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“A New Covenant”

Date: March 18, 2018 Speaker:



Mar182018

 

“A New Covenant”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

 The Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 18, 2018

Pastor Mark Wiesenborn

St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas

 

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Throughout Lent we have been reminded of the incredible riches of God’s love, in that He sent His Son to become our Savior and also our friend.  We are saved by grace, through faith alone in what our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ has done for us – and not by anything we do for God or for ourselves.  This is the power and the hope found in our Old Testament passage for this morning, as God speaks to the prophet Jeremiah about a New Covenant:

     “For I will forgive their iniquity,

          and I will remember their sin no more.”

 

Dear friends in Christ, many of you know that before I became a Lutheran pastor I worked as a chemical engineer for some years.  There was a time when just the thought of getting up in front of a group of people and speaking to them was enough to cause me sleepless nights and great anxiety.  Yet along the way, through volunteer leadership opportunities as well as regular presentations related to my job, I learned to worry less about myself and to focus on the message.  My Seminary training taught me two important things about doing this in preaching:

 

▪   First, that pastors need to teach God’s Word in ways that encourage the listeners to change the way they think about God, before they will change their actions.

 

▪   And second, that God is speaking to me in these messages as much as He is speaking to you!  He declares that the days are coming when He will put His Law in our minds and it will be written on our hearts. He will be our God, and we will be His people.  All of the people He has called and claimed as His own, from the least of them to the greatest, will know Him so well that preachers and Bible study teachers will no longer be necessary!  But with a spirit of humility, I must say that we are not there yet.

 

God promises: “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant; it will not be like the old covenant that the people broke.”  We might understand a COVENANT as one of the many ways that people establish agreements to describe and govern our relationships.  A lot of the things we do with one another are not bound by any rules – so that people do whatever they want and participate only in the things that are meaningful to them.  We may also choose to more earnestly commit our time and abilities and even our hearts through promises, like the vows made before God on the occasions of a Baptism or a Confirmation or a wedding.

 

These vows are each a form of COVENANT – but they are not the same as a binding legal contract filled with small print, and by which the Elders will come to your home to cut off the spiritual power supply if they believe you have violated the terms of the agreement!  We are stubborn and strong-willed people who like to keep our loopholes open and our escape clauses ready in a convenient place, so that we can justify walking away from relationships when they no longer meet our needs.  But our Lord and King, who is faithful, does not leave us nor forsake us.

 

There were a series of Old Testament covenants.  God established a covenant with Noah and all life on earth after the entire planet was devastated by the Great Flood, and He promised that this would never happen again and then sealed it with the sign of the rainbow [Genesis 9].  He blessed Abraham with the promises of many descendants and a future home in the Promised Land, and this became a covenant of blood through the requirement for males to be circumcised [Genesis 17].  He gave the Ten Commandments of Law through Moses to the people of Israel during their exodus from Egypt to the Canaan, and sealed this covenant with requirements for ritual animal sacrifices – these would be considered graphic even by today’s standards in how the blood was to be used. [Exodus 24; Leviticus 4-9]

 

And in response, the people said: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” [Exodus 24:7But in every generation, they turned away from God and failed to obey His commands, not keeping their part of the covenant (and neither could we!).  As Noah and Abraham and Moses quickly learned, there is a big difference between our good intentions and God’s steadfast love.  There are also consequences to our disobedience, but we often fail to appreciate this because we misunderstand how God’s judgment and justice work.

 

Here is an example of how people have messed up the meaning of true justice.  Several years ago a middle-aged Houston plastic surgeon went out one evening after work for a few drinks, in combination with three prescription medications.  On his way home through the Galleria area he sped through a red light and lost control of his sports car, which jumped a curb onto the sidewalk and struck two British women who were waiting to cross the street.  Several eyewitnesses described their bodies flying high into the air almost like rag dolls, leaving them severely injured but alive.  He paused briefly and then drove away, but was pursued and caught by the police. During the trial, the explanation offered by his defense lawyer was to tell an outrageous lie: he blamed the women for stepping off the curb without looking in the right direction and therefore not seeing the oncoming traffic!  He said it was their fault. Eventually, however, a visibly skeptical jury persuaded that doctor to plead guilty to intoxication assault. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and the Texas Medical Board revoked his license.

