Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | March 25, 2012

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34

God restructures the deal

  • Order of Service: Common Service, p15
  • Lessons: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:7-9, John 12:20-33
  • Hymns: 726, 120:1-2, 713, 741, 752

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Some attempt to read the Old Testament separately from the New Testament.  While they acknowledge that the two testaments are linked, they wish to find all the meaning of the Old Testament in the Old Testament alone.  I won’t quibble with the fact that we should read the Old Testament in its context and understand what God said and to whom He said it.  Yet, on the other hand, when we seek to understand the Old Testament, we have no better interpreter than the Holy Spirit, especially when He comments on Old Testament texts in the New Testament.  Jesus Himself directs us to this kind of reading of the Old Testament when He told His Jewish opponents, These are the Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39, NIV84).

So if Jeremiah 31 gets quoted in the New Testament, we should pay attention, because there the Spirit explains Jeremiah to us. And the Spirit does quote Jeremiah 31 twice in the New Testament.  Both quotations come from the letter to the Hebrews, the first in chapter 8, verses 6-13:  But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.  For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.But God found fault with the people and said….  Here the Spirit quotes all five verses of Jeremiah 31 before concluding:  By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (NIV84).

Something was wrong with the first covenant, the covenant made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai, where God said, “I will be my God and you will be my people.”  Notice the source of the wrong:  God found fault with the people.  Or, as Jeremiah said it, They broke my covenant.  Even though Moses taught them everything the LORD commanded.  Even though God promised blessings beyond belief if Israel would obey what He taught.  Even though Israel promised to serve and obey the LORD.  Still, they broke the covenant.  They caused the LORD to find fault with them.  It started quickly, with the grumbling that led to worshiping the Golden Calf just months after the exodus from Egypt.  And it progressed to the point where by the time Jeremiah writes, the Lord calls His people some pretty nasty things.  He calls them sluts and whores who prostitute themselves all over town.  He says their dirt can’t be cleaned off with the most powerful cleaning products.  He says, “You’ve abandoned me, I’ll abandon you!”

So God restructured the deal.  This happens in sports all the time.  It’s the free agency season in football, and since the National Football League has rules about how much money teams can spend on players, occasionally a team asks a player to restructure his contract.  In other words, they ask him to take less money now so that the team can sign someone who will make them better.  God restructures the deal too.  And good thing he does.  Israel proved that they couldn’t keep up their end of the bargain.  The smallest acts of obedience were outside their ability to perform, even though it wasn’t all that mysterious what God desired and required of them.  After all, He wrote it down on stone tablets, and through prophets like Moses He put it on paper:  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.”  And they couldn’t do it.  They wouldn’t do it.  Or, as Christ said as He wept over Jerusalem, You were not willing (Matthew 23:27, NIV84).

If that isn’t sounding familiar, it should.  Have we done much better than Israel?  Christ ascended into heaven with these words on His lips, Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19, NIV84), or, as He said in today’s Gospel, Whoever serves me must follow me (John 12:26a, NIV84).  Check your scorecard.  How balanced does it look between fruits of the Spirit and acts of the sinful nature?  How confidently do you check the box next to “Love God with all your heart”?  And what about the one that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself”?  Our lives are filled with our own shameful litanies of real sins, real guilt, real wrongs, real immorality, real missing the mark, real falling below God’s standard – also known as real rebellion.  For the Bible tells me so.  And our consciences bear witness.  We couldn’t.  And we wouldn’t.  God finds fault with us.  We need a restructured deal before God calls us sluts and whores, before God declares us uncleanable, before God sends Nebuchadnezzar to destroy us, before God casts us into hell.

So God says, “Something’s wrong with the old covenant.  I’m going to get rid of that covenant.  It’s obsolete.  I will make a new covenant.”  Jeremiah finely describes this covenant:  different from Mount Sinai’s, a covenant put into minds and hearts, a universal covenant, a covenant of forgiveness and forgetting.  In other words, it’s a covenant all about faith and all about Christ.  And so that there can be no doubt, the Spirit explains this text again in Hebrews, this time in chapter 10, verses 11-18:  Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.  Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”  Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:11-18, NIV84).

What sin lost for us, what rebellion against God destroyed, faith restores.  Priests offering sacrifices accomplished nothing, which explains why they offered sacrifices day after day under the old covenant.  But Christ came, a new priest, with a new and better covenant.  And He offered one sacrifice for sins – Himself.  A sacrifice for all time – His blood.  A sacrifice for all people – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  And God says, I will put my laws in their hearts.  And it is with your heart that you believe and are justified (Romans 10:10, NIV84).  Believe what?  That God forgives and forgets in Christ.  He forgives and forgets those real sins, real guilts, real wrongs, real immorality, real missing the mark, real falling below His standard, and our real rebellion.  He put those things really on His Son.  He cast them onto Christ, Christ who is our righteousness, Christ who said:  This cup is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20, NIV84).  Just in case Hebrews left you in doubt, Jesus shatters the doubt about how and in whom to identify this new covenant as He distributes for the first time His body and blood to fellow believers, words repeated every time the Church distributes His body and blood.

God does all the structuring and restructuring.  He made the first covenant.  He took Israel out of Egypt.  He married them.  And when they broke the covenant, He made the new covenant.  He writes the Law into hearts.  He makes the “not my people” His people again.  He forgives and forgets.  We ran away.  We adulterate.  We idolize.  God comes after.  God renews.  God rewrites.  God restructures the deal.  Marvel at the one-sidedness of it all.  He comes to us.  Christ came to us.  Christ offered the once for all sacrifice.  Christ carried out the new covenant.  Christ distributes the new covenant in His blood to you yet today.  Because while God’s Law is in your hearts, you’re still simul justus et peccator, that little Latin phrase that means you’re still a saint who sins.  We shouldn’t have to be told or taught the things of God by men:  the Law is not made for righteous men, Paul says.  But we are not yet wholly righteous and perfect.  We are declared so only in Christ.  And God continues to declare us so.  He announced it in the absolution I spoke upon you today and which you speak upon each other on a daily basis.  He announces it through the teaching ministry of His pastors and teachers bringing you Christ.  He lays it before you in the sacrament of His new covenant, giving you the body and blood that won you redemption, that forgave your sins, that causes God to forget that you are still peccator, still a sinner; that causes you to become less peccator and more justus, more saint, more the one living out God’s Law written in your heart, simply because you know the Lord, you know Christ, you know forgiveness.  And where God forgives and forgets, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin, because by faith in Christ that one sacrifice He offered has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.  God restructured the deal.  In our favor.  Amen.

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