Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father’s father’s father tried – erased the parts he didn’t like
So sings Michael Stipe in the song Cuyohoga, from REM’s 1986 album Life’s Rich Pageant. The Cuyohoga is a river in Ohio which, legend has it was the scene of a massacre of native Americans back when settlers were flooding into the new country. But that’s not all; the song refers to the several times between the 1920s and the 1960s when the river, polluted as it was by the chemicals of dozens of factories along its banks, actually caught fire and burned for days on end. REM is lamenting what they perceive is the failed experiment at starting a new country up, that began with a blood red river and ended with one: Two bookends that sum up how humans often over-reach themselves in their efforts at nation-building. Stipe puts it starkly: We need to flick the factory setting button and start again.
I used this song on Sunday when speaking about what God does with Israel as he leads them from slavery to Sinai to the Promised Land. It is the ultimate reboot (or is it? Wait and see!). God, having begun with Adam, then with Noah, finally moves to Abram and promises him a new country, with new blessings, and a promise to bless the whole world through him. A promise, no less, of starting a new country up that will come to envelope the whole world. By the time we get to Israel at Sinai all of the materials are there: A people, their God, and a set of instructions that show them how saved people are going to live and flourish in a country with the Creator God living in their midst (and a cultic system that will enable them to survive so close to such a holy God, given their inevitable and wretched unholiness.)
Of course we probably all know the train-wreck of the Old Testament as things go from bad to worse for Israel, with the apex of bad being the exile from the land and, most importantly from the presence of their God. Sitting there, however, in the midst of the wreckage is this promise in Jeremiah 31, which prophesies not just a reboot, but a completely revamped internal hard-drive:
At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.”
2 Thus says the Lord: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest,3 the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built O virgin Israel!…
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares theLord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me,from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
God is going to start a new country up. Quite what it will look like the people are not yet sure, but this they know, God, unlike humans in their attempts at starting new countries up, isn’t going to erase the parts he doesn’t like, but rather he is going to transform them.
And then Jesus comes along. And he goes up to a mountain and calls his people to him. Unlike Israel at Sinai, they approach without fear – all 12 of them – mirroring the number of tribes of old Israel. And then, before a watching audience, he teaches his people the new instructions for the new people of God – a set of instructions that calls for internal transformation: Not just a new country is required, but a new you – a new “youse”, in other words, the church! And where is that covenant ratified? Not at Sinai, not even on that mountain where Jesus speaks, but on another mountain altogether, as the king of the new country seals the covenant with his own blood.
A new country has indeed been started up. It is the people of God. The nation in which God, by his Spirit dwells in the midst, a nation in which the parts God doesn’t like are not simply erased, but are transformed from the inside out. No one else’s blood makes the river run red, because the King of love has died in our stead.
We can put our heads together all we like in this country of ours and try to start one up, but God has done in the church what he intends one day to do for the whole creation: bring to it the blessing that he promised way back to Abram when he called him to start a new country up. Michael Stipe, as with so many insightful, thoughtful artists, sees the problem and see the requirement, he just doesn’t have the transforming solution.