Grace Presbyterian Church
October 20, 2019, Pentecost 19C
Continuing a theme of hope found in last week’s reading from Jeremiah (even if not all of Jeremiah’s readers would have found it hopeful), the reading before us today speaks words of promise to the exiled people of Judea. And also as in last week’s reading, the words of hope are also words with an edge; in this case the hope comes with a renewed understanding of the responsibility of those with whom God chooses to be in relationship, and even to engage in the making of a new covenant.
In this passage, though, there’s a different wrinkle to be found, and it involves the odd little metaphor of old saying found in verses 29-30. It’s a curious metaphor that might not resonate well with us today, since by the time any grapes we get show up at the local supermarket we count on any bad ones having been weeded out long before. But the lesson of this old saying, which is being overturned in God’s message through Jeremiah, deserves a closer look.
In this old saying “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” we get a lesson on how this era viewed responsibility for generational sin. This particular bit of folk wisdom held that not only the generation that was unfaithful to God, but the generations that followed, were guilty of that unfaithfulness and subject to punishment for it. In this case the sin of the previous generation, the rampant infidelity to God and embrace of idols among the people of both Israel and Judah, had been stated many times over in Jeremiah’s prophecies up to this point, and his audience was living with the consequences of that infidelity in their Babylonian captivity.
But now, as Jeremiah proclaims, that old folk wisdom does not hold true. Just as God’s promise here includes bringing the land of Judah and Israel back to full life as in the first verses of this passage, so God’s promise sets the current generation free from being punished for the sins of the previous generation. You eat the sour grapes, your teeth are set on edge. This does not set any generation free from righting the wrongs of previous generations, mind you; no generation is ever immune from God’s mandate to do and demand justice and to make wrongs right, no matter who first perpetrated the injustice. But as far as responsibility goes for sins against God, you bear it for yourself.
And in this case, that “you” goes two ways. Never ignore that in the large majority of scripture “you” is a plural form of address. God speaks, through the prophets to all the people of Israel or Judah or both. Paul’s epistles are written to churches comprised of many people. Many of Jesus’s discourses are to full crowds following him around the countryside. You, as noted a few weeks ago, means “y’all.”
Here, though, there is an individual dimension. A nation or a generation, after all, is made up of individuals. It becomes the responsibility of each individual, therefore, to do her or his part for their nation or generation or church to live in fidelity to God and to the covenants God has made with the people of God.
That brings us to a word that comes up a good bit in scripture, but might bear a bit of exploration. “Covenant” gets defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an unusually formal, solemn, and binding agreement,” or “a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of such action.” Those are good modern definitions; the latter refers to the kind of covenant that shows up in the agreements found in your average HOA, for example. We can identify such covenant easily.
As it’s used in the Bible, however, that definition, particularly the first, is basically accurate but incomplete. The covenants found in scripture are certainly “formal, solemn, and binding agreements,” that much is true, but that hardly captures the full force and character of the covenants of God. What makes a difference in these biblical covenants, as opposed to modern, more legalistic definition of the word, is relationship.
Contemporary legal definitions of “covenant” do not necessarily imply any particular kind of relationship between the two parties involved. One nation, for example, does not have to be in any particular relationship with another to make a covenant not to go war with that nation. Legal contracts between individuals or companies don’t necessarily require those individuals or companies to be in any kind of relationship with one another beyond the basic execution of whatever is required in the contract. Do the job or complete the sale and then the two parties go their separate ways.
God’s covenant with God’s people is not like that. Whether it’s the covenant that God makes with Abraham way back, or the covenant God made with the Hebrew people and Moses in Egypt and at Sinai, or the covenant with David, one thing characteristic of all of these covenants is an ongoing relationship between God and God’s people. God stayed in relationship with Abraham through all manner of wanderings and searching; God stayed in relationship with the Hebrew people despite their complaining and rebellion; God stayed in relationship with David no matter how far he fell short as king and as person. Frankly, in every case the human party failed, and failed miserably at that, but the relationship didn’t end; God stayed.
So it shall be in this new covenant that Jeremiah proclaims to his readers. For one thing, it is a covenant with all of God’s children here.
Remember that the long-ago kingdom of Israel split many, many years before this exile into which Jeremiah speaks. After the death of King Solomon, his son and successor came under attack for his horrible leadership, and the one kingdom of Israel was soon split into two separate kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah (including Jerusalem) to the south. Both of the kingdoms had been conquered by Babylon at different times. Jeremiah himself was of Judah, and worked primarily from Jerusalem; other prophets (Isaiah, for example) were based in the northern kingdom of Israel and spoke primarily to the people and rulers of Israel, whether locally or in exile.
Here, though, in an unusual move, Jeremiah addresses both Israel and Judah, promising in verse 31 that God will make a new covenant with both the “house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Old divisions don’t stand under this promised new covenant, it seems. So when verse 33 invokes the “house of Israel” in reference to this new covenant, it looks an awful lot like God is speaking inclusively of the two kingdoms, somehow reunited at least in the form of this covenant. The God who stays in relationship also restores broken nations and broken relations.
But there is something different about this covenant, or at least Jeremiah says there is – he does call it a “new” covenant, after all. There doesn’t seem to be anything different about the content of that covenant, however. There isn’t anything here that somehow suggests that the Law, all of that instruction and mandate that was so celebrated by the psalmist in today’s responsive reading, is going away or being modified in any way. What is apparently different is that somehow, in some way, this covenant is not an external thing, not about being a set of laws that are merely written down or carved on tablets. “I will put my law within them,” the Lord says, “and I will write it on their hearts.”
Even this, though, doesn’t seem completely new. Again, take a look at the psalmist and how the law is treated in that reading; “It is my meditation all day long … it is always with me … your decrees are my meditation.” Clearly the law is deeply ingrained in this individual. It isn’t about checking off a list of do’s and don’ts. It isn’t about passing muster with the outside world. God’s law clearly dwells within this person. The psalmist isn’t using the law as some kind of sadistic weapon to punish and brutalize others; the psalmist is living in the law.
Still, though, it’s hard not to wonder if this is one of those prophecies yet to be fulfilled. No matter how you define the “people of God,” do you really look around at the world and see people living as if God has written God’s law on their hearts? Even if you limit your search to the church, does that help? Do we really act like we know the Lord? On the large scale, not really. This just doesn’t seem to be a world with lots of people running around with God’s law written on their hearts. The psalmist would seem a bit out of place, really.
Still, the newness of this covenant matters because of that relationship. God is still in relationship with the people of God. And as you look at what Jeremiah describes here, this is a covenant that doesn’t have a provision for how we on the human end of it can even break it if we try. God is in for the duration with us, and we are still in relationship with God, no matter how unfaithful we may have been or ever will be.
Being in relationship with God, like it or not, also means being in relationship with each other. This whole business about “know the Lord” is, yet again, one of those plural things about scriptural instruction. We get a glimpse into it in today’s epistle reading in the instruction not only to remember what he learned but also from whom he learned it.
Even as we bear responsibility for our own comportment within our community, be it our own little church here or the larger church in the world or even our generation here on earth, we are also responsible to being in relationship with the God who continually keeps covenant with us. We instruct one another, at this point we still try to help each other to know the Lord, and we do this in ongoing and unbreaking relationship with the God who made us and who saves us and who continually redeems and sustains and refreshes us on the way. And we await the day when we truly will know the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #833, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go; #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak