31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Lent is a time of incredible tension; we focus on the coming death of Jesus- a moment we mourn, but also celebrate. There is a sense of sacrifice and loss, but also of impending freedom and imminent newness. There is a sense of duty to carry our cross, but also a joy and hope in knowing where that journey will take us- into the New Life promised by God through the prophets. Our Lenten series will take up this theme- the prophets who brought God’s promise of New Life which is fulfilled in Christ.
Today we’re talking about New Covenant & New Life.
Jeremiah is the only Old Testament prophet to use the term “New Covenant” (that phrase then shows up in Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25, 2 Cor.3:6, and four times in Hebrews). Others, Isaiah in particular, refer to a coming “Everlasting Covenant” (Isa. 55:3, 61:8, cf. Jer. 32:40, 50:5; Ezek. 16:60) but there is sense in Isaiah and Ezekiel that it is more of a covenant renewal, not an altogether new covenant, that it is still a relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
From our post-Easter historical context we know that a new covenant is sealed by Jesus Christ through his death and victorious resurrection. Jeremiah and his audience didn’t know what we know. They did not have the luxury of our historical perspective.
Consider Jeremiah’s ministry context; he is called at a time when Judah is in serious trouble. His career spans a time of incredible catastrophe for the people of Judah. Jeremiah is called to speak while the Babylonians are invading Judah, burning Jerusalem, and carrying vast numbers of Jewish people into exile. Jeremiah is one of a small remnant left in Judah, living in the midst of the rubble. The people who had been promised God’s protection and deliverance were in a place of desolation. Consider what that means for the people promised prosperity in that place:
Exile = Death of Israel.
Exile = Questions; is God really for his people/able to do what he promised?
Exile = Identity ripped away.
Exile = nothing makes sense anymore.
Jeremiah was called to lead Judah through a process of accepting judgement and ultimately repenting. He leads a time of lament, of weeping and mourning. But he also calls for a response- a call to repentance. And in the midst he reveals hope and promise for God’s people. That even though the circumstances are terrible and catastrophic and everything suggests things are hopeless, Jeremiah and other prophets proclaim that God’s people can rejoice and praise God for his promises, as they had broken the covenant, but God in his compassion will not remain angry, and will restore them (see e.g. Lam. 3:19-26, Hab. 3:16-19). From death will rise new life, and also a new way of relating to God.
Jeremiah is given a proclamation to make, that God will initiate a new covenant with his people. His people had violated their existing covenant. God had bound himself to his people as a husband is bound to his wife. But they had committed spiritual adultery- having relationships with idols and other religions and superstitions. They had bowed to Baal and Asthoreth, to Molech and others.
But in spite of this, God would not simply cast off his commitment (although he, in theory had every right to do so). Instead, after allowing his bride experience what being Baal’s people is like and being battered and exiled and taken to the brink of destruction of their own design, God then speaks in mercy and compassion and tenderness.
He will not leave his people in this dark place, but will make reconciliation possible, and create a new relationship, after he redeems his people (but we’re talking about redemption next week; today our purpose is to talk about what God has promised in terms of this new covenant relationship.)
What did God design for his people beyond exile and what does this new covenant look like?
First, we read “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.” Jesus tells us in John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit “will guide you in all truth” (John 16:13). The Son is described as the Word (John 1:1, 14). Torah (law) is not just legal. Torah is God’s revelation of how we are to relate to him, or in another way of thinking about it, Torah is God’s spoken revealed will and purpose- His Word. Genesis-Deut. is called Torah, and not all of that is commandments- much of it is simply the story of Israel. So this promise of having God’s Torah on their hearts and minds isn’t just memorizing moral commands, but knowing God’s word and will.
Second, God promises “I will be their God and they will be my people.” The New Covenant, like the old, is communal in nature. We, together, are God’s people. We are bound to one another. But we often talk about this new covenant in highly individualistic terms; Jesus is my personal Lord and Saviour. Yes, there is a sense in which we each have to make that decision to follow after Christ, but we also have to realize we do so not just as individuals, but as part of something bigger than ourselves. We follow Jesus. We work together in our pursuit of the one crucified for us. We take up our crosses and walk together. When each of us decides to follow Jesus we become part of a bigger whole. Being a Christian also means being part of Christ’s body, one piece of a larger whole. Each part has a purpose of its own, but that purpose and function is only lived out in relation to larger whole.
