5 Lent: The New Covenant

Two bits from the lessons today caught my attention. From the Old Testament lesson: The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant that they broke. I’m going to give a new covenant and write it on your hearts. And from the Gospel, the Greeks come to see Jesus when he is in Jerusalem for the festival, and they say to Phillip, we would see Jesus.

The theme is covenant, so let’s see how we can string this all together. It begins like this: a long, long time ago God chose an old man and an old woman to be the founders of a mighty nation. God said, Abram, I’m changing your name to Abraham, and your wife, Sarai, I will change to Sarah. You are going to have more descendants than stars in the sky, or grains of sand on the seashore. You’ll have your own land, and all nations will bless themselves by your name. That covenant, that great promise given to Abraham and Sarah, was passed down to Isaac and Rebekah, and then to Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Then Joseph went down to Egypt, which sounds like going to Florence for the weekend, and subsequently the whole family, seventy strong, settled in Egypt. They were refugees from famine. They became a mighty nation, but the Egyptians enslaved them, so God chose Moses to lead them out. He led them out through the Red Sea into the desert, where they wandered for forty years. As Father Bingham reminded us a week ago, they were a quarrelsome lot, constantly whining. God, in the centerpiece of the story, gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, carved in stone, to give to the people. At the end of forty years, they entered the Promised Land, led by Joshua. They settled/conquered the Promised Land.

Then came the days of the Judges. There was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. But these were also the days of Ruth. The Book of Ruth might have been written two generations after the story, or perhaps long after that in the days of exile. Ruth, the heroine, is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner: she is a Moabite. The law is quite clear: you are not to have much to do with foreigners, you are not to marry them, especially if they are from Moab. They are struck from the list. But this Moabite woman becomes the icon of loving faithfulness, and the great grandmother of the great King David, and the ancestor of Jesus.

After the Judges and the story of Ruth, we enter the period of the Kings. Saul, who is a disappointment; David, who is remembered as the greatest king, although he had that wildly dysfunctional personal and family life; and then Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived. But the Kings, and therefore the Kings and people, were drifting away from God. In particular, Solomon allowed foreign-born wives and concubines, a large number of them. We don’t tell this story in Sunday School, but we all seem to learn about it around junior high school age. Solomon allowed his wives to build altars and temples to their foreign gods. At his death, the kingdom divided north from south. An army came and captured the northern tribes and they were carried off into oblivion in exile. That was interpreted later as God’s judgment. The south continued independent, but eventually the south was overrun, the temple destroyed, city walls destroyed, and everyone was taken into exile for seventy years. They drifted back, rebuilt the walls and temple, but were never again an independent nation, an independent country.

At that same time God was sending the Prophets to preach, rend your hearts and not your garments. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. I will give you a new covenant, not like the old one written in stone, which you broke. This new covenant will be written on your hearts.

Finally, God sent Jesus, born in a stable, baptized in the Jordan River by John, driven out into the desert, tempted by Satan. He gathered his followers and went about preaching and teaching. One day, a lawyer in the crowd called out to him, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said, you know what is in the Bible, you know what the law is. You tell me. The lawyer said, Love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said, well done. Do that and you will live. But this lawyer couldn’t resist, and pressing on said, who is my neighbor? Then Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. And who is the hero of the Good Samaritan story? A Samaritan.

Jesus notably went out of his way to meet with and eat with and talk to not only those who went to church every Sunday, but those who didn’t make it all the time, When Jesus fed the five thousand, plus women and children, he didn’t say all you clean fellows get to have a picnic with me.  He said, everybody tuck in.

One day when Jesus was in Jerusalem, two Greeks, foreigners, told Phillip, we would see Jesus. A couple of years ago I was asked to preach at Bradford Cathedral in Bradford, England. Bradford is not a tourist cathedral. It is a good, honest, north country city cathedral. As I climbed into the pulpit, there, carved into the wooden wall where the preacher could see it was the phrase, We would see Jesus. I think the question is for all of us. The promise of baptism is proclaimed by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ. So our prayer is that if someone came to us to ask, we would see Jesus, what would we say? And do we live lives that people can observe and say, Christian? Do we illustrate the new covenant?

 We know what is going to happen next: Jesus will go to Jerusalem and be triumphantly welcomed. Then on Maundy Thursday he will have his last meal. He will say, This bread is my body broken for you, and this wine is my blood of the new covenant poured out for all. Then will come arrest, trial, crucifixion, abandonment, and the empty tomb.

The old covenant with the Jews still stands with the Jews. But this new covenant for all is about love. Never forget it: God loves you, exactly as you are, without reservation, more than you can ask or begin to imagine.