Each week at our staff meeting on Zoom, we check in with the people involved in the next upcoming service to see how things are going. We ask if any help is needed in any way. It being my week, I said that the service part was coming along great, but that I had not a glimmer about what to say in a sermon.
Then I shared that, to me, the scripture for today was so beautiful and wonderful, that the verses just seemed to stand perfectly on their own. Here is Jeremiah 31:31-34.
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband (or spouse) says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says 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 people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
There is a deep well of images and ideas here we could explore. God stating that a new Covenant is going to be made with Israel. A Covenant unlike any before, dating back to the Exodus when God led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and the oppressive captivity they endured. There is talk of the Covenant being broken by Israel – they opposed the laws of God and sought their own ways.
Then it shifts and now God reveals a new approach that will come upon Israel. The law will no longer be seen in words on stone tablets and papyrus, but it will be written within each person. It won’t be necessary to teach and instruct, but each one shall know the Lord God in their heart. The word will reside within each one, not just in books or on clever posters.
And bonus points – God will completely forgive all ungodliness and remember their sin no more.
The placement of these verses in Jeremiah reached out and grabbed me. Jeremiah is not a book that is particularly known for its poetic or lush writings. Rather, Jeremiah’s overarching theme is judgment. It is dominated by doom and gloom, condemning the people of Judah for their great sin and announcing the imminent destruction of the nation and the exile to Babylon that would come in 587 BCE. God is angry with the defiance of Israel and the prophet is bringing a warning.
The warning takes up about the first forty-five chapters of Jeremiah which focuses primarily on the judgment coming to Judah because of its disbelief and disobedience. The fall of Jerusalem is one of the punishments from God. All in all, Jeremiah is saying that the original covenant between Israel and God is now a failure based on Israel’s continued scorn of the ways of God.
And yet, right in the middle of this prophecy of darkness and despair, Jeremiah offers a bright cluster of promises which sparkle like precious stones. God offers promises of hope, comfort, and restoration. God promises to bring Israel back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people once again. The new covenant found in today’s reading is a key element of the future God will create. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
The Old Covenant was the one made on Mount Sinai after God had led the people out of the slavery of Egypt.
Of this, Dennis Olson, Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary says, “Its basis (referring to the Old Covenant) was the Law, the Ten Commandments written on stone (Exodus 20:1-17), which parents were to teach diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Some features of the old will remain. God will continue to be the initiator of the covenant rooted in God’s gracious action on behalf of the people (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 9:3-5). The Law will remain as the norm for living as God’s people. The goal will be the same: to love God and to love your neighbors as God’s chosen people in the world.
Olsen continues, “It is this love of God and love of neighbor that will now distinguish the New Covenant. God’s promises and laws will be re-writing on our hearts. The biblical understanding of the “heart” is that it is the center of human intellect and will, knowing what is right and having the desire to do it. Under the old covenant, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone and posted for all to see (Exodus 24:12).”
I suppose it was about 50 years ago when US churches, beginning with the Catholics and rippling out into other faith groups, began bringing El Salvadorian refugee families to our country and worked with them to establish them in communities all over the USA. 29 years ago, during a work camp trip to Maine, our GROUP work camp teams were able to meet refugee families and to see firsthand the need to rescue these folks from a government that was hunting them down and, at times, killing them.
While I was Youth Pastor in Ravenna, the senior pastor there, Rev. Don Preslan, told of a time when his church in Old Brooklyn, OH decided to be part of this mission of mercy and they began talking about bringing a family from El Salvador into the care of their congregation.
Don held some meetings with the church leadership, and they were very enthusiastic and willing to help a family. Meetings were planned and held with church leaders in our United Church of Christ and legal questions were answered. Finally, the leadership was ready to take the possibility to the church family. A meeting was announced to engage the congregation.
During the initial meeting and those that followed, there was one fellow who was just adamant that this not happen. He worried about the church’s reputation, the responsibility to this family, and even if it was that church’s business to be in the rescuing industry. He shared his opposition to the idea every time the church met to look over the proposal before a final vote.
At the deciding vote, when the congregation was asked to yeah or nay, he stood up and cast his vote of opposition in front of the whole church, detailing his objections in full. No one knew quite what to do.
By all accounts, this man was a devoted Christian. He was a follow of Jesus. But this refugee action was, in his opinion, reckless and ill-advised.
Here is another similar story.
Years ago, a UCC minister from the east – Connecticut maybe, shared a story at a conference that has greatly influenced my life and the way I approach ministry and mission.
His church was very active in community, regional, and statewide missions to the needy. They had their fingers in all sorts of things – rebuilding and reroofing homes for the poor, gathering and distributing food, clothing, and school supplies, participating in missions for social service agencies. They were extremely involved in changing their world and, being such small church, they received a great deal of publicity for their hard work. The church sounds a lot like Federated if I may say so myself.
