You promise to pay a certain amount of money every month, and you get a house in return.
You vow to stay in relationship with a person for the rest of your life, and she does, too.
You sign a piece of paper saying that you’ll stay with a job three years, and you are promised salary and benefit in return.
And you never, never, never date your best friend’s exes.
What do these situations have in common? They are all examples of contracts, either official or implied. In a contract, two parties exchange promises and the contract can be broken the minute one party does not live up to his or her promise.
Humans have used contracts for thousands of years. A contract assumes that both parties have equal responsibilities to fulfill the promises they make. What happens historically if one party has much more power than the other?
3500 years ago in the Hittite kingdom, there were king like figures called Suzereins, who had money and armies and a great deal of power. Because they had so much power, instead of making a contract, the Suzereins made covenants with the peasants. If the peasants gave them a certain percentage of the crops they grew and cattle they raised then the suzerains gave them protection from invading armies. However, if an invading army was going to come through, the suzerein was not going to check each peasant’s records-he was going to defend his territory. So, the peasant, to some degree, could still receive the suzerein’s protection, even if he failed to deliver his end of the bargain.
So, why am I telling you all of this? An understanding of covenant is important because God has related to human beings, throughout history, through covenants. Suzerien covenants were happening roughly about the time when Genesis and Exodus were written and the covenants written in the Bible have the same structure as these Suzerein covenants.
Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from five to eight covenants between God and people in the Bible. In our Old Testament reading for today, Jeremiah talks about the concept of God making a new Covenant, but before we can understand the New Covenant, we have to understand the old covenants.
And, because this sermon threatens to make all of you fall asleep, you’re going to have to help me list these first five covenants. I’ll give you a few clues, and you tell me which biblical character I am describing.
The first covenant was made with the man who was the only righteous man left on the planet. Any takers? Okay, another clue. . .there was a boat involved. ..
Right! Noah. Now, can anyone remember WHAT God promised Noah? (Not to wipe out humanity) What did Noah have to do in return? What was the symbol of this covenant? (rainbow)
Excellent work. Now, on to the second covenant. This one was made with a man who was married to a woman named Sarai? Any ideas? Another clue-this man had a child when he was very, very, very old. Abraham! Right, what did God promise to do for Abraham? And what did Abraham need to do in return? What was the symbol of this covenant? Circumcision.
Okay, now we’re onto the third covenant. This covenant was made with a man who discovered as a baby in a basket by the Phaoroah’s daughter. He went on to experience God by a burning bush. . .Right, Moses! God made a covenant with Israel through Moses. He called Moses up on Mount Sianai-what did he give him there-right the Ten Commandments!
In this covenant, God speaks directly to the people. He calls Moses to Mt Sianai to warn the people that God’s coming to speak to them directly. When God does speak to them, he reminds the Israelites that he is the God who delivered them from Egypt and gives the law, which will govern their life. If they keep the law, God will remain with them. This period also codifies the sacrificial system-if the people sin, they are required to make a blood sacrifice-either a bird or a sheep or cow depending on the offense and their financial state.
Well, soon enough, the Israelites, who are tired of wandering around in the desert, forget they’ve had this incredible experience of God and start worshiping false idols, complaining, and certainly not following the law.
God, however, does not give up. In Deutoromy 30, we read about the next covenant, the land covenant. In this covenant, God says that if the Israelites come back to him and start behaving faithfully, he will gather them together and give them a spot of land to call their own. And yes, this is the covenant that is still causing part of the problem in the Middle East! But that’s a whole other sermon. . .
So, after Moses’ generation dies, the Israelites finally get their parcel of land, but again, they are unable to keep their end of the deal. They live in the land of Canaan for awhile, but eventually the tribes start bickering with each other and the threat of invaders becomes very serious.
However, all is not lost. In the book of Samuel, we read about how the people of Israel start whining because they don’t have a king and everyone else has a king, so God decides to give them one. The first king, Saul does not work out, so God chooses a second king. Can anyone remember this second king’s name? Here’s a hint: as a kid, he killed a giant with a slingshot. Yes, David! It is under David’s leadership that Israel and Judah briefly reunite again and under his leadership that Israel captures Jerusalem. David’s 30something year reign is the Golden Age of Israel. God loves David so much that he makes an unconditional covenant with him. God promises that the Israelites will be a rooted people with land of their own and that God will establish an eternal kingdom from David’s line.
All this sounds well and good, but a theological problem developed when the Israelites were NOT able to stay in Jerusalem and the line of kings from David turned out to be kind of terrible and eventually died out. . .where does this leave us in terms of God’s faithfulness? Our reading from Jeremiah today gives us a clue. God decides to form a new covenant, a sixth covenant with us. As you can see, historically, humans have not been great at living up to their ends of covenantal agreements. Any wise businessperson would have written us off long ago. Not only are we terrible at following god’s law, we’re not even that great about faithfully worshipping one God! Any chance we got, we worshiped a golden calf, another God, a credit card. . .
Luckily for us, God is not a businessperson. God is so interested in maintaining a relationship with us that he cooks up a new covenant, in which he does ALL the work. In this covenant, he will write his law, the law of love, on our hearts. While he required blood sacrifices in the past, all along what he really wanted was the sacrifice of our lives-for us to give up our selfishness and love God with our whole hearts.
So, in order to make things right, God becomes human, lives a life in which he grows into perfection, and then is offered as a blood sacrifice on our behalf. And while this seems barbaric and a little weird to our modern minds, we have to understand the context in which this happened. All the sacrifices we offered, all our best efforts, were never enough. And instead of raising the stakes, or wiping out humanity again, God decides to shoulder the responsibility, to continue the kingship of David through Christ and to offer us a new kind of covenant with him. A covenant of love and trust and understanding-a covenant of the heart.
Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week. Holy Week you will have the opportunity to attend church Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend these services as we reflect on and remember this miraculous and overwhelming, sad and glorious New Covenant that God has made with us. We take God for granted, we take Easter for granted, but we are so lucky-God does not demand our money or our sacrifices. God just wants us-our hearts, our minds, our souls-he wants to know us and be known to us.
All of the Covenants have been pointing to this-God’s desire to be in relationship with us and his desire to help us be worthy of that honor. God has stuck with us the whole way-through all of our missteps, all of our false worship, all of our betrayals and he waits for us now, to turn our hearts to him and worship him with all of our mind, our heart, our soul and our body.