St Michael’s and St Barnabas 11th February 2018
Readings – Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 5:17-26
The story of Israel is one I have always found to be remarkable. As the script for a Hollywood movie it could hardly be bettered: a nation of slaves longing to free; a charismatic leader called Moses with a dubious past; a dramatic rescue through the waters of the Red Sea; years of doubt and crisis during the wilderness years, until finally, forty years later, the people of God reach the promised land.
Of course the one question a Hollywood director would probably not ask is: why did the Lord choose the Israelites? But actually that’s a very important question that’s relevant to us here today. After all, it’s easy to imagine that, in order to be chosen by God, you have to be particularly good or clever or important. But the Israelites were none of those things. If you read anything of their history, you will quickly see they were people just like us. They often ignored God or failed to understand what He was saying, and they were definitely never a bunch of world-beaters.
Yet the Lord chose them. Why? The short answer is that God made a covenant with them. Now that word covenant is one that we find again and again in the Bible. We’ll come across it later on in this service of Holy Communion when I declare the wine to be the blood of the new covenant. It’s one of those important words of the Christian faith that gets used an awful lot, but sadly is rarely explained. And if you’re sitting here and wondering what on earth a covenant might be, let me encourage you to hang on in there, because once you grasp what a covenant is, you will realise just what a wonderful God we serve and how much He has done for you.
So how to explain a covenant? Let’s move away from the world of the Bible for a moment to the world of celebrity marriages. Here is famous person A about to marry famous person B. Both are impossibly rich, and there’s no real expectation the relationship will be “until death do us part.” So before they tie the knot, they draw up what’s known as a pre-nuptial contract, or pre-nup for short. This contract spells out how the property of the couple is going to be divided up during and after the marriage. Without the contract, there is usually no marriage.
But in the truest sense of the word, marriage is not a contract. When I ask ordinary person A whether he will take ordinary person B to be his lawfully wedded wife, the answer is a clear, unconditional “I will.” Not, “I will, providing she fulfils the terms of the contract we have just drawn up.” Or, “I will, providing she takes the rubbish out every Wednesday evening.” It is simply, “I will.” That is a covenant – an agreement you freely enter into, without strings, without conditions, without the small print of what your intended will or will not do.
And that is the way that God chooses to love us. His love for us doesn’t depend on whether we do X, Y or Z for Him. He loves us because He loves us, and He wants a relationship with us. In fact to say that our God is a covenant God is just another way of saying that He is constantly seek to reach out to us with His free, unconditional love. He wants above all else to draw people to Him so they know and love Him as their Lord and Saviour.
But we have to be careful at this point. Just because God loves us so freely, this doesn’t mean He expects nothing in return. Indeed when you enter into a covenant, you expect the other party to carry out certain obligations. But here’s the different between a contract and a covenant. A contract says, I will commit to you only if you carry out the duties we have already agreed. A covenant says, I will commit to you because I choose to commit to you. I hope and expect you will commit to me in return but I will make the first move.
And the simple point I want to make is that our God is not a contract God but a covenant God. So many people think God will only love them if they try to be good, or serve Him in some particular way, as if God’s love is something we can earn or deserve. But God’s love is something that we can never earn or deserve – it is only something we can receive, with grateful thanks and a willing desire to obey Him. That is the God of the Bible, that is the God of the Christian faith. So let me ask you – is your God a contract God or a covenant God?
Let’s go back to the Israelites. God rescued them from Egypt. He made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai. He gave them the Law so they could know Him and love Him and make right sacrifices when they failed Him. And how did the Israelites respond? Well, in our sermon series from Jeremiah so far we have seen how they carried out all the right religious rituals but otherwise ignored the Lord for the rest of the week; how they heard the word of the Lord in their services but did not act on it; how they failed to remember just how much the Lord had done for them and made idols out of silver and god. Most of the story of the Old Testament is the story of God’s love spurned, ignored, rejected and you almost hear the pain in the Lord’s voice as He says through Jeremiah in verse 32 of our reading: They broke my covenant though I was a husband to them.
Jeremiah is prophesying about 600 years after the Lord first gave the Israelites that covenant. All through that time He has protected, cared for and led His people. He has kept on giving them opportunity to turn back to Him. But they have kept on going their own way, little believing that the Lord was actually going to do anything about the warnings He has given them. That is why so much of Jeremiah’s message is about the judgement that is to come – not because God delights in judging in anyone, but because in the end He must and He will act when His love and His goodness are constantly rejected. And indeed if you read on, you will see how the book ends with Jerusalem captured, the leaders killed, the temple destroyed.
So was that the end of the story? Remarkably, no. Because amid all the prophecies of doom, Jeremiah also gives clues that beyond the coming judgement, there is a future when God would once again look with favour on His people. Listen again to the whole of verses 31-32:
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers 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.
Now there is no indication in these verses that the people of God would earn this second chance or do anything to deserve this blessing. But just as God chose their forefathers and showed such free, unconditional love, so He would once again intervene to restore the relationship with His people. That is why He was going to make a new covenant. Not because plan A had failed and He had to come up with something else, but because His love is so persistent it reaches out and touches even the most undeserving of people – even us.
So what was going to be the same and what was going to be different about this new covenant?
