Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
March 21, 2021
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31–34
Since God liberated them from bondage in Egypt, the people of Israel have known wildernesses. But this particular experience of wilderness into which the prophet Jeremiah must prophesy may arguably be the most traumatic, most disorienting tragedy to befall them. Despite Jeremiah’s vivid, poetic oracles of destruction because of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness, Israel assumed that as the covenant partner of God, surely God wouldn’t allow such destruction to befall them. Israel fell into the same trap that many successful and triumphant people and nations fall . . . they came to believe that their success, abundance, and exceptionalism were normal, natural, and inevitable. Conditioned within a “cocoon of assurance and entitlement,” they had succumbed to that royal consciousness that led them to believe that their success and abundance was proof of their righteousness and of God’s favor.
And it all came to an end. So abrupt and devastating an end is a profoundly vivid portrait of loss. The loss and the trauma are real: not only the loss of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the center of Israel’s civic and religious life; not just the loss of the entire collective social, religious, and civic leadership of God’s people exiled away from the only world they have known, the city of David, the sacred ground of God’s presence; but also the loss of status, privilege, security, and certitude that came with being God’s people. Beset by what one theologian describes “an amorphous anxiety that evokes enmity, fear, anger, and readiness for violence,” Israel can only surmise that God has given up on covenant and lament that there is no future.
As we read in the text today, into Israel’s hopelessness and futility, Jeremiah dares to prophesy that God has forgiven Israel, will turn their mourning into joy, and give them gladness for their sorrow. Despite the totality of the loss and destruction, this oracle maintains, against the horror of their current circumstances, that there is hope for Israel’s future. Jeremiah speaks an oracle of deliverance, in which God reconstitutes Israel with the promise of a new covenant, not like the previous covenant etched on stone tablets, but this time a covenant placed within them: a new covenant in which God’s commandments would be internalized and embodied. The days are surely coming when their existence will be refashioned and reconstituted by character-transforming covenant: new identity-creating covenant; the kind of covenant in which community, neighborliness, and the doing of justice become automatic, embodied practice that ministers to the world.
God’s promise of a new covenant is testament that loss and trauma and the disruption and disorientation of wilderness do not mean that God has revoked God’s covenant. God’s covenant is new; not revoked. That new covenant is not synonymous with new testament, and what God accomplished in and through Jesus does not nullify God’s covenant bond with Israel. This new covenant means that God is repairing the breach between God and Israel, making possible an everlasting bond between God and God’s beloved of every age, land, heritage, and tradition.
A new covenant is not God’s promise that things will go back to the way they used to be. This is not about re-creating the very life and practices that led to this experience of loss and wilderness. It would be a mistake to sloganize this promise from God as a means to make Israel great again. This is also not just a private, spiritual restoration laid out in laws written on tablets that can be broken or lost. This is a national, political, and communal transformation of a way of being in which God’s command for justice is embedded within the moral, spiritual, and intellectual being of all. It’s a reconstituting of a people who will know within the deep recesses of their hearts God’s command for justice for all, not a re-creation of a days gone by.
For us today, conditioned to live within this therapeutic, militaristic, and technological world, the book of Jeremiah and the oracles of the prophet are unflinching in their assertion that all of this is going to come to an end. The comforts, privileges, security, and certitude we enjoy will not last. The systems and structures we’ve erected, come to rely upon, and from which we have benefitted will all come undone. This is true of our nation, our communities, and yes, even here at our church. What we have and all we have accomplished are not normal, natural, and inevitable, and none of it is guaranteed to last. Some of us are concerned that the world is changing too fast, that this is not the world that I know and love, this is not the Plymouth I once knew, and it is a loss. It feels like we are undergoing a displacement, that the changes people are making to how we live and what we have accomplished is disrespectful of what has been built. But it is all going to come to an end.
When the way forward is not obvious, when the way we understood covenant does not follow the simple script of divine favor bequeathed to us by our forebears and our tradition, when the old certainties we’ve relied upon have been challenged and upended, when the traditional answers we’ve received in response to injustice simply do not work anymore . . . if they ever did, what does our future look like? How does covenant get lived out in a way that honors God and neighbor? It begins by trusting that God is faithful and remains the author of newness in the midst of loss. There is a future.
In every age, especially in this nation, when the newness God promises breaks free and expands the reach of God’s blessing to those who have been historically last and left out, someone can be heard to worry, “The America I love and know doesn’t exist anymore.” When enslaved Black people were emancipated, when segregation was outlawed, when immigrants were welcomed and naturalized and their culture integrated into our communal life, when the blessings of family and matrimony were extended to LGBTQ people, many people saw that as a loss. And yet, God’s newness will not be withheld, “from the least of them to the greatest.” The knowledge of God will be internalized, held close within, such that all will have access to the unbreakable bond with a loving, forgiving God.
Despite feelings of loss, there is a future. The covenant that God makes is new; not revoked. The new covenant that God promises will mean the end of the loss. The zero-sum, unequal, polarized existence that makes neighbor rise up against neighbor and nations war against nation will be transformed by God’s decisive promise to bring recovery and healing, supply an abundance of prosperity and security, and restore the fortunes of God’s people. We, with God’s covenant written on our hearts, will be a praise and glory such that all those still pining for what was can join us in anticipating what can be.
And so, into this time of unsettling change and anxiety-producing loss, the days are surely coming. The days are surely coming when covenant won’t be constituted by the words we say to prompt our commitment to God’s dream for the world. No, that covenant will be engraved in every cell, breath, and molecule of our beings, embodied such that our entire emotional, moral, intellectual makeup is animated by God’s being. The days are surely coming when the social and racial contract that created race and stratified God’s creation socially and economically will no longer sit in our hearts. The days are surely coming when what thus says the Lord will not be ignored or consumed depending on which denomination has the floor or the microphone. The days are surely coming when the pressures of the marketplace and the mobilization of the vote will not determine who gets enough to eat, who gets shelter and healthcare, who has enough to live and thrive. The days are surely coming when justice will be done, not at the prompting of a protest, or movement, or legislation, but because the knowledge of God means a collective knowing that presupposes a commitment by all to do justice.
At this moment in our nation, when people have absorbed so much loss over the last year and are saturated with so much political vitriol over the last six years, a paroxysm of rage has erupted such that a rising number of hate crimes are being committed against our Asian neighbors. A new covenant embodied and internalized prompts not only our grief but also praxis. We are called to let go of the certitudes and assurances of privilege and supremacy so that we can be a covenant community that ministers to the world the expansiveness of God’s community. We model God’s covenant loyalty to us in our covenant loyalty to our Asian family. We will not tolerate this violence against our family.
This covenant is God’s promise to ensure newness and fidelity for a creation that knows all too well how to break covenant. This promised newness is a decisive break with the logic and incentives of empire. There will be no going back to when it was all good. There will be no making Plymouth great again. With God’s covenant written on our hearts, embodied and expressed as part of our very beings, we will all know what thus says the Lord. We will all know what it means to be community.
Walter Brueggemann, Preaching Jeremiah: Announcing God’s Restorative Passion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020), 8.