Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Lavish Gift of God's Covenant

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.10-18


These passages are about the nature of God's covenant. The covenant is not a promise to protect people from harm. It's not a magic bubble in which we can take refuge. But it is a promise that God will never forget his servants and that he will save them in spite of disaster.


To whom is Jeremiah's promise addressed? Mention is made in verses 6 and 9 of Ephraim, one of the sons of Joseph and the ancestor of the most significant of the ten tribes which made up the northern kingdom of Israel before her people were defeated and exiled by the Assyrians, more than a hundred years before Jeremiah is prophesying. Is the promise meant for the descendants of those earlier exiles as well as for the people of the two southern tribes of Judah, who were now about to be defeated and exiled by the Babylonians?

Repeated mention is also made of Jacob, the common ancestor of all the tribes, both from the north and the south. Legend had it that whatever sufferings his descendants endured Jacob would undergo with them. And verse 6 calls upon all the returning exiles, whether from North or South, to go up to Mount Zion, the home of God's Temple in the southern capital city of Jerusalem. So this would seem to be a promise to all those who have seen their families killed or uprooted, their homes destroyed, and who have been forced to leave the land of their birth.

The Lord is going to save his people - but not all of them, only a remnant will survive to be gathered again as a mother hen gathers her scattered chicks after the predator has swooped down to attack them. This is a God, then who stays with his people in disaster and seeks to bring them safely through it, but who cannot prevent the disaster from happening and from taking its toll.

However, when he does restore the nation the returning exiles will still make up a vast company of people, even though they are only a remnant of those who were there before. And this will be a very inclusive gathering. God will tenderly guide back to the homeland those who are blind, or lame, or pregnant, or even in labour. And instead of having to pass through arid deserts or over high mountains, which might have claimed further victims, the returning exiles will be escorted beside streams of water and along smooth paths where there are no treacherous places to stumble and fall.

Life in the promised land will once more be like it was when the people of Israel, fresh from their previous captivity in Egypt, first saw that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. There will be plenty of grain, wine and olive oil, there will be abundant herds and flocks. There will be dancing and singing again. And over all of this prosperity God will watch like a fatherly shepherd who has rescued - the Hebrew actually says 'redeemed' - his people from a foe who was too strong for them and who had overcome them.

But, of course, all of this covenant care which God will lavish upon the returning exiles begs the question, why does the nation have to suffer and be destroyed or exiled in the first place? Why couldn't God have stopped the Assyrian and Babylonian armies in their tracks? And why will he have to wait for the Persian army, in its turn, to end the exile and create the conditions in which the remnant can come home? The exiles were to wrestle with these issues for many years before finally deciding to include the Book of Jeremiah in their canon of scripture.

Their answer was twofold. First, that God uses human agents to do his work on earth, even including foreign rulers who don't believe in him. And second, that the people of Israel - north and south - must have done something terribly wrong to bring about a chain of events where foes too strong for them were able to overwhelm them and take them into captivity without God being able to intervene.

In other words, the people who put together the Old Testament concluded that God's covenant must be a two-way process. God promises to be with us and to watch over us but, unless we faithfully obey him and live according to his commands, he cannot always save us from our own folly even though he will never abandon us and will always try to rescue us.

In so far as the people of both kingdoms had failed to have absolute faith in God, and had sought the protection either of other gods or of alliances with neighbouring kingdoms and empires to save them from Assyria and Babylon, this thinking does help to explain what went wrong for Israel in the days before the Exile. Perhaps if they had taken the advice of prophets like Jeremiah, and put their whole trust in God, things might have turned out differently. But, of course, it still begs the question as to whether God's covenant can actually save us from trouble even when we are totally obedient to him. If trouble still engulfs us, even when we have made a covenant with God, does this inevitably mean that we must have broken our side of the agreement and done something to deserve it?

And so we come to the letter to the Ephesians, which takes up the idea of God's covenant and teases it out in new directions. First, the covenant now becomes very much a spiritual thing. It's no longer about giving the tribes of Israel the Promised Land as their inheritance. Instead it's about becoming God's adoptive children for all time. And it's no longer focused on a specific corner of the planet which God's people can call their home. Instead it's about the whole cosmos being brought into unity in Christ, for all things are going to be gathered up in Jesus Christ and Christians are simply the first people on earth to find out about this destiny and to be incorporated into it through their faith in the saving power of Christ's death on the Cross.

