March 21, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

“Adapting the Covenant”

This morning we continue our Lenten celebration of God’s covenant of love. Four weeks ago, we gave thanks for the rainbow – God’s reminder and promise not to destroy us again, but to mercifully maintain relationship with humankind in spite of the fact that we will sin again.

Next, God promised to walk with Abram and Sarai – to give them a place to live, a family, and to make them a blessing to all the families of the earth. Though their faith wavered at times (as does ours), God’s promise would be sure, and the seemingly impossible would come to be.

Through Moses then, God gave the ten commandments to the whole community of God’s people. God gave them (and us) the guidance needed to live in loving relationship with God and each other.

And although people still struggled to keep the commandments, last Sunday’s reading about the poisonous snakes showed us that God kept finding ways to help us. Instead of simply wiping away the people’s sins, God invited them to look at the effect of their sin – acknowledging it and opening up the possibility of transformation and healing.

In a commentary on today’s text from Jeremiah about a “new covenant,” Gary Simpson suggests that the word “new” need not be thought of as substitutionary. This “new covenant” is not a replacement of the “old” ones we’ve been looking at over the last month.

Simpson writes, “New could be the result of a God who is great enough to adapt and, dare it be said, ‘evolve’? He suggests that God is always evolving and adapting, and that the people of God are required to do the same.

Imagine that! – A very clear biblical precedent for change. It’s change that is rooted in the same covenant love relationship with God, but it is expressed and lived out in new ways because the circumstances have changed.

Let me explain. The context of this prophetic text is the Exile in Babylon. Judah and Jerusalem have been conquered, the Temple has been destroyed, and many of the people have been exiled to live their lives in a far-away land among people of other cultures, religions, and ways of life.

Being away from the Temple means being away from the ways that the Jewish people of that time maintained their relationship with God. No more pilgrimage festivals, no more worship in the Temple, and no more sacrifices must have felt like no more relationship with God at all. That’s why in Psalm 137, the exiled people lamented, “How [can] we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” as they sat down and wept by the rivers of Babylon.

But the prophet Jeremiah had good news for the people who were feeling isolated and alone. God could adapt, and so could they.

Today’s passage is part of a section of Jeremiah called “The Book of Consolation” or “The Scroll of Comfort” which reassures the people that God has not abandoned them. Indeed, God is so determined to maintain the covenant relationship that God is going to do something new.

Whereas the commandments were once inscribed on stone tablets, placed in an arc, and housed in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple, God is now going to write the law on the people’s own hearts. God promises that the holy law will be directly inscribed by God in the very centre, the very heart of the person, who will have direct and innate access. The covenant will no longer be expressed through external means like sacrifice and circumcision, but will be experienced in the depths of a person.

This shift is a response to the changed circumstances of a community that has lost the Temple as the focal point of its ritual life. Because the covenant will be written on their hearts, it will not be identified with a particular place and will be with the people wherever they may be.

Pondering this covenant during the Covid-19 Pandemic leads to a logical connection with our own experience over the last year. Isolated from one another and outside of our usual place of worship, we have spent the year reminding each other again and again that God has not abandoned us, that God is with us in our homes and in our hearts, and that God is helping us through all the challenges, losses, and difficulties of this time.

The story of the Babylonian Exile and some attention to human history reveals that we are not the first ones to experience such devastation, and we will not be the last. You’ve likely heard discussion over the last year about the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. Like this one, it affected people around the world, had several waves, and disrupted life in significant ways. It also happened in the midst of World War 1, complicating things further. Perhaps not unlike our time in which we have been experiencing the Pandemic while simultaneously dealing with issues of racism, protests, riots, and political strife.

The issue of The Presbyterian Connection that came out this week includes an article by the Rev. Peter Bush about how Canadian churches adapted to the health crisis of that time. Yes, they stopped gathering in their churches too, and people had to worship at home for many months in some places.

They didn’t have the internet, so they couldn’t move worship online. But they used the media of the day – newspapers – to share sermonettes from various ministers. As one newspaper put it, “A Churchless Sunday is not a Sermonless Sunday.”

In October of 1918, the minister at Knox Presbyterian Church in Saskatoon wrote this: “Our dear ones have been exposed to the deadly missiles of war and now we at home are being attacked by the insistent germs of a noxious disease. Death lists have multiplied themselves. Sorrow and heaviness of heart have crossed many a threshold and the sword of anguish has been sheathed in human hopes. The doors of the house of the Lord have been closed and we are as wanderers outside the folds of faith.

“But we are not alone. The Lord is with us when we wait upon God. God brings us to the fountain head from which springs the pure streams of courage and strength. Either God will shield us from suffering or God will give us unfailing strength to bear it.”

While each instance of broad-scale catastrophe brings with it particular losses, struggles, and sorrows which impact us in various ways – people of faith as much as anyone else – Christians also have a specific worry about the impact of the pandemics on our ability to proclaim, to pass on, and to enact our faith.

Many Christians are worried today about how many churches will close because of what has happened, and how many people just won’t come back when this is finally over. I understand that concern, and I feel it a bit too.

I am sure that things will change a lot post-pandemic, and we won’t simply be returning to the ways we always did things before. Maybe we will need fewer buildings. Maybe we will keep building Christian community in some online forums. Maybe we will hold on to one of the things that we have learned in this time – that God is with us wherever we may be, not only in our church buildings on Sunday mornings.

But today I want to remember that God is able to adapt and change in order to maintain the covenant relationship of love with us, and God can help us to adapt and change as well. After all, even after the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31, God kept on finding new ways to reach out to God’s people – both the People of Israel and all the people of the world.

God sent a Son into the world to meet us where we are, to reveal to us God’s love, and Jesus gave his whole life to this mission of drawing us back to God in covenant love. And God promises through the prophet what will surely come to be: that God will be our God, and we will be God’s people. No longer will we need to teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for we will all know God, from the least to the greatest.

May God bless us and keep us and guide us until that day.