Through local news stories about the church, a woman in their community became aware of the missions of this church. She was moved to call the pastor and make an appointment with him.
After a few introductory pleasantries, the woman got down to business and said to the pastor something along these lines.
“Reverend, I keep reading about all the work your church is doing and I must say I am very impressed. For a long time, I have wanted to become involved in doing some things for others, but there is really nothing available to me in our area. So, I was wondering if you would consider allowing a non-member to help out from time to time?”
The pastor was thrilled at her willingness to help in the many projects and with great enthusiasm he assured they would love to have her participate.
Satisfied with his acceptance of her as a non-member, she decided to take the plunge and spring the larger revelation.
“Ok, that’s great,” she said. “But here’s the thing. I am not only a non-member, but I am a non-member because I am a non-believer. I don’t buy this religion stuff at all and I am not interested in God at all. My interest is in helping people. Would you allow a person such as me to be part of your mission team?”
The pastor, who had just been so excited, was now perplexed and not sure what to say.
It makes me ask, what holds us back from the fullest possible experience with God, with our family, with our world. What rules do we have in place that prevent us from fully interacting with God? What beliefs do we hold that maintain the status quo when it is obvious that following God’s directives would be more effective and valuable. What prejudices do we hold? What do we find intolerable? What ethnic groups make our skin crawl and what in the world of politics do each of us find insufferable?
What in the old covenant made us turn away from God?
As with the Children of Israel, God decided that rather than crush them, as they deserved, God would embrace them in a new way. Human nature longed to move away from the law into the very realms that the law was meant to protect us from. We sought to be free of the guardrails and preferred to go crashing over the side of the mountain.
So, God adjusted the way in which we could share life with God. God wrote on our hearts that which we needed to know – those guiding words that keep us close to God. This is the new covenant. A new agreement from God so we can be with God. It is life-changing and redeeming. It can make all the difference.
Yet, how can this new covenant help the man who opposed the El Salvadorians? He understood right and wrong – there was no room for any areas of gray. Here’s what happened.
The vote was taken. His church passed the action of accepting the responsibility to bring a refugee family to our country. The task was more than a plane ticket. They had to house, feed, train, educate, help find jobs, begin the path to citizenship and all the rest. And they took all that on with great enthusiasm. The man remained silent, accepted the vote, and continued to participate in his church.
The day came when the family was arriving in the US. Someone with a large enough vehicle to bring home the family and their possessions was needed to gather them at the airport. And guess who steps forward to greet the family at the airport in his large van and transport these refugees to their new home. The man who opposed the idea from the first time it was discussed.
The pastor wanted to know what had changed.
“I voted my conscience at that meeting.” Said the man. “But when my church family voted differently, I had to decide what was more important. My conscience and my vote? Or being part of this wonderful family of faith. I said my piece, and no one criticized me. So now I want to be part of making this project successful for our new family. My church and my faith are more important than my opinions. So, I’d like to be with you when we go get them.
The new covenant came to fruition in this man’s heart, and he desired to live out that new revelation with honesty and peace. God was at the center of his decisions to adapt to the decision of his church rather than “be right” and leave the church.
And what about the woman who admits to the pastor that she is a non-believer but still want to go on missions’ activities?
Well, after some thought that pastor from the east invited that woman from the community to participate fully in all the mission activities of the church. He noted to her that to be fully respectful to her views, he would let others know that she was joining the efforts from a humanitarian perspective, not a spiritual or religious one. She was fully accepted, loved, and welcomed into the labors of mercy that this exceptional congregation was involved in doing. She was part of the team and over time, became dear friends with all her co-workers.
And then something happened that was miraculous. She quietly began attending church. I can see her arriving late and leaving early. No one said a thing to her. They just loved her for who she was.
And in time, she asked the pastor to share with her about Christianity and accepted Christ into her life.
“What made you change your mind?” asked the Pastor.
She said, “I couldn’t overlook the fact that while I opposed the force that compelled you and the mission group to do what you do, it was that same God force that gave you the conviction to keep doing it. And I could not get over how loved and accepted you all made me feel, even when my beliefs that were so different. I want to be part of that kind of God. And I want to be a part of that kind of church.”
The most powerful expression of Jeremiah 31 is in the person of Jesus and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Again, Professor Dennis Olsen of Princeton states it so well.
Olsen writes, “Jesus eats the old Passover meal and re-creates it into a new covenant meal. Jesus lifts the Passover cup of wine and proclaims on the eve of his death and eventual resurrection: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins” (1 Corinthians 11:25; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). The sacramental meal …breaks down barriers, levels the field as all are welcomed, and offers forgiveness even to those disciples who betray, deny or abandon Jesus when he most needs them.
And in the words of Jesus in John 13:34, NIV: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."
Let God’s New Covenant fill you to create wonders in our world.