Living the Lenten LifeMarch 29, 2009, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Lent
We are almost there: Easter Day is but two weeks away. Our Lenten fasts and lifestyles are beginning to anticipate the new life they promise, in spite of the fact that spring officially began last week, and with a snowstorm, to boot! Lent is a season of preparation for the festival of the resurrection, as well as a time to move more deeply into the disciplines of the new life God gives us in Jesus Christ now. Our lesson from Jeremiah introduces this theme–something totally new–a covenant unlike any of the others.
For the most part, the book of Jeremiah is filled with gloom and doom–one verse after another, for fifty-two chapters–reminding the people that their exile in Babylon is God’s judgment for their disobedience. The book, in which Jeremiah is the main character but not the final author, struggles to come to terms with the destruction that came to Jerusalem by three Babylonian invasions in ten years, the last of which completely demolished Jerusalem in 587 BCE, reducing the city and the Temple of Solomon to rubble. Using the various oracles and sayings of the prophet Jeremiah, the book reminds the people that God had warned this would come if they did not change their ways. Their presence in exile was not accidental or because God had somehow forgotten them–it was God’s judgment on their sin–the result of breaking covenant stipulations, their neglect or abuse of the poor, and their chasing after other gods. To those who lived through the fifty-some years of exile, this was clear.1 But something even more sobering was certain to them: God’s covenant no longer existed. Their loss of the land and the Temple confirmed it. God no longer had any obligation to them; they were on their own, strangers in a strange land.
Yet, in the very center of this book, they remember that God had commanded Jeremiah to record visions of a future in which God would bring healing, renewal and restoration to both Israel and Judah. Buried in the center of disaster and despair, the promise was faint, nor would it be immediate; the hearers of that word might never experience the promise. God once again was making promises to the Children of Israel: “Surely the days are coming,” says the Lord, “When I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” A new covenant?2 What about this new covenant will be new?3
The fact that God is making covenant again, itself, is new. Why would God do that–indenture himself to another agreement, given what God knows about the people’s faithlessness with the last one? At one level: God only knows. More correctly still, as with the first covenant, God is revealing who God is. This has to do with God’s nature to redeem and bind himself to a people.4 This new covenant is born out of God’s nature. What else is new?
It will be with the whole people of Israel, not just the tribe of Judah. But again, the first covenant was with the whole twelve tribes. Remember the eleven tribes broke away after Solomon’s death and soon fell into idolatry, resulting in their having fallen to and been eradicated as a nation by the Assyrians in the invasion of 721 BCE. After that, the tribes were disbursed and absorbed. God was going to reverse that.
But more, this new covenant would not be like the former one at Sinai, the covenant they broke. This covenant would be written on their hearts; placed within them. Now, though this initially sounds new, it is not, for from the beginning the law had always been meant to be internalized: cut onto the hearts of the people is how Deuteronomy puts it.5 So that is not new.
What is truly new here is the promise that the people will be able to live out of the covenant and remain faithful to God as God’s people, not because of their own volition, but because God will enable them to do so. The former covenant had been impossible for them to keep. Something about this new covenant would bring with it the power, not so much for obedience, but rather for remaining in a continuing relationship with God that would not only be renewing, but more, redeeming. They will continue to sin; it is the given of human nature. But God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This is not God setting them free to do as they please, with no consequences. This is God moving beyond existence contingent on unwavering obedience to a set of rules to a new and unexpected form of relationship that will unfold in the future and bring with it the characteristics of newness as well as the means for it coming to be.
This is precisely what our psalm for the day is all about: finding uncharacteristic newness in life now–new beginnings in and with God–as the result of the nature of who God is. Here is the very reversal that was announced as God’s new covenant, long before that was fully revealed in Jesus Christ.6
Psalm 51 contains some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture–its words and phrases have been deeply woven into the fabric of the prayers of God’s people. Though a penitential psalm pleading for mercy and forgiveness, it is more. It is a meditation on the nature of sin and guilt itself, and a plea for the ability to truly be new–to be able to leave that sinful behavior behind forever.
