Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Moving beyond ‘Fate’ to possibility (Jeremiah 31: 31-34)

The promise of a new covenant and a new beginning … dawn in Knocklyon on a recent morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, 25 March 2012, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, are: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13 or Psalm 119: 9-16; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33.

In our Bible study this morning, we are looking at the Old Testament reading for that Sunday:

Ιερεμιασ 31: 31-34

31 ἰδοὺ ἡμέραι ἔρχονται, φησὶ Κύριος, καὶ διαθήσομαι τῷ οἴκῳ ᾿Ισραὴλ καὶ τῷ οἴκῳ ᾿Ιούδα διαθήκην καινήν, 32 οὐ κατὰ τὴν διαθήκην, ἣν διεθέμην τοῖς πατράσιν αὐτῶν ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐπιλαβομένου μου τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν ἐξαγαγεῖν αὐτοὺς ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου, ὅτι αὐτοὶ οὐκ ἐνέμειναν ἐν τῇ διαθήκῃ μου, καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν, φησὶ Κύριος. 33 ὅτι αὕτη ἡ διαθήκη μου, ἣν διαθήσομαι τῷ οἴκῳ ᾿Ισραὴλ μετὰ τὰς ἡμέρας ἐκείνας, φησὶ Κύριος· διδοὺς δώσω νόμους εἰς τὴν διάνοιαν αὐτῶν καὶ ἐπὶ καρδίας αὐτῶν γράψω αὐτούς· καὶ ἔσομαι αὐτοῖς εἰς Θεόν, καὶ αὐτοὶ ἔσονταί μοι εἰς λαόν. 34 καὶ οὐ μὴ διδάξωσιν ἕκαστος τὸν πολίτην αὐτοῦ καὶ ἕκαστος τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ λέγων· γνῶθι τὸν Κύριον· ὅτι πάντες εἰδήσουσί με ἀπὸ μικροῦ αὐτῶν ἕως μεγάλου αὐτῶν, ὅτι ἵλεως ἔσομαι ταῖς ἀδικίαις αὐτῶν καὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν οὐ μὴ μνησθῶ ἔτι.

Jeremiah 31: 31-34

31 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. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But 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. 34 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.

Introduction:

Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (26 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 was the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (4 March), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (11 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17) looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent (18 March), we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).
● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the Sunday we are looking at this morning, we hear of the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 1 April), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the Old Testament reading follows those readings about Covenant and rebellion against Covenant with the promise of a true Covenant.

Looking at the text:

This prophecy was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The American theologian Walter Brueggemann says this passage “is pivotal for both Judaism and Christianity.”

Jeremiah has spent much time and energy pointing out to Israel how over the generations the people have systematically violated the covenant that was agreed with God on Mount Sinai. They have violated the Ten Commandments through an economic policy that abused the poor, through a foreign policy that depended on arms, by theological practice that offended God, and by illusions of privilege before God. Such violation brings with it, so say these poets, severe sanctions, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its leading residents.

In the wake of brokenness and the inevitable shame, defeat, and anxiety that comes with that, Jeremiah in this passage asserts God’s resolve to renew the covenant that has been broken by ancient Israel (Jeremiah 31: 31-34). I

Verse 30 says “all shall die for their own sins.” Collective sin, in which descendants were punished for wrong-doing, will be replaced by generational or personal sin. Punishment will no longer extend beyond a lifetime.

Now God promises to “make a new covenant” (verse 31) with the whole people, both Israel and Judah.

This covenant will not be like the covenant made at Mount Sinai, which the people “broke” (verse 32), even though God was their “husband” or master.

The law, once written on stone tablets, will be written “on their hearts” (verse 33) – the people will be faithful, and following the Law will be a matter of individual conscience and will power.

Teaching (verse 34) will no longer be needed because all will “know the Lord”, for each will recognise him in all actions, in every situation: each will approach God in a godly way. God will forgive them for turning against him (“iniquity”) and forget all their deviations from his way.

In the verses that follow this reading, verses 36-40, we read that this agreement will last for ever, and that “the days are surely coming” when God’s people will be so numerous that Jerusalem will need to be enlarged.

