For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 5 – Passion Sunday – Jeremiah 31:31-35
As I write we are some way along following Boris’ ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, and I hear around me two conflicting views on this, particularly with regard to church. There are of course many who simply want things to go ‘back to normal’, a highly understandable view in which we can simply sweep the last year away and carry on as though nothing had happened. On the other hand, though, there are others who are asking questions about what we have learnt from this year of lockdown, and doubting whether having to get up and dressed before going to church on a Sunday really is an improvement on slobbing in your dressing gown in front of your laptop with coffee and toast in hand.
Our passage from Jeremiah is a familiar one, and we all think we know what it’s about, i.e. Jesus. But in context it looks forward not to the New Testament but to the return from exile and the resumption of normal service after decades of exile in Babylon. As in our Covid-ridden world, there are those who just want to get back to normal, not least Ezra and Nehemiah who can’t wait to rebuild the city walls and the Temple so that things can be just as they were before the unfortunate interlude which mucked life up so severely. Jeremiah represents a different tradition, though, where he desperately hopes that some lessons will have been learnt, and that things will be far from normal. His vision of a new deal, and a new relationship between God and his people, wasn’t actually fulfilled until Jesus gave it flesh and bones, but it was what Jeremiah hoped for, and what he could see as the only sensible way to move forward after the exile.
Covenants have been on my mind at lot this Lent. As well as the three we have examined in these blogs, I have also been marking student essays comparing and contrasting the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Not one of them spotted the key to understanding the main difference, which lies in this familiar passage. The ‘Commandments’ (which we have already identified here as not being commandments at all) are clearly ‘the covenant [God] made with your ancestors’ when he took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. That covenant was soundly broken, and it was clear to Jeremiah that something new was needed. To get back to normal after the Exile would simply mean more false worship, more disobedience and more heartache for the people and for their cuckolded husband, God. So Jeremiah’s hope was for something different – a way of living not based on external prohibitions and Laws, but on changed desires for the human heart. What God really needs is not people who are frighted to disobey him (not that a good dose of fear isn’t very good for us at times, like my fear of blue flashing lights when I’m speeding – not that I do, of course, being an IAM advanced driver). What he needs is people who want nothing better than to please him, and who, when they fail, as they will, are as heartbroken about it as he is.
In the event post-exilic Israel wasn’t actually a whole lot better than before, although the false gods they worshipped were different – wooden panelling in their houses rather than wooden idols on the hill-tops. But Jesus came not to lay down a new law, but to change people from the inside, as he poured out the Holy Spirit, enabling them to be changed from the inside out. Jesus is the divine transplant surgeon who literally gives us new hearts. This could only be done, as today’s Gospel explains, at the cost of his life. How tragic, then, that in the Church we so often try to make that journey in reverse, replacing the true and overwhelming desire for God’s glory, which ought to be our entire raison d’être as Christians, with a legalistic approach which is about doing our duty for the Almighty and hoping that if we only disobey him in little ways we might just scrape past the pass mark.
Jeremiah’s new covenant is essentially about freedom from rules and regulations, and a new heart which has as its highest desire that God be honoured and glorified. That’s what ‘the new normal’ is meant to be like.