Sermon for Lent V, Year B
Based on Jer. 31:31-34
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Our first lesson today is one of the most beautiful passages in the Older Testament. Jeremiah, for the most part, an angry and weeping prophet, speaks in this passage a message of hope and great expectation. When the Jewish people were facing their deepest despair and destruction; when their enemies are about to overpower them and cart them off into exile; Jeremiah gives his people a vision from God which is full of hope and promise. A vision of a new covenant.
Down through the centuries, we Christians have all too often interpreted this passage as if it were originally speaking to us. This is clearly Not the case.
As Hans Walter Wolff, in his book, Confrontations with Prophets, observed: "Christians have sometimes called themselves "the people of the new covenant," arrogantly setting themselves above the people of the old covenant. This is conceit of the most impudent kind, and it has had terrible consequences. We must impress one thing on ourselves: not only is Israel the people of the old covenant, the new covenant too was promised in the first place to Israel and Israel alone. The power of this promise has preserved Israel as a people of a special kind in spite of all the catastrophes that have happened to Israel."
So, then, our approach to this passage of Jeremiah begins, first of all, with humility. We are the inheritors of this passage through the Jews and through our Messiah, who is also a Jew. As we interpret this passage then, we would do well to follow the wisdom of the apostle Paul in Romans 11:18: "It is not you (i.e., the Gentiles) that support the root (i.e., Israel), but the root that supports you." Thus, it is only centuries later that we are listening to this passage of Jeremiah, which originally was spoken to the Jewish people. This means that the new covenant was and still is promised first to the Jews, then later to us Gentiles.
When we read and study this passage, one of the first questions that arises is: "What is new about this new covenant?" It is not new in that God is the One who establishes, who takes the initiative to establish the covenant. This was also true of the old covenant. Nor is it new in terms of its basis ~ the law, the Torah, which guides people in the covenant and still remains the foundation. Nor, again, is the goal of the new covenant different from the old. The goal was stated before, and it is this: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
The first thing that we note concerning what is new about this covenant is how God gives it to Israel. "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." This is different from the older covenant in that it was written on tablets of stone. Why this difference between a covenant written on stone and a covenant written within the heart?
Well, first of all, God realized that the older form of the covenant was broken by the Israelites. They ~ nor, for that matter, had or could the rest of humankind ~ had not and could not keep it completely because of their sin. So, a major surgery was required on their hearts to remove all of the blockages; to become perfectly healthy. The Jewish people believed that the heart was the seat of our conscience, will and emotions. In the older covenant, there were many instances of external instruction failing to produce perfect obedience on the part of humans. God would reshape, remake the heart, so that within everyone there would be the capacity to keep and obey the law.
As Christians, we believe that God sent Jesus as the One with the law written within his heart. He provides us with the perfect example of living in total love and obedience to God. His Last Supper is for us a new covenant in his blood ~ which, was sealed through his death and resurrection.
However, like the Jewish people, the new covenant is not complete for us yet. We, like the Jews, still look forward to the coming of the days when both of us shall completely be God's people, completely obey the law, completely love God. We, like the Jewish people, look forward to the days when the new covenant shall come in all of its fullness; when our hearts shall be so full of the law within our conscience, will and emotions, that we shall be in a perfect relationship with God and one another.
The second thing new about this new covenant is this: "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, form the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord." In other words, the newness of the covenant shall put an end to all teachers, preachers, prophets and priests. There shall be no need to teach anyone.
That's a rather scary thing for us people of the cloth ~ to, quite literally, abolish the need for preaching and teaching. How is this possible? Well, according to Jeremiah, it's possible because the new covenant is a great equalizer among all people. The least, the greatest, and everyone in-between, shall all be equal in that the law shall be perfectly written within each person.
Think of that! No more academic snobbery or elitism; no more scorn towards those who in this life lacked academic achievement; no more dividing people up into categories, classes, genders and so on. The brilliant Ph.D. scholar shall no longer be more learned than the grade-school drop out ditch digger. Peasants and Prime Ministers, the youngest child, the oldest adult shall all be equals. Everyone shall equally know God.
The word "know" here and elsewhere in the Bible often refers to the closest, most intimate sort of relationship. Here it refers to a relationship with God involving perfect, complete love. A relationship of knowing whereby we trust in God without any doubt or suspicion or reservation.
For both Christians and Jews, this perfect knowing is not possible right now in our sinful condition; even though we are given brief foretastes of it here and there, as we live out our faith journey. However, this perfect knowing God is our greatest hope for the future ~ when, at the consummation of all history, the kingdom of God shall come in all of its fullness. In the meantime, this wonderful promise of equality for everyone in knowing God is a tremendous comfort to those who, right now, suffer from all of this world's injustice and inequality. This promise keeps us on our faith journey towards justice and equality.
This leads us to the third thing new about this new covenant, namely: "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." The forgiveness of sin, is a constant reminder, a constant promise of who our God really is; of what kind of God we believe in. The forgiveness of sin affirms, over and again, that our God is a God of grace and love.
For both Jews and Christians who believe in this new covenant, the forgiveness of sins means that we can live each day with a clean slate, a new beginning. But it also refers to the future, when, at the Last Judgement, God shall declare us Not Guilty. We need not fear or dread this event, for we can indeed trust in God's promise of forgiveness.
Biblical scholar, Hans Walter Wolff puts it this way: " "to forgive" means to pardon completely; it is a complete cancellation of all our contempt of God and his will, and the restoration of friendship. "And remember their sin no more" is a legal term which really means no longer bringing the evil thing before any court of law; it means dropping the case once and for all. That is what the forgiveness of sins really means: to be saved from our most dangerous enemies in the face of judgment, to be given a free pardon for our worst offenses."
As we journey with Jesus ever more closer to the cross, may we, in humility and awe give God our heartfelt thanks for bringing us into the new covenant. In good times and in bad, may we cling faithfully to God's promises in this new covenant. May this new covenant empower each one of us to be God's loving servants.
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