Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 12:1-2
As is our tradition, early in the New Year we meet to renew our covenant with God. This is a distinctively Methodist practice which can be traced back to the first covenant service held by John Wesley in 1755. That first service took place in August, but it soon became the custom for the covenant renewal to take place early in the year, as a day of solemn reflection and rededication. That these were times of great spiritual blessing is evident from Wesley’s descriptions in his Journal. For example, on Sunday 1st January 1775 Wesley wrote:
We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the Covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.
In Wesley’s time the covenant service would be preceded by a period of preparation, including prayer, fasting and exhortation, which helped to underscore the importance of what was taking place. These days, coming so soon after the excess of Christmas and New Year, it is more likely to be preceded by feasting rather than fasting and the rigorous seriousness of the covenant service increasingly feels like a much needed spiritual detox. It is unfortunate that the covenant service has become detached from the prayer and preparation that used to precede it, for what we do today is no trivial or insignificant matter. As Daniel Benedict writes: ‘A covenant renewal service is not a seeker’s service… There is no such thing as “covenant renewal lite.”’
That’s the background to the covenant service; but what’s it all about?
It is, perhaps, stating the obvious that at the heart of the covenant service is the biblical concept of covenant. Our scripture readings illustrate different facets of what is a rich and varied theme. But today I want us to particularly focus on the reading from Jeremiah which introduces the idea of a ‘new covenant’. Because this passage takes us to the heart of what covenant is about and therefore to the heart of what we are doing as we renew the covenant today.
This is one of those Bible passages that it is often read in isolation, taken out of its original context. If we really want to understand what Jeremiah was talking about, we need to remind ourselves of the background to the reading.
At the very beginning of his ministry God had given Jeremiah a task: “I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1:10) For some forty years Jeremiah was faithful to his calling, prophesying that unless the people of Judah returned to God, the destruction of their nation was inevitable. And indeed, Jeremiah came to witness the utter defeat and dismantling of the nation at the hands of the Babylonian armies; all that had been prophesied had come to pass. Read the first 29 chapters of Jeremiah and you will find them unrelenting in doom and gloom; but then suddenly and unexpectedly at the beginning of chapter 30 the gloom lifts and there is a new message: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people.” (30:3) After all that uprooting and tearing, destroying and overthrowing, Jeremiah is now to build and plant. This change of tone continues to the end of chapter 33, and this part of Jeremiah is often referred to as the ‘Book of Consolation’ or the ‘Book of Comfort’.
Our reading about the new covenant is therefore part of the Book of Consolation and looks beyond the present desperate plight of the people to the time when God would heal their wounds, bring them back from the land of exile, and restore the land. Even the covenant-relationship between God and his people would be restored: “At that time… I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” (Jer 31:1)
But how could a covenant-relationship so utterly broken be restored? People had failed to live up to the covenant in the past – what guarantee was there that things would be any better in the future?
That brings us to the verses in question. What do we learn about covenant from this text?
Firstly, the covenant is primarily understood as a relationship. The words used to describe the nature of this relationship are very interesting: ‘I was their husband, says the Lord’. (Jer 31:32) Husband and wife – you don’t get a much closer relationship than that.
This is a point worth emphasising, because the term ‘covenant’ in everyday use is primarily a legal word. It is a type of contract; a formal agreement, promise or pledge. For example, a few weeks ago the church council had to meet to make a legal decision as trustees. When the old Archway Central Hall was sold, a number of covenants were placed on the land title which restricted how the property might be used in future. We were asked by a potential purchaser whether one of these restrictions might be lifted. Another covenant on the property ensures that any future owner has to maintain access across the property for our fire escape route. This sort of covenant is nothing to do with a relationship; it is a legal matter. But the covenant in the Bible is not like that.
Dennis Bratcher writes:
“…we need to recall that the concept of covenant was not viewed in the Old Testament in legal terms… Covenant was a metaphorical way to describe the relationship between God and the people in terms of mutual interaction. God revealed himself to the people (“I will be your God”) and expected the people to respond to that revelation with worship and faithfulness (“you shall be my people”). The breaking of covenant (v. 32), then, was not the violation of a law that required a legal penalty, but the disruption of a relationship that needed healing and restoration.”
God may have been husband, but the people have been unfaithful. This unfaithfulness is presented in the most graphic terms in chapter 3, where Israel is likened to an unfaithful wife actively pursuing her many lovers. The relationship between God and his people had been destroyed. The old covenant “could not be resurrected as if nothing had happened, certainly not by the people who had destroyed it.” (Bratcher) Something new and radical needed to be done if there was to be a new relationship between God and people.
