Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
I will make a new covenant with you, says the Lord. Not like the old covenant—a covenant which you broke. I will put my law in you, write it on your hearts; I will be your God, and you will be my people. A new covenant, one that cannot be broken.
Covenant is one of those words that we usually only use in church. It’s one of those special religious words that we hear often, but who can be sure what it means because we never use it in real life. Words like repentance, communion, sanctification. They’re a special kind of church jargon that sometimes we understand, and sometimes we just think that we understand. So I thought we would take a few minutes just to explore what the word covenant means. What are we saying when we use the word Covenant?
Most basically, a covenant is an agreement. A sort of contract or commitment. We usually think of a covenant as an agreement that is particularly binding or solemn.
In the church we sometimes talk about the covenant of marriage. It is based on promises made by the two parties to each other and to God, and promises that God makes in return. We call marriage a covenant because we consider it a sacred contract, one that is not easily broken.
In the legal world, a covenant is usually some sort of restriction on the sale of property. Some neighborhoods have covenants that restrict how you can build on the land. Maybe only certain types of roofing or siding are allowed. Maybe you can’t have a clothesline visible from the street. In the not-so-distant past, many US neighborhoods had exclusionary covenants that prohibited owners from selling their homes to anyone who was not white.
In the Bible, a covenant is usually an agreement between God and some person or persons. Often there are promises made on each side, and sometimes the two parties perform rituals to show that they intend to abide by the covenant. If you’ve been following along with the Old Testament readings in the lectionary this Lent, you’ve already heard about several of them.
First is the covenant with Noah, a covenant with all living things. God promises never again to destroy the earth with a flood. As a sign and promise, God lays down the divine weapon, a bow, and leaves it facing away from the earth so that anytime the rainbow appears, God will remember not to be at war with any of earth’s creatures. It’s a one-sided covenant; humanity does not have to do anything to ensure that God will uphold the agreement.
Next comes the covenant with Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants. God promises to make Abraham’s children into a great nation and to give them land and power. Abraham and God go through a complex ritual to cement this covenant, and circumcision is meant to be the continuing sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Incidentally, in Hebrew you don’t “make” a covenant, you “cut” a covenant. The Hebrew word is כרת (KaRaT). I will cut a new covenant. That’s because these covenants were often sealed with a ritual sacrifice of some kind, or in this particular covenant with Abraham, it is sealed with a surgery.
Then there is the covenant with Moses and the children of Israel. God promises to make Israel into God’s specially favored nation. God gives them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law. But this covenant goes both ways. The Children of Israel promise to follow God’s laws, and God promises to make them the chosen people.
From that point on, the biblical narrative is filled with stories of how God’s people broke their covenant with God. They broke the commandments. They turned to other gods. And time and time again, God visited the people with judges and kings and prophets who worked to repair the damage, who tried to bring God’s people back into right relationship with God.
That’s where today’s passage comes in. After generations of having the people break their covenant with God, and generations of sending prophets to reestablish the covenant, God is ready to make a new deal. “Remember the covenant I made with you when I brought you out of Egypt?” God asks. “I promised to make you my chosen people if you would just follow my commandments and live in my love. Well, it hasn’t worked out very well. I’ve kept my end of the bargain. I’ve been faithful. But you have broken the covenant. You have behaved like an unfaithful spouse. And we’ve worked on it. We’ve been to counseling. We’ve tried to work out our differences. But it never seems to make a difference. It’s been several centuries now, and things still aren’t changing. I think it’s time for us to look at our other options.”
We would expect God to want to give up on the chosen people. That’s what most humans would do. After centuries of a one-sided relationship, we would want to give up and get out. But it seems God can handle more than we can.
Instead of giving up, God decides to make a new covenant. And this time, God is going to make sure that this covenant cannot be broken. God will write the law on people’s hearts. God will forgive the people for their sins. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God says.
And it’s a good thing for us. As much as we might try to pretend otherwise, we seem to be just as faithless as God’s chosen people in the past were. We don’t follow God’s law. Forget about all the esoteric rules you can find in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we don’t even do that well with the Ten Commandments: remembering the Sabbath, not coveting our neighbor’s possessions. We fail to put God first in our lives. We make for ourselves other gods, in the form of money or power or our own egos.
In fact, we can’t even seem to get a handle on the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. We have trouble loving our enemies. We have trouble making room in our lives for God. Sometimes we have trouble even loving ourselves as God loves us.
And yet, despite our faithlessness, God does not give up on us. God cuts a new covenant that we cannot break. God will be our God, and we will be God’s people. We proclaim it every time we celebrate communion. “God made with us a new covenant, by water and the spirit.” For us Christians, that covenant is marked in baptism, the sacramental reminder of God’s promises to us.
God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants to be a part of our lives, to walk with us on our journeys. And even though we keep running away from God, even though we do just about everything in our power to push God away, God does not give up on us. God keeps calling us back. God keeps wooing us into deeper relationship. God keeps giving us another chance.
And God makes a new covenant, one that we cannot break, so that we never have the excuse of saying that we are too sinful or too dirty or too lazy or too evil for God. God takes that excuse off the table. Everyone, each and every one of us is invited by God, loved by God, and included by God. There is nothing we can do that will separate us from God’s love.
So it is our choice now. We can keep denying God’s advances, keep pushing God away, keep saying that we’re not good enough, or too busy, or too tired. Or we can stop and just be. We can welcome God into our lives. We can let God love us. We can let God’s love seep into us. We can let God’s love into the very core of us. We can let God’s love renew us. We can let God’s love reveal our true selves. We can let God’s love inspire us. We can let God’s love overflow from us until it spills out on those around us. We can let God’s love within us love those we love. We can let God’s love within us love even those we fear. We can accept the new covenant that God offers us. We can celebrate the love that God offers. We can allow God to be our God, and we can be God’s people.