“My people will be filled with my bounty, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 7:14
On the first Sunday of a New Year, when there is a tradition of renewing a covenant with God, to renewing commitment to serving him in return for claiming his promises, Christians need to look at the processes of which they are part. What part do Christians play in the economy, in the life of the nation, in the history of the country. There is a tendency to assume that the present times are unique, that the times now are different, that the circumstances faced at the present time are something that has never happened before, yet history goes in cycles: economies, nations, whole civilizations rise and fall.
If one reads the history of the people of Israel through the pages of the Old Testament, particularly read through the Books of Kings and it is possible to see the sequences of history being repeated again and again.
All is well and the people become proud and arrogant which leads them into serious problems until they turn from their old ways and are sorry for what has happened, whereupon things improve and the good times come back.
Read through the pages of the Bible and it would be easy to think, “Surely these people could see what would happen if they persisted in going the way they were going?”
But they weren’t willing to see what lay ahead anymore than most people now would be prepared to accept that the good times are inevitably followed by bad times.
At the heart of people’s covenant relationship with God, there is the requirement that blessing meets with faithfulness.
Just as people tend to think that prosperity will continue indefinitely, so the people of Jerusalem thought that they were guaranteed God’s blessing, no matter what they did. They believed that being the chosen ones meant that they were not under obligation and they go headlong down the path of destruction.
Jeremiah the prophet tried to speak to his people against the background of the collapse and invasion of his country. Jeremiah is confident that a right relationship with God will be restored in the future, at one point he even buys a field as a sign that he believes there is a future for God’s people in that land. The lines from Jeremiah Chapter 31 are Jeremiah’s prophecy that the wheel of history will turn and that there will be good times again in the land, but it is important to note what leads to that restoration.
The people are promised joy; they are promised a return from exile; they are promised good crops and plentiful herds; they are promised protection; my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the LORD.
But look what leads them to that point: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back”; “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”
It is no easy path that they are following: weeping, mourning, sorrow and prayer. There is an acknowledgement that they have failed to play their part in the covenant relationship. Read the book of Deuteronomy and Chapter 8 or Chapter 28, and there is warning there of what will happen if people go there own way; if in pride and arrogance they decide to ignore God and do their own thing.
People still make the mistake of the people of Jeremiah’s times, assuming that they have some automatic right to blessing, assuming that things should go right for us because of who they are. Certainly, God is present, but God never compels anyone, God allows people choice.
The prayers in the traditional New Year covenant service acknowledge that God seeks people out, but they also acknowledge individual freedom, “You remembered us when we forgot you. You followed us even when we tried to flee from you. You met us with forgiveness when we returned to you”. Here are the two sides of the covenant relationship; here is the divine initiative and the human response. God remembers people, he follows them, he meets with them, but that meeting takes place when people return to him.
In saying the covenant prayer, there is an acknowledgement of God’s grace, but there is also a declaration of intent to respond to that grace: “I do here covenant with you, O Christ, to take my lot with you as it may fall. Through your grace I promise that neither life nor death shall part me from you.”
Had the rulers of Jerusalem taken more seriously the demand that there be a human response to what God had done for his people, then their country would not have been overrun and their city would not have been destroyed in 587 BC. They lost sight of the need to build a society based on what was right and they paid a heavy price; their exile would last fifty years and many of them would never see their homeland again.
How seriously do people take what God asks of them? Do people assume that they have a right to be blessed, or do they recognize that a covenant relationship is one where there are two parties to the agreement?
In dark times, God promises that “my people will be filled with my bounty.” The covenant is a reassurance of that promise.