Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants. A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage. It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together. A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together. A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook. A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set. The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans. They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.
God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again. Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever. Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people. Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.
This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah. And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant. Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time. God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God. And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions. God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them. By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.
Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins. And they didn’t listen. And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains. Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country. But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope. Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land. And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.
The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.” But what’s new about it? On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old. God will be their God, and they will be his people. In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations. Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life. And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.
The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature. Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained. God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short. We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions. We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are. We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem. We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. We keep breaking our promises to follow God. That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.
But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant. God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient. Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts. We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain. We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest. Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it. Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It sounds almost too good to be true. And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it. We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God. We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair. We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.
Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces. But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it. And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts. And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love. I can’t wait for that day. And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger. That day is coming, says the Lord. Thanks be to God.