Jeremiah 31:31-34 (5th Sunday in Lent—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 28, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament Lesson from Jeremiah 31:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not 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. But 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. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And 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. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
It wasn’t old or outdated. It wasn’t broken or in need of repair. It was in no way deficient or ineffective. In the words of the familiar saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So why would God want to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah? Why would a new covenant be needed if there wasn’t anything wrong with the first covenant God made with His people of Israel? That’s the question we want to explore this morning.
The background to this announcement about a new covenant is the covenant God made between Himself and Israel at Mt. Sinai. You can read that covenant in the Book of Exodus, chapters 19-24. Integral to that covenant was the fact that God is the Lord of the Covenant who laid upon those who accepted it certain stipulations. Remember, a covenant is a binding agreement. It is a promise, a commitment of faithfulness. For example, the marriage of husband and wife is a covenant. It is a binding agreement and a commitment of faithfulness ‘till death us do part. God made a binding agreement and a commitment of faithfulness to the people of Israel whom He had rescued from slavery and bondage in Egypt. Listen to what God said, “The LORD called to [Moses] out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.’ So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.” (Exodus 19:3-8)
Both God and His people were in agreement. So God established the stipulations of His covenant with His people. We read in Deuteronomy 30, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18)
The continuation of the covenant depended on the continuing recognition of God as their only Lord and God and continuing obedience to the terms of the covenant as God set them forth. Failure to obey God’s laws would result in judgment and the implementation of the curses of the covenant. Obedience brought the covenant blessings.
Sadly, the history of Israel since the days of Moses was one of persistent failure to live according to the terms of the covenant. God’s own people who were bound to Him by covenant promise refused to obey God’s laws. They refused to worship God alone and instead worshiped false gods. The people of Israel were in total and complete breach of contract! They alone had violated God’s covenant to which the Lord remained faithful. The prophet Jeremiah even asked if Israel could do good when she had been taught and accustomed to do evil. Clearly not. Surely the people of Israel were in a spiritual dilemma. In spite of the fact that God had undertaken might acts of deliverance on their behalf, had provided for them in the wilderness, had brought them into the land of Promise, being faithfully their Lord and God, Israel broke the covenant.
And we are no different. Israel is certainly an example of real life under the curse of sin. Not only had Israel refused to obey God commandments, they were incapable of such obedience. And so are we. You and I are incapable of keeping God’s Law as He demands that it be kept. 99.9% is not perfect enough, even if it were possible for us to do anywhere near that well at keeping God’s Law. God’s covenant with Israel demanded their perfect obedience, their perfect worship. They didn’t come close, nor do you and I.
Even as believers in Jesus Christ we are not perfect in this life. “[Our] sin is covered by Christ’s perfect obedience, so that it is not charged against [us] for condemnation. . . . Nevertheless, the old Adam still clings to [us] in [our] nature and all its inward and outward powers. The apostle has written about this: ‘For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.’ (Romans 7:18)” (FC:SD VI.7-8)
Or as we say in the general confession, “We are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved [God] with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Truly, we are no better off before God than Israel. He demands our obedience and we do not give it perfectly. He demands our obedience and we find that as sinners we are incapable of complying. Therefore, a new covenant was in order, not to replace the first, but to fulfill the first for us because we cannot.
What God agreed to do to enable Israel and all sinners to become His people became reality in the new covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. It was Jesus, God-made-flesh and dwelling among us, who kept the law of the first covenant perfectly. It was Jesus who did everything according to God’s Word. Everything that Israel got wrong, Jesus got perfectly right. Everything that we get wrong, Jesus got perfectly right. He fulfilled God’s Law, but not for Himself. Jesus fulfilled God’s Law for Israel, for you, and for me. He did what we cannot do. He lived 100% in obedience to God’s Word and Law. He is the only One who ever has and who ever will. But the wonder and joy of it all is that Jesus Christ gives us credit for doing what He did!
But this credit was given to us in a great exchange. In order for us to be credited with Jesus’ perfect obedience to God’s Law, Christ had to take something away from us. And what He took away was our sins, the things we have thought and done and said that were contrary to God’s commandments. Jesus took our disobedience, our failures to love God and to love our neighbor. He took our guilt and our shame, saying, “Let me have it so I can give you my perfect righteousness.” And Christ took it all from us. He took it and bore the shame, the guilt, the punishment, the hell, and the death that was to be ours. He took our sins to the cross where Jesus bled and died so that we are forgiven, so that we can stand before God and have Him look at us and say, “You have lived in perfect obedience to my Word because I credit you with Jesus’ perfect life for your own!”
Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us, God doesn’t see our sins and our guilt. He doesn’t see how many times a day we have denied Him, ignored Him, lied, cheated, lusted, and swore. He sees us in Christ. God looks upon us as having fulfilled His commandments because He credits us with Jesus’ perfect obedience. God looks upon us cleansed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven of our iniquity. He doesn’t remember our sins anymore!
This is the blessing of God’s new covenant. Because our sins are forgiven, we are at peace with God. We know Him as our heavenly Father who doesn’t condemn us. He doesn’t cast us away. He calls us His children, heirs of His Kingdom. He says, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Through Christ, we are in such an intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that touches mind, emotion, and will. The past is forgiven and forgotten and the Lord Himself gives us a new life, a life set free from sin and condemnation. He gives us a life to live for Him, in Him, and through Him. It is a life where His Law and Gospel are written in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as we gladly receive and hear His Word and receive Jesus’ body and the very blood of the new covenant in the Lord’s Supper for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.
Behold, the days have come when our God has made a new covenant with His people by grace though His Son, Jesus Christ. By faith we know the Lord, we know Him as our Savior from sin, as our heavenly Father who loves us as His own children. We live in the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and in response to God’s love for us in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we live our lives in grateful obedience to God as His beloved sons and daughters. Amen.