This is (with some edits to include important points made in the audio) the draft version of the sermon I gave this past Sunday, when we joined together to “Re-Covenant” our ministries for the start of our Congregation’s “Program Year.” I gave the actual sermon without reference to this draft (for the most part) – and, frankly doing so made for a message that was far better and more relevant than you will read here. (That one should listen when the Holy Spirit stirs within you is a lesson I learned long ago.)
If you wish to hear the sermon as given, the audio can be found at the bottom of this page. (I may someday update the draft to match the audio – in my copious spare time!)
Please join me in prayer…
Lord God, we lift up this morning’s lessons. May they touch our hearts, and speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of your Creation. Amen.
The year is 622 BCE.
Zoroaster, founder of the great Zoroastrian faith is a young boy in Persia. Lao Tse – founder of Taoism, and Confucius, and Buddha, all would be born within the next few years. Classical Greek Culture was just beginning its rise to dominance, and Rome was a small city under Etruscan domination.
In Israel young Josiah has been King of Judah for about 18 years. And, for the first time in generations, his Kingdom is not threatened by external aggression or domination. The Assyrian Empire that his Kingdom had long paid tribute to, and which had destroyed Samaria in Northern Israel just a century earlier, was disintegrating. Egypt was also recovering from Assyria’s domination, and Babylon had not yet laid claim to Assyria’s place as the dominant power in that part of the ancient world.
Josiah about 26 years old, and possibly exploiting the opportunities that arose from his Kingdom’s newfound independence, the Bible tells us he directed Hilkiah, the High Priest, to use Tax Money to renovate the long neglected Temple of Yahweh.
And Lo and Behold! As the renovation of the Temple began, Hikiah found a scroll hidden among the stones.
It is generally accepted by Biblical Scholars that this text was later incorporated into much of what is now the Book of Deuteronomy, chapters 4 through 28.
The discovery of this scroll sparked a religious revival. As they felt they were being directed by some of the commandments found within it, King Josiah commanded Hilkiah and his priests to eradicate all idols and all other forms and places of worship in the land: Priests of the ancient hilltop shrines throughout Judah were forced to convert, or were killed. Asherah Poles were cut down. Idols and shrines were desecrated, burned and buried.
The Shema in chapter 6 verse 4 of Deuteronomy was also part of that scroll, and is both a declaration of this renewed relationship with God, and a ringing statement of the people’s devotion: “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
And so, what we now know as the faith of the people of the Living, Only, and Unnamed God became the uncontested reality of the people of Judah.
This cleanisng of the household of God – both literally and spiritually – was seen as a reaffirmation and reclaiming of the faith of their forefathers. There was a renewed dedication to the fundamentals of the faith. The Ancient Jews believed that their careful observation of this renewed covenant would restore the past greatness of their Kingdom and fulfill the destiny that had long been prophesied. God would reward them for their faithfulness.
And yet, just 13 years later, Josiah, fighting as an ally of the Babylonians, is killed by Egyptian arrows at the battle of Megiddo in Northern Israel. The Kingdom of Judah is again caught in the middle as a resurgent Egypt and the newly arisen Babylonian Empire fight each other for supremacy in that part of the world.
Josiah’s children retain the throne, but only as figureheads serving at the whim of their Babylonian masters; but, in less than a generation, even that is taken away from them when the great Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar retaliates for the Jew’s continued resistance: sacking the City of Jerusalem a second time and destroying the Temple. He takes the surviving elite of Judah – Nobility, Priests and Scribes – into exile. The revival is over. The year is 586 BCE.
And, for the first time, the leaders of Judaic culture, thought and faith, who had long seen the world from a perspective limited by their location within in the isolated and inaccessible hilltop fortress of Jerusalem, were now embedded within a far larger, more colorful, and more varied world than they’d ever imagined. Such a different landscape. so many people, so many cultures, so many different languages, so many different ideas, unimaginable wealth, all in the City of the Tower of Babel! How to make sense of it all? How to find a place for themselves in the middle of all of this?
And, on top of this, it seemed their faith in God had been for naught: the Babylonians had conquered their Kingdom, and destroyed the Temple. Had God failed them, or had they failed God? They didn’t know, and at first saw no way to find out, since the temple, which had been the only link connecting God and mankind, was gone. The people of Judah saw themselves as a God-forsaken people in a Godless land. Well, actually, a god-filled land – since gods of every shape size and description could be found everywhere: in the form of idols sold at the markets; or sitting in little shrines all over the place: on walls, on street corners, on rooftops, and in every home and shop. And then there were the most important Gods who were worshipped in the great temples at the center of each of the cities of the land.
How could the Judean God possibly be relevant or of any use in all of this? Israel’s prophets had long railed against the evils of corruption and too much power in their own land, and more recently had preached against polluting the faith with foreign gods. But their long struggle for social justice and religious purity seemed irrelevant, now that the entire Kingdom of God was gone.
