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Worship Together Online      21st March 2021
Jeremiah’s and John’s Covenants
Andrew Penny

Jeremiah’s and John’s Covenants

“Behold the days are coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…” Anxious though they were to return from Babylon, some of the house of Israel and Judah, might have muttered “What another covenant…. haven’t we had enough covenants?”

It was, of course, the Israelites and the Jews who had broken those covenants, forever seeking new Gods and abandoning the Law. It was not, a Babylonian bystander might have said, a new covenant that was needed but better adherence to the existing one. Nevertheless, Jeremiah insists that the new covenant will be different because ”the law will be within them, … written upon their hearts”.

What does it mean to have the law- or anything- written upon one’s heart? We are told that it will mean that “no longer shall each man teach his neighbour”. It will be something that is innate, something that we shall know by instinct without needing to learn it- not from our parents, not from social intercourse, not from teachers or books. It will be based in some elemental feeling or awareness; something essential to our humanity.

The passage which follows our reading from Jeremiah, suggests to me the nature of this essential awareness. Jeremiah goes on to describe God the creator, ”who gives the sun for light by day and the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; if this fixed order departs from before me, then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” So, our existence is dependent on the order of creation; we are totally reliant on God our creator. Our response to this realisation, the consequence of this understanding, should be a profound and all-pervading gratitude; thanks that we are simply alive, and alive in an infinitely complicated and beautiful world; that we are each unique creatures set among so many others.

As Jan suggested in her Ash Wednesday sermon, gratitude should be the basis from which to build a closer relationship with God; it will be the motivation behind our efforts to love one another and the behind our shame in not having done all we might to advance his love for the world. It will reenforce our resolve to do better. This is not a gratitude that ignores the pain in the world, but on the contrary, it inspires the love that can do something about it.

For John and his Gospel, that world was, almost, irredeemably corrupt. We need not perhaps take literally Jesus’ injunction that we must hate the world; such hyperbole was apparently typical of Aramaic. Maybe so; there is still a good deal of hostility to the physical world around in both John’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. It might seem strange that God should have wanted to be incarnate in this world, if it was so bad, but we are also told that God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save it and change it. And he does so not so much by rejecting it as submitting to its worst forces. As we enter Passiontide it is worth remembering that the Passion is the passive suffering, the allowing and the submission of Jesus to what the world throws at him. It was a submission with a purpose. The glorification of Christ on the cross makes possible the resurrection and the recreation of the world. This is the eternal life which Jesus promises -as another final covenant- to those who will give up love of this world, and with him cast out the ruler of this corrupted world, marred and distorted by human evil. If we can do that then we can enter eternal life.

Do we need another covenant? Wouldn’t accepting and following Jeremiah’s model have been enough? I think it was missing something. There are hints in Isaiah and Jeremiah of the need for, and role of a suffering servant, and these passages were clearly seen to foretell the surprising, unconventional Messiah-like role of suffering and service which Christ undertook. And through the resurrection, we are all given the power to be Christ-like ourselves. That power to love has become

something innate, unlearnable and essential to our natures. It was that total involvement in the world, that acceptance of humanity and even mortality, which puts the seal on the new covenant. It does so through love, not commanding or demanding love, but the love of total submission

This new promise, realised in the crucifixion and resurrection, is the perfection of Jeremiah’s covenant. It allows us to see through this physical world but should not diminish our gratitude for the grace we have received. Like it or not, we are stuck in this world for the duration of our physical lives and for many of us it is an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience, so far, anyway. That enjoyment would, of course, be very hollow without an awareness of the suffering around us. That gratitude for that is an inspiration to love and to serve; specially to serve those less fortunate than ourselves. The promise is that that loving service can transform us and our fellow creatures, and indeed all creation. Amen.

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