A New Covenant

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional expectations and idealized societies. This leads me into St David’s aspirations to transform itself into a school. The questions that undergird the school vision is how do we honour the minds of children? How do we provide an environment where it is safe to ask questions and not expect answers or at least expect only answers for now or answers that will change? And how do we empower our children to seize the opportunity to become more fully human.

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 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. 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. 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.

The new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 is the dawn that will pierce the grueling night of a shattered people. As they face the destruction of their nation and the prospect of a long and bitter exile, God presents his people with assurance of restoration, lodging the seed of a glorious future hope in the cold, hard soil of Israel and Judah’s winter.

Walter Brueggemann identifies a number of elements to the new covenant promised here. First, there will be a new ‘solidarity’: the separation occasioned by Israel and Judah’s sin will be overcome and YHWH will identify himself as their God and them as his people. By implication, the division within the kingdom itself will end and Israel and Judah will once again be united as a single people (cf. Ezekiel 37:15-28).

Second, there will be a new ‘knowledge’ of YHWH. Brueggemann maintains that this is a reference both to the people’s knowledge of the saving tradition within which YHWH revealed himself (cf. 2:6-8) and to obedience to his ‘commands for justice’ (cf. 22:15-17). The reconstituted nation evinces both a new acquaintance with YHWH’s identity and memory of his work and displays a new loyalty and obedience to him.

Third, the new relation will no longer be characterized by intermediation and the distance that maintained between YHWH and the majority of the people. Middle men with privileged access and knowledge, brokering relations between God and his people, will no longer be necessary. Rather, from the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with his truth. ‘All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, and all embrace the commands.’

All of these elements of the new covenant relation are founded upon a great act of divine initiative, an initiative which breaks the ‘vicious cycle of sin and punishment’ within which Israel had become trapped and opens a new page. This initiative takes the form of forgiveness. This involves a re-membering of the people’s broken history, made possible by the fact that YHWH will no longer bring their sin to mind. To this point the people’s history has been a bitter burden, a tale of squandered blessings and the fear of a forfeited birthright. The popular proverb of Jeremiah’s day, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ describes the fatalist sense of a people imprisoned by their past. To this demoralized people, YHWH declares a release from all debts, reigniting their guttering hope. Within the past to which they once were shackled—whose weight had threatened to drag them down to the abyss—they will now discover the liberating realization of the promised new covenant knowledge of the forgiving God.

Christian appropriations of this prophetic passage have often been inattentive to its political dimensions, exhausting their applications of it within discussions of the spiritual renewal of individuals and vocational ecclesiologies. The new birth of the individual and the rebirth of the church have used up our energies to no avail.

I want to show you a short video featuring John D Caputo a Roman Catholic Theologian and philosopher. I hope that you might see this clip as an introduction to the idea of what a new covenant might look like for us today.

Video 1.                      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xBMYzPuDtQ

The covenant introduced by Jeremiah addresses the situation they find themselves in and the promise extended to those within its sphere of influence. The prophecy is declared to a riven polity, the history recalled is one of national constitution and declension; not unlike our globalization and the decline of our societies, the predicament answered is national judgment and exile, the sins forgiven are those of kingdoms, and the promised new covenant is to be made with political bodies—the houses of Israel and Judah. This new covenant is about nationhood, about society, and about the people’s future.

I want to show you a second video now and this one is about the value of education and about what a new look at its purpose and the vision that lies behind it might look like. I invite you now to see what St David school might look like as a new covenant example.

Video 2.          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY5v2lyycfs

Embedded within the Jeremiah prophecy is a fecund vision of a sort of utopian polity, a polity where social and political authority is the possession of all, where each person is the trusted bearer of the national identity, where our past is restored to us and we are furnished with a future, released from the crushing debts accumulated through past failures. It presents challenges to certain prevailing political and educational notions, not least those which present an antipathy between law and freedom, control and choice: in Jeremiah’s new covenant, the fullness of freedom arrives through the internalization of the law. The placing of the law in the heart and mind equips and empowers us freely to provide appropriate responses to God’s world, expressing his rule within his creation in loving wisdom and delight.

We have honoured the mind of our children, we have established the environment that is based on the generation of questions and we are ready to explore the adventure of humanity.

One, David Bentley Hart in an article, describes the difference between two sorts of political visions that we encounter as we look back on our human history.’ The first vision he says, ‘hovers tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages’ and in the futile pursuit of them we can all be led to our deaths. The second, visions, however, are like ‘cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.’

Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant requires the addition of a further category to this and it is that of an espied promised land. As in pursuing Hart’s mirages, our premature attempts to enter into the reality of such a vision in our political life are doomed to perish deep within the wilderness of human weakness and wickedness unless we handle them carefully. Handled carefully, such a vision can provide benefits such as seeing the limitations of our realities, and thus protecting us from misrecognition of the relativities within our polities with more absolute ones, in other words we can critique our aspirations and discard the unhelpful directions, while being inspired to aim higher. Unlike, unlike both of Hart’s visions, this third way, this espied promised land declares the temporariness of our history and, to those with faith to receive, a rich burden of the new alterative affords a foretaste of that future hope. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Second Edition] (Leicester: Apollos, 1994) 24-26.

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