But second, it's now very clearly spelt out that God always knew he would have to step in to redeem the human race from sin and disobedience. To use management speak for a moment, the covenant promise is not a reactive process; it's not an attempt to stop the rot, it's God being proactive - seeing trouble on the way and planning a solution to it. Beginning with Paul, the New Testament sees that there is a fatal flaw in human nature. However sincerely we might want to live according to God's commands, we will never be able to do it by our own efforts. This is why the ancient kingdoms of Israel were doomed to fail in their experiment to create a holy society, and it's why the mission of Jesus Christ to secure our release from this predicament, or redeem us, by dying on the Cross for us, has been part of God's mysterious but wise and insightful plans from the very dawn of time. And here I suspect that the Revised English Bible is wrong when it says that the writer believes God has lavished all wisdom and insight on us. The passage is so loosely written that it is capable of meaning that, but it's surely more likely that what the writer really means s that God's own wisdom and insight have led him to reveal his covenant to us.

Third, it's very clear now that honouring the covenant promise costs God dearly. Jeremiah had implied this when he talked about God redeeming the people from exile. Their return home was no accident. When a member of the family was redeemed from slavery, or when a piece of land that used to be part of the family's inheritance was bought back, or redeemed, from its new owner it meant inevitably that the rest of the clan - uncles and aunts, and cousins, brothers and sisters - had clubbed together to raise the purchase price. Or, if the family was lucky, one member of the clan might have made good and become wealthy enough to be persuaded to put up the whole purchase price for them. And that's what Jeremiah believed would happen when the Exile was ended and the people returned home to the Promised Land. God would find some mysterious way to broker their release.

What the New Testament does is to unwrap the mystery. It is Jesus' death which secures our redemption - not in some mechanistic way by paying the Devil - or some other agency - to set us free, but by unlocking a process which will allow God to overcome our innate weakness and stubbornness. If we set our hope on Jesus Christ, and on the tremendous love of God revealed by his death for us, then we will be stamped with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee that we are part of God's covenant people. If we have received the Holy Spirit it shows that we are included in the deal. But also, it gives us the power that people previously lacked to live according to the covenant and become obedient children.

Methodists sometimes stay away from the covenant service because they say that the promises are too hard to keep. But that's to misunderstand the nature of the covenant. This is something which, as Ephesians makes abundantly clear, is God's immeasurable gift which he lavishes upon us in love, and our response is just that - a response, a thank you letter, after being showered with gifts - including the power to keep our promises. So our covenant promise is only a tiny part of the bargain. Again, the Revised English Bible over translates the passage when it says that we have been chosen by God to be full of love. What the writer actually says is that, in Jesus Christ, we have been chosen to be holy and blameless before him in love. That could mean that
we have got to be full of love, which would be a tall order even with the help of the Holy Spirit! But it is surely more likely to mean that it's the power of God's love revealed in Jesus which makes it possible for us to be holy and blameless and to keep our side of the covenant.

The fourth and last thing to say about the New Testament understanding of the covenant is that suffering is part and parcel of the deal. God mediates the covenant to us through the suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. That suffering reveals the depth of God;s love for us, but is also shows us that - in Jesus - God identifies with us in our suffering. So, when trouble comes, when we find ourselves suffering, it's not a sign that we have failed God or been abandoned by him. Just as God could not stop the Assyrian and Babylonian armies from devastating Israel, so he cannot stop disasters from befalling us now. He can only be with us in them and redeem us from them, because that's the nature of a universe in which other people, and we ourselves, enjoy free will. Things have to be free to go wrong as well as to go right.

The passage from Ephesians seems to me to be an attempt to spell out the implications of John's Gospel Chapter One. There's a strong affinity between many of the ideas in Paul's letters and the teaching of John, especially about the meaning of the Cross and the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Paul inspired John when he was writing the Prologue to his Gospel, and perhaps - in turn - the Prologue to the Gospel inspired the passage which we read from Ephesians.

The person who put together Paul's Letter to the Ephesians was probably a follower of Paul who had some fragments of Paul's original letter to work with but who needed to fill in the gaps between them to make them into a coherent whole. The passage which we read today is actually a poem or hymn, perhaps used in the worship of the early church, which the writer has used to fill in the gap where Paul's original words of thanksgiving for God's work in the church at Ephesus would have been. They express perfectly what John is also saying in his Prologue - that Jesus' coming was always part of God's masterplan, that by trusting in him we can become God's children, that he gives us grace upon grace to enable us to live for him and that trusting in his grace and truth is the only way in which we can ever hope to live according to God's commands. It's in this spirit of trust and thankfulness that we are called to make our covenant today.

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