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Jeremiah 31:31-34 9 (Jer 38:31-34 LXX )

The following sermon was preached by Klaus-Peter Adam, Associate Professor of Old Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, March 30, 2009.


Jeremiah 31:31-34 9 (Jer 38:31-34 LXX )

 "They have changed the rules. They have changed the rules in the middle of the game! They have broken the consenus. I can't trust this covenant any longer!" I will not forget my cousin Ralph who uttered these distinct sentences. With his calm, but partly trembling voice.

A specialist in brokerage, with these words Ralph commented on the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into the conservatorship run by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. This had happened on September 7th last year. I still see myself sitting at my desk in Bremerhaven and listening to his voice on the phone: "They have broken the consensus." I remember that Ralph talked about an event of the same importance for the economy as September 11 had been for the security policy. As from this day on, nothing will be as before, he said. And, as things are, until now, a new consensus has yet to be established.

"I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. Not as the covenant as I made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah ...  says the Lord."

I can't but think of the current transition of our global economy, when I hear of Jeremiah's words about an old, broken covenant, and about a new covenant that is yet to be made.

To be sure, Jeremiah talks about an invitation to a new covenant: God offers us a new covenant. On the contrary, we will have to rebuild our economic covenant and the consensus of our western societies by ourselves.

But what is comparable to the situation of Jeremiah's announcement of a new covenant after an old consensus was broken, and our situation, is our attitude when we face broken covenants.

How do we envision new covenants, how can we open up to them, while we
still suffer from so many broken rules?
Let me ponder on the appropriate attitude as we envision a new covenant while we face how our covenant is currently smashed to smithers.

Starting with our perception of the broken covenant in 2009, I will touch upon two other moments of broken covenants in German history. 1989 and 1945. German history's legacy is particularly rich in experiences of broken covenants. It offers excellent illustrative material. Unfortunately, this is often rather problematic. I hope we can still learn from it.

1. 2009 - 1989

My first example is about an outside perspective on the breakdown in another society.

Hubris and arrogance of many of us West Germans were predominant at the time of the breakdown of the communist system!

More specifically, their critical economic flaws were openly laughed at. At least in German society of 1989, when the cracks in the wall in Berlin had led to the end of the communist rule. In the wake of the events of 1989, shortly after the reunification, the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, wrote me a letter. I found it recently by chance in a book. The closing passage goes

"Already now the western system offers to all former east Germans a bright future. And, finally we have the breakdown of socialism! This will offer to citizens all over Eastern Europe great opportunities for such a bright future as our East German sisters and brothers experience it today!"

Kohl's attitude matched most western commentators: Not only would they allude to the political freedom, but, also, to the economic downturn of the Eastern system: Finally, this inefficient system, that simply could not work, had collapsed, finally, and rightly so. The old covenant of socialist economic logic was broken. They had always depended on the west. Finally a new western, capitalistic covenant could start. These were the over and overly repeated comments.

1989-2009: About 2 decades have passed since then. Meanwhile we hear the following jokes:

What is the difference between Communism and Capitalism? Well, communism is when first a government takes over the banks - and then the banks go broke. With capitalism it's the other way round, first, the banks go broke and then the government takes them over.  

Yes, sisters and brothers of one of the wealthiest nations: Most of us did silently agree with chancellor Kohl in 1990, didn't we?
Less than twenty years later, I wonder how long it will take, until letters like the one of Chancellor Kohl will be sent out. Maybe their final sentences will go:

"Since the breakdown of the western economic system in the second decade of the 21st century, new chances have opened up for..."

-I leave it up to you to fill in the specifics: in which language these letters might be written, in which parts of the world they will they be sent out and which citizen's they might reach.

To be sure: This is not meant to glorify the politics of a forced consensus in communist societies. But: was it right to trust the overly proud architects and executives of the western economic system?

Could it be that we were arrogant in the last two decades?

I assume that our self-assured attitude is part of the problem we have, when we see how the consensus of our western society with its economic standards is about to break in so many respects.

We were not willing to learn from the breakdown of the socialist economy, in order to improve our system. Nor did we rethink the consensus of our western societies. All of us were too self-assured. We were not open and ready to adopt to a new covenant in any new way.

Thus says the Lord: "...I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. ... not like the covenant that I made with their (mothers and) fathers... "

2. 1945

Another look back onto a broken covenant and the reaction of the people to this. I chose two examples from my German collective memory. One illustrates the stubborn denial toward the invitation to a new covenant. The other shows how a group of predominantly Lutheran Christians opened up towards a new covenant.

The first is the story of Karl. He was born in Germany in 1902, was trained as a high school teacher, but unemployed for many years after World War I. Karl joined the modern movement of the National socialists in 1933. He soon could find work as a teacher. After the defeat of World War II, he found himself as a prisoner of war. When he was exposed for several days in a camp, he and his comrades were left in a chilly autumn rain without protection and with poor food. Facing death, an absurd idea came to his mind. He wrote a letter to his youngest brother Paul, a US citizen. I imagine him writing: "Dear brother Paul, I am a prisoner of war. The US and their allies are going to kill me! They broke the covenant of humane treatment of soldiers! Help me!"

