Out with the Old and In with the New
A sermon based on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Sunday, March 25, 2012 – Lent 5B
It's that time again. Time for spring cleaning where it's out with the old and in with the new. For the Guenthers this year that means clearing out some old toys and outgrown clothes to make room for the new ones that show up every time a grandparent visits. It means getting rid of the books I've read and won't read again. And it means cleaning out the garage and think about putting the snow shoes and sleds in the back and the bikes and fishing poles out front again.
But when it comes to tossing stuff, out with the old can sometimes be tough, especially when what's old is something that you love and are comfortable with. And in with the new can be equally tough when the new is unfamiliar and, therefore, uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit scary. Think of a move or relocation you've made. Or think of the "new" hymnal (that's now around 25 years old) or a new Bible transation. Out with the old, and in with the new can be tough. But sometimes change is for the better and "out with the old, in with the new" is necessary.
That's certainly the case with the covenants that God made with his people. It is better by far that God says it's out with the "old" covenant and in with the "new" -- a covenant that the prophet Jeremiah described about seven hundred years after the old covenant was written and about seven hundred years before the new covenant was fulfilled. Here's what he wrote in Jeremiah 31:31-34...
31 "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. 32 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. 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house 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 a man teach his neighbor, 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. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
I. We Break the Old Covenant
Before we discuss the two covenants that God has made with his people, perhaps we'd better define what exactly a covenant is. After all, covenant's not a word we use on a daily basis, or maybe at all outside of this Biblical context. But we are familiar with contracts. And that's really what a covenant, or testament, is:
contract, an agreement, or a promise. And those come in different forms, don't they? The first of God's covenants is like a two-sided contract. This will be done, if this condition is first met. And if that condition is not met, there is no obligation for the promise to be kept. So what's the promise and condition of the old covenant?
Well, the old covenant was the one made on Mount Sinai after God had let his people out of Egypt. God promised to be the Israelites' God. He promised to guard them and protect them, to make them prosperous and guide them with his wisdom, to make them a strong nation and give them a great part of the country to live in. The other side of the covenant was the Israelites' promise that God would be their God. They would not forsake him for other gods. They would follow Him and do everything that He told them. And the people signed the contract. Exodus 24:3 says, "When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, 'Everything the LORD has said we will do.'" (Exodus 24:3)
In a sense, it was like they were now married to God. Each belonged to the other. Each would love and serve the other. And just as a loving husband provides for his wife, takes care of her, and gives himself up for her, so the Lord did and does that for his own. You would think a wife would be loyal to such a husband. You would think.
But Israel didn't keep their end of the bargain. "They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD." Even though he was the perfect husband, who brought them out of Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, saved their lives, protected them from their enemies, and promised them a Savior, they cheated on him. Again and again. Before the ink could dry on the marriage certificate they cheated on him with the golden calf. They broke God's law and broke God's heart just as Moses broke the tablets on which the covenant was written. And as the decades and centuries passed, they continued to behave more like prostitutes than a loving wife, offering themselves to every false god they could get a hold of.
The first covenant didn't work. Not because there was anything wrong with the covenant, and certainly not because there was anything wrong with God. But there is something very wrong with people. God's first covenant requires perfect faithfulness from his people, and the Israelites just weren't up to it. We aren't, either.
You know, the title "old" covenant can be misunderstood. It doesn't mean "old" in the sense that it's obsolete or no longer applies. No. God's law still stands. Do all these things and live. And the wages of sin is still death. The contract still applies. God's Law still requires that we love him and one another perfectly. But you and I are born with a flawed, sinful nature that makes this totally impossible.
For we too cheat on God with other gods. We make our plans and priorities around them. We spend our time and money on them. And make sure nothing gets in the way of them. Hobbies, drinks and drugs, sports and TV shows... ourselves. We have broken our contract with God. And every time we break a commandment, we break the covenant again. Remember what you promised at your confirmation? We promised faithfulness—faithfulness for life, even to the point of death. And we have not lived up to that promise. So what's our penalty? Well, we deserve to have God divorce us for cheating on him so often. But, amazingly, in an act of extraordinary love, our gracious and faithful God said, "Out with the old and in with the new!" and brought in a completely new contract.
II. God Keeps the New Covenant
In love, God would re-marry his people and write a new contract. They couldn't keep the old one. So he'd make one they couldn't break. But maybe "contract" isn't the right word, because this one is entirely one-sided. They had nothing to do with it. We have nothing to do with it. God declared, " I will put my law in their minds... I will be their God... I will forgive their wickedness." This is a one-sided promise from God, more like a will than a contract. And no one has earned or deserved it, but God delivers these promises because that is what God is all about.
Now, literally, "I will put my law in their minds..." is "I will put my torah in them." And torah isn't just the law as we good Lutherans typically think of it, but is literally, "teaching," "instruction," or "doctrine." The context makes it clear that the gospel is what's refered to here.
And just like "old" can be misunderstood, so can "new." This wasn't really a new covenant. Last year I got a "new" jeep. But it was made in ____. It wasn't really new, but it was new to me. Likewise, the "new" covenant was promised already to Adam and Eve.
So what is this "new" covenant all about? What's the one-sided gospel promise? "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." That's what God did in Jesus. Under the "new covenant," the gospel, here's how your relationship with God works. God forgives your sins and you… well, you…nothing! That's it! There are no conditions to agree to before God will take you back. No stipulations that God will forgive you if you're good enough. You are forgiven. God chooses to forget your sin.
How? Well, think of it this way: When a professional athlete wants to write a new contract, he gets himself a good agent. Our good agent, if you will, really went to bat for us. He knew what God demanded of us, and fulfilled it in our place. He was completely faithful to God, at all times, obedient in every way. And he fulfilled the second part of this contract, and was punished for our sins. Jesus has fulfilled the terms of the contract for us, signing it, sealing it, with his blood.
And this "new" covenant isn't just for a few, but for all. He says, "No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,"
To "know" God is not just to have knowledge about him, but to experience who he is. If you know forgiveness in Christ, you truly know the LORD. So this covent is for all. From the smallest and the youngest to the greatest—for all.
And the Holy Spirit acts as the executor of Jesus' will, bringing the blessings of the new covenant are to us in the Word and in Baptism and in the Lord's Supper. For when he instituted this "new" sacrament he saidin Luke 22:20, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." In other words, out with the old covenant of Passover that recalled the Exodus from Egypt and the promise of the coming Messiah. In with the new covenant of Jesus' blood. So next Sunday you and I won't eat the Passover Lamb, but the very Lamb of God that takes away your sin. And as we do, God forgets our sin again.
Out with old sins, in with new forgiveness. Talk about spring cleaning! And now, in thanks to God for this new covenant, we do some spring cleaning of our own. Now it's out with the old way of living to serve ourselves and in with new, holy desires and thoughts and actions.
For those who live with God under this new one-sided agreement of grace, an amazing thing starts happening. We find ourselves loving God and living for him, not so that God will make us his, but because he already has. And where the old covenant of God's Law nagged at us from the outside, the Gospel changes us on the inside. The new agreement gets results where the old one failed.
So out with the old, dear friends, no matter how comfortable the old may be! And in with the new! In with the new covenant of God's grace! In with the new covenant of his blood! In with a new life lived for him in thanks for all he's done! In Jesus' name and by the new covenant he brought, amen!