Third, Jeremiah tells us “They will all know me.” Have you ever stopped to think about that… to really think about that? Know God? What do you mean know God? We take that for granted sometimes. Those who have have been exposed to church for a long time have this assumption, yeah God revealed himself and is knowable; I have a personal relationship with Jesus. But this was revolutionary for most ancient pagans.For Abraham to know God and Moses to converse with the Almighty was revolutionary. In pagan thought, mankind placated or appeased the gods. They didn’t become friends of the gods. You don’t know them. You “know” that they are there, and you do everything you can not to anger them. Pagan gods are fickle, they don’t particularly like mankind usually. They put up with mankind. They aren’t friends. They don’t exchange numbers or add one another facebook or follow each other on twitter.
Check out Acts 17- Paul is in Athens and speaks with the intellectuals. He says, yeah, you guys are trying to be pious, and that’s good, but you have a shrine to an unknown god. Paul says, yeah this God you understand to be there, and you worship him, but guess what, you get to know him. He has made himself known to us.
We proclaim God who we know. In 1 John 1 we read that which we have seen and heard and our hands have touched, this we proclaim. The new covenant is not one of reverent distance, but of intimate participatory closeness. We encounter Jesus, we experience the divine, we move forward in ever increasing knowledge- not factual head-knowledge but a growing familiarity with him as a person.
God continues, “FOR I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is the part we usually focus on as Christians, but we have to be careful about this statement. Notice something; the new covenant’s content is not forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness is not the nature of the covenant, but the way into the covenant. The covenant is possible because of forgiveness. Forgiveness of sin is part of God’s initiation to the New Covenant, not part of the nature of the covenant itself. God removes sin so that we might be able to be in covenant with him. The New Covenant is open because of forgiveness.
So, what on earth does all this have to do with Lent?
Our new relationship comes by way of repentance and suffering. Our own suffering, but more importantly the experience of Christ who joins our suffering. Go back a few verses- (Jer.31:27-28) “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals. Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.”
The language here mirrors the language at the opening of Jeremiah. In chapter 1 God calls on Jeremiah to proclaim a time of uprooting and tearing down and overthrowing, of destruction and disaster, but also to build and to plant, “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10). To rebuild you must demolish and clear away the rubble. To plant a new garden you have to uproot the overgrowth and till the soil. To find new life, you must first experience death. We experience death through Christ. In baptism we are joined to Christ in his death, so that we may experience his resurrection. To rebuild a new covenantal relationship, we have destroy the corrupted remnant of our sinful nature which destroyed the covenant between God and Israel.
Just as Israel and Judah had to experience the pain of exile and find repentance, we too are not exempt from suffering. Jesus never promises we will never experience sorrow or pain, but he does promise that if we follow him in the midst of that, we will remain in him, and not even death can separate us from his love. Lent is the time we focus on the suffering of Christ which leads to that new life. Jesus leads us through a time of tearing down, destroying, overthrowing and uprooting sin and evil and death in our lives so that new life might be planted and built up in us.
In the ultimate paradox of the universe life comes through death. Because in death Jesus makes it possible to nail our sinfulness to the cross and experience the freedom of walking into a new relationship with God in which he writes his word on hearts and minds, in which we become his people, and in which we have ongoing intimate relationship with the King of kings and Lord of lords.
We are invited in this Lenten time to mourn our failures and uproot our sin, to tear down injustice and and destroy and overthrow corruption and evil, but more importantly to look beyond it all to the one who invites out of that and into a new and everlasting covenant, and to follow him back into the promised land- in which His people are built up as a spiritual house of living stones (1 Peter 2:5) and planted strong and firm to flourish like the cedars of Lebanon (Ps. 92:12).