A New Covenant: The Vision of Shalom - John 12:20-33 & Jeremiah 31:31-34
An Amish girl and her family were visiting a mall for the first time. The girl and her mother stood together, amazed by everything they saw. But especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and back together again. The girl asked her mother in bewilderment, "What is this?" The mother responded, "My child, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” The girl and her mother watched wide-eyed as an old man hobbled up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The doors opened and he went into a small room inside. The elevator closed and the girl and her mother watched small circles with numbers light up along the side. It made a funny noise then stopped. After some time, the walls opened again and the most handsome man they’d ever seen walked out. Amazed the mother turned to her daughter and said, "Quick, go get your father!"
This Amish woman obviously misunderstood the function of an elevator. She thought it was a machine of transformation. But I guess we can’t blame her. What’s really striking about our Scripture lessons this morning is the theme of transformation. In the Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat dies it remains just a single grain. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus wasn’t just talking about his own death, he was talking about the mystical death to self. Transformation for Jesus isn’t about entering an elevator and changing your physical appearance. It’s about changing your heart, surrendering your will, dying to your self, and transforming your whole being into a person who manifests the divine will in the world.
The Jeremiah text is also a call to transformation. This passage is one of my favorites in the whole Bible. And in seminary I wrote a paper on it called: “God’s Vision of Shalom.” The background behind it is that Jeremiah was writing during the time period when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, destroyed God’s Temple, and took the people into exile—ending 400 years of home rule under David and his descendants. This was a very traumatic moment in Jewish history. In fact, the Exodus from Egypt, a thousand years earlier, and the Exile to Babylon are the two defining moments of Old Testament history.
In the years before the exile, Jeremiah had prophesied that if the nation didn’t repent God would bring the Babylonians to conquer them. At God’s direction Jeremiah encouraged the king to submit to Babylon before it was too late. But the king made a deal with Egypt and Egypt never came through. Jeremiah’s contemporaries accused him of being a Babylonian sympathizer and treated him with contempt. Finally, as Jeremiah foretold, the Babylonians destroyed the city. Jeremiah had prophesized an exile where the generation who refused to listen would die, but their children would return to the land. And it turns out the exile lasted 70 years. It is in this context, either right before or during the exile, that this Jeremiah 31 passage about the new covenant appears.
That’s the historical context of this passage. And in this text Jeremiah offers a word of hope. Hope that God would transform the hearts of God’s people so that they would never again stray from the Lord and endure such hardship. And this passage isn’t just speaking about the specific event of the Babylonian exile. Looking at the prophet’s words we see he isn’t just talking about one nation twenty-six hundred years ago. The language of the new covenant reveals God’s plan for the whole human family. God isn’t just promising a return from exile here. God is promising that one day all people will live in peace, all people will know God, and Jeremiah’s Vision of Shalom will be established. This is a common vision among Old Testament prophets, and it’s the same type of thing Jesus is getting at with his Kingdom of God language.
The idea is that this new covenant will come about because of God’s work in us. God will transform humankind and write God’s law on our hearts. God will transform our hearts and transform our minds and transform our wills. So that all people will turn to God, and know God intimately, and follow God’s will naturally. From the least of us to the greatest. And people won’t even need to teach each other about God, because we’ll all know God deeply in our hearts.
In this vision “all people love God and follow God’s will, not through fear or disciplined devotion, but through a natural, effortless response to divine love. In such a world all people live in peace and harmony, in union with eachother and with God. It is this Vision of Shalom that is at the core of the biblical message and which is the hope for a brighter tomorrow that Jeremiah shares with readers of the Bible from his own era up to [today]”.
Now in the Gospel, John chapter 12, we hear “some Greeks” want to meet Jesus. In all of the Gospels there is a turning point where Jesus moves from focusing on just Israel and expands his ministry to the entire world. And this is that turning point for John. It’s a very inclusive text and helps us see the universality of the Jeremiah passage as well.
The point of both readings is that God is at work transforming our hearts. And we are reminded that this is not just a promise for the people of Israel, but a promise for the whole world. So the people of Israel, and the Greeks, and even the Romans and Babylonians, and even…us…are being transformed by God to have these new hearts that will gladly serve God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
And this is not something we need to struggle for; it’s God’s promise to us. God is at work transforming human hearts, writing God’s law within us, through the power of the Holy Spirit bearing fruit in us. Transforming the whole human family into creatures who manifest God in the physical realm.
That may be hard to imagine when we look at some of the world today. In a world still in the grips of a global pandemic. In a world that seems as divided as ever. A world that still seems to think war is the answer. A world where some nations squander the planet’s resources and others don’t even have crumbs to eat. A world where the lives of plants and animals are not respected, and where forests and natural habitats are being destroyed at an ever growing rate. A world where racism and mass shootings are always a threat, as evident in the Georgia spa shootings this past week.
To this world, full of sin and suffering. To this world, full of all these problems, God says “I will make a new covenant.” God will write God’s law on our hearts and inspire us to the new life Jesus and Jeremiah proclaim. And this is not our own doing; it is a gift of God. All we do is live into this promise. Live into this new covenant. Live into this new heart.
And we see signs of this new heart in the world too. We see this new heart when people make sacrifices to help one another. We see this new heart when we welcome the stranger or donate our time or money to those in need. We see this new heart when we advocate for justice and righteousness. We see this new heart when we come together for worship, when we share the sacraments, and as we remember Christ’s holy passion in the coming weeks.
And so we live as if this new covenant is already written on our hearts. Because, in Christ, it is. The church, with all its human flaws, is called to manifest this new reality. To be the Body of Christ, God’s hands and feet, here and now. To live the new covenant now. So let us bear Christ’s image in our lives and invite God to continually transform our hearts and minds and wills. That we might die to ourselves as a grain of wheat dies so that we bear fruit, and that we might grow into these new hearts God has for us, and make Jeremiah’s Vision of Shalom a reality.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.