Jeremiah 31:31-34 – A New Covenant

The Last Supper by Francis Newton Souza, 1990

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT)

For the past few weeks, the Daily Lectionary readings brought us steady admonitions of passing faith onto future generations, with obedience as the key to it all. However, God’s ancient people kept going through significant times of unfaithfulness, infidelity, and disobedience. As if they had some sort of spiritual A.D.D., the people could not seem to keep their eyes off the glittering gods from the surrounding nations.

For certain, God has always possessed a faithful remnant of people devoted to observing the covenant. Yet, the nation in the prophet Jeremiah’s day floundered and broke faith with the teaching given to them.

Since God’s grace has the last word, the sins and shortcomings of the backslidden people who failed to pass on the covenant teachings to their progeny would have a better ending than judgment.

God’s answer to repeated human failings was to establish a new covenant, unprecedented in its audacious mercy.

Rather than rewriting commands on stone tablets (as with Moses on Mount Sinai) and having a remedial class on covenant, God would instead do the extraordinary by writing the law on human hearts – that way they would know the Lord in a direct and immediate way. What is more, it would be for everybody, neither only for the remnant nor for the spiritual elite.

From the least to the greatest, from young to old, even from Jew to Gentile, God would forgive once and for all.

If that is not the most gracious act ever decreed, I do not know what is. This was a radical move of spiritual amnesty which was completely undeserved and most definitely not something any other god from any other nation would ever do. It was unthinkable – completely off everyone’s radar. Yet, that is exactly what grace does.

From a New Testament (New Covenant) perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s good covenant promises to the people. Furthermore, God’s Holy Spirit serves as the continuing presence of Jesus within us, teaching us and guiding us in the ways of God. Our only task, then, is to live into those promises – to know them, claim them, and bank on them. 

We are most obedient when we believe the promises of God and throw all our hope in them.

The implications of this divine decree are enormous. It means:

  • I cannot do a dang thing to earn God’s acceptance because I already have it! (John 6:37; Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 8:33-39, 15:7-12)
  • I need not fear judgment because Jesus has already taken care of the sin issue, once for all! (Romans 6:5-10; Hebrews 7:27-28, 10:5-10; 1 John 4:17-18)
  • I lack nothing because God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness in this present evil age! (Philippians 4:19; 2 Peter 1:3-4)
  • I can know God, right now, without jumping through spiritual hoops or over imposed hurdles because Jesus leveled the way and made it clear! (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9-18)
  • I can enjoy forgiveness and a clean heart because God has decreed it to be so! (Psalm 103:8-12; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:14-18)

If this were not enough, Jesus has sent the Spirit to be with us forever, to guide us and lead us into realizing the law written on our hearts. We are never alone. God is with us.

Jesus said, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Do not be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:26-27, CEB)

In this world of trepidation, fear, uncertainty, and unrest, there is peace, grace, and love because of Father, Son, and Spirit, the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Divine Warrior who fights our battles, the Lord of Hosts who has our backs. Yes, this God, and no other god, has the chutzpah to make promises to us and the power to back them up.

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes! Yes! Amen!

Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So, on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)

James 2:8-13 – On Mercy and Against Favoritism

“Benevolent Mercy” by Iowa artist William Butler

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

One of my bedrock foundational unshakable beliefs is that God’s big world spins on the axis of grace. Without grace we would all be living in some nightmarish dystopian novel just trying to survive. Grace is the force which overwhelms and overcomes everything. 

When I was growing up, we had a dog named Sam. Sam loved being on the farm. More than once he tussled with a skunk. In those times, I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. God is going to clean us up when smelling the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice. Favoring the rich over the poor stinks because God cares about those trapped in poverty. When Jesus began his ministry, he lifted-up the importance of poor folk by placing himself in the position of extending grace to them:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, NIV)

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was a pervasive reality (and still is!). The various reasons for poverty range from being born into poverty, being lazy, or being oppressed and/or in slavery. The types of poor persons run the gamut from simple beggars to the pious and humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons were called in biblical times the anawim” (Hebrew עֲנָוִ֣ים). The anawim are humble and gentle folk caught in grinding poverty with no other option but to put their trust in God.

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the needs of the poor are a chief reason why Holy Scripture is filled with references about how to treat them. The anawim are dear and near to the heart of God:

“Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

“If you hire poor people to work for you, don’t hold back their pay whether they are Israelites or foreigners who live in your town. Pay them their wages at the end of each day because they live in poverty and need the money to survive. If you do not pay them on time, they will complain about you to the Lord, and he will punish you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEV)

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Unknown Dutch artist, 1580.

