New Covenant, New Life

Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Date: Lent V + The Annunciation of Our Lord + 3/25/12

We are getting closer, closer to the main celebration of the Christian faith, the climax and central focus not only of the New Testament but also of the entire Bible. The whole history of salvation hinges on this, the Great and Holy Week, made “great” and “holy” by the passion, the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ and Savior of the world. It is, to use the language of our Old Testament reading for today, the apex between the old and the new covenant. Today those who would be disciples of Jesus learn that saving faith is always a gift, and repentance is a change of heart leading to a whole new perspective on life and service to God and neighbor.

In today’s Gospel that difference is displayed in terms of the attitude of selfless, humble service versus the proud, self-serving power plays of the way of the world. The temptation to self-service and self-aggrandizement is so strong that it takes nothing less than a deep and complete change of heart to be the true servants of the Servant of God.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah means when he writes, “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, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers….” What’s troubled me about this is the idea that something could be “wrong,” “faulty,” “defective” with the old or first covenant of God. How could anything of God be flawed? What’s the difference between the old covenant and the new?

The “old” covenant of which the prophet speaks is the one, says the LORD, “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.” This covenant or promise of salvation started already, of course, from its first announcement in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15). Then the promised deliverance was demonstrated most dramatically in the Exodus when Moses led the children of Israel out of the slavery of Egypt. Finally the covenant took on the form and included the ten words or Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai.

Now every covenant or contract has two sides, two parties, each having promised responsibilities. On the one side, God promised to make His people a great nation and the deliverers of salvation for the whole world. On the other side, His people were to be holy, set apart and to have faith and live by the word of God alone. The problem with the old covenant was not with the covenant itself. In fact the new covenant is exactly the same as the old except for one thing. The defect of the old covenant was that it could be broken by the people. The great promise of the new covenant is the divine help and healing of forgiveness that keeps the covenant in effect.

In the old covenant the law was laid before the people so that they might accept it and follow it. The fulfillment of the Law was then as it is now, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Dt 6:5). Yet it was obvious that, because of the thorough grip of sin, no one could or can love the Lord perfectly. Is this not what was behind the embarrassing request of the sons of Zebedee to be given places of honor in Jesus’ coming kingdom? Little did they realize that those places of honor on their Lord’s right and left hand would not be thrones of rule and power but crosses of punishment already reserved for two robbers on Mt. Calvary (Mk 15:27). Sin still so easily besets us as it did them.

So what’s the difference? How is the new covenant “not like” the first one? God says what’s new is “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” It’s the same law. But what was merely commanded and applied externally to the heart in the old is given internally in the new. The new covenant is but the completion of the old.

The difference or change is not on God’s part but on ours. It is true of all people that the demands of God’s law cannot be fulfilled because all people are sinners. God’s Law can only show the way and the requirements of holiness but cannot deliver or give it. As such the Law can only humble the sinner, make one realize their desperate need, and make him cry out to God for help, as in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). God writes His will on the heart only when the sinner allows God to forgive his sins, as it says in the last verse of our text, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Yes, God has arranged things that human beings still possess the terrible ability to say “no” to God. And it is somewhere between foolish and tragic that so many people reject God’s offer of grace and forgiveness.

The forgiveness of sins is the basis of the new covenant as it was of the old. God’s people of any age or era are saved on the basis of God’s forgiveness of our sins. It is God’s work of grace that cancels the demands of the Law against us. In the old covenant God’s Law is the impelling force. In the new covenant God’s grace is the aiding power to change us. This is what it means when God says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me.”

That inner change and transformation happens because God Himself now actually enters the repentant sinner’s heart. He enters by means of His Spirit. He enters by means of the blood of “the only Son from heaven, foretold by ancient seers, by God the Father given” (LSB 402), who appeared in human form. As the angel announced to Mary His mother, “behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). Then it is through His human flesh and blood that He gives us forgiveness, for, as He said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, this cup is the new testament,” the new covenant “in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And then he commands us with the blessed command, “Do this,” for this is grace directly from the heart of God to yours. So thoroughly does this change us that we sing and confess,

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
[The Hymnal (1940), St. Patrick, 268:6]

All His “torah,” both Law and Gospel, is written, inscribed on your heart causing you to become, as St. Paul said it, “a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).

We now approach the central celebration of the new covenant of God wherein, through His Word, but especially through the Body and Blood of His Son, God changes us—changes us from lords to servants, from sin to holiness, from death to eternal life, all through the forgiveness of our sin. Receive the inscription of God’s grace for you with faith-filled hearts.