Weekly Seeds: Covenant A Heart for God

Sunday, March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
Covenant A Heart for God

Focus Prayer:
God of suffering and glory, in Jesus Christ you reveal the way of life through the path of obedience. Inscribe your law in our hearts, that in life we may not stray from you, but may be your people. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Jeremiah 31:31–34
31 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. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, 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. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 31:31–34
Psalm 51:1–12 or Psalm 119:9–16
Hebrews 5:5–10
John 12:20–33

Focus Questions:
1. What does it mean to be God’s people?
2. How does having the law written internally change our understanding of it?
3. How does God not remember?
4. What does it mean to know God?
5. How have you gotten to know God?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Love flows

Grief, in many ways, represents the absence or elimination of hope. We grieve the loss of someone we love or our way of life. We mourn lost opportunities and missed moments. Even transitions we have pursued can cause feelings of loss and grief. Moving to a new community means saying goodbye to trusted neighbors. Getting married changes the nature of other relationships, and even a promotion may mean relinquishing important responsibilities to someone else’s care. 

This week’s focus scripture situates itself within the Book of Consolation within the prophesy of Jeremiah. We may note that these words of consolation do not come prematurely. The exiled community will be restored to the land promised to and inhabited by their ancestors. Their displacement will end. The reunion is imminent. Consolation now occurs at an appropriate moment as their reason for mourning will subside…making room for hope. 
Hope signals healing.  

And, healing takes place in the midst of brokenness. “Jeremiah’s world remains ambiguous, trauma-filled, and uncertain.” (Kelly J. Murphy) Restoration hovers along the horizon, it’s promise apparent but still unrealized. Hope, after sustained periods of persistent grief, needs to be relearned. Years of disappointment and generational memory of living outside of the promise challenge the embrace of a new possibility or even the fulfillment of an old hope whose flame extinguished long ago. 

The book of Jeremiah vacillates between hope and despair. The weeping prophet proclaims hope for the future even as he laments the conditions of the present:

Properly to grasp its force, we must view the passage against the background of Jeremiah’s understanding of the covenant, his conviction that it had been irrevocably broken and that God for that reason would bring—and now had brought—the nation to ruin….Jeremiah’s preaching was rooted and grounded in the recollection of Yahweh’s gracious favor to his people, which had brought them from Egypt to the Promised Land and sustained them through the years. Repeatedly he reminded his hearers of this and of their obligation to respond to their God in complete loyalty, trust, and obedience; and repeatedly he charged them with failure in this regard and threatened them with God’s judgment. (John Bright)

Jeremiah’s ministry urged the children of the covenant to turn toward the God of the covenant. Often, he couched his admonitions in using language of familial relationships. Jeremiah refers to the people as unfaithful like a marital union or disobedient as wayward children toward a loving parent. Jeremiah doesn’t call the people to adherence to a set of laws or even to a way of life. Rather, he pleads for an emotional bonding that responds to the goodness of God with gratitude and fidelity.

This word of consolation is as much for the prophet as it is for the people. Yes, exile will come to an end, but something more important will manifest–a new covenant. This iteration of the covenant does not negate previous promises. The biblical witness of God’s covenant with God’s people demonstrates that they build upon each other through renewal of the promise. Yet, each covenant possesses distinct characteristics that make them new. In this promise of a new covenant, the change will be in the way that the people receive it. 

In the old covenant, the people were led by God’s hand, suggesting an unwillingness to participate. The covenant participants entered at God’s initiative and unilateral declaration. No matter how advantageous to them, the people could not or would not keep faith with God. That covenant bound them but hand to hand. The new covenant would move from a tie at the extremities to an internal connection based on the essential working of the heart.  

Ancient practices in that part of the world would include “depositing a copy of the covenant stipulations in the community’s temple for periodic public reading.” (Femi Adeyemi) In this way, the population would become familiar with the terms and conditions imposed upon them by a king or ruler of the nation. The promise proclaimed through Jeremiah indicates a shift in the depositing practice. The law that was written on tablets to be read by a member of the priestly class will be deposited in the heart of all. It will spread not by public reading but by internal circulation that will still reach the hands, but also every part of the person’s being. This covenant will not dictate or constrain behavior; it will transform lives. 

