The Unexpected Covenant
Updated: Apr 17
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
5 Lent, B
I get the impression that Jeremiah sometimes had it up to here with his people. They were a bunch of stubborn, fearful, self-righteous hypocrites. Oh, they had religion all right, but it was all “up front,” a sham, a show. They were good at going through the motions without any real substance or conviction behind any of it. Why were they so slow to learn that God was a jealous possessive God for His people? He simply will not tolerate the fear love or trust of or in anything that is not Himself. This means not only crass statues of wood and stone, but the more secretive idols of one’s own desires. Jeremiah’s people were no better than their forefathers in the wilderness with their golden calf. Actually, they were worse. They had the benefit of long history to learn from, only they never did.
The truth of the matter was that Israel loved to sin more than it loved God. It feared the consequences of world events more than she feared displeasing God. They trusted in their own ability to shape their lives than in God’s long history of treating them with undeserved kindness. And so it was that around 600 BC poor Jeremiah is sent into the midst of God’s people to speak a hard word from the Lord. Wicked Babylonia had been chosen to be the instrument of God to punish His people for centuries of lip service to the Lord while they had kept their hearts and their lives to themselves. With an ache in his heart and a lump in his throat, Jeremiah let his countrymen in on God’s plan. Jerusalem, the Temple, and all they held dear would be utterly destroyed. It was sad, but inevitable. They had broken the covenant to the point where it could not be fixed.
The covenant established with Abraham, and renewed at Mount Sinai. A contract between God and Israel that stated: “I shall be your God and you shall be My people.” It was spelled out on tablets of stone brought down the mountain by Moses. And yet what God had written in stone was never deeply etched into the hearts of the people below. Israel never quite got it straight that what God was after was not simply an outward show of being good, but an actual life-changing commitment of their whole heart and will to fear, love, and trust Him alone. The 10 Commandments were given as a gift to a grateful people who wanted to know how to respond in love to the God who had saved them – brought them out of slavery in Egypt. But now, both unwilling and unable to fulfill its demands the Law did little more than serve as a signpost for al to see that the road to God had been washed out by the people’s self-serving sin.
We know all too well the sad story of not keeping God’s law. Like Israel, we know first hand just how easy it is to fall into the trap of lip service while our hearts remain far from the Lord. Caught up in our own selfish pursuits or the uncritical and emotional waves of change around us. Like Israel, we have been chosen only because of God’s grace, to be His unique people in this world. Yet how often do we find ourselves hiding that special calling under a mantle of fear and conformity and sin. We are too stubborn, fearful, and self-righteous. Slow to trust God, despite a lifetime of history in which He has continually delivered us again and again. Quick to hold grudges or deem God as our oppressor and others as a burden and barrier to us instead of our brothers and sisters in these struggles.
Like Israel, we stand before His prophet Jeremiah this day, convicted of breaking the Commandments of God. We have not feared, loved, or trusted the Lord above anything else, much less everything else. And so we brace ourselves to hear from Jeremiah the verdict of doom we feel sure is to come. Look around you. You have done this. You have ruined all this. You deserve this, and more. And the prophet himself, as he mounts into the pulpit is similarly convinced that the Word of God will speak forth just such a judgment on a sinful rebellious people who should know better ... who do know better ... but instead, out of his mouth comes an incredible and unexpected covenant! Did Jeremiah tremble as he tried to comprehend the meaning of the words coming from his throat? “31Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not 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.”
Fully expecting to feel the sharp edged sword of punishment, instead God announces a new beginning for His people. A new beginning based on God’s incredible love for His people even in the face of their sinful rejection of Him. God’s heart burns with loving concern for His wayward and rebellious Israel. God will have His children back home and safely with Him again. As He once acted to bring them out of slavery in Egypt, so now will He act once again to bring them out of slavery to sin. The incomprehensible Good News is that God is willing to forgive and renew that contract with His people once again. Again and again!
The unexpected covenant is one of love and forgiveness. And in Jesus Christ, and the Baptism He grants us we are adopted into this same family of grace. We fully deserve everything this life throws at us and so much more misery on top. But instead of hearing the verdict of death for our sin we get to hear of a new life with the Father through the Son. This new covenant relationship is made possible only through the forgiveness of our sins by Christ’s death on the cross. No longer are the terms of this covenant relationship written on tablets of stone but joyfully inscribed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
33aBut this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. By joyfully placing His Law on the hearts of His people God Himself provides the motivation we need to enter into this new relationship with Him. There are really only three reasons why anyone ever does anything at all. It is either motivated by fear of punishment or suffering, or it is motivated by the hope of a reward or recognition. Or in the case of those who’s lives are sheltered in this unexpected covenant by a motivation of love and gratitude.
God concludes this incredible and unexpected covenant with the words: “34bI will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The power of His call becomes most evident right here at its conclusion. Contrary to what we often experience o the human level, God not only forgives, but forgets as well. Our life with Him is not limited by our past unfaithfulness. Indeed, it is based solely on God’s present and future mercy as He leads us day by day to experience the complete and full forgiveness that He holds out to each of us.
By now I hope it has become clear that this incredible and unexpected covenant which God announced through Jeremiah has become real to us in Jesus Christ. He who knew no sin took our sin and shed His innocent blood on the cross so that you ad I might experience the forgiveness the prophet announces today. Jesus Himself is the final proof that a new relationship of love exists and is available to all who call on His name.
The season of Lent is our call to prepare to experience this incredible love once again as we see the Saviour giving us His Body and Blood in Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. It is His new covenant of love and forgiveness. Likewise, Lent prepares us to come to Good Friday and see how this love became a reality for you and me as Jesus suffered for us and died on Calvary. As we move deeper and deeper into this holy season we understand the point of it all is that God’s unexpected covenant is bound up in truly knowing Jesus Christ and His cross. 33bAnd I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor 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.