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.

Ransom (a story based on Matthew 20:28)

Once a good and wise king ruled over a prosperous land. This king loved all his subjects equally, whether they were rich or poor, educated or not, whether the were farmers or storekeepers or shoemakers or blacksmiths or soldiers in the king’s army. The king’s great love for each of the people in his kingdom was deep and unselfish, and in return all the people loved him. Whatever he directed them to do, they did gladly. They did not complain to pay their taxes, the share of their work claimed by the king.

Not all remained peaceful, though, in this kingdom. One of the king’s knights, a leader among the warriors, held anger and jealousy in his heart. Although the king knew that this knight was thinking of rebellion, justice did not permit the king to act until the knight had first rebelled. The knight knew that the king was a just man, and he used this fact to his own advantage.

The evil knight’s rebellion began this way: he started telling lies to the common people of the kingdom, those who loved and served the king in their farms and stores and smith shops. With his lies the knight suggested that the king had been unfair to his people, that his laws did not have in mind what was best for the people, that the king did not truly want the people to have everything that belonged to them.

The people believed the lies of the evil knight and began to disobey the laws of their king. They took for themselves those things that the king had told them not to take; and, in many other ways, they rebelled against their king. The war had begun, and already the knight had captured the citizens of the kingdom.

The castle guards were divided when they heard about the revolution. Some of them joined forces with the evil knight, but many more remained faithful to their king. When fighting broke out inside the castle, the king and his son successfully fought off the evil knight and his followers. They drove the rebels out of the castle and lifted the drawbridge. From that time, the evil knight was no longer allowed in the castle.

Other knights served their king faithfully. They saw that the evil knight and his allies remained alive outside the castle. They also saw that the common people had joined his side, because they loved to hear and believe his lies. The faithful knights were angry; they asked for permission to attack the rebels and complete their victory. Nevertheless, as the king looked out at the common people, he realized how they had been deceived, and he loved them. He called his son to him, and together they planned a way to save the common people from the evil knight. They planned a way to spare them from the punishment demanded by the law for anyone who rebelled against the king.

The prince was the only son of the king, and father and son loved each other more than any other father and son of any time in history. Therefore, when the knights of the castle heard what the father and son had decided to do to save the people of the kingdom from the consequences of their revolution, the knights were aghast. Though they did not doubt the wisdom of their king and of their prince, still they shook their heads and wondered how this unusual plan would end.

Some time later, the prince quietly left his father’s side and slipped out of the castle. The knights watched as he went out into the town, dressed as a common worker of the kingdom. They wondered what he would say to the common people and how they would respond. They wondered if any people would recognize the prince, and, if so, how such people would treat him. They wondered what would happen when the prince found that knight who had begun the rebellion against the king and had led all the people astray.

In the weeks that followed, the prince spoke to many people about the king. He explained the laws of the king and showed how all these laws were for the good of the people. When the people heard his words and were sorry for their rebellion, the prince promised that soon the king would provide a way for their guilt to be removed. He promised that they would be restored to the kingdom at no cost to themselves. Many people rejoiced because of the prince’s words.

The prince did not travel with empty pockets. He used the riches of his father to feed the hungry and to help people with their needs. He did not give to everyone he met, but only to those who called to him for help or whose needs were obvious. He had not come to give away his father’s money, but when he saw how the lies of the evil knight were driving the people his father loved into debt and despair, he was quick to reach out a helping hand.

Some people recognized him. A small group of men traveled with him as he crossed the kingdom. They followed him, not merely because he was giving away money and saying nice things, but because they saw nobility in him and they remembered the love of his father and how much they had once loved the king.

Their goals in following him still were not entirely noble. They dreamed that when the prince would finally take control of the kingdom from the evil knight and the other rebels, they would be lifted up in rank and would enjoy the privilege of being right-hand advisors to the ruling monarch. Some even spoke to the prince, asking him to grant them such favors, since they had been following him so faithfully.

