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Old Testament Readings: Exodus 32:9-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34

New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

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 their hands.  

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 worshippers do!

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 politician, relents.

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 the following:

    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 or profound.

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 supplied them?

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! No kidding!

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.




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