Nothing gets God’s hackles up more than unjust and unfair favoritism which is devoid of mercy and grace toward the poor. It all stinks to high heaven, and when God smells it, divine egalitarian power is not far behind.

It is the poor in spirit with no trust in stuff and ingenuity who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The humble person gives grace to another even though the person cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who have a deal with you about scratching each other’s backs. However, it is altogether a different thing to be gracious simply because it is the right thing to do and pleases the heart of God. 

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. Inattention to the poor and needy only betrays a heart of unjust favoritism – a materialistic heart full of greed. A 2012 Boston Globe article asked the following question: Does money change you?

The Globe article stated, “most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money … wouldn’t change who they are as people. Yet, a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you would behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you are probably wrong: These are not just inherited traits but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found in their research that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to view some groups of people as inferior to others.  Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds. Their research concluded, “If you win the lottery and you want to avoid becoming an insensitive jerk, there is a simple solution: Give at least half the money away.” 

Some poor people, as in the days of the Apostle James, are willing to put up with being treated unfairly so they might get a piece of the rich person’s pie. Favoritism ignores the sin in others to gain something from them. God says that is stinking thinking.

Favoritism is flat out a violation of God’s law. The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Favoritism violates our neighbor, and therefore, is sinful disobedience of God. Any needy human we encounter is our neighbor – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, or anything that identifies them as different. They are to be helped when we can do so.

We are to speak and act with mercy because we will eventually have to face the Judge. God is always watching us – every word and every action. Judge Jesus will respond to how we have treated each person we encountered and how we talked about other people when they were not around. We will all appear before Christ at the end of the age and must give an account of ourselves. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Words are important, so they ought to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. Showing mercy instead of favoritism is the way love expresses itself.  Mercy is best given when we have first received it ourselves from God. A heart touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus is one which will stand in the judgment.

We rid ourselves of favoritism’s stench through the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  There is grace available if we will receive it. God is the expert in transforming lives, renewing minds, and putting to death the pride of favoritism. The work is done with needed grace and compassionate mercy.

So, we are to make it our goal to be a grace-givers, to have willing hearts which seek to emulate the mercy of Christ. The bath of mercy and grace takes away the stank of prideful favoritism and leaves us with the sweet aroma of love, justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Psalm 119:49-56 – Night Reflection

Remember your promise to me;
    it is my only hope.
Your promise revives me;
    it comforts me in all my troubles.
The proud hold me in utter contempt,
    but I do not turn away from your instructions.
I meditate on your age-old regulations;
    O Lord, they comfort me.
I become furious with the wicked,
    because they reject your instructions.
Your decrees have been the theme of my songs
    wherever I have lived.
I reflect at night on who you are, O Lord;
    therefore, I obey your instructions.
This is how I spend my life:
    obeying your commandments. (NLT)

Insomnia happens to everyone, some more than others. We all have experienced the inability to sleep. Then, there are those persons who choose to arise in the middle of the night just to pray. Yes, monks do this, but there are common people who do, as well. In my own times of trying to get to sleep, I think about such persons. I especially and reflexively go to the psalms. Along with the psalmist, I reflect at night on the character and nature of the Lord.

The psalmist seems to be awake at night because he is frustrated and upset with people who both spurn wise instruction and direct their contempt at those trying to live according to God’s Law. Although insomnia might be the result of angry or unwanted feelings, maybe it is something else altogether. Perhaps the psalmist simply chose to be awake at night and do some theological reflection on God, others, and himself.

At various times in my life I have chosen to set my alarm for two o’clock in the morning to pray.  I know it may sound crazy to some. Yet, this discipline has taught me something valuable: God is Lord over all chronological time and every season. And I am a servant of God, not master. 

This nightly exercise of weaving my life around a set time of prayer has caused me to learn that I have spent far too much of my life trying to make time bend to my wishes. It is all really an illusion – that I can somehow control the clock. Time marches forward, seasons come and go, and we are a vapor which lasts only a moment.

Whether we find ourselves awake in the night because we cannot sleep, or intentionally choose to use the night for connecting with God, the wee hours of darkness afford us a unique opportunity to ponder the Lord’s promises and commands, attributes, and works. 

The next time you find yourself awake at night, try avoiding the television and a zombie-like state of hoping for sleep. Try using the night-time for thinking about the Lord in ways you might not have considered during the day. Pray. Reflect. Consider. In doing so, you may find a blessing of light within the dark.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Psalm 119:49-56, NKJV