Old Testament Readings:
Exodus 32:9-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34
New Testament Reading: 2
This morning I do not propose to set before
you any carefully reasoned essay, but rather only a collection of
thoughts, and recollections of the thoughts of others, all bearing on the
theme of the new covenant. The idea occurred to me when I heard Bill
Clinton's acceptance speech in which he made so much of the phrase.
My thoughts vis-a-vis the covenant
center about a collection of three prepositions: between, among, and
within. I do not believe in what conservative theologians like to call
"propositional revelation," (namely, the doctrine that God reveals
doctrines, including the doctrine that he reveals doctrines!). But this
morning I will venture to speak of prepositional revelation.
What is a "covenant" in biblical terms? It
is any binding agreement between two parties -- or even a will
drawn up by one party. It covers our ideas of legal documents, promises,
last wills and testaments, business contracts, and international treaties.
In the Bible, God makes a celebrated
covenant with Abraham, which he renews with Abraham's son and grandson,
then another with the federation of tribes at Sinai, then with David. The
essence of the matter is that God seems to want someone to carry his name
through history, and in return, he will provide certain blessings.
Usually scholars suggest that the kind of
treaty God made with his people was what is called a "suzerainty treaty,"
an agreement made between a greater power and a lesser, like surrender
terms in a war, an offer you can't refuse.
Yet the more I think of it the more I doubt
this. Instead I wonder if we do not here have something much like the
treaty arrangements of the United States with lesser powers. It is
precisely because of our great might that we cannot simply exert our will
and sway over the nations.
We are limited by hundreds of impotent
little nations, who nevertheless all have their votes in the United
Nations, and whose displeasure we don't want to incur lest we become the
Great Satan all over the world. We are genuinely dependent on them.
Can it be that for God to be represented
among the ant-like humans he created, he must seek representation on a
reduced level? To reduce himself and his dealings to microscopic
proportions so that they may be seen by microbes like us? Thus he must
enter into a covenant as a partner with those mites he could destroy with
a thought. But once he does sign on the dotted line, he is no less bound
than we are.
I suspect that God is much more dependent
on his people than one might think. For instance his reputation is in
Paul paraphrases the Second Isaiah to
condemn the miserable mess he feels God's people have made of representing
him. Paul says,"The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because
of you" (Romans 2:4).
If God's self-appointed spokesmen manage to
get people to believe that God really told them to do the offensive things
they do and say, you can easily see how outsiders, knowing no better, will
naturally assume God is as bad as his supposed representatives.And they
will reject and ridicule that God. God's good name rides on what his
Moses has something like this in mind in
our Exodus reading when he begs God not to unleash his fury against
Israel. Even if God is justified, Moses shrewdly counsels, the pagans will
think that God had played a nasty trick on the Israelites: bringing them
out of Egypt -- only to lower the boom in the desert! Some God! Better
leniency with unfaithful Israel than inviting that kind of bad press among
the Gentiles. And God, as concerned for his public image as any
But it isn't always up to him! He is
dependent upon us for his reputation most of the time. And we aren't
exactly the best PR firm in the world! Would you want the firm of
Robertson, Falwell, and Sharpton representing your good name?
Or consider the matter of revelation --
Tillich once pointed out what should have been obvious: there can be no
revelation at all, no matter how hot the news that God wants to
communicate, if no one will listen! If there is no one in the forest to
hear it, that falling tree is not going to make a sound!
Had Peter not recognized and confessed,
"You are the Christ," Jesus would not have been the Christ! God
would not in fact have been revealed in Jesus if no one saw God
revealed in Jesus! There has to be a receiver as well as a revealer, or
nothing is revealed. It takes both sides. God is dependent on us!
Again, Paul in Romans, quoting Isaiah: "All
day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."
God is engaged in a futile charade. He is trying to signal something, and
if he could, it would be a revelation. But no one gets it! What can he do?
I even wonder if God could be said to exist
at all if no one any more believed in him! Meister Eckhart dared to say
It is like a rich man who wants to be
a giver but must first
find a taker, since without a taker he cannot be a giver; for
the taker, in taking, makes the rich man a giver. Similarly,
if God is to be a giver, he must first find a taker, but no-
one may be a taker of God's gifts except by his humility.
Therefore, if God is to exercise his divine property by his
gifts, he well may need my humility; for apart from humility
he can give me nothing - without it I am not prepared to
receive his gift. That is why it is true that by humility I
give divinity to God. (Fragment 2)
So much for "between," then. A covenant is
an arrangement between two parties.
But it is also a condition which obtains
among a group of people. Here I want only to pass along to you the
interesting insight of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling, the disciples of
Bultmann and chief propagators of the once - avant garde "New
Hermeneutic." (I had to study this for one of my Comprehensive Exams, so I
might as well get some mileage out of it!)