Whether the Jews would survive at all, and how, was now the question. Surely the people might survive, but their identity as a people and their faith seemed doomed to be swallowed up in the colorful and alluring cosmopolitan confusion that surrounded them there in Babylon.
A new Covenant was needed. God must still be relevant, but how? Without the Temple, how could they even communicate with God, to find out what God wanted them to do?
From this time forward you can see a change in Judaic writings. The Books of Job, Ecclesiastes , Esther, and Proverbs are all written in this period – part of the new “Wisdom Literature” tradition in Hebrew thought and faith.
And out of this introspection, a New Covenant was born: one that expressed a more nuanced faith; a faith that recognized and had compassion for human failings; a faith that saw God as not just the exclusive property of a single people, but as a God who loved all of Creation and all of Humanity. A faith that realized God was to be found everywhere, not just in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem. A faith that recognized that the Temple, for all of its importance as a center of cultic ritual, was not the only avenue by which God communicated with Creation.
But, this was not the last New Covenant. Throughout History – from the times of Josiah on down to the present, we see crisis after crisis, where it had become clear that the faith of the forefathers was no longer adequate to the needs of the day. And, in each case, we see Renewal after Renewal, new revelations of deeper truths to be found within the ancient teachings, revealed through new lessons often painfully learned.
And, in each of these cases, we see that the Family of God is extended to embrace new classes of people. We see the development of a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the nature of the Love of God for all of Creation and all of Humankind.
Now, this does not mean that other threads of religious tradition did not exist, and were not powerful – certainly Fundamentalism such as arose in Josiah’s revival so long ago is still very strong today in many faiths, including Judaism and Christianity, and was strong in Jesus’ time as well. Nor can we say that such competing threads are a bad thing: Fundamentalism, for instance, was crucial to the revival of the Faith in Josiah’s time, and was a driving force in the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Great Awakening, and numerous other periods of religious renewal and revival throughout history. But, it is the concept of Covenant that we are focusing upon this morning.
And, perhaps we should stop here for a moment – after such a sweep through history, since we haven’t even bothered defining what the term “Covenant” means.
To begin with, a Covenant is an agreement between two parties where each party is obligated to take on certain responsibilities with respect to the other, and receive benefits in return. It is important to remember that a Covenant is not about rules but about relationship. The entire purpose of a Covenant is to ensure the relationship between the two parties will be strong and will prosper over time. Any rules or guidelines in the covenant are intended to provide guidance on how to ensure this happens and the interests of both parties protected. But, if the situation changes (and it always does – as change is the only constant in this world) then, in the interest of preserving the relationship, it is understood that the rules will eventually need to be negotiated – and a new (or revised) Covenant agreed-upon.
And, Covenants are never a one-way thing. They are not an affirmation of the dominance of one over another, even if one is vastly more powerful than the other, as Jesus taught his disciples in this morning’s reading from Mark. Instead, it is an agreement freely entered-into by both parties, where each respects and cares for and serves the other. Each of the great covenants between man and God in the Old Testament can be understood in this way: mankind had certain obligations to God, and God had certain obligations to man. There were also penalties if the agreement was breeched, and witnesses to each Covenant, as well.
So, the covenant that was on the scroll Hilkiah found in the Temple and presented to Josiah is a revision of earlier Covenants, even though it was written as though coming from Moses himself. And, In that Covenant, we find not only the Shema, but (in chapter 5) the Ten Commandments, and chapter 6 includes the Great Commandment which Jesus quotes in Matthew 22.
In return for their obedience, the Lord promises to make the Jews his “treasured people”, “to be set high above all nations.” Further promises are made to bless the people in many different ways in return for their obedience to the Covenant and the laws of God; but great disasters and divine retribution are promised if the people and their leaders do not observe the Covenant.
And, one should note – this is not the first Covenant the Jews made with God, nor the last. The Mosaic Covenant was centuries earlier, as was the Abrahamic Covenant, Israel’s Covenant, Joshua’s Covenant, Gilead’s Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and so on.
Our Commissioning this morning is also a type of Covenant. The Officers and Team members whom we commissioned have promised to fulfill certain obligations – they are peacemakers, determined to work towards the harvest of righteousness that peace will bring – to our own individual benefit to the benefit of the Congregation as a whole, to the benefit of the community around us, and to the Body of Christ as a whole. We have in return promised to work with them and with God so that we may work together harmoniously to promote this Common Good to God’s glory.
In closing, I ask that we remember that Covenants do not last forever, and cannot remain unchanged over time – none of those in the Bible did! This is in part why we renew our Covenant every year in a service like this – not just to confirm new members of our teams and leadership into their positions, and not just to remind ourselves of what our Covenants are, but also to give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on how our relationship with the Living and therefore ever-changing, ever speaking God has evolved and changed as we’ve grown and changed, and as the world has grown and changed around us.
We live within the Covenant of God. It is a Covenant of Faith, both requiring our Faith and building our Faith. It is a Covenant with The Unseen, a Covenant that is never static, a Covenant that – despite being ever changing – will never end.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, September 20, 2015
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)