet speaks of the brokenness of the covenant; the covenant that shapes a healthy society. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.
If someone is speaking about a new covenant, they must have in mind an old covenant. Jeremiah recalls God’s covenant at Mt. Sinai, which they broke. His community could call to mind the covenants before that one: with Noah, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. After Sinai, there was Joshua and Samuel. Each of these covenants were new at one time. Jeremiah says that the newness will not be seen in the terms of the agreement or the time period covered. Even God does not indicate any change. What will change? What will be new? It is the people and how they receive it. First, Jeremiah speaks of inhaling the Torah. Then he speaks of knowing it.
The people will internalize the covenant. This will be no privatized reformation of individual lives. Not that people were asking for this new covenant. No one in Jeremiah’s day was speaking sweetly of “letting God into” his heart. There is no hint of an invitation on the part of the people. As Walter Brueggemann points out, this covenant is given by God without reason or explanation. God wants the relationship with the people and resolves to have it. So God declares that he will write himself into the people.
You could say there is a down side, I suppose, to all this. God will be intimately present. God will not be experienced as some distant, disinterested deity. With that presence we cannot live in a world of our own imaginations. There will be no refuting reality. God will be as close as a parent chaperone on a first date. The young couple returns from the movie, a hamburger and milkshake, the car is parked along the curb as they chit-chat in the front seat. A few moments go by and hands embrace. The tones are hushed, there is electricity in the air. Then the porch light goes on. See what I mean? There might not have been anything happening, but the icy stare the father received by his daughter as she came through the door indicated that not everyone believed that ‘nothing was happening.’ There can be a down side. When Jeremiah uses the word ‘know’ he means it in the biblical sense. He does not mean some sort of intellectual awareness or possession of some inert fact. This is something as tight as your skin, as ever present as your pulse.
Yet there is an upside; the upside of this is that God will be intimately present. Yes, I know it is the same thing I said a few moments earlier. But not every close relationship is overbearing and restrictive. There is in the covenant the truth that it is loved into being, not coerced. Did you hear about the story of what is called ‘free-range’ parents? There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance. This is not what Jeremiah is talking about when he speaks of God’s presence.
Instead, God has chosen to give us a good bit of free reign. But like every good parent, God does not send us out into the wilderness without the resources to deal with it. This resource is the substance of Jeremiah’s message. Something new is on the way.
In some quarters you will find resistance to anything ‘new.’ Who isn’t skeptical about every ‘new and improved’ claim? But this ‘newness’ does not involve starting from scratch. Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ (verse 33); same covenant, but this time, that relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned. It is not imposed upon anyone. It is freely given. It is something that they will have with them as a resource rather than baggage.
Like every good parent knows, both ‘helicopter’ and ‘free-range,’ your children are not puppets and do now always do what you want them to do no matter how much or how little supervision they receive. So in every relationship there are moments, days, that are strained, even with us and God. But even this doesn’t threaten the relationship. We are sent out into an imperfect world with a guide for what will bring a happy, healthy life in community with our neighbor; and, the promise that we are never ever left alone, ready to be received with open arms.
The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness: For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34). The choice of grace on God’s part to create a world and love it into freedom is, Karl Barth writes, the “sum” of the Gospel, the best news that we could ever hear. For it means that God has chosen not to be alone in this life or in the life to come but to share that life with every creature. It is in this respect that we can say God has made a commitment to be for us and with us before we ever came into existence, no matter what.
Some years ago I had a confirmation student whose mother was a Christian and his Father was Jewish. At the little reception they had for him after confirmation I saw grandma coming out of the corner of my eye. There was no place to retreat. With no introductory chit-chat, she said, “So, Pastor Fogle, what do you think about the Jews?” Fortunately, God is merciful and just, I quickly came up with something to say, I told her: “I believe that God doesn’t break promises.”
So, until such a time as Christ is raised up and draws all people to himself, Jeremiah’s text remains for us – and for the first hearer of these words – a word of hope. Until that redeeming comes, until that new thing pushes the old thing into the past, God’s covenant with us will bear the marks of the cross. We have reason to be hopeful. We have not yet arrived. The days are surely coming, Jeremiah says. They’re on their way. We’re leaning into them. This is what God desires, and it would serve us well to accept that, God as present in our house, present in our hearts. Jeremiah insists that the covenant remains, will be renewed, and our best days are ahead.
1Walter Brueggemann, “Ferguson and Forgiveness” Odyssey Networks March 16, 2015 ON Scripture – The Bible. Walter Brueggemann says: “Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.”