Sunday, June 15, 2008

Getting back to basics - the need to renew our Covenant

This summer, I've been taking the people of Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls through an outline of the Bible. The effort, in response to welcome requests from parishioners, is to give them some reference points so they can actually read the Bible. Those of us who value the Scriptures sometimes exhort people to dive in and read, much like throwing a non-swimmer off a boat and yelling, "Swim! Swim!"

Today we surveyed the Old Testament history books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther*). I am teaching in a method called "canonical criticism". This looks at how the various books are arranged to work together in order to carry God's message.

Throughout the history books, which cover a turbulent span of at least 800 and possibly 1,000 years, the Israelite/Jewish people gather at key moments to re-read and renew their Covenant with God. Both parties in a covenant have obligations. God makes promises to His Covenant people, and they have responsibilites in return.

Joshua leads Covenant renewal ceremonies before the Israelites enter the land of Canaan and again, having conquered it, before he dies. God has given them the "promised land;" they are to live in it as a community governed by God-given laws.

King Josiah of Judah leads a Covenant renewal ceremony that brings him God's favor, but which comes too late to save the corrupt nation from military defeat and exile. The people do not take up their responsibilites toward God, so He removes His promised protection.

Ezra and Nehemiah lead a Covenant renewal ceremony when the exiles return, rebuild Jerusalem and reintroduce the worship and sacrificial systems that had been lost. God keeps His promise of mercy, and the people again take up the responsibility to live by His revealed law.

All of this is a getting-back-to-basics exercise for me, too. A few things that struck me in preparing this particular outline:
  • Covenant renewal takes place at all kinds of turning points, not just as a response to crisis. Changes of leadership and the achievement of goals call forth Covenant renewal in the Old Testament. How might a Christian congregation or larger church body practice communal renewal at key moments?
  • Covenant renewal often involves the rejection of practices which are inconsistent with the Covenant. As we read in Joshua 24:14, Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD." How might Christians gather to "throw away" false stuff that has compromised their Covenant with God?
  • Covenant renewal assumes that words matter. Nehemiah 8:1-3 shows how renewal begins with the preaching and hearing of God's revealed word to the community: …all the people assembled as one man... They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel…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…in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. How might a Christian body give itself to neglected but foundational teaching? (I think that this Summer Bible Outline series is Good Shepherd's effort to do this).

All of this was made acute today because we celebrated Holy Baptism. We "renewed our Covenant" as we said the Apostles' Creed. There was rejection (renunciation, which in the early church involved overt prayers of exorcism) of the devil, of worldly corruption, and of our own sin. And there was proclamation of the word, connecting today's sacramental act to the Biblical message of God's New Covenant in Christ.

But I continue to think out loud - how can Christian congregations be more deliberate about Covenant renewal?

*Yeah, I know. It is among the "Writings" in the Jewish understanding...more a "Wisdom Book" than a history book. But in the canon of Scripture, it represents the on-going struggle of the Jewish people during the Persian period. Even thought they were able to leave exile and rebuild Jerusalem, they entered the long period of domination by great foreign empires. But I did teach the Wisdom application, in which the story of Esther gets us to reflect on God as a hidden, mysterious, even "absent presence" at times. So there.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Canon criticism is an excellent appraoch, Father. May the people be blessed by your teaching and guidance.

TLF+ said...

Hmmm...some folks in Ft. Worth seem to have taken a stab at Covenant renewal...