(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)
We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.
This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.
God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.
God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.
The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.
Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.
When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.
Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.
The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.
The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.
But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.
In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.
For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.
The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.
We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.
Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.
Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.
Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.
Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever. Amen.