Sermon preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church on 04/14/2022.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study is taken from our Old Testament lesson for tonight, Jeremiah 31:31 – 34. Tonight, we pause in our march towards the cross to stop and take in a meal with our Lord and His disciples. But, in that meal is a word that we don’t use outside of the church. And that word is “covenant.” If we had to search for a word in modern English that comes the closest, it would probably be “contract.” But that doesn’t really capture the idea of a covenant. If you break a contract, you incur a penalty, sure. Usually, it’s a monetary thing. At worst, you have some jail time for breaking a contract. Covenants were more serious than that. They were sealed in blood and required blood as a price for breaking them.
God has made many covenants with us in history. The one that’s easiest to remember is the covenant God made with Noah and his sons right after the flood, where He promised that He would never again send a flood to wipe out all life on earth, and for a sign, He put His bow up in the clouds. But He made “the” covenant with Moses and the people of Israel after he led them out of Egypt. If you’re curious, it begins in Exodus 19 and is finally wrapped up by Exodus 24. So what does that covenant look like? How does it differ from the one Jesus instituted in the upper room? What does any of that have to do with Jeremiah 31? Those questions and a few others I hope to answer for you tonight.
Let’s start by asking a few questions, what do you think the purpose of that first covenant with Moses and the people of Israel was for? It was a covenant that established the terms and conditions for which God would continue to be the God for the people of Israel and how they would then live as His people. The purpose was to set the people of Israel apart from the rest of the nations as God’s chosen people. This was a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But it was more than just God keeping His promise; God had set these people apart to bring forth Jesus. This means that these people had to be a people set apart; they couldn’t be like everyone around them. So it wasn’t just a pure gift. It was an agreement between God and the people of Israel that as long as they would keep His Word, they would be His people. And it was sealed by the blood of numerous bulls thrown upon the altar, the book of the covenant, and the people themselves.
Jeremiah contrasts this covenant in our reading, so let’s look at the first two verses of our Old Testament lesson. Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. The Lord is speaking to Jeremiah in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. She has not had a faithful king for a while, and no more will come. Judah has time and time again whored after other gods and abandoned the Lord. The Lord also promised her that she would be cast out of the promised land if she forsook His covenant. The same Lord who rescued her from slavery in Egypt brought her safe through the Red Sea and destroyed Pharaoh and his armies. And delivered her time after time from the Midianites, Philistines, Assyrians, and all other nations that oppressed her. But even though Judah was faithless, our Lord is faithful. He preserves His people through an exile and keeps His promise that He will send a Messiah from the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And this Messiah will come with a new covenant; that’s what God promises through Jeremiah in verses 33 – 34. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” There is so much good news here to unpack, but let’s start with the promise that God will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts. We see this word “law.” Immediately our inner Lutheran flinches, looking for where we’re going to be hammered by the reality of our sins. But that misses the point of what God is saying; He’s using the Hebrew word “Torah.” Which is better translated into English as “promises” rather than “law.” God isn’t promising us an endless life of “do it right, or else.” Instead, He’s promising an everlasting life of “I’ve done it right for you.”
And what does God mean by how we won’t need to teach our neighbor? Does that mean that we should just cancel all Sunday school and confirmation classes? I’m sure some of our middle school students would enjoy that. But that’s not what Jeremiah is promising. Jesus continued to teach the disciples after the night when He instituted the new covenant. He kept teaching them for 40 days after He rose from the dead. So what is Jeremiah saying? He says that you won’t have to teach some abstract concept of God, but rather you will know what God looks like. And in this new covenant, He’s given all of us something to point to, something concrete. When the world says to us, “where is your god now?” You can say, “Here, under the bread and wine given for us to eat and to drink.” And sure, they’ll mock you for it, just as they mocked our Lord Jesus when He was hanging on the cross for us. But we know that their mockery is a lie and that Jesus’ words are the truth.
How can that be, you ask? It has to do with the last words that Jeremiah says tonight. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. Here’s the thing about God, He’s omniscient; that’s a big word for “knows everything.” And I mean everything. There is nothing that exists that He doesn’t know everything about. So how can He claim to forget about our sins? It means that it is a conscious decision to forget them and that when He does, they are destroyed as if they never happened. And this is the ultimate promise of the new covenant, that God will forgive the sins of His people. And that level of cosmic power can’t be fueled by something as common as the blood of a bull, or even a thousand bulls, or a million bulls. It is Jesus’ own blood shed for us on the cross. His blood covers our sins so completely that they are washed away. And that same blood is here for us to drink. So come, let us approach the table where our Lord gives us His body and His blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.