First of all, Jeremiah tells us the same God is behind the Old and the New Covenant. The first half of verse 33: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah here is clear – the God who will reveal Himself in the New Covenant, and in the New Testament of the Bible, will be the same as the God who revealed Himself in the Old Covenant and the Old Testament of the Bible. This may seem simple enough to us, but it is a massively important point. Christians sometimes say that we don’t need the Old Testament or that the God of the New Testament is different from the God of the Old Testament. Well, there are some difficult parts of the Old Testament and maybe some slightly different themes, but the thing about God is that He is always the same. He never changes from one generation to the next. We won’t wake up one day and find He is different from the God we worshipped yesterday. God is God throughout all of time, and one reason why we have an Old Testament as well as a New Testament is that together we get a full picture of who God is.
Yes, I realise the main difference between the Old and the New Testament is that in the New we meet the person of Jesus. But Jesus is already there in the Old. His coming is no second thought on God’s part. It was part of God’s plan right from the very beginning, that when the time was right, He would come to fulfil the old covenant and bring about the new covenant Jeremiah is talking about here.
And if it is true that the same God is behind the Old and the New Covenant, then, secondly, it follows that God’s law also remains the same between the Old and the New. The second half of verse 33: 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. Now at first glance this seems quite a surprising statement. After all, if you know anything about the OId Testament you know that it contains strange rules and regulations about things like animal sacrifices or what you can or can’t eat, and as Christians we clearly don’t follow these instructions any more. Otherwise we’d have a real altar here and our Sunday services would be getting very messy!
No, but as I said earlier, the main point of the law was to show the people of God how to respond to the free, unconditional love the Lord had showed them. And to that extent the law still stands. It is the living word of God that teaches us how to respond in faith by loving God with all our heart and soul and strength and loving our neighbour as ourselves – commands which come originally, by the way, from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Yes, we may have to work harder how to apply the Old Testament to our lives, but it is no reason we can simply ignore it or treat it as any less important than the words of the New Testament.
There’s much, much more I could say on this subject but I must press on to verse 34 and look at what’s different about the new covenant.
And the first thing we notice, again in the first half of the verse, is that under the new covenant there is a new knowledge of God.
Verse 34: “No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. Now once more we have to be clear what Jeremiah does and does not mean. He is not saying that for us as Christians we have no need for teachers or for theological education. Otherwise I’d be out of a job, and I hope you’d agree that would be a bad thing! But he is saying that there will no longer be any need for a special class of priests or teachers of the law who are somehow special or set apart from the rest of the people of God.
You see, under the new covenant everyone is able to have a direct, personal relationship with the Lord. How? Because the Lord promises that He will come and live in the hearts of all who believe in Him through the power of the Holy Spirit. And when I say all, I really do mean everyone. You may be here this morning, thinking that you are somehow a second-class Christian. You struggle to do what the Lord asks of you, you find it hard at times to believe, you rarely find time to read your Bible. It can be so easy to look around at everyone else at church and think that they are so much better Christians than you. Well, under the new covenant, there are no second and first-class Christians. If you believe and trust in the Lord, you have the gift of the Holy Spirit and you have just as much right to call yourself the child of the living God as anyone else, no matter who you are, no matter how much or how little you think you understand of your faith.
But you might ask, how is it possible for me to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer is, because under the new covenant we have a new experience of God’s forgiveness. Listen to the wonderful promise in verse 34: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Now of course under the old covenant it was possible to receive forgiveness from God. You took a lamb or a young bull to the temple and slaughtered it as a sacrifice to the Lord. But the blood of animals couldn’t really deal with the problem of the human heart. In a while you’d have to come back with another animal, or take part in another religious ceremony. You would never be sure you had ever quite done enough to put yourself right with God.
What was needed was a perfect sacrifice that could deal with the deepest wickedness and the most stinging shame we carry around within us. And in the new covenant that perfect sacrifice is revealed to be Jesus. He takes on His shoulders our every failure to love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and our every failure to love our neighbour as ourselves, and He goes to the cross for you and for me, so that our wickedness can be forgiven and our sins remembered no more. Not because we are good or special or clever enough to receive such free, unconditional love, but because our God is a covenant God who chooses to love us simply because He Himself is love.
And when we say, “Yes” to Jesus, when we recognise just what He has done for us on the cross, that is when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives. We are given a new relationship with the living Lord that is permanent and secure, no matter what we may face in life, no matter what difficulties or trials may come before us.
Now in our gospel reading we hear how a paralysed man is brought to Jesus. It would have been so easy for Jesus simply to have said, “Get up and walk.” But Jesus sees the real issue in that man’s life is his heart. Yes, He could have just healed the body, but the paralysed man would have still remained under the old covenant. He would still be at the mercy of the teachers of the law, and still relying on the sacrifices of animals to try and get right with God. What this man needs even more than physical healing is a new, a personal relationship with the Lord where all the sin and wrongdoing deep within are dealt with once and for all. And so Jesus says to him – well, what does he say? Not simply, “Your sins are forgiven”, but “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Isn’t that amazing, to be called a friend by Jesus? Well, that is the promise of the new covenant. The God of the Old and the New Testament, who stands the same for all eternity, whose powerful word raises up and brings down nations, comes to us, wanting to be our friend in Jesus Christ, and to fill us with His Holy Spirit. Now to Jeremiah the idea that God would come and offer such a life-giving relationship was just a distant prospect. He had no real idea how the new covenant would come about. But to us the promise of the new covenant is here, is now. And the question today is: how are we going to respond to that promise?
Will we be like the Israelites of old, paying lip service to the God we claim to worship? Or will we allow our hearts to be transformed by the living presence of the Holy Spirit and enter into that relationship with Lord we were always meant to enjoy? Let’s today reaffirm our identity as new covenant people, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, and let’s offer up our lives to Him in joyful loving service. For His name’s sake. Amen.