Thursday, December 17, 2015

A promise

"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. 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. 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. 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."  (Jeremiah 31.33-34, NRSV)

Covenant: one of those words you only hear in church. Perhaps the closest we get to the word "covenant" in our everyday lives might be "contract" or maybe "agreement," but one of these is too calculating, the other too casual. I don't fully understand what it means establish a covenant because I haven't ever done it, not formally anyway. I'm not married, and I don't live in ancient Israel. These are the only two contexts in which I can imagine entering into a covenant. It seems like a somewhat antiquated concept, something we bring up when we feel like getting biblical.

In Jeremiah, though, God is promising a future covenant more than remembering an ancient one. "The days are surely coming," God says--not, "Remember those days?" God acknowledges that the people had broken the original covenant God made with them, but this is almost an afterthought. Sure, Israel broke their promise, but God has promise to spare. God doesn't withhold love when Israel doesn't do what God wants. If anything, God responds to their disobedience by loving them more intimately: "I will write [my law] on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." What a beautiful and overwhelming image: the divine approaching us, marking us, embracing us from the inside out. All this in spite of, or maybe even because of, our waywardness and our disbelief, our fear and our imperfection.

Can we imagine this kind of extravagant love? I don't ask this question because I think we humans are all bad, undeserving of love or commitment. I don't ask it to emphasize our sin in contrast to God's perfection. I ask it because so many of us, myself included, cannot imagine that someone, anyone, could respond to our faults and mistakes with more love. Love me at my best? Sure, I can be pretty impressive or funny or attractive sometimes. But love me at my worst? I don't think so.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the message we hear from Jeremiah, and from Jesus, and really from the Bible as a whole. You're not perfect? Good. If you can admit that, you're exactly who God came for. "I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more," God says here. And later from Jesus: "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17b). We see God do this over and over again, continuing to call humans to account but loving them--loving us--no matter what we have done.

This message is difficult for me to hear because I bounce back and forth so wildly from being certain that there is something deeply wrong with me to thinking I'm doing pretty damn well on my own, thank you very much. I alternate between outsize pride and profound self-doubt. I can't fathom the kind of constant, unwavering love God proclaims.

Perhaps that's why I need this whole covenant thing in the first place: to anchor me in promise, quiet my anxiety and level my pride, still me. When I can accept God's assurance that God will write on my heart, forgive me over and over and over again, love me without stipulations or limits--only then can I share any kind of covenantal life with other people. This doesn't mean I will start loving everyone perfectly, but it does mean I can promise to see them and love them for who they truly are, and for all they are. The day of a new, perfect covenant is coming, God says. While we wait, can we promise to love and forgive each other in all our beauty and ugliness, triumph and failure, hope and fear?

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