"A NEW COVENANT"

JEREMIAH 31:31-34

JANUARY 13, 2013

PLAY AUDIO

           

Years and years and years ago a man owned a 1971 red Ford Pinto.  By the way, the 1971 Ford Pinto happens to be on the worst fifty cars ever built list because it had a rather volatile nature. The car tended to erupt in flames in rear-end collisions.  Anyway, he bought his red Ford Pinto when he was going to college, and kept it for quite some time.  Over the years he put several thousand dollars into the car to keep it running.  He had to replace the engine; he had to put in a new transmission; and he had the whole body repainted.  Despite all that, when he finally traded the car in it looked good on the outside, but it still had some serious problems on the inside.

            Israel, in the days of Jeremiah, was the Ford Pinto of the ancient world.  God had invested a lot into Israel, but still could not keep her running properly.  Israel's life, based on the Exodus event and the Law of Moses, wasn't working.  The Israelites repeatedly broke the law of God, and in so doing broke the heart of God.  God sent numerous "mechanics" called "prophets" to fix Israel, warning the people to change their ways, but for the most part it did not work.

            That brings us to Jeremiah.  Jeremiah lived and ministered during the last years of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  God called him to preach a message of judgment and doom due to the Israelite's continual disobedience.  He told the people that Jerusalem would be destroyed, which indeed happened.  During Jeremiah's ministry Babylon conquered the city of God, and Nebuchadnezzar violated the Temple Solomon had built.  Adding insult to injury, the Babylonians forced the Israeli elite, the leadership of the nation into exile.  The Babylonian thought process went like this:  "Take away the  natural leaders of Israel and what was left of Israel would be easier to control."  So, that's what the Babylonians did. 

            Just how bad things were can be seen in the attitude of those forced into exile. Look at verse 29 which preceded our passage for today.  Jeremiah quotes a proverb that was popular in those days: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."  The parents witnessed the destruction of their beloved city, Jerusalem.  They, including Jeremiah, had been taken away to a foreign land.  The children's teeth were on edge because they only heard stories of what had been and what might have been.

            With that background, lets turn to our passage for today.  What we have before us this morning is one of the most important passages in the Bible.  These five verses from thirty-first chapter represent the high point of Jeremiah's message, and one of the theological summits of the Old Testament.  It is a passage that had great influence in the New Testament.  It is quoted in Hebrews, and referred to in the Words of Institution for the Lord's Supper ... "This cup is the new covenant, sealed in my blood."  In fact, it is because of this passage that the Bible's two parts are called the "Old" and "New" Testaments.  Verses in the bible do not get much bigger than what we have here..

            So picture the scene.  For years, while in Jerusalem, Jeremiah preached doom and gloom.  He said, "Because of your continued disobedience it won't be long until a nation is going to come along and rear end you and the nation will burst into flames,"  which happened in 587 B.C.  Now, Jeremiah is in Babylon with other exiles, and his tone changes from doom and gloom to hope.  On God's behalf, to Israelites living in exile, he makes them a promise.  He tells them of a new covenant soon to come and in this promise of a new covenant, Jeremiah mentions three promises made by God.  But before we turn to those three promises I want you to note something.  I want you to note the repeated use of the phrase "says The Lord".  Look at them with me.  Verse 31 ... "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant."  Verse 32 ... "It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors ... a covenant they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord."  Verse 33 ... "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, says the Lord."  Verse 34 ... "For they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord."

            The repeated phrase "says the Lord," shows that Jeremiah's words here are stamped with a high degree of divine authority.  In today's vernacular, "You can take these promises to the bank" and let's turn to the three promises contained in the new covenant.

            First of all, in the new covenant, God promises to write the law of God on the hearts of the people.   Verse 33 ... "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 within them, and I will write it on their hearts."

            The Ten Commandments were an important part of the old covenant mediated through Moses.  The ten commandments were written on stone tablets, perhaps to suggest that they were unchangeable, and kept in the Ark of the Covenant.  They were objects of veneration.  The law was central to the Hebrew faith.  And all the other laws that are included in the Old Testament gave shape and meaning to the Ten Commandments.  In essence, the other laws helped Israel understand what it meant to have no other gods, to honor your parents, to remember the Sabbath day, and so on.  But these laws, these commandments, were external, not internal.

