Just like God to reach into his people’s despair and proclaim a message of hope, isn’t it?
Again, it comes through Jeremiah, a man who saw the worst coming and who spared no detail when he talked about it. Now, as the exile itself comes to pass and the people are separated from the land God promised them, Jeremiah passes on a message of hope.
They might want God to declare the whole thing a dream and give them a do-over, but that can’t happen. God deals in the real world, and in the real world, the nation of Judah faces a real mess of its own making. God made a covenant with Abraham to be the God of Abraham’s descendants. He renewed the covenant in the time of Moses and expanded it during the reign of David. They were God’s chosen people. He gave them the law through Moses so they could act like God’s chosen people, rather than act like everyone else around them.
Now they’re in exile – the northern nation of Israel disappeared into the Assyrian empire hundreds of years ago, and the last two tribes of Jacob are plucked up and planted in Babylon. After more than a thousand years of history, they live in the land of the Chaldeans, the very place where Abram started his wanderings.
God asked them to root their nationality and their identity as a people in him. Instead, they rooted it in their king and their wealth and just about anything else. Now they’ve lost their nation, and with it their nationality. Can they still have their identity as a people? Can it survive exile? Will God bring back the covenant they broke?
God, says Jeremiah, will do much more than even that. In the legal world, no one is bound to renew a covenant with someone who’s already broken one. And in the case of God v. Israel, the Israelites clearly failed to live up to their end of the bargain. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. But the people worshipped false gods and they pretended to be like all the people around them. So they broke the covenant.
But God says he will renew the covenant and in fact promises to strengthen it. Which only makes sense. God stays faithful to the promises he’s made – from his point of view, he is still their God, and they are still his people, even if they’ve completely broken the covenant from their side.
This new covenant won’t in any way shape or form erase the old one. God doesn’t go back on promises. The new covenant expands the old one, in fact. Rather than have a written law which they follow to demonstrate their difference, they will know God so well and so thoroughly they won’t need a written law at all.
Again, Christians should be careful here. We might like to say that the new covenant means we don’t need to follow the old laws. And we do say that a lot of the time. We pick and choose which old laws suit our ideas and we loudly proclaim them, while we brush aside those old laws that don’t make sense to us or don’t match our ideas.
God speaks of the law differently, though. He reminds us that it was the way his people differentiated themselves from the other people around them. By obeying the law, the people showed that being God’s chosen people meant something, and that something started with a life lived differently. You didn’t oppress poor people, you helped them. You didn’t think of yourself first, you thought of God. You didn’t take advantage of one another, you did what you could to make sure everyone was taken care of. And so on.
I believe God intends that law to be written on our hearts – not every regulation down to its last punctuation mark. As Christians, we believe certain things about the world and its people.
We say we believe God created everything that is – do we act like it? Do we take care of the resources we have and use them wisely so that as best as we can manage everyone benefits? We say God loves human beings, his children. Do we treat each other as a child God loves? We proclaim that Jesus gave his life for our salvation. Is that the center of our lives, our conversation, our action?
Probably none of us would answer yes as often as we’d like to questions like this. But we hope to grow in our faith so that we can improve, right? That law is being written on our hearts, but it may not be finished yet. Maybe it’s like invisible ink over a fire – it’s there, but it’s only starting to show up now.
As Christians, I think we pray for that writing to be come clearer and clearer – not because we can show off God’s signature, but so that we can see more and more how it should define our lives.
We pray for the day when we don’t have to teach each other, because on that day we all know him. That is our good news.