 

Some of you may disagree with me on this, but justice cannot be served and we will all be the poorer for it as long as people make a mockery of the truth. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:31-32]  Some of you have also heard me say this in our Sunday Bible classes:  if any of us are accused of committing a crime and know in our hearts that we are guilty, I believe it is our responsibility as Christians to confess the truth, to be truly remorseful, and to hope and trust that MERCY means something to the judge.  This goes all the way from traffic court to tax evasion to capital murder.

 

If I can say anything today that will change the way that you think about your new covenant relationship with God, and then change your actions, this is it.  I believe pastors and church leaders have an even greater responsibility to show integrity in this respect.  The simple truth is that each of us daily sins and turns away from our Savior.  And as long as we try to cover up our sins with lies and excuses, we have closed ourselves off from His abundant mercy – and placed ourselves back into the old covenant relationship of bloody, messy sacrifices.

 

There are consequences to our disobedience.  As Jesus gathers His disciples for the Passover meal that is also known as the Last Supper, He says to them: “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”  They are very sad and begin to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?” [Matthew 26:19-22]

 

Surely not I, Lord?  God is speaking to us in these messages as much as He is speaking to them.  In the darkness of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds we each betray the Son of God.  In our doubts and despair we deny Him.  And in a world that loves darkness more than it searches for light and truth, we become part of that angry mob standing outside the courts of Pontius Pilate who are whispering the words, and finally shouting them out in anger: “Cru-ci-fy him!  Cru-ci-fy him!

 

After all (we lie outrageously), He is to blame for the trouble He has caused.  This foreigner from Nazareth failed to look the right direction before stepping off of the curb; He should have known better than to be hanging around our part of town in the first place; and if He miraculously survives what is about to happen to Him on Golgotha, He would be wise to not show His face around here ever again.

 

That is what the old covenant does to usWe do not show much mercy, but there is more than enough bitterness and condemnation and recrimination.  And once the bloodlust begins, it is hard to get things back to where they belong.

 

Yet praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort [2nd Corinthians 1:3], who offers us a new covenant to describe and govern the relationship that He desires to have with us!  In the same way that Abraham was spared from having to sacrifice his son Isaac when God provided a lamb, our Savior spares us by offering to take our place in God’s system of justice and to receive the punishment that we deserve.  Because of Jesus Christ our iniquities are forgiven, and our sins are remembered no more.

 

Jeremiah says: “The days are coming.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” [John 12:23-25]

 

Jesus then says: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”  His death on the Cross has satisfied God’s wrath and judgment for OUR sins – and for those of all people who will believe in Him, for all time!  That gives us much to think about during the two weeks between now and Easter Sunday.

 

My friends, each of us needs to learn what it means to have God-pleasing relationships with other people.  They can be simple or extremely complex; they can be satisfying or very frustrating; and they can be rewarding or completely draining.  Yet for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health – He desires this FOR US, that we would seek to get connected to Jesus and to stay connected with Him.

 

God works in us and through us not just as individuals, but as a community of people who encounter His love in Jesus Christ and who share His hope through the life that we live together in worship and fellowship and service.  We get connected as members of this community through water and God’s Word in Baptism.  We stay connected through the true Body and Blood of Christ, which we receive every time we eat the bread and drink the wine in Communion with our Lord.  God has already done the hard part.  Making a difference in this community of faith for the sake of His Kingdom is up to us.

 

May the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus!  In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

 

 

 

 

OLD TESTAMENT LESSON – Jeremiah 31:31-34 [ESV]

 

      31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.  33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: 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 people34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

 

 



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