Jeremiah’s cry has been heard and answered. His pleas have received a response. God has good news for the prophet and for the people. Christians tend to interpret these words in light of the Christ event, and while that may be appropriate, it is equally important to fully its impact on the original audience who heard it. Femi Adeyemi provides helpful framing:

It is all too easy, when reading a familiar Old Testament passage, to look at it from a post-New Testament perspective and to overlook its significance within its original context. This is certainly true of the passage under consideration here. Jeremiah’s description of “a new covenant” takes Christian readers straight to the Eucharistie words of Jesus, or to the Letter to the Hebrews, and his oracle concerning the “internalized torah” prompts them to turn to the writings of John, perhaps. But to make this leap, valid as it may be from a Christian point of view, is to miss the significance of what is a unique passage in the Old Testament….This remarkable verse [34], often (mis) appropriated by Christian commentators to provide support for New Testament ideas of “knowing God,” is all the more remarkable when considered in its proper context—a prophetic imagining of a post-exilic community where knowledge of God (through the “internalized” Torah) is shared by all without any intermediary teaching authority.

The prophetic imagining envisioned a community without need for external reinforcement of a set of rules to maintain favor of a sovereign ruler. Even the words “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband” indicate the nature of promises of this covenant. This community would participate in a love-relationship with the Holy One. Love flows from the heart.

So much of Christian worship is pedagogical. The Bible provides a textbook for instruction. The stories found in scripture become lost in lessons for living. The characters whose testimonies drive those narratives receive one-dimensional treatment in a quest to be easily understood–and judged–as either exemplary or cautionary role models rather than human beings, like us, struggle with the daily concerns, hopes and dreams, internal and external conflicts, and uncertainty and even resistance to the will of God for their lives. 

The characterization of Jeremiah as the “weeping prophet” exemplifies this reality. Protestant ministry settings are particularly resistant to emotionalism in worship and faith formation out of fear of being manipulative. But if the greatest commandment is to love God and your neighbor as yourself, how do we grow in love? How is a loving relationship with God cultivated, nurtured, and maintained without engaging our emotions and openly affirming an emotional response? Love flows from the heart.

Much has been written about this passage that focuses on God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, and a foretelling of the coming Messiah. In a similar way, we focus on sacrifice during the season of Lent. We consider the sacrifice of the Passion culminating on the Cross, and many faith communities adopt fasting during Lent as a way to remember, honor, and enter into Christ’s sacrifice. This passage does not discourage such practices, but at the same time, it offers more.

The promise through these words of consolation anticipate a new covenant relationship of knowing.
“They shall all know me” speaks the new covenant into being. This means more than the elimination of the priestly function. It re-forms a community from one that has a communal promise to one that consists of a people who each have access to the promise. We’re reminded of a Creator who fashioned humanity in the divine image and communed with them in the abundance of the garden without barrier or veil. In this covenant, God does not extract a single person, couple, or family unit but extends it extravagantly to all. The divine-human relationship has been re-envisioned, reimagined, and renewed. 

The knowing promised here is not an intellectual exercise, an accrual of facts, or a memorization of the rules. In the mid-90s, there was a popular self-help book called The Rules. It promised that if you followed these rules, you would be able to capture the heart of the one that you desired. (Full disclosure: I never read it. No judgement if you did.) From reviews and the backlash that its publication garnered, The Rules largely relied upon manipulation and schemes for its content. 

Cultivating a healthy, flourishing relationship doesn’t need to be based on rules (even if articulated expectations prove very helpful.) Right relationships don’t manipulate and control, they invite. Strong relationships rely upon growing intimacy. That’s the knowing God promises. And, if the law reflects God’s intention for creation, then when God puts the law in our hearts, God is putting God’s heart into ours. 

The old covenant shifts from hand to hand to the new covenant of heart to heart. All that power, love, and life flows from God’s heart to our hearts.  To know God is to receive God’s heart and to give God yours. That’s the word of hope and consolation. The prophet who spent his life praying and pleading with the community gets to deliver the good news. There’s no need to mourn; it’s time to hope. The circumstances of their deliverance maintains a secondary position behind their relationship to the Deliverer. Through the grace of God, the people will experience a change of heart–a hopeful heart, a clean heart, a renewed heart.

Love flows from that heart…a heart for God.

For further reflection:
We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.” — Blaise Pascal
if it’s chocolate we can dip it
if it’s a golf ball we can chip it
if it’s gum we can chew it
I hope it’s love so we can do it

— Nikki Giovanni
The seat of gratitude is the heart.” — Diana Butler Bass

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.