Gently, the prince reminded them how and why he had come. He had not stepped out among the people of the kingdom as royalty to be worshipped and adored, but he had come to them as the servant of the people. His goal was to bring the people back to his father. The prince encouraged his followers to imitate him in this: not to try to be men and women in authority, forcing others to serve them, but to show the kind of nobility the prince showed, serving all the people and meeting their needs. This, the prince said, was the kind of life his father wanted the people of the kingdom to live.

Many people loved the prince, whether they guessed as his identity or not. One group of people, though, hated the prince: the judges of the kingdom. These judges had claimed to be fighting the lies of the evil knight, but actually they had been helping the knight in his rebellion. The judges continued to teach the king’s laws, but they made these laws sound harsher and stricter than the king had ever meant. They offered no hope of forgiveness to those who had broken the laws. The judges boasted that they were keeping the laws of the king. Rather than going to him for guidance, though, they changed his laws to suit their ideas. After the lying knight himself, they were the king’s worst enemies.

The judges had never dreamed that the prince would leave the castle to come among the people. When they saw him, they were furious. They began to look for opportunities to get him out of their way, because they knew that his presence and his teaching would turn the people against them. No doubt some of them recognized the prince and chose to fight him all the same; others convinced themselves that this was not the prince but only an imposter, and they told themselves that they were doing the king a favor by opposing him.

The judges went to the evil knight for help to fight against the prince. The knight, of course, hadn’t the slightest doubt that this really was the prince. All the same, he first tried to tempt the prince to leave his father’s plan and join in the rebellion. When that attempt failed, the evil knight looked for a way to put the prince to death.

The friends of the prince were appalled when they heard how he planned to fight against the evil knight. When the prince warned his friends how the judges would join the fight against him, and when he told his friends what the evil knight was going to do to him, the friends of the prince were very frightened. This was not what they expected of their prince! He spoke of a Ransom, and they were terrified. Because they trusted him, though, they remained with him.

Finally the great day came, the day that the king and the prince had discussed long before. The judges set their trap for the prince, and the prince voluntarily walked into their trap. His friends ran away in their fright, leaving him alone in the hands of his enemies. The evil knight laughed, delighted to have the son of the king in his power.

On that day the evil knight stood before the castle of the king with the prince at his side. “Look, O King,” he shouted, “here I have your son. Are you willing to pay a ransom for his life?” The knight heard no answer from the castle.

“I already have your kingdom in my hands,” the knight boasted. “Now I have your son whom you love so much. I will return him to you, O King, if you promise to let me keep your kingdom and all the people outside your castle.” Again, the knight heard only silence.

“I have offered you the chance to pay a ransom for your son,” the knight called. “You have paid nothing. If I kill your son, the kingdom will remain mine, for no one else in all this kingdom is strong enough to take it from me.” The faithful knights inside the castle boiled in anger, but they obeyed their king and did not reply.

When he still heard no answer, the evil knight commanded that the prince be killed. He left the body at the gates to the castle and rode away, thinking that the kingdom was finally his.

To the amazement of the knight and of all the people of the kingdom, the story did not end here. The king called his son whom he loved back to life; and the evil knight discovered that in killing the prince, he had destroyed himself. No longer were the common people forced to follow him, to believe his lies, to join his rebellion. Rather than paying his kingdom as a ransom to save his son, the father gave his son as a ransom to recover his kingdom.

The king now sent messengers throughout the kingdom to announce that any person who dared to disobey the king’s laws deserved to die, but that the king’s son had already died in that person’s place. Any friend of the prince would be declared innocent of rebellion, because the prince had already paid the price for guilt, enough to cover the guilt of every person in the kingdom.

Many days were required for the messengers to carry this news to all the villages and farms and homes in the kingdom. When the last messenger had delivered his message and everyone in the kingdom had heard the king’s decree of forgiveness through his son’s death, then the king stood for judgment. The prince stood at the king’s side, and he called for all his friends to join him. When the king looked out at his kingdom and saw all those who still believed the lies of the evil knight, all those who refused to be friends of the prince, he was angry. He sent his faithful knights out to slaughter every one of the rebels who had refused their chance to be forgiven by the king. When he looked at his son and the many people who called themselves friends of the prince, the king was glad. He arranged a grand banquet for the prince and for all his friends, and he declared a holiday to be celebrated throughout the entire kingdom.