Fuchs and Ebeling indulged in some
elaborate Heideggerian speculation about language, but it all came down to
this: language itself, exchanged speech, is essentially covenant-making.
In every exchange of speech we are implicitly contracting to tell the
truth to one another, no matter what it is we are saying, whether trivial
Every spoken message is silently prefaced
by a mutual oath: "I agree to tell you the truth, and you agree to tell me
the truth. We can trust the other not to deceive."
Of course sometimes we do deceive, and when
we do, we have broken covenant. We have defrauded. We have breached an
oath, betrayed the one to whom we lied.
In fact, can't we say that we have
committed the terrible sin of causing someone to live in a world of
delusion to the extent they built their picture of reality on the sand we
They went on to take certain steps they
would not have taken had they known what was really the truth. You told
them you loved them, but you didn't. And the radiant sun that began to
shine in their soul will be extinguished like a candle in the rain when
they find out the truth.
I thought I could count on you, but you
didn't mean it, and now that you have become part of the defense perimeter
of my life, I am seriously vulnerable without knowing it. Thanks a lot!
Peter betrayed Jesus when he lied about not
knowing him. But every lie is a betrayal, a snapping of a covenant bond.
Every lie inflates language. It is, like
American currency, worth less and less. We have to start buttressing what
we say with "I swear!" "I promise!" "You have my word on it!" All these
statements are tacit admissions that without the oath to restrict you, you
could be expected to lie and cheat.
Isn't that why Jesus counsels you to be the
sort of person from whom no one would think to require an oath? "Let your
yes be yes and your no be no. Any more than this comes from the Evil One."
Bring language back to its original status as a covenant we can trust each
other to keep.
Finally, my third prepositional revelation:
within. Paul alludes to Jeremiah's prophecy of a New Covenant in
which God's laws will no longer be an external reference easy to forget.
It will be rewritten, this time within the heart itself.
People in the old days did not have their
own Bibles. They might hear the commandments of God occasionally from a
village priest, or from a Temple doorkeeper three times a year. Did you
know that one theory as to why there are Ten Commandments is that the
priests were trying to make it easy to remember them? One for each finger!
But we who have Bibles, maybe even several
to a household, still cannot remember them! I always used to quiz my
classes on this. How many of the 10 could they remember? Usually 2 or 3.
One student wrote down, "Thou shalt not drink."
You begin to see the problem with a law
that is external, one that you have to look up. Hence the appeal of
Jeremiah's covenant of a law written on the heart.
Suppose the law of God, or if you prefer,
your own moral standards, were so deeply ingrained that they had become
second nature to you. Suppose the course of action you deem right just
sprang to mind spontaneously every time you needed it. It might simplify
moral decision-making a good deal.
But then again it might not. Just knowing
what you ought to do does not guarantee you will do it. Well, then,
suppose that the law being inscribed on your heart meant more than this.
Suppose it meant that it had become the very law of your being. I think
here of Leibniz's discussion of predestination. He argued that it was not
the oppressive idea you might think it is.
He admitted that it would indeed be
degrading for you to be forced to obey some alien law against which you
would rebel if you could, but you can't, as if you saw yourself
robotically compelled to do something against your will, in the grip of a
hypnotic compulsion. This would not, however, be predestination, but
rather something more like demon possession.
Rather, he said, it would be the greatest
joy and freedom simply to yield to the law of your being, no longer to
kick against the goads of what makes you the person you are.
I like to read. I read 100 books a year.
Some people don't like to read, and for them it would be an unendurable
hell if someone forced them to read 100 books a year -- even 10 books a
year! But I do not regard it as in the least onerous! In fact if someone
were to tell me I had to take a break and take a year "off" in which I
could not read any books, I would regard it as a prison sentence.
What is the difference between me and the
non-reader, who perhaps likes to watch sports events or listen to
classical music? He or she and I are all alike obeying, acquiescing to the
laws of our being. We are doing what our instincts incline us to do.
And this is so, and equally enjoyable,
whether we are the way we are thanks to divine predestination, the
accident of genetic inheritance. We would feel it a dreadful compulsion if
someone should prevent us from doing what the law of our being dictates.
Now the trick is for the moral standards we
believe in to assume this privileged position. Can it happen? Can we come
to the point where we will rejoice to do the will of God? To live out the
dictates of our own conscience? If we do, then we will have arrived at
what Kant called "the holy will of God" that delights in the right as God
himself does, not because we have to, or we will be punished if we don't,
but simply because we love the right as we love the law of our own being.
Meister Eckhart said, "If you ask a good
man: 'Why are you seeking God?' - he will reply: 'Just because he is
God!' 'Why are you seeking truth?' 'Just because it is truth!' 'Why
are you seeking justice?' 'Just because it is justice!'" (Fragment 24).
Or as the Psalmist said, "My soul keeps thy
testimonies; I love them exceedingly." May God bring us to that point.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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