God is still speaking…has been from the beginning of time. God spoke, and creation came into being. After the flood, God spoke again, making covenant with all people and creatures of earth. Later, God makes covenant with Abraham, promising numerous descendants and always to be with them. Later still, God speaks again, this time putting it in writing in the Ten Commandments. Today, we hear through the prophet Jeremiah that God is making yet another covenant with God’s people. This time, the covenant is written on their hearts.
Our journey through covenant this Lent has revealed an exceedingly chatty God. Why is that? Why has God kept, why does God keep speaking?
Those of you who have children–Is your relationship with your children the same now as it was five years ago? Ten? Fifty?
What kinds of rules or guidelines did (or do) you have when your child was 18 months? (Responses) Age 5? (Responses.) Age 10? (Responses) Age 15? (Responses) Age 18? (Responses) Age 50? If you’re relating to your 50 year old children the same way you related to them when they were 5, I’ll be available for pastoral counseling after today’s service. 🙂
Why is God still speaking? Because we keep changing; we keep growing. The circumstances of our lives keep evolving. Good thing God keeps making new covenants with us….Because–To whom does God go for pastoral counseling? 🙂
One way to understand all the different versions of the covenant we’ve been exploring the past few weeks, is to see them as God’s responses to Israel’s maturing as a faithful people. Just as parents’ covenants with their children adapt to the children’s natural maturing process, so does God adapt to our maturing process.
The flood story is about the need for a covenant between God and human beings–so human beings will know what to do. Abraham’s story is about human beings learning to trust the covenant God has made; that’s why God has to make the covenant with old Abe four times…that we know of. 🙂 The story of the Ten Commandments is about our need to have the terms of our relationship with God “in writing,” that is, to make the relationship more formal–to form a religion.
So, what does Jeremiah’s new version of the covenant suggest about the maturational stage of God’s people? Let’s look at Jeremiah 31:3-34 again.
“The days are surely coming, says God, when I will establish a new covenant with the people. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (Great image! “When I took them by the hand…” like a child, right? Back when you didn’t know any different.) —a covenant they broke, though I was their husband.” (Okay…like a child or a spouse)
Whether child or spouse, God acknowledges here that the relationship with God’s people is changing. Now, God could be changing things because the other rules just weren’t working–the people kept breaking them. I like to think, though, that the people weren’t recalcitrant; they were just maturing. (Teenagers, you’re welcome to borrow that phrase whenever you need it. “Mom, Dad. I’m not being recalcitrant. I’m just maturing.”) Maybe the people kept breaking the old covenant because they were ready for a new kind of relationship with God. Think about it. What happens when you try to enforce a 14-year-old’s rules on your 17-year-old? Is the 17 year old likely to abide by those rules? I rest my case. 🙂
So, what is this new covenant God makes with the people? The still-speaking God continues: “But 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; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Those of you who have been through — or are about to go through — the process of sending your children off to live away from home for the first time–whether for college, a job, the military, or to get married… What was that like? Did you send them off with a set of rules? Did you write up a contract about what behaviors would be tolerated and which wouldn’t be? Did you remind them of their curfew? Did you have every expectation they’d keep it? Did I mention that I’ll be available for counseling after the service? 🙂
If you didn’t write up a contract, how did you send your children off? What words did you say? Or, what words did your parents say to you when you left home the first time? (Responses)
Many of us have entered the stage of life when we’re beginning to set rules for our parents. Strange, isn’t it? The roles are reversing. The anxieties are shifting–from them to us. Now it’s we who go to bed at night just praying God keeps them safe. Some of us are even having to write rules for the ones who once wrote rules for us.
As our relationships with our loved ones evolve, as the rules change, God’s words through the prophet give us hope: What’s real, what’s deepest, what’s best is not what we write down or chisel into stone. What’s real and deepest and best is what’s written on our hearts.
I’m reminded of that scene from “Still Alice” we heard in Trish’s sermon last week. As Alice Howland sinks deeper into dementia, she says to her daughter, Lydia, who has moved home to care for Alice: “You’re so beautiful. I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.” Lydia responds: “I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.” Still anxious, Alice asks: “What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?” “Then,” Lydia says, “I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”
This scene gets to the heart of covenant. No matter how much our lives change, no matter how many times we have to re-visit the parameters of our relationships, one thing never changes—the love that brought us into covenant to begin with. Isn’t that the reason we stay with the maddening process of continually adapting our covenants with each other–with our children, with our parents, in communities like this one? We do it because we love each other, right? It’s the same with God. God continues to adapt covenant with us because God loves us. Deeply.
This is one of those sermons that went in a direction I didn’t plan for it to go. I thought we’d look at the covenant and use it to motivate ourselves to get out there and act the world into well-being in bold, new, creative ways…sort of a, God-has-kept-covenant-with us-How- are-we-going-to-keep- covenant- with-God thing. That’s just what we need, isn’t it? One more To-Do list?
But while I was writing, our chatty God kept speaking. The content wasn’t complicated, but it was profound. As I wrote, I heard the same words, over and over: I do it because I love you. I do it because I love you.
In the end, the details of the covenant aren’t nearly as important as the FACT of the covenant. A big part of our work together as a community of faith, is working out the details. That’s great. It’s important. But sometimes, it’s more important simply to sit. And listen. And hear the still-speaking God say over and over: I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
[Song: O Love That Will Not Let Me Go]
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go
O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in you;
I give you back the life I owe,
That in your ocean depths its flow may swell with ardor true.
O Light that follows all my way, to you I yield my flickering flame;
Renew my spirit’s feeble ray,
That from your brilliant sunlit day it may new brightness claim.
O Joy that seeks me through my pain, to you I cannot close my heart;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And know the promise is not vain that you will ne’er depart.
(Here’s a blurb from the New Century Hymnal about the writing of the hymn: Although he was nearly blind, George Matheson studied for the Church of Scotland ministry, assisted by his sisters, who learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to help him. Matheson wrote this hymn in five minutes on June 6, 1882, at his parsonage.)