Though the time of the rebellion seemed long, it was really only a short time for the king, his son, and all the friends of his son. The faithful knights of the kingdom quickly restored the kingdom to its former peace and prosperity. The many men and women and children who had been named friends of the prince lived in this kingdom for a time so long that it couldn’t be measured.

Upon the Cross Extended

Upon the cross extended

See, world, your Lord suspended.

Your Savior yields his breath.

The Prince of Life from heaven

Himself has freely given

To shame and blows and bitter death.

 

Come, see these things and ponder,

Your soul will fill with wonder

As blood streams from each pore.

Through grief beyond all knowing

From his great heart came flowing

Sighs welling from its deepest core.

 

Who is it, Lord, that bruised you?

Who has so sore abused you

And caused you all your woe?

We all must make confession

Of sin and dire transgression

While you no ways of evil know.

 

I caused your grief and sighing

By evils multiplying

As countless as the sands.

I caused the woes unnumbered

With which your soul is cumbered

Your sorrows raised by wicked hands.

 

Your soul in griefs unbounded,

Your head with thorns surrounded,

You died to ransom me.

The cross for me enduring,

The crown for me securing,

You healed my wounds and set me free.

 

Your cords of love, my Savior,

Bind me to you forever,

I am no longer mine.

To you I gladly tender

All that my life can render

And all I have to you resign.

 

Your cross I place before me;

Its saving power restore me,

Sustain me in the test.

It will, when life is ending,

Be guiding and attending

My way to your eternal rest.

 

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

Super Advent

The season of Advent begins on Sunday November 27 this year. Because Christmas is on a Sunday, Advent is a full twenty-eight days this year—the longest Advent can be. For this reason, I have decided to label this year’s Advent a Super Advent. We will not have another Super Advent until 2022.

This month the moon reached its perigee while it was full. (The perigee is the nearest the moon comes to the earth during its elliptical orbit.) The nearness of the full moon made it seem a little larger than usual on the 14th, especially when it was closest to the horizon. This effect of a larger moon has been labeled a Supermoon.

Advent always begins on a Sunday. Therefore, when Christmas is on a Monday, Advent is only twenty-two days long. This year’s Super Advent reaches the other extreme. But what is Advent? Advent is less a countdown toward Christmas than it is a spiritual and emotional preparation for Christmas. While the rest of the world is bustling with Christmas preparations and early Christmas celebrations, Advent is an island of calm, a quiet time of reflection for Christians. Congregations that observe Christmas all the Sundays of December are missing an opportunity. Congregations that observe Advent offer an opportunity to consider why Christmas matters to Christians.

The word “advent” means “coming.” During Advent, Christians think about the coming of Jesus. Advent is a royal season, as we await the coming of a King. Yet it is also a somber time when we reflect upon our sins and upon the price the King chose to pay to claim us for his Kingdom.

During Advent Christians sometimes think of three advents of Christ. We think of his first coming to be our Savior. We reflect upon the prophecies and pictures of Christ in the Old Testament and upon the people of Israel waiting for the Son of David. We think of his second coming to be the world’s Judge. We do not fear his judgment, because we know he has already given himself (in his first advent) as a ransom so we will not be judged and condemned. Therefore we rejoice to welcome him on the Day of the Lord when we will see him coming in the sky with all the angels and all the saints. Meanwhile, we think of another advent of Christ which happens every day. “I will be with you always,” Jesus promised the apostles, and his promise to them is true to us as well. Jesus comes to us in his Word and in the blessings of his Church. He comes as Savior, as Ransom, and as King. He comes to claim us and to make us his forever.

During this Super Advent we have twenty-eight days to think about the Advent of our God. May these four full weeks of Advent enrich your Christmas celebrations. J.