This will be a renewed covenant, but one that stands in continuity with that of Mount Sinai. What guarantees continuity from old broken covenant to new covenant is that both feature Torah; both depend on the mutual fidelity of God and Israel with instruction and guidance for obedience (in the Commandments) that put Israel under obligation to God.

The difference this time, however, is that Israel will have a ready inclination to obey as it did not have in past. The covenant now will be a glad practice of mutual fidelity. For Israel, this will be a genuine new beginning.

The ground for such a new beginning is found in God’s willingness to begin anew. God, says Jeremiah, is ready to forgive and to forget, so that the renewed relationship is one of generosity and grace on God’s part.

Brueggemann says this new hope is grounded in divine generosity in four ways:

1, The divine promise of new covenanting pertains to the Jews in exile in the 6th century exile. God resolves to restore his relationship with the Jews deportees in Babylon. This involves returning home to Jerusalem and results in the formation of Judaism as an outgrowth of the faith of ancient Israel. Because of God’s readiness, Israel begins again.

2, This promise of a new covenant resonated with the early Christians who wanted to articulate the newness of God that they experienced through Christ, but they wanted to do so in the categories of Old Testament expressions of faith and relationship. This oracle of Jeremiah is quoted in full in Hebrew 8: 8-12 where the claim is that in Christ God has made a new beginning.

3, God’s gracious generosity permits forgiveness and reconciliation, even for those who do not merit such grace. Brueggemann calls this claim, grounded in the oracle of Jeremiah, “the staggering readiness of God to forgive.”

4, Brueggemann goes on to ask what a renewed covenant in our society would look like and how it would be undertaken. He identifies the two ingredients for such renewal as a capacity for “forgiving and forgetting,” and a new readiness to obey “the Torah.”

Are there modern, contemporary parallels of the predicament that Jeremiah finds?

In a sermon last October, Walter Brueggemann said: “There is no doubt that ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is a vivid and unmistakable instance of a broken social covenant whereby too many are shut out of the economic covenant that makes society possible and workable.”

When we think about “forgive and forget” in our society, it contradicts the prevailing patterns in our society, where nothing is ever forgiven and nothing is ever forgotten: the Ulster Covenant, the Men of the Somme and whether they were stabbed in the back by the men of 1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the “Troubles.” When and where can we ever think about “beginning again”? But God’s generosity reaches beyond our need to be satisfied by retaliation.

And in a renewed, covenantal society, would our values revolve around the command to love our neighbour? What are the political and socio-economic implications of that?

God invites us to a fresh generosity, to move beyond petty and deep resentment, to embrace each other. Brueggemann says: “Where there is no forgiveness and no forgetting, society is fated to replay forever the same old hostilities, resentments, and alienations. What forgiveness accomplishes, human as well as divine, is to break the vicious cycles of such deathly repetition.”

Jeremiah continues to challenge us about what we need to do, and to remind us of what does not need to be.

We are invited to move beyond “fate” to possibility.

Looking at the other readings:

Psalm 51: 1-13:

This psalm speaks of rebuilding Jerusalem (verse 18), so we know that it was written during, or shortly after, the Exile. The emphasis is on an individual’s sin, and prayers for personal pardon and restoration. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “iniquity” (verses 2 and 9) and “sin[s].” The notion of life-long sinfulness (verse 5) is also found in Genesis 8: 21: “... for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (although the psalmist may simply be confessing that he has been thoroughly sinful). In verse 6, he knows that God will seek truth in his very being; this is where he will receive understanding (“wisdom”). Perhaps verse 8b says he is ill – because of his sin. He even asks God to hide his face from his sins (verse 9), to be so gracious and compassionate as to turn a blind eye. May God restore him, bring him back to godliness, give him a clear conscience, a “clean heart” (verse 10), a “new” and a “right” (God-oriented) “spirit.” Only God can purify. May God give him joy and sustenance, through his “holy spirit” (verse 11).

or

Psalm 119: 9-16

This is the second stanza (of 22, one for each consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) of the longest psalm. Each of the eight verses of this stanza begins with beth, the second letter. The whole psalm is in praise of the Law, the expression of God’s covenant with humanity in the Old Testament, and of keeping it. The emphasis is on the love and desire for the word of God in Israel’s law, rather than on legalism.

