Pastor Eric Schroeder - The Fifth Sunday in Lent - Sunday, March 21, 2021

Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34

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New is always better…right? Maybe it’s all the advertising we see everywhere we look, always reminding us that it’s time to upgrade. Maybe the old one is starting to wear out and break down. Or maybe it’s just the fact that after a while, we become more aware of the flaws of what we already have: your car doesn’t handle well in snow (is it time for new tires or even a new car?) …your mattress is too soft, and you wake up with a sore back…your home doesn’t have enough storage space or room to entertain guests. Whatever it is, even if we don’t always act, we can all think of something new that we’d like to have.

But then there are other times when something new turns out to be a big disappointment. Some of you might remember in the ‘80’s when New Coke came out. Coca-Cola was losing their market share to Pepsi and made the bold move to change the flavor in efforts to compete…and it turned out to be a colossal failure; people tried it, and most didn’t like it, especially those who liked the original Coke. It only took three months for Coca-Cola to reintroduce the original flavor again, this time making it clear that it was the old familiar recipe by calling it Coca-Cola Classic. New wasn’t better at all.

Here in Jeremiah’s book of prophecy, God speaks to his people and introduces what he calls a “new covenant.”  Covenant is a word that can be used different ways in different contexts, but it is usually talking about an arrangement between parties, like a contract or official agreement. In other words, it’s making a deal. So, with that in mind, we’ll compare an old covenant and a new covenant and apply these words to our lives in our relationship with God.

Let’s look at the beginning verses again. 31“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

With these words God gives a time frame and context for the Old Covenant. He points back to the exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses, especially the long stay at Mount Sinai, when Moses went up to the mountain and received the law written on stone tablets. That would have been right around 1450 BC; Jeremiah’s ministry began in the 600’s BC. It had been more than 800 years since God gave the Old Covenant, when God, through Moses, laid out the law and proposed that if they followed all of his commandments and decrees, he would bless them, protect them, and make them prosper in the land he had promised them. Here’s the way it’s written in Exodus chapter 24: When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.”  So, God and the people struck a deal; God laid out the terms, and they agreed. And everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Wrong. Within forty days, they had built the golden calf to worship, and it didn’t stop there. Old Testament history records that generation after generation turned away from the Lord, breaking the old covenant again and again. There was nothing wrong with the agreement, and there was nothing wrong with God’s side of things, but the people kept on showing how unfaithful they could be, like an adulterous wife forsaking her faithful husband time and time again, as they abandoned the true God to chase after idols and whatever their sinful desires led them to crave at the time. It wasn’t God’s fault, but the old covenant could not save them. They needed something new.

What about us? Doesn’t the Old Covenant make so much sense to us? Isn’t that the way everything works in the world? If you work hard and do the right thing, you should be rewarded, right? If someone makes bad choices and does bad things and doesn’t care about anyone else, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone when they are punished, because they are just getting what they deserve, right? Or…have you ever been tempted to try to make your own deal with God? “God, if you make this work out, I’ll do better… God, you know how hard I’ve tried—you know how hard I’ve worked for this; could you help me out just this once?...God, I’m doing my best here and no one else seems to be contributing; can you work on my spouse or my kids or my coworkers for me?...God, if I win the lottery, I’ll have so much more money to give to charity…”  Do any of those ideas sound familiar?

Maybe they all seem like good ideas at the time. But if God really judged us based on how faithful we are to him, how well we do what is right and avoid what is sinful, how we speak only what is good and hold our tongues when we might say something negative or slanderous…we’d all be in trouble. But here’s the thing—God’s law is never just an “if.”  God’s law is a real thing, and we don’t get to draw up the terms. He tells us plainly that whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it," and “the wages of sin is death.”  It isn’t God’s fault, but the old covenant cannot save us. We need something new, or we have no hope for this life or for eternity.

Thanks to God’s promise here, we have something new. God is so faithful, so merciful, and he loves his people so much that he came up with a plan to save even those who contribute nothing toward their salvation. The Old Covenant is a two-way deal. The new is a one-way deal, exactly what sinners like us need. As I read these words again, notice who is doing all the doing.33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Every deal you can try to make with God has one glaring weakness: you. We make promises we can’t keep. We offer solutions we can’t fulfill. We promise obedience and break our word so quickly. But not God. Not the LORD who declares only what he will fulfill, who makes promises that he cannot break, who speaks truth in every Word. And what’s the best part of the whole thing for sinners like us? Without a doubt it is the end, here, where the LORD, the God who is so rich in grace and mercy, declares, For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” 

How can that be? How can a God who knows everything forget anything? How can a God who surely has an endless list of our unfaithful thoughts, words, and actions simply look back at it and see a clean slate? How can he see sinners as anything but sinners? How can we be sure that this New Covenant is any better than the old?

The answer? Because of God’s rich grace, his undeserved kindness, we already know the answer. We already know the LORD, because he has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The old covenant was put into effect through the blood of animals, but the New is signed and sealed with the blood of God’s own Son. The whole reason that the New Covenant works is because Jesus entirely fulfilled the Old; he kept himself spotless and faithful and pure, the way we all were supposed to, and then in an incredible exchange, he made our list of offenses his own as he suffered and died in our place on the cross. Everyone who believes in him shall not perish but will have eternal life.

Aha, someone might say…so there is a condition! We have to believe in order for all this to work. That’s true. But the beauty of the way this one-way deal works is that God provides the faith, too, just as we hear in these beloved words that reinforce the new covenant. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We see it again this weekend, and we rejoice. A helpless child brought to the baptismal font, and through water and the word she became a child of God. God did that, and he reminds us he did that for all of us. Sins committed and confessed, and God’s response was full and free forgiveness without any works of penance. God did that. A meal set before us, the body of Christ and the blood of the new covenant, in, with, and under bread and wine to pour out forgiveness and faith and celebrate the unity we have with one another. God does that. And the Word of God that we ought to never take for granted, as God reveals himself to us to help us know him better. God does that, and he urges us to make use of it in our lives.

Is the New better than the Old? I don’t know if we can say that. Everything God does is good, even when we are not. But we can certainly say that the New Covenant is better for us, because God took matters into his own nail-marked hands. The result is peace with him, forgiveness of our sins, and comfort that we are his people, all thanks to Jesus. Let’s praise our God today and always, as the blessed recipients of his New and eternal covenant with us in Jesus Christ. AMEN.