March 18, 2018, Lent 5, The Covenant in Bloom – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We’ve come to the last of this series of sermons on the covenant, which is how the Bible describes the relationship between God and man. In human terms a covenant is a contract between persons, anything from the mortgage agreement that we made with the bank when we bought our house, to the vows two people make to each other in marriage. In biblical terms, the covenant is way more lop-sided (though not entirely one-sided) founded on and sustained by the commitment of faithful lovingkindness that God made to his creation from the moment he called it into being. And the reason we’ve been spending so much time focusing on this whole covenant thing, is that the whole story of the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is the story of the covenant, because it is the story of man’s relationship with God in all its wondeful – and messy – complexity.
But it’s easy to get a little lost following the covenant storyline through the centuries of wars and prophecies and weird visions and laws. So I wanted today to begin with the covenant “greatest hits”, those critical moments in the Bible story when God entered most notably into our human history. And I wanted to picture it sort of organically, so I imagined the covenant like a single plant that grows through many stages.
And it all begins with the seed, which is the Word of God.
In the beginning, there was nothing but God. We tend to think of that pre-Creation time as a time of dark, formless Nothingness, but the truth is that there was always God, and that means there was always love and there was always light and there was always relationship. But out of his perfection, God spoke our world into being, planting the seed of his Word into our creation. “Let’s have some light,” he said. And he spoke the heavenly bodies into being, and he shaped the earth and sky and seas, and he filled it all up with living, breathing creatures. And at the last he formed the man and the woman, and he planted them a garden and he set them in the midst to love and care for it. He took walks in the garden with his creatures. And that was the very beginning of his covenant relationship with us.
We all know what happened next, when the serpent came along and tricked the woman into tasting what God had warned them not to eat. And the man ate his share, too. The goodness of the new creation was spoiled and corrupted. But along with the curses that came with the poisonous fruit, God made his second Covenant promise. From the seed of his creative word grew the taproot of God’s commitment to redeem our creation from its corruption. A taproot is the first, strong root that a seed sends straight down when it germinates. It’s like an anchor that establishes that plant firmly in place, and brings the first nourishment to the living seed. If you’ve ever had to pull up maple saplings, you know how tenacious a taproot can be. So God promised that even though suffering would come because of man’s sin, there would come someone, born of humankind, who would crush the head of that serpent. God committed himself to healing the harm that man’s sin had done to his good creation. And so the Covenant relationship was established.
For our part, that wasn’t the end of sin or corruption, not by a long shot. We read in the first Sunday of Lent how God sent a great flood to wash his creation clean of the filth of man’s violence and injustice. But he preserved a remnant of his creatures, man and animal, and when Noah and company had come through the ordeal of the flood God made another promise. Spreading the roots of his covenant out into the soil of this creation, God committed himself to sustain and uphold his creation, even in its brokenness. Never again would he curse the creation on account of man’s evil. As long as the earth endures, God promised, there will be day and night, and springtime and harvest.
Later, when God called Abraham out of his homeland, to be the father of a new nation, the covenant began to break into the world, like the first green shoot that pushes its way out of the earth into the sunlight. Because Abraham believed the promise that God made to him, that he would have a son – even though it was humanly impossible – God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. So we saw that from the very beginning, our side of the covenant didn’t depend on our righteous, good behavior – because what hope would man ever have then? – but only on our faith in God’s righteousness and God’s goodness.
Then up grew the covenant of Moses that was God’s signpost to the rest of the world. God established the nation of Israel as his unique people with a system of laws that set them apart from every other nation, laws that embodied justice, but were tempered with mercy. Israel grew up like a tall tree among the nations, and reached its fullest glory in the time of King David, and then a strange thing happened.
At Israel’s height, God made a promise to David, a man after his own heart, that he would establish the royal house of King David forever. But within two generations the whole thing fell to pieces. David’s descendants turned away from God and the nation of Israel was torn in half. It was almost as if the covenant, having grown up to its greatest height, humanly speaking, suddenly faltered and began to vine outward, pointing away from Israel, away from the law, and towards something new, something better.
And that brings us to the words of Jeremiah we read today, “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” – speaking of the two halves of David’s fractured kingdom. In proclaiming a new covenant, God wasn’t putting an end to his commitment, or withdrawing his promises, or giving up on his word – the new covenant was THE covenant coming into its full glory at long last – God’s Word bursting into full flower at the coming of Jesus. Malachi wrote, “The Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.”And that blossoming, that sunrise, that’s what the whole creation had been waiting for, from the planting of the first seed at creation, century after century after weary century, until finally, that moment when the Covenant between God and man was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote, “In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” And again, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this isn’t your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And best of all, John wrote, “To all who received Jesus and believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That is the Covenant in full bloom.
Jeremiah reveals what’s so new about this new covenant. First of all, he tells us, no more stone tablets or long scrolls full of rules and laws, laws that people always ended up breaking, even though God loved them as a husband loves his wife. The law of the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, is inscribed on our hearts. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus told us, “that you love one another.” And Paul wrote, “All the commandments are summed up in this one command, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Human beings are very fond of going back to the old slavery of rule and law, but Paul wrote, “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm therefore, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Don’t let anyone tell you that you are still under the law. Don’t owe anything to anybody, Paul says, except to love. Love fulfills the whole law.
Secondly, the new covenant satisfies our deep need for belonging. There is a part of every person that has been broken, that has been hurt, that remains unsatisfied. The best human relationships that the world has to offer, friendship, family, married love, all promise to give us what we need. But as excellent as they are at their best, it is always true that they fall short of satisfying us fully. In fact, if we demand of any human relationship what we fully need, we only do harm, because we ask what human relationship can’t give. But in Jesus Christ we are reunited with our Father, we are adopted as his beloved children. Jesus also said, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God promises. And out of that belonging, we are able to offer grace because we have received grace. We can love, because he has first loved us.
Thirdly, in the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, ‘no longer shall they teach one another saying, “Know the Lord.” Because they will all know me’. What that means, in a sense, is that you don’t need me. To explain myself more clearly: you don’t need a priest to stand between you and God. You don’t need anybody to mediate your relationship with God; because in Christ you are, we all are, a kingdom of priests, ordained to serve our God. I serve you, hopefully well, in my sort-of specialized role as priest (lower-case), as teacher or comforter, as celebrant at communion, as cook or dishwasher or whatever I am called to do in service to you, who are my fellow priests. And we all need the special gifts that God has given each one of you to build up the church as well. But when we offer up the Eucharist, we offer it as a kingdom of priests together. When we pray, we stand at the throne of God together as members of the body of Christ. Peter said it gloriously, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
And finally, the joy and freedom of the new covenant is that our sins, which are so very many, are forgiven, and not only forgiven, but forgotten. Our God is not like that parent who rebukes his child, saying, “How many times do I have to tell you?” In Jesus, God removes our sins from us “as far as the East is from the West.” Our Lord, in his suffering on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Always remember that , because it was your sins and mine, past, present and future, that Jesus bore in his body on the cross. But God keeps no record of our failings.
“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.”