As in other stanzas, various words are used for law. Here they are “word”, “commandments,” “statutes”, “ordinances”, “decrees”, and “precepts”. Cleansing (verse 9), joy (verses 14 and 16) and meditation (verse 15) are key notions. Knowledge and wisdom are more to be desired than “riches” (verse 14). The psalmist seeks to avoid sin, and to live in God’s ways.

Hebrews 5: 5-10:

The author has spoken of the Jewish high priesthood. Earlier, he has said that a (human) high priest was “put in charge of things pertaining to God” (verse 1), on behalf of the people, to offer sacrifices for their sins. Since he himself from time to time offended God by sinning unintentionally, “he is able to deal gently” (verse 2) with others who commit such sins, and “must offer sacrifice for his own sins” (verse 3) as well. Further, one could only become a high priest when called by God – “one does not presume to take this honour” (verse 4).

Now the author tells us how Christ, whom he sees as a high priest, is like (and unlike) a Jewish high priest. Christ too was called by God (verse 5). Some manuscripts of Luke 3: 22 record that, at his baptism, the “voice” speaks the words quoted here. But Christ, as in Psalm 110: 4, is different: he is a priest “forever” (verse 6).

Melchizedek figures in Genesis 14: 17-20, where he brings bread and wine, and blesses Abram. In Hebrews, he resembles the Son of God and lives for ever. He is a supernatural figure foreshadowing the eternity of the Son of God (see 7: 2-3).

During Christ’s earthly life (“the days of his flesh”, verse 7), he prayed to God, to the one who could deliver him from death. But, although he was already God’s “Son” (verse 8), he “learned obedience.” He obeyed the will of the Father and submitted reverently (verse 7), which involved suffering and death.

But the Father heard his plea, and he rose again from death. He was then “made perfect” (verse 9). His priesthood was completed in his sacrifice for the sins of us all, and he was raised to be with the Father. In this way, he brings salvation to all who follow him. This salvation is forever (unlike the limited duration of that brought by the Jewish high priests in the Temple. He is the high priest for ever.

John 12: 20-33:

At the time of the Passover (“the festival”), some Gentiles (“Greeks”) travel to Jerusalem, probably because they believe in God. Their request “to see Jesus” (verse 21) to understand his message, is conveyed to him by “Andrew and Philip” (verse 22), the two disciples with Greek names.

Christ takes this opportunity to announce that his “hour” (verse 23), his time of self-revelation, determined by God, has come. He can now tell what it means for the Son to be glorified. When Christ is glorified, then all people will truly be able to see him. But this is not the time for interviews.

He uses an example from nature to speak of the significance of his death: the paradox that a “grain of wheat” (verse 24) only bears fruit after it seems to have died and has been buried. Christ’s death makes possible salvation for others.

That the meaning of life eludes those who live it up is also a paradox; self-centeredness ends up destroying a person. (“Hate”, verse 25, is a Semitism for love less.)

Serving Jesus involves following his example; this will be honoured by the Father (verse 26).

In verse 27, Christ struggles with his impending death: should he ask the Father to free him from the need to suffer and die?

No, he says: such avoidance would negate his mission; his death is God’s will (verse 28a). The voice from heaven reassures: his lifework and teaching have been signs of God’s glory, of his power and presence; God will act again in raising him.

The crowd miss the point of the message (verse 19), so Christ tells them that God has spoken so that they may believe that he comes from God; he already knows this (“not for mine”, verse 30).

This is when (“now”, verse 31) those who wilfully turn away from him (“this world”) are condemned (it is they who are judged, not him), and when the devil (“the ruler of this world”) ceases to have power over people.

When he is “lifted up from the earth” (verse 32), when he is crucified and exalted in glory, the salvation of all will be possible.

This is the paradoxical “kind of death” (verse 33) he will endure.

