by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 7, 1983, pp. 1126-1127, Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Despite our frustrations and doubts, we have seen the intimacy promised by Jeremiah partially realized in the coming of Christ. In Advent we are impelled to look beyond the first to the second coming, when God’s covenant will cease to be only a hint and a promise, when it will become our eternal destiny.
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the. house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more [Jer. 31:31-34].
Yet consider Jeremiah’s formulation of this promise of the new covenant as a covenant which cannot be broken: "not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke."
The subtle implication is that notwithstanding Israel’s adultery — "I was their husband, says the Lord" — there was something wrong with the original marriage contract; i.e., the old covenant.
This is confirmed when Jeremiah states the terms of the New Covenant: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." We Cannot stifle the question, "Why didn’t God grant Israel such a covenant in the first place?" Didn’t the first covenant lack precisely the degree of radical intimacy on God’s part that would be necessary for its fulfillment on Israel’s part? For as Jeremiah states the matter, only after the "law" — i.e., the intention and purpose of God — is written within Israel’s heart can Israel be brought to a true marriage relationship: "I will be their God and they shall be my people." Only then can the relationship between God and God’s people be of such direct intimacy as to make the pious attempt of others to serve as intermediaries seem like a meddling intrusion upon married love: "No longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."
Is not Jeremiah’s prophecy simultaneously a healing promise and a wounding reminder? Do we not live in a tension between hope and the disconcerting acknowledgment that we of the new covenant, like Israel of the old, do not have the immediate sense of the law of God written in our hearts? That we, too, quite apart from our sin and faithlessness, often simply do not and cannot know what God wills? Even after Christ’s coming, God has so painfully often kept his distance that we are like spouses married to one who is frequently away from home "on business."
Which one of us has not experienced the sense of divine abandonment, mirroring in our own little ways Christ’s feeling of abandonment by God? Which one of us has not sometimes felt, with the Apostle Paul, that "God has consigned all men to disobedience" (Rom. 11:32a)? When we measure our experience against the promised possibility of intimacy offered in the New Covenant, we do not feel embraced in such intimacy, but consigned to disobedience.
Yet although we have all experienced the painful gap between our hope and our daily experience, we persevere in faith. For despite our frustrations and doubts, we have seen the intimacy promised by Jeremiah partially realized in -the coming of Christ. We have even, in moments of grace, been so drawn to intimacy with Christ that we are overwhelmed by the prospect of such a relationship to the Divine passion, such commitment from such a lover. We cannot fulfill the demands of such love, and it is we who retreat into disobedience.
But usually we are lukewarm, neither obedient nor disobedient. We are left living in the ordinary world where God’s presence is but a memory. During such times we ask why, when God entered the world, he did not finish the job. Why the delay? Why must each generation in its own way be consigned to the disobedience of an imperfect relationship with our heavenly lover? Why can’t we take Christ into our hearts and have him and hold him?
In Advent we are impelled to look beyond the first to the second coming, when God’s covenant will cease to be only a hint and a promise, when it will become our eternal destiny.
Let us not be discouraged. We have good reason to stifle our frustrations and to prepare for a time of great joy. Even our doubts and dilemmas are only dark expressions of faith and hope. For had we not seen divinity in an infant, we would not be impelled to ask God why, having come so close, God still delays. Had we not been touched through the life and teachings of Jesus by the immediacy of the new covenant, we would not feel this pathos born of longing for a second advent.