It begins with a confession of sin. What the specific failing is, we do not know.7 It seems not to be important. The issue is less the transgression itself than the distance that behavior has created between the supplicant and God, and the pain and death that distance creates. This, after all, is what sin is really all about–distance that separates us from God as the source of life and joy. This is why the psalmist confesses, “Against you, and you alone have I sinned.” It is not that the supplicant’s behavior did not harm others; it surely did. But first and foremost, sin, whatever it may be, puts up barriers and created distance between us and God, and distanced from God, we begin to die. Sin always does that. And the more ensconced in sin we allow ourselves to become, the more distant God becomes.8 This action has distanced the psalmist from God, who is innocent and justified in judgment and sentence. But life is so warped, confesses the psalmist, so tangled in the powers of evil that ensnare us in disobedience that it feels as though it has been this way since conception: born guilty, a sinner from the moment his mother conceived him.9 This unpopular phrase that is so unpopular today is not simply an admission of failure, but a confession about the very nature of life; the condition of life in which we live. Things are so distorted, so damaged that we are helpless to do otherwise; our self-serving, destructive behavior is instinctual. Calvin said it this way: “Before the fall we were innocent, yet able to sin, but after the fall we are guilty, unable not to sin.”10 Only God can do something about this. And so this is not only a prayer for God’s mercy, but also a plea that God will blot out the transgression and thoroughly wash out its stain.
But cleansing and forgetting is not enough. The psalmist pleads for something more–for wisdom that can be inscribed on the heart as the law was to be so inscribed. This is a cry that something be learned that is not forgotten, something that will stand guard over one’s heart to prevent a repeat of the offence. And so the confession concludes with a prayer for healing: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Here is the design for living the Lenten life. It is a plea for restoration, and a whole new order of newness that can only be experienced out of a relationship with God. For God not only forgives and forgets, God gives wisdom and power so that we do not fall into the sin again. Only God can create a clean heart, only God can put a new and right spirit within us that creates in us willing spirits. This is not about repair; this is about new creation. This pleads for sharing in the gift of God’s Creative Spirit; the One who brooded over the formless void at creation, and the One who gives us not only the wisdom to seek to live a new way, but the power to do it. And so the appeal is, “Do not cast me away from your presence, nor take your holy spirit from me.” Here, long before we reach the New Testament, we hear of the distinction between our spirit and God’s Spirit, and that our life and capacity for living it rightly depends wholly upon God’s Spirit within us.
Yet, the Apostle Paul could have written these words.11 As we move more deeply into Lent, as we prepare ourselves to once again remember those terrible three days, and what it cost God to bring this new covenant into being–to make Jesus Christ its high priest–extending it to us as well as the Children of Israel, let us remember that it is God’s nature to love us, to bind himself to us, to correct us, to turn away from, blot out and forgive our sin, to create in us not only clean hearts, but new ones as well–new centers of volition–and give us the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and sustain us in the new life promised in this new covenant. With the psalmist let us live deeper into the Lenten life, praying, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” This is precisely what God promises to give to those who seek it.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- This is the period when the Jews developed what is called Deuteronomic Theology, when Torah made the transition from “instruction” to “law” and which in essence said, “keep the law and you will live and be blessed; break the law and you will be cursed and die.”
- This is the only place in all of the Hebrew Scriptures where this term, “new covenant” appears.
- Thomas Dozeman, et al., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Lent/Easter, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 57; Gene Tucker, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1993), p. 231.etc.
- It is important to remember that the function of God’s covenants has been to make this chosen people a light to the nations, so that they too can become aware of and faithful to God and God’s ways.
- Deuteronomy 30:6
- God’s nature did not change at the incarnation. Rather, the incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the ultimate revelation of who God is: steadfast love and mercy.
- Though tradition has attributed this prayer to King David after the prophet Nathan confronted him over his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, internal evidence leads scholars to believe it is much later than David, and in final form about the time the exiles had returned to Jerusalem–in other words, about the time the Book of Jeremiah is written. Scholars suggest the original psalm emerging in the 7th century BCE, with the latter portion in the 5th century BCE, for it ends pleading for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the capacity to again offer proper sacrifices to God, something not possible until the city was restored and secure.
- Sin is against God, who alone sets the standard for righteous behavior–standards that come not from our communal mores or mutually agreed upon standards of what is fair or right. God’s standards for life were the terms of the covenant at Sinai, beginning with those ten instructions for life we have been reviewing each Sunday this Lent.
- Note that this is a very different confession than the one St. Augustine read into it: that sin was transmitted sexually.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 1967.
- Clearly, this prayer was a part of Paul’s vocabulary and worship life, and may well have had an impact on his conviction that we live our lives of faithfulness out of the promptings and power of the Holy Spirit.
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