His protest did not help. The letter did not pass the camp's authorities.  
I wonder about Karl's naiveté. To claim that the allied forces in 1945 had broken the covenant and ignored the rules!" Had he not actively been part of a system that had aggressively broken the covenant with most countries of Europe? Had he not helped to bring about a worldwide war with millions that had caused millions of deaths, claiming that he deserved other than to starve, claiming that he had a brother in the United States, a country he had been proud to attack only some months earlier?
Karl, who happens to be my grandfather, like most of his fellow-citizens was not open to a new covenant with new rules at this time. He still insisted that some rules, possibly of old covenants from before 1933, would be applicable, and should be respected. He insisted on human rights, even though his country had been so proud to break them.

Clearly, this attitude, of insisting on rules of an old covenant is not helpful at a time, when a new covenant is offered:
The Lord says: "I will make a new covenant... I will inscribe my law on their hearts.".

Let me, besides hubris and stubbornness, refer to a third, specifically protestant, predominantly Lutheran example from our collective memory of 1945.
In October 1945 a small group of German Christians was rethinking, how they could handle this situation of a broken covenant in the society of post-World War II in Germany. In their words you can sense the fervent dedication to open up towards the future of a new covenant. They trusted that God had promised a new covenant. And their attitude brought about a groundbreaking shift  in how German Christians could approach their past and how they could acknowledge it.
They wrote the confession we have heard in our opening prayer.
The core unit is this generation's precious legacy to us:
"We accuse ourselves,
for not standing to our beliefs more courageously,
for not praying more faithfully,
for not believing more joyously,
and for not loving more ardently.
We accuse ourselves... "

These words from October 1945 opened up the contact of the German Lutheran Church to the other churches worldwide.

How could this attitude help us, as we face the dawning of a new covenant among us?

-Before I put my ideas in the form of a wish for us, let me add some short remarks about Jeremiah 31.

Two versions exist: the Greek and the Hebrew Jeremiah. The Septuagint's Hebrew original, called its 'Vorlage', is presumably older than our Masoretic text. And, this Greek text of the LXX differs from our Masoretic text.

There are three fundamental differences.

First: The Masoretic text talks about a new covenant that will be established on the basis of the Torah, the law that is written in the heart of the people. The status of Israel is like in a divorce that is only in effect from the perspective of one of the two partners: Unlike Israel, the Lord has not left. The Septuagint, on the contrary assumes that both, we and God have left the covenant: "They did not remain, and YHWH did neglect them."

LXX refers to a tri-partite system of covenants: first, after the exodus. A second covenant was suggested during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, according to Jeremiah 11:10. Back then, however, the Judeans refused to engage in this covenant. This means: They are currently without a covenant.
As opposed to this, the Lord had given the covenant to the fathers and he had fulfilled all the words of his covenant (Jer 11:7-8) according to the Hebrew tradition. God had even married them, he understands himself as their Lord (V 32).

Second: The covenant between God and Israel is entirely set in the future in LXX. Israel has destroyed the first one and has never joined the second - the Lord had actually given up. He is now willing to establish a new covenant in the future. The sign of this is: The Lord will give the laws in his people's heart. According to the Masoretic text, this had already happened in the past. Yahweh had inscribed the Torah in the people's heart. Here, the masoretic text uses singular 'the law', while LXX mentions 'the laws'. The difference between the plural (the laws in LXX) and the singular in MT, the law, is the third difference between both versions.

Altogether, the Hebrew text and LXX remember history differently. The Hebrew text is more confident in God's ongoing mercy. It suggests that God is still waiting for Israel to come back as its legal husband. Yahweh is still there, while Israel had left, long ago, assuming that, with the rejection of the covenant, the divorce is in effect. Yahweh assumes that Israel comes back to him and reenters into a renewed, still kept up covenant.
I leave this chord of the two voices of our tradition and hope you can treasure them and ponder them in your heart. Both theologies are valid: The assumption that God still waits, while Israel left (this may be of special importance to us as Lutherans), and the idea of a new, future covenant, after a time when Israel and God had no covenant.

Let me conclude:

This is my wish for us as a seminary community, as God invites us to hope in the worries of this season of Lent  in 2009 for a new covenant, as he did invite many times before that: the Judeans after 587, the Germans in 1945, and, many Eastern Europeans in 1989:  

I hope that this is a time to reflect, to breathe and to admit:

We all are overwhelmed, facing how the covenants throughout this country are broken.
We admit, that we do not know how to cope with the new rules in such rapidly changing times.
On our pilgrimage through this uncomfortable process, we walk as a community.
I wish us, that we become eager to learn about God's new covenant with us.
I wish us that we are ready to reconsider our lives and our thoughts in the light of the new rules that God has written and that he will write on our hearts.
I wish us the right thoughts, I wish us honesty, realism, sobriety and composure, so that we find the appropriate attitude and the right words of our confession, as the few German Christians in 1945 found them for their times:

"We accuse ourselves,
for not standing to our beliefs more courageously,
for not praying more faithfully,
for not believing more joyously,
and for not loving more ardently."  

Amen.

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