Pastor Walther / Mar 18, 2018 / The covenant of the cross / Lent 5 / Jeremiah 31:31-34
I’m not much of a football fan, I will admit. I will probably get some glares from you for saying that I pay attention more to the real football, called soccer. But even I, professed soccer enthusiast, was a little hurt when I heard that Jordy Nelson was leaving the Packers. Professional athletes live in a weird world they get to play the sport they love, and yet it is a job. They have to sign contracts with the team agreeing to the fact they will show up to practice and games, and be ready to play. On the other side of the contract, the teams agree that they will pay that player for showing up and doing well in practices and games. When one side of the contract, like the athlete, does their part, the other side of the contract, like the team, reciprocates and does their part. The contracts are conditional.
Interestingly, in the Bible we see that we are involved in a contract with God. Now the Bible doesn’t call it a contract, but the Bible calls these relationships covenants or testaments. God’s first covenant or testament was a special and narrow contract, given to the Israel nation on Mt Sinai. This contract or this old testament imposed many rules and many laws upon the Jews. You know 10 of those laws as the 10 commandments. Its laws regulated the entire religious, political, social, and even the home life of every citizen of Israel. Almost every aspect of Jewish life was regulated, from the kind of food you could eat to the touching of dead bodies. The old covenant required endless animal sacrifices, day after day and year after year. It required worship on the sabbath day and circumcising the male children. The old covenant established a hereditary priesthood based on membership in one family, the family of Aaron, from one particular tribe, the tribe of Levi. The old covenant granted privileges on and was limited to only one people, or nationality, the Jewish people.
Even though there were so many laws and regulations in this old testament, the contract with God was simple: “If you follow the commands I give you, you will be my people, and I will be your God.” Yet, this covenant was broken almost as soon as it was established. When Moses came down from Mt Sinai, the people were already worshipping a golden calf. God describes his relationship with his people like a marriage. But sadly, God describes it in our text as if a husband came home and found his wife cheating on him, right there and then, in their marital bed.
He loves us and wants to be with us. And yet so often we take our love elsewhere. We treat our marriage with God, our relationship with God, as if it’s a bonus in our lives and not a necessity. God picked us to be that beautiful spouse, and yet so often we bring no love to the table. We talk to him only when we need him, otherwise we take our hearts, our minds, our time and our energy elsewhere. That relationship can’t work. A marriage like that can’t work.
Imagine a Packer player who is the best player. He’s the best looking. He runs the fastest. He even gets the most touchdowns. But what if he began showing up late to practice every day because he was on the phone with a coach that he liked from another team. What if he began wearing Viking gear to practice. What if, when the coach tried to have a meaningful discussion with him, he just sat on his phone and paid no attention to the conversation. What if he missed a game only for people to see him riding the tilt-a-whirl at Bay Beach. What would happen? Well, the Packers could and maybe should cut the player. Get rid of him. He failed to keep his side of the contract.
In the world of sports, the simple and conditional contract of playing and being paid can often be broken for a variety of different reasons. Yet, it doesn’t just effect the player or the team, but sometimes the people around the broken contract feel the effect. Fans are sad. The families of the athletes have to move to new cities. Friendships are separated.
Jeremiah was a prophet of God who felt all the weight of the broken contract between God and the nation of Israel. You think your job is tough, just look at Jeremiah! Jeremiah had the tough job of reminding the people that they had failed. In fact, he spent some of his ministry in prison because people hated him for sharing God’s word. Preaching God’s law isn’t easy. No one likes to be told that they are wrong. Imagine if someone told me, “Hey, I saw you looking at pornography while you were waiting for your wife to get home.” What would be my first response? “No, you didn’t. Who are you to tell me? You are so much worse than me!” People can get defensive and then retaliate, comparing themselves to someone clearly much worse.
God gave Jeremiah a tough job. He also gives that job to us as Christians to preach the law. It’s not that God likes seeing us embarrassed for telling someone off, but it’s because he genuinely cares for his people. It’s that spouse who loves the other cheating spouse and wants to rekindle that relationship.
And maybe we really do try to restore our relationship with God. Maybe we try really hard to follow all of his commands. Maybe we really try hard to get ourselves to love God more and maybe he’ll see that attempt. Maybe he’ll see how hard we are trying and the good that we’re trying to do. That’s basically the mentality that the nation of Israel had. They thought that maybe if they really follow through on obeying all of God’s laws that he will reward them for being so good. That mentality isn’t really any different from the religions and the unbelievers around us: that the more good you do, the more your good outweighs the bad, the closer you can get to God. Then, maybe God will allow you into heaven for being so good.
But there’s one major flaw to that thinking, and that’s the fact that thinking isn’t part of the contract with God. Perfection is. Sin isn’t something that God takes lightly. In fact, God can’t be in the presence of sin. He is a holy God. In other words, you could be the best person on the block, but we are not allowed into heaven even for a tiny bit of sin! We have been unfaithful to God. We take sports, or sex, or our job, or our phones, or social approval on facebook and instagram and we often make that the new importance and the new love in our lives, instead of God. Clearly we are at a standstill. God’s demands that we follow through on our contract, on this covenant, that we be perfect and make him our number one, but so often we simply can’t. Every fiber of our bodies is riddled with sin and the effects of sin.
The Jews found these rules nearly impossible to observe. We can’t obey all of all God’s commands all of the time. But here’s the thing, that was the point. So the question becomes, why have them follow commands if they can’t follow it? The old covenant, old contract, the old testament proved that no one could be saved by keeping it. That was never the purpose of the old covenant. By its very nature, that old testament proved that it was temporary. The repeated animal sacrifices, for example, emphasized its temporary nature. But with this old contract, God wanted his people to remain his people until the promised messiah, because the purpose of the law and the purpose of the old testament was to all point to one thing, and one thing only, that Christ was its fulfillment.
But the nation of Israel failed to keep their side of the contract! When an athlete or a team fail to keep their side of the contract, the two parties sometimes walk away, or their contract gets torn up, or legal battles arise. Sometimes, business is business. We thank God that he didn’t just walk away from his people, or legally punish them for failing to keep the contract. And, he doesn’t walk away from us when we sin! He didn’t treat us as if it was business as usual. Rather he drafted a new contract and a new testament.
This new contract was something that he already had in mind because the old contract was simply leading up to it. Instead of the contract being conditional, instead of God saying, “If you do this, I will do that,” God made the new contract unconditional. He simply said, “I will do this.” That’s it! This covenant is completely dependent on God's faithful grace rather than on our worthiness to enter into such a covenant. God continues to keep himself under contract to remind us that he is faithful to us. Any time we doubt God’s love and faithfulness to us, we can open our bible and see the three words, the NEW TESTAMENT and know that God is faithful and loves us because he is under contract! He loves us so much that he’s willing to put his name on it.
God set aside the old covenant because the old covenant couldn’t do what the new could. Forgiveness in the old covenant was brought about by the blood of sacrificial animals. The new covenant would be signed by the blood of Christ. The repetition of sacrifices year after year could never erase the stain of our sin, but only Christ, the sinless lamb of God, sacrificed once and for all could save all people. The old covenant demanded perfect obedience. The new covenant contains no laws, rules, or regulations that have to be kept, but simply offers forgiveness of sin. It invites all people, regardless of nationality or race or background, to believe. The invitation is for the world. The new covenant proclaims a salvation complete, finished, and above all, free for the asking, because of what Christ has done for us.
At this some point this week, I’d like you to re-read the last sentence of today’s text. If you have to, set a reminder. It is absolutely beautiful, what God shares with us. This forgiveness is so full that he will not even remember our sins