Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
It’s a strange thing. For all intents and purposes Israel was over and Judah was well on the way toward utter destruction when Jeremiah was given a surprisingly hopeful prophecy from God. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
Once-proud Israel had been taken into exile by Assyria some two hundred years earlier. Though the land remained, it was as if the tribes of the northern country had disappeared into the ether. Perhaps some of the people had made it back to the southern kingdom of Judah and been absorbed into the urban population of Jerusalem. It’s hard to know.
The dire circumstances of the time had already been read by many as evidence that God’s people had broken the covenant. Jeremiah even puts a date stamp on the fracture – pretty much as soon as they come out of Egypt. Remember how Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai and found them all worshipping a golden calf? Moses broke the tablets of stone in angry frustration. Although they soon got a new set of stones and went onward toward God’s Promised Land, Israel’s relationship with God was permanently complicated.
So back to the question. What was God thinking? What is the point of making a new covenant with the struggling and almost dying remainder of God’s people especially when the remaining population was about to see Jerusalem and the mighty Temple of Yahweh destroyed?
Jeremiah’s prophecy tells us what God was thinking. “No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” God is preparing the people for a renewed relationship. Although the end is coming, they are to think only of a new start.
The beauty of this promised new covenant is that it’s intimate – written on the heart. It is internal, kept within so that it cannot be stolen and shattered – which is what happened to the ark in the Temple where the covenant was kept when the Babylonians sacked the city a few years later. Nor can it be lost no matter how far into exile anyone might go. It is instructive, because the heart recognizes the truth that God is always and forever the one who forgives and makes us new.
Getting the new covenant is one thing. Living into all its promise is another thing. It’s like when you get a new electronic device. It can do so many things. It’s exciting, and full of possibilities. But the learning curve is daunting. Some of us even leave the device in its package for a while, untouched because, well, learning to operate it will take time and effort and, you know how it goes, right?
The motivation to stick to the old systems we know is very strong. So much so, that we stay with things that hardly work for us anymore just because we know how they operate. And this is essentially the story of God’s people and the covenant too. However much God’s people embraced the new heart-centered covenant with God during and after their exile in Babylon, the old system of law was temptingly familiar. The book of Deuteronomy is evidence that as the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt, so were the old laws and statutes revived, to govern God’s people.
Forgive and forget? Maybe not. We need strong laws to make us toe the line. Deuteronomy, after all, means second law.
But stronger, more complicated laws never work if hearts do not change, do they? You’d think that we might have learned this lesson by now. It’s what Jesus was trying to teach people. Because even those who had embraced him as their teacher from God - such as the Jewish believers in the gospel today - were still hanging on to the idea that as children of Abraham, they had the law on their side.
Possessing the law already, what more did they need to do to follow Jesus? But Jesus wasn’t having it. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Simply put, Jesus was inviting these believers to renew and revive God’s covenant in their hearts. As long as they continued in sin, no law could ever set them free. This was the truth they needed to know. This truth Jesus embodied with his message of God’s desire to set people free, and make them new. This truth Jesus lived all the way to the cross and back. It is the good news of God in Jesus Christ that even death cannot defeat God’s redeeming love.
The first Christians embraced this message of hope with enormous energy. It was the very center of Paul’s teaching as well. God’s love never fails. By faith we trust in our hearts that God forgives us. It’s all we need to start over.
We are never done learning this lesson. Not as individuals, nor as a community of faith. Over the centuries God has inspired people to remind us of the covenant that is written on our hearts. One church historian, Phyllis Tickle has observed that about every five hundred years or so the Church experiences a re-awakening of some sort to the covenant.
In the sixteenth century a number of men and some women too, saw that the Church was no longer operating under the principle of new life given as God’s gift of grace through faith. This led to the Protestant Reformation. Out of the reformation came a renewed commitment to proclaiming the holy freedom that is ours through Jesus Christ.
It’s been five hundred years since Martin and Katie Luther, John Knox, John Calvin, Zwingly, and many others reminded the Church and society too about the need for love over law, and mercy in matters of judgement. Perhaps this is a time once again that is ripe for Christ’s message to be renewed. “We are all sinners, this is most certainly true.” Martin Luther said that, also remarking that he thought of himself as foremost among sinners. He was right on both counts. His vision of love was not always perfect. But in his heart he knew the love of God.
This is the pastoral message I leave you with today. Now more than ever, bring God’s love to everything you do and say. Be of good courage. Fear not. Though nations may rage and kingdoms may shake. God’s Word abides forever. And that Word is love. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.