So, the first point is that covenant – and this is as true of the covenant we are making today as covenant in the Bible – is primarily about a relationship; the relationship between God and people. Or as God says through Jeremiah: I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (31:33) So later when we make the Covenant Prayer, we will say to God: you are mine, and I am yours. If you don’t remember anything else about the sermon after you leave church today, remember this phrase: I will be your God, and you will be my people. This is the very centre of what covenant is all about.
The second thing we learn about this covenant is that it is written on people’s hearts.
“This is the covenant that I will make” says God: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”
What the people needed was not a new law or a change of the law but a change of heart, so that they might remain faithful to the relationship to which God had called them; and a change of mind, so that they could live in the way God wanted them to live.
This language of the heart is present also in Psalm 51, which is used in the prayers of the liturgy of the Covenant Service:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
What does it mean, when God says he will write his law on people’s hearts? We’re obviously using more metaphorical, symbolic language, for God isn’t going to literally carve words on the organ beating away in our chest.
Today we tend to think about the heart as the seat of the emotions, particularly emotions such as compassion and love. The heart symbolises love, particularly romantic love – think of all those Valentine Day cards we’ll be sending in a month’s time. In contrast with the heart the head is the logical, reasoning part of ourselves. In actual fact science tells us our thoughts and feelings all come from the brain – the heart is just a muscular pump – but this is the language of metaphor, of poetry. So we feel with our heart and think with our head.
Now for the ancient Hebrews, the heart wasn’t just associated with emotions, but with the rational, decision-making part of us as well. So when Jeremiah speaks of God writing his law on our hearts he doesn’t just mean that we will have a warm and fuzzy emotional feeling toward God; he means that the desire to put God’s will and purposes into practice will be absolutely engrained in our deepest being. For some reason I’m reminded of those sticks of rock that some of us bought when we went on the church outing to Brighton in the summer. Wherever you break them or bite them, they still say Brighton Rock, for the words go all the way through. God’s law will be written on our hearts – the Hebrew word for law is Torah, which also means teaching and instruction. It’s actually very close to what Paul meant when he wrote to the Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom 12:2)
These ideas are brought together in the last hymn we sang ‘O for a heart to praise my God’. It is really a prayer for a heart that is cleansed, changed and renewed. In the last line Charles Wesley asks that God will write a ‘new name’ on his heart. And what is that word? The word is love. The word that summarises the whole of the law. That’s what we need God to inscribe in our innermost beings, so we are people guided, motivated, ruled by love.
The third thing we learn about the covenant – is that the initiative for making this covenant is totally with God. That’s true for all the covenants in the Bible – they all begin with God. But there’s something special about this new covenant.
Charles Aaron comments:
Even if God restores the people to the land, enables them to experience prosperity and joy and shows love to them again, that will not be enough. Something must change within the people themselves. Here God promises to heal them from the inside out. God will change not only their outward circumstances, but their very hearts.
Let’s hear that again, this time in the first person, so we can hear it applied to us:
Outward change will not be enough. Something must change within ourselves. Here God promises to heal us from the inside out. God will change not only our outward circumstances, but our very hearts.
God takes the initiative, God does all the work. Left to our own devices, our covenant-relationship with God is fragile and easily disrupted, for like ancient Israel we are so readily tempted by the many false gods of our contemporary society and we find it so hard to put God’s teaching into practice in our lives. But we are not left to our own devices. God promises to change us; to renew our minds and write his word upon our hearts.
This, my dear friends, is grace – God offers us both a covenant-relationship with him and the promise to change our hearts so we can be faithful to that relationship.
God even promises to wipe the slate clean. Or to use a more modern analogy, God offers to press the reset button. Many modern electronic gadgets such as phones have a reset button, so that if anything goes badly wrong – or you just want to restore it to the speedy, reliable device that it used to be – you press reset. And bingo, all the stuff you downloaded, the pointless apps, the viruses and other rubbish you accumulated, disappear and the phone is back to its factory condition, just as the maker intended. In v.34 here is God pressing reset: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
A new relationship – written on people’s hearts – initiated by God; in fact, a gift of God. This is the covenant which we are renewing today. We thank God that he not only offers this covenant-relationship with him, but gives us the ability to keep it! If it were not so, the commitment we make today in the words of the covenant prayer would be quite foolish and would last as long as many of the resolutions made with the New Year and already broken. But there is grace here, and the power of God to change us, and it is this that makes us bold to renew the covenant today. May God bless us and keep us in all we do today and in this coming year. Amen.