Lent 5

March 22, 2015


Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; Psalm 51:1-12


          “Covenant” is not a word most people use much in our day. It is actually a legal term, a word used for a binding agreement between two parties in which each party is expected to do certain things for the other. The church has long used the language of covenant to describe our relationships with God and with each other. Our baptismal services are services of the baptismal covenant, which includes not only baptism, but confirmation, church membership, and reaffirmation of baptismal vows. We describe marriage as a covenant, not only between those being married to each other, but with God. And those who are clergy in the United Methodist Church are expected to live in covenant with each other and with the conference.

          The Bible depicts God as one who makes covenant with his people. He made covenants with Noah, with Abraham and his descendants, and ultimately with his entire people Israel. The terms of the covenant were pretty straightforward. God promised to be Israel’s God and make it a great nation. Israel in turn promised to obey God’s teachings and worship him alone.

          In today’s lesson from Jeremiah we read of God’s promise to make a new covenant with his people. This was not because there was anything wrong with the old covenant. It was because Israel had broken the covenant repeatedly. They had disobeyed God’s teachings about how to treat other people, especially the poor, the outcast, and the foreigner. Many of them had also strayed from worshiping God, worshiping worthless idols instead that represented the so-called gods of the people who lived around them. The people had suffered from the consequences of their disobedience, including war, conquest, and exile. Yet the God who loved this people in spite of their sin and disobedience refused to give up on them. So now, with God’s people in exile in a foreign land, Jeremiah speaks on God’s behalf, offering the people words of hope.

          In this new covenant, God said, “I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord!’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,…for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.” Now Christian tradition has understood this passage to have been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, for in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. The Holy Spirit has been given to us to teach us and guide us in the ways of Christ from within. The Spirit writes God’s teachings in our hearts. Yet we must acknowledge that Jeremiah had an incomplete understanding of what the new covenant would look like. After all, the prophet also said there would no longer be any need for people to teach each other to know the Lord—everyone would know God’s teachings by heart, and live according to them. If that prophecy were fulfilled, I would be out of a job.

          Even writing God’s commandments on human hearts did not turn out to be enough to bring humankind back to God. Humans still proved to be unfaithful and untrustworthy. Human perversion is such that even when we know God’s ways by heart, we don’t always do them. We still fail to keep our end of our covenant with God. We put ourselves ahead of God. We mistreat others. In order for a new covenant to work, an even greater personal investment on God’s part was required. That investment was the life of God’s own Son, Jesus, who suffered and died on the cross. Like a priest, Jesus offered prayers and cries to God who could save him from death. Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die, but he did because he was obedient to God’s purposes. Because he was obedient to God, he is the source of salvation for all who obey him. Through him we are made right with God.

          God remains faithful to his covenant with his people, even though we are unfaithful. When we break our end of the covenant, God gladly welcomes our broken and contrite hearts. God gives us clean hearts and renewed spirits when we come to him in penitence and trust. In Christ’s death and resurrection, God has broken down the wall that sin erects between us and God, restoring us to right relationship with God. Thanks be to God.


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