The new covenant

The new covenant

Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Two Sundays ago Beth Downey came to me a few minutes before the liturgy began, and said that she really hoped that I was going to say something about the appointed reading from the book of Exodus. You see, she was the reader that night, and had paid very close attention to the text, and she was troubled by part of what she had found there. She was to read the Ten Commandments as recorded in Exodus 20, and was finding one of those commandments sticking in her throat:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

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I told her that while I was preaching on the commandments, I actually wasn’t going to say anything at all about the portion that was so troubling her. As we stood together looking at the text, I did point out that at least the iniquity of the parents was said to echo for only three or four generations, while faithfulness would be blessed to the thousandth. Well, she still wasn’t persuaded, and fair enough. Why would children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren be held responsible for what their forebears had done?

Her question has been nagging at me these past two weeks; what is going on here, and why didn’t I catch it the way she did? And what to say in response?

It turns out that the prophet Jeremiah has something to say in response, and it is a far more powerful and compelling word than anything I might have been able to offer. We read just a few verses of a much longer statement by this prophet; and that longer statement includes a rather direct response to what Beth had found so troubling in the text from Exodus. “In those days,” Jeremiah proclaims, “they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” (31:29) In those coming days, in other words, it will be out of bounds to even suggest that the generations will have to bear the burden of those who have gone before them. You eat sour grapes, and it is your teeth that are set on edge. You make a mess of your life, and it is you who will be accountable. The prophet isn’t exactly gentle here either, as he says that “all shall die for their own sins;” but at least this business of generations is put at rest.

But Jeremiah doesn’t stop there, for he goes on to say, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” It is the only instance in the whole of the Hebrew scriptures that speaks in terms of a new covenant, and for Jeremiah it really is a startlingly new thing that he understands God to be doing. Remember, Jeremiah is speaking to a community in total disarray. All that was familiar was gone; the city of Jerusalem lay desolate, the great temple had been destroyed, and thousands had been taken away into exile in Babylon. That this had come to be for the chosen, covenant people meant one of two things; either the God of Israel was not as strong and steadfast as the gods of Babylon, or—and this is the perspective of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel—or God had abandoned Israel on account of its failure to be a faithful covenant people. Either way, there was little reason to have much hope.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… [and] this is the covenant that I will make with [them], says the Lord: 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.” “I will write it on their hearts,” which Walter Brueggemann suggests means that God’s law—God’s way—will become an “embraced, internal identity-giving mark, so that obeying will be as normal and as readily accepted as breathing and eating.” Not an obligation, not an imposed burden, not a form of social control, but actually constitutive of the peoples’ very being.

And Jeremiah keeps pressing forward to what is perhaps one of the most extraordinary statements in the entire biblical tradition: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” I will remember their sin no more. When speaking of the nature of God, the systematic theologians are fond of using words like omnipotent—all powerful—omniscient—all knowing—and omnipresent—present through all time and space—yet here Jeremiah makes a statement about the divine forgetfulness. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Think on that for a moment. In this season of Lent we sing these lines as part of our confession:

I have sinned in thought and word and deed
against the One who calls me as His own

I have not done what I should have done
and have done things that were better left undone

And as Jeremiah imagines it, God’s response might be something like “you are forgiven… now what was that you were saying?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m aware that if feel I’ve been really wronged or hurt in some way, forgetting isn’t generally a part of my response. Yes, I need to make the decision to forgive—to let go of the burden of holding a grudge or resentment that comes with unforgiveness—but even that can take a bit of stubbornness on my part. From time to time when I’m talking to someone who has been really, really badly hurt or abused, I’ll tell them that while forgiveness will be—must be—part of their long haul healing, no one expects them to “forgive and forget,” as if no real damage was done. In fact often insightful remembering is the very thing that helps prevent it from happening again.

And yet Jeremiah has such clarity that God “will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The teeth of the children are not set on edge due to the sour grapes their parents ate, and iniquity of parents does not lead to the punishment of the third and the fourth generation of children who follow.

This is precisely the reason that we need to keep exploring the whole of the biblical tradition. The bible has multiple voices, which engage each other in a long and ongoing conversation; a conversation that is at times an almost tense and urgent dialogue. To read only Exodus 20:4-6 without then hearing Jeremiah is to miss the fullness of the conversation. In fact to stop at Jeremiah is also to miss the full conversation, for Jeremiah’s words are picked up by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who makes the great improvisational move of presenting Jesus as the key to God’s forgiveness; the cross as the lynchpin in the divine forgetfulness. It is, of course, a move we must make, and one that is reflected in a different way in tonight’s reading from the Gospel according to John when we hear Jesus say, “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.”

Still, what do we do with those words from the Ten Commandments, which speak so plainly of God “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me”? Perhaps part of what we do is hear them less as prescriptive, and more as descriptive; as in “this is actually the way things do play out in the world.” In his quite remarkable book On Evil the literary critic Terry Eagleton makes a powerful case for taking seriously the doctrine of original sin. Not, mind you, as a “genetic stain” which is passed on in some mechanistic way. No, says Eagleton, “Original sin… is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having had the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires…” “Original sin,” he continues, “is not the legacy of our first parents but of our parents, who in turn inherited it from their own. The past is what we are made of.” The past is what we are made of, and the past of human families, communities, societies, and nations means we are born with all kinds of baggage. In that sense, the “iniquities” of the parents—as well as their wounds and fears and blind spots—are landed squarely in the lives of their children. As Bruce Cockburn sings in his song “The Rose Above the Sky”, “You carry the weight of inherited sorrow / From your first day till you die.” As members of human families and human societies, it is just true.

For Jeremiah, God’s merciful forgetting is yet in the future; in the days that he said are surely coming. For both the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews and for John, that future has arrived in Jesus, yet is still being brought to its culminating fullness. In the meantime, we yet live as a people who do carry the weight of inherited sorrow, but not only that. We also carry this extraordinary promise of God’s promised forgetfulness of our sin, and the gift of living into that in world that is at once battered and utterly lovely.

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