            Ever get a puppy?  We've had a few puppies over the years and each time we vow that this puppy will be our last, but that hasn't been the case, and each time we get a book like Puppy Training for Dummies and universally dog experts claim that the puppy really wants to please its owner. It wants to do things that result in praise rather than a scolding.  And, for the most part, we've found that to be true.  I can't imagine working with an animal that willfully does things to displease its owner ... that's why I've never had cats, and also because Trudy is allergic to them.

            It must have caused the Lord great distress to find that the people of Israel were more cat-like than dog-like.  God and Israel had that kind of relationship, that kind of experience with one another and it ended in heartache and pain.  But in the new covenant, God will write the law on the hearts of the people.  Internally, they will know right from wrong and they will want to please God.  They will want to do the will of God.  Wanting to do the will of God will be part of their nature.  That is the promise of God.  That's why we often feel so guilty when we have done the wrong thing, even when we get away with it.

            Promise number 2: In the new covenant, not only will the people of God want to do God's will, but also people will know God.  Verse 34 ... "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know The Lord," for they shall all know me."

            The passage suggests that this knowledge of God will be similar to the knowledge of God experienced by the prophets.  It will be that personal, that intimate.  One of the problems we have in our society, and in our churches, is that so many people confuse knowledge about God with knowledge of God.  Knowledge about God is what we learn from books, from parents and teachers, from video tapes, and from preachers.  It is secondhand knowledge.  A person can have a lot of this kind of knowledge about God and still not know God in a personal way, from firsthand experience.

            In other words, this person could answer every question on the Jeopardy board in the Bible category and still not have a living relationship with God.  But personal knowledge of God is another matter.

            As many of you know I am a huge baseball fan.  It is by far my favorite sport to attend or watch on television.  It started at as a boy in Southern California collecting baseball cards.  Ask Trudy if a baseball game is on TV, Ill likely be watching it.  Over the years, Ive gotten to know a lot about baseball players, but I never met one personally until we lived in Florida.

            One of the members of the church was a catcher, at the time, for the Boston Red Sox.  Previously he had be he was a catcher for the New York Yankees where he was a All Star in 1995 and he played for the Texas Rangers, catching the last of Nolan Ryans seven no-hitters.  Anyway, I got to meet Mike Stanley and he knew we loved baseball and for our anniversary he got us tickets in Fenway Park in Boston for a couple of games against the Baltimore Orioles.  And we sat with Mikes wife Erin, in the family section of the ballpark.

            Later Mike and I went out to lunch a couple of times during the off season ... I discovered he never watched baseball on TV.  Instead, he loved to watch cooking shows.  We were even invited to a house warming in the home near the church, and got to go to his trophy room, complete with pool table, and signed bats and baseballs and pictures of other players on every wall.  In other words, I went from knowing about Mike Stanley to knowing Mike Stanley. 

            In the new covenant, Jeremiah, backed by "says The Lord" divine endorsement, says that all God's people can have firsthand knowledge of God.  That's the promise. We can take it to the bank.

            The third promise for the new covenant is forgiveness of sin will be abundant.  Verse 34 ... "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

            The New Covenant will mark a time of boundless grace, limitless love, incomprehensible forbearance. Please note: God does not promise that in the new covenant people will be perfect, or that they will be sinless.  No, in the New Covenant God promises to forgive and to forget their sinfulness.  There will still will be mistakes and problems on our part, but forgiveness will be the rule of thumb.

            Have you see the theater production of or the film Les Miserables?  It could be called a movie about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  It certainly explores the nature of law and of grace.  On the side of the Old Covenant, on the side of the law is the fanatical police inspector Javert.  In his song Stars, he sings So it must be, for so it is written on the doorway to paradise, that those who falter and fall must pay the price.  Javert is all about the law.  He has little room for grace and forgiveness.

            Then there is the new covenant character, Jean Valjean.  Hes all about grace and forgiveness.  A merciful, grace-filled priest forgives Jean Valjean of a crime, of stealing candlesticks from the church, and Jean Valjean, in turn, becomes a man of forgiveness and grace.  He takes in a prostitutes daughter, becoming her surrogate father.  He spares Javerts life when it meant that Javert would likely continue pursuing him.  If you havent seen it, go see it.  Its the Old Covenant and the New Covenant set to music!  Bring kleenex.  Forgiveness and grace are powerful things.  

            Of course, this promise of forgiving iniquities and remembering sin no more was culminated on the cross, where God went to the mat for us.  The heart of the matter is this: we aren't always sure why we should be forgiven, but we are forgiven, and we want to live lives worthy of that forgiveness.  God's grace has written that desire on our hearts.  Amen.