Sunday 3rd January 2021 – Covenant Sunday
Lectionary Passage Jeremiah 31 vv 7 – 14 and also vv 23 – 34 and Mark 14 vv 22 – 26
From six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to us today
Poor old Jeremiah! His name has become used to describe a person who is pessimistic about the present and who foresees a calamitous future; a prophet of doom who denounces the times we live in. The associated noun ‘jeremiad’ is a lamentation, a doleful complaint, a list of woes.
In truth, Jeremiah did have some tough and negative things – in the name of God – to say to his people and some dire warnings to give them, but he remains one of the really great figures of Old Testament times.
To say that Jeremiah lived in tumultuous times is something of an understatement. The background to his work is the complexity of world history beyond the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea in the Seventh Century before Christ. Time and space here doesn’t warrant more than a brief outline. The tectonic plates of world power were shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had reached its zenith under the rule of men like Sargon and Sennacherib, was waning. Scythians – a wild and barbarous people, swept down from the north. In the east, the Babylonians were flexing their muscles and, under Nebuchadnezzar would become a powerful force. To the south there was the ever-present threat posed by Egypt. In the middle, tiny Judah centred on the city of Jerusalem. There were world changing battles – Megiddo (608 BC) – from where we get the word Armageddon, and Carchemish (605 BC). There was a succession of Jewish Kings – Josiah, Jehoahaz, Johoiakim and Zedekiah. And into that melting pot, God gave Jeremiah an uncomfortable message for His people.
Jeremiah was born around 650 BC quite close to Jerusalem. He had an unshakable conviction that God had singled him out from before his birth (Chapter 1 v 4) to convey the warnings to His people. Two age-old temptations beset the nation. One was the worship of false gods. Even while Moses was with God in the clouds of Mount Sinai, an impatient, wayward people fashioned a golden bull and worshiped it. Once in the promised land the fertility-based worship of the Canaanite people proved a constant temptation. It was so in Jeremiah’s time. Then, as ever, Judah tried to play international power politics, trying to box above her weight. The temptation of intrigue and alliances spelt constant trouble.
Jeremiah repeatedly warned kings and people. He saw people’s unfaithfulness to God as the cause of the crises on both the political and moral front. He tried again and again to get people to see the danger they were in, to turn their behaviour and to return to God. He suffered because of his work. He was beaten, he was imprisoned, he was lowered into a dark, dank muddy pit and only rescued by an Ethiopian. Against his will he was eventually taken to Egypt by a remnant of people after Jerusalem had been totally destroyed. As far as we know this is where he died. In spite of everything, he remained unshakeably faithful to his calling.
Amid the forecasts of impending doom, Jeremiah clung on to hope. Like all of the prophets, his faith in the mercy of our God who works through history and never lets his people go, remained constant. That hope is given expression in the first part of the Readings from Jeremiah’s prophesy – verses 7 to 14. The picture is of a land restored and a people at peace in a land of plenty for all. Beyond the looming catastrophe God will forgive, comfort and provide for His people. Jeremiah’s assurance, in God’s name is ‘I will turn their mourning into joy, their sorrow into gladness.’ Verse 13.
In our situation today, with so much suffering in so many ways through the Coronavirus and so many people facing an uncertain and troubling future, how do we hold on to hope and share the assurance of God’s mercy, forgiveness and constant faithfulness and care?
In many ways, Chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah is the most important. I have deliberately extended the suggested reading to include two further paragraphs and their lines of thought. Verse 23 through to verse 30, having painted a picture restoration and harmony, quotes a proverb that evidently was in circulation at the time. Ezekiel too, in a later period, quotes the same proverb. It runs ‘The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste.’ Jeremiah raises the all-important subject of personal responsibility. In his day people were quick to pass the buck and declare that their suffering and their plight wasn’t their fault but rather due to the legacy of previous generations. We are bound up together and there is a sense in which we must bear corporate responsibility. In our day there is the ongoing debate about Nature and Nurture – which are the dominant influences in our life and behaviour, our upbringing or our genes? One of the significant contributions that Jeremiah made to the growing understanding of our lives in relationship with God comes in verse 30 – ‘Whoever eats sour grapes will have his own teeth set on edge.’ We do bear responsibility for our own actions. However, we do so against the background of our relationship with God and His love and mercy.
So to the third paragraph – verses 31 to 34. Of course, things for many are different this year but, traditionally within Methodism the first Sunday of the New Year is marked as Covenant Sunday, the day when we renew our Covenant with God. Covenant is a key Biblical word. It is the expression of God’s grace and His gracious relationship of love and understanding with His people. We do not earn it, we do not deserve it. He initiates it and asks of us worship, faithfulness, righteousness and obedience to His laws. An impossible task. We try, and with his help make our New Year promise – ‘I am no longer my own but yours. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’ Tough words to say. Even tougher to live out. Jeremiah spoke and wrote (he had a PA called Baruch who took his dictation) about a New Covenant in which God promises ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs.’ vv 33 & 34. We make a new start in the New Year – forgiven and freed from the past and with the assurance that God is our God, and we are His people through thick and thin.
In Mark 14 we have the record of what we call the Last Supper. Around the meal table in the upstairs room in Jerusalem, and in the company of His closest friends, Jesus carefully chose the Covenant idea to express God’s purpose in His life, death and resurrection. In the tangible form of bread and wine, we remember in gratitude and devotion. God’s Covenant relationship with His people is not expressed in a document of paper but in a person – Jesus.
Thank God for Jeremiah. Even more, Thank God for Jesus. Happy New Year!