The New Covenant – Lectionary 03/21/2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34

          The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 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; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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.

Sermon Text

             Our scripture for today proclaims a message of hope that is largely unparalleled among the prophets. This text is often put alongside its neighboring chapters and lifted up as a kernel of consolation in the midst of Jeremiah’s otherwise quite grim prophesies. God speaks of the love that God holds for the people and of a commitment to bring them out of exile and to restore the relationship between God and God’s people. A relationship broken by generations of personal and corporate sin – a covenant broken by our inability to do justly.

            This promise comes during one of the darkest moments of the Babylonian rule of Judah. The city of Jerusalem and the kingdom as a whole, had managed to avoid complete destruction by Babylon up to this point. This was because the current King, Zedekiah, was initially willing to submit to the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. However, against Jeremiah’s instructions, Zedekiah tried to reject Nebuchadnezzar shortly into his reign. The result of this decision was the destruction of Jerusalem in a terrible final siege.

            Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s salvation comes during the siege or else immediately before it. Despite its hopeful message, anyone with eyes to see knew the danger of the siege could not be denied. Death was coming to Judah and there was little that could minimize the destruction that was to come. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, never pretended that the future was going to be easy to bear in any way. Instead of giving the people over to their grief totally or cutting the tension through false platitudes, Jeremiah holds up a hope separate to this impending disaster, a hope for generations of people to come.

            This week we conclude Lent proper, that is to say that next week is the start of Holy Week. With this transition we see our focus shift away from the self-reflection which defined Lent to the adoration of Christ and his work on the cross. On the horizon, more clearly than ever before, we begin to see the shape of our salvation. Now, just two weeks away from Easter, we anticipate the joy of our salvation fervently. The shame of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection fill our view – something new is at work in the world, if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.

            The ability to see ahead of us – to fear and also to hope – is a uniquely human trait. Only we are capable of thinking ahead and of putting our perceptions into concrete terms. Sometimes our heart rejoices at the thought of future bliss and other times we seize up, locking ourselves up in dread of all the wretchedness that may come to be. Both inclinations can be harmful or good, largely dependent on how we make use of them in the here and now and what we have based upon them otherwise. Concern that leads us to prepare and hope that gives us strength are a boon. Dread that leads us to be paralyzed or reactive and sanguinity that makes us forget reality are a curse.

            For this reason, scripture balances two realities – our need to remain in the present and to trust God for the future. We cannot save ourselves through fretting over what is to come but can tackle the troubles of life as they come. We cannot be sure exactly what God will bring about in the days ahead, but we can trust that God’s goodness will see us through no matter what we face. The balance of now and then, that is one of the hardest and yet most essential elements of our faith.

            There will come a time, Jeremiah says, when there will be no more fear of doubt, nor a need for uncertain hope. The Hebrew of verse 31 opens powerfully – “Look! The coming days when I will cut a new covenant with you.” The days are treated as an approaching reality – not as objects to look at, but as an active and moving reality. The days are coming. Look at them come! And in those days, all will do what is right, all will know me, all will contain my instruction and read it from their hearts.

            God was bringing the people a perfect existence. Once more they would be called God’s people, and God would be called their God. This offer was not for kings, nobles, or the wealthy alone – but for all people – the strong and the weak, the needy and the powerful. This Utopia which God promised was not meant to replace the hardships ahead, but to transcend them. Beyond the distant horizon sat their dream. Not the idle dreams of humanity, but the concrete promise of God.

            Now we sit, twenty-five hundred years beyond Jeremiah and find that dream is still set before us. We are not yet in a God run Utopia. We still teach one another the way we ought to live and the knowledge of God. Though the Spirit dwells within us, God’s teachings are still being etched onto our heart. We do not contain all of God’s righteousness. Does time dull Jeremiah’s dream? Certainly not. The presence of God is sure. The restoration of God’s people, that final Utopic Covenant, began the day Jeremiah promised it and will be fully fulfilled when the Lord brings final victory over sin and death. It is this future hope which we depend upon.

            While we face nothing as dire as a Babylonian siege or the exile of the Judahites into Babylon, we are well aware of the troubles we face. Sickness, broken heartedness, the tedium of our off-kilter world. We are people of twisted hearts and shortsighted aspirations. In our concern for our fallen world we find ourselves clinging to fear or false hope – both of which we find pleasing. Perhaps we formulate complex conspiracies in our heart to explain our fear and give it form, or else use it to justify our vices. Or, in false hope perhaps we trust that our problems will go away through brute force of will or else through the intervention of powerful people.  

            Biblical hope and Biblical caution are rooted in a realism about the world. Trouble is coming, so we should be prepared, but it cannot consume our life. To quote the popular aphorism, “If the world should end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” We are to build resilience, not amass comforts or concerns. In the same way, we do not anticipate immediate deliverance from the majority of troubles we face. Instead of hoping trouble away, we should find hope in a God who gives us strength to face the troubles ahead of us. We can weather the storm, for the God of Heaven is greater than it is, and is Lord over it.

            More than this, as we prepare to gather once more in our sanctuaries and to celebrate Holy Week, we should see Christ’s acts two thousand years ago as an example of what our hope is. The suffering of Good Friday cannot be erased, but Easter is sure to follow it. As adopted inheritors of God’s goodness through Christ, we await Jeremiah’s dream to be fulfilled. We see in Christ a sign of what that dream looks like lived out, perfection on earth. Hope wrapped up in sorrows. Prepare yourself this week for our celebration of Holy Week. Hope lies on the horizon, but trouble does too. Praise God who will guide us through one toward the other. – Amen.

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