Christ’s new covenant

(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.

Advent thoughts: December 20

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1—read Hosea 11:1-9).

According to Matthew 1:15, Hosea was talking about Jesus when he uttered the words, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Looking at Hosea’s prophecy, it is not easy to find Jesus. The prophet seems to be talking about the nation Israel, not about Jesus. God speaks of his kindness to his chosen people, describes their sin and the punishment they deserve, but concludes by describing his warm and tender compassion. Though they deserve judgment and punishment, God will not pour out his wrath on his people. He will treat them according to the new covenant of grace and not according to the old covenant.

The new covenant is only possible because of Jesus, but Matthew’s point is more profound than that simple fact. In taking God’s words about Israel and applying them to Jesus, Matthew is showing Jesus to be the new Israel. In the days of Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, the descendants of Abraham moved to Egypt to escape famine in the Promised Land. At first, they were honored guests, but they later became slaves. God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He brought them first to Mount Sinai, where God made a covenant with the nation. Then they started toward the Promised Land. When they heard about the strength of the people living in Canaan, the Israelites lost their nerve. They doubted God’s promises to give them the victory. Therefore, the Israelites who had left Egypt wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they all had died. The next generation then followed Joshua across the Jordan River and conquered the Canaanites as God had promised.

The journey of the Israelites under Moses and Joshua was delayed because of sin and doubt. God called Israel his son, but Israel was a disobedient son. When the right time arrived, God sent his Son to retrace the steps of Israel. Like Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, Jesus was born in the Promised Land. But, like Jacob and his family, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt for a time. When they returned to the Promised Land, they did not doubt God’s power to protect them. Although they relocated to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, they did not hesitate in the wilderness.

When he was a man, Jesus returned to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The Israelites led by Moses sinned repeatedly against the Lord in the wilderness, but Jesus did not sin. He said no to every temptation from the devil. He remained faithful to his Father, trusting his promises and obeying his commands. Through his obedience, Jesus was able to establish a new covenant between God and his people. Jesus bore the wrath of the old covenant so God’s people could be spared that wrath. Jesus suffered to become victorious over all evil. Jesus died to defeat death. Jesus rose to share his victory and his new covenant with all people.

We are children of God, adopted into his family through the new covenant. In Baptism we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are also his Church, the body of Christ. Therefore, in a sense, we traveled into Egypt with Mary and Joseph and Jesus. In a sense, we retraced the steps of the ancient Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. In a sense, we got it right along with Jesus, even though our predecessors on this path got it wrong.

Because of the new covenant, God’s compassion for us grows warm and tender. He will not execute burning anger at us or come in wrath against us, because that anger and wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross. Because Jesus suffered and died and rose, we will not be destroyed. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 19

“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” (Jeremiah 31:31—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “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 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. 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 in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.