New beginnings ... a full moon seen through trees on a recent morning in Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some thoughts for consideration:

In these last days of Lent, as we start looking ahead to Holy Week and to walking with Christ on his way to the cross, the Gospel readings talk about what is going to happen and what he is going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we see the Disciples at a point where they realise that this is a solemn time, but they are unsure about what is going to happen, and they are anxious and afraid.

But these are days of anxiety and fear for many in our world today. There is economic depression, rising unemployment, massive emigration, deep uncertainty, so much so that in our society we are in danger of forgetting that this too is a world troubled by wars, natural disasters and famines too, a world where those seeking democracy are treated as enemies in their own countries, and a world where human rights are being eroded once again.

In this time of flux and change, there are plenty of would-be prophets of doom telling us how afraid we ought to be, that if we do not conform and fall into line something even worse may befall us.

But what if Christ is right this morning? If he is right, then we have no need to fear. We need to follow. When Christ is lifted up, he draws all people to him: the Greeks who are telling Philip and Andrew that they want to see Christ, but are put on hold; the Pharisees who fear Christ is stirring up the people; the prophets of doom; and the peasants just trying to get by.

The God who Christ proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling. The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God’s just and liberating word on our hearts, and for all, from the least to the greatest, to know it, to experience it, and to celebrate it.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday, 14 March 2012.

Poems for Lent (19): ‘Confession’ (‘O What a cunning guest’), by George Herbert

“George Herbert 1593-1633) at Bemerton” (William Dyce, 1860) … “Wherefore my faults and sins, / Lord, I acknowledge; take thy plagues away”

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Edinburgh yesterday [Tuesday, 13 February 2012], I was reminded of the well-known maxim, “Confession is good for the soul,” which is an old Scottish proverb. But I was told that a word is missing. The proverb actually says: “Open confession is good for the soul.”

The Apostle Paul says: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10: 9).

In many parts of the Church of Ireland, there is a reluctance to accept Confession as an ancient practice of the Church, with Biblical and Patristic approval. Yet there is a well-known Anglican aphorism that says about Confession: “All may; none must; some should.”

For Anglicans, confession and absolution are usually a component part of corporate worship, both at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and in particular at the Eucharist.

In the The Book of Common Prayer, the ‘Order for the Visitation of the Sick’ includes the following direction: “Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which Confession, the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it).”

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church in the US provides two forms for Confession in the section ‘The Reconciliation of a Penitent.’ Private confession was also envisaged in 1603 in Canon 113 in the canon law of the Church of England, which contains the following, intended to safeguard the Seal of the Confessional:

“If any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we ... do straitly charge and admonish him, that he does not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy.”

This morning, in my choice of a Poem for Lent, I return once again to the poems of George Herbert, in his collection, The Temple, and look at his poem, ‘Confession’ (‘O What a cunning guest’). If Confession is good for the soul, it is also good for Lent, and George Herbert found it was good for the priest too. In The Country Parson, he wrote

“The Parson in his house observes fasting dayes; and particularly, as Sunday is his day of joy, so Friday his day of Humiliation, which he celebrates only with abstinence of diet, but also of company, recreation, and all outward contentments; and besides, with confession of sins, and all acts of Mortification.” (George Herbert, The Country Parson, Chapter 10, ‘The Parson in his House).

Confession (O What a cunning guest), by George Herbert

O what a cunning guest
Is this same grief! within my heart I made
Closets; and in them many a chest;
And, like a master in my trade,
In those chests, boxes; in each box, a till:
Yet grief knows all, and enters when he will.

No screw, no piercer can
Into a piece of timber work and wind,
As God’s afflictions into man,
When he a torture hath designed.
They are too subtle for the subtlest hearts;
And fall, like rheums, upon the tend’rest parts.

We are the earth; and they,
Like moles within us, heave, and cast about:
And till they foot and clutch their prey,
They never cool, much less give out.
No smith can make such locks but they have keys:
Closets are halls to them; and hearts, high-ways.

Only an open breast
Doth shut them out, so that they cannot enter;
Or, if they enter, cannot rest,
But quickly seek some new adventure.
Smooth open hearts no fast’ning have; but fiction
Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.

Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take thy plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond: let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.