SJF • Lent 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
Throughout this Lent we have been exploring the concept of covenant. Week by week we have looked at a number of covenants that God made with the earth or with his people. We began with the rainbow covenant from the days of Noah, and then took account of the covenant God made with Abraham, sealed with Abraham’s own blood and in his flesh, and in that of his descendants forever. Then we heard an account of the giving of that covenant at Sinai — the covenant which our Scripture today notes that the people broke. And last week we looked at the healing covenant of the bronze serpent, the one that Moses made at God’s direction to heal the people of their snake-bites — and of how Jesus applied this to himself as a sign of his own New Covenant in his flesh and blood, his saving passion and death. The common element we saw in all of these covenants was their two-part nature as both agreement and sign of the agreement.
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Today, as I noted, we step back to that covenant cut in stone — the one given at Mount Sinai, the one that the people broke. The prophet Jeremiah promises that the ever-faithful God will provide the people with an unbreakable covenant. And the crucial difference about this covenant is that it will not take the form of something external and general, but something internal and personal. God will not write this covenant in the sky, as in the days of Noah; nor in the mere external flesh of his people’s men-folk, as in the covenant with Abraham; nor on tablets of stone, as he did in the days of Moses; nor in a token or a totem to ward off the pain of snake-bite, as also in the course of the people’s journey under Moses. No — God will write a new covenant on none of these, but on each and human heart.
The new covenant will be immediate in the strictest sense of that word — direct, with nothing intervening or coming in the way between God and the believer. No intermediary or messenger or teacher will be required to transmit or announce or instruct about this covenant. It will cut straight to the heart.
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Now, it is abundantly clear from the rest of the book of the prophet Jeremiah — and from the records both in Scripture and in secular history — that this miraculous intervention by God into the hearts of the people of Israel did not happen in Jeremiah’s time. The people remained as stubborn, willful and sinful through the time of Jeremiah as they had been in the days of Moses, the judges, the kings and the other prophets; and they would remain just as bad on through the captivity, and the return from Babylon, and the building of the Second Temple. They still turned to idolatry and sinfulness; and even when they turned to the law, it was to that law of Moses and the priestly law of sacrifice and burnt offering, the mechanical and external worship of God.
There were no doubt in Israel those for whom the love of God went beneath the skin, whose hearts were touched by God. There were righteous as well as wicked folks in and before Jeremiah’s time, and in the captivity and beyond. But all that righteousness or wickedness was still measured by compliance or non-compliance with that old law carved in stone.
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Yet Jeremiah had announced, “The days are surely coming” — that’s a prophet’s way of saying, “I cannot tell you when, but some day something wonderful is going to happen: God will act, and the world will be changed.”
And so it was in the days of the Second Temple, during the Roman Occupation of the land, word began to spread about a man who was more than a man. Word spread even far enough for Greeks to hear of him — Greeks who had adopted, or at least admired from afar, the Law of Moses, and came to worship in Jerusalem. And they came to Philip — one of the disciples who happened to have a Greek name! — asking to see the man they’d heard about, this man called Jesus.
The request gets passed along and finally comes to Jesus who responds, in John’s account, with one of those speeches with which John’s gospel is sprinkled— almost a sermon in itself. Perhaps it is the realization that the accomplishment of his great work — to be a light to all the world — is finally in the process of fulfillment. After all, Greeks are coming to him, literally for goodness’ sake!
And so he launches into that rhapsody on his coming sacrifice and its universal effect. It will be like a single grain of wheat that perishes but becomes a fruitful harvest. For a moment his soul is troubled by the implications of this perishing — of dying in order to bear fruit. It is also very close now — his houris approaching, the hour when the New Covenant will be well and truly cut — in his own flesh and blood upon the cross.
And in response to the trouble on his heart, God speaks in a thundering voice — no, not for his sake, but for the sake of all who heard it.
And suddenly, immediately, it is no longer the prophet’s vague promise, “The days are surely coming...” but rather it is now God’s Son’s own “Now!” “Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be driven out! And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
It is as if the heart of God himself has been laid bare, and written upon it is the promise and its fulfillment. The New Covenant is now, Christ seems to say, the hour of completion and realization, the time in which the sharp sword of God’s own Spirit will cut to the heart of every human being, drawn to the foot of the cross upon which the Son of God is lifted up — no bronze serpent he, but the Son of God in flesh and blood, revealed in his Paschal suffering, losing his life, perishing, that he may take it up again, and us with it — a plentiful harvest — all of us marked on our foreheads with his cross and on our hearts with his love.
Let us thank God has called us to the foot of that cross, has marked us with that sign, has written his covenant upon our hearts. In Christ we die, like grain once scattered on a hillside, and in him we also rise, and bearing fruit unto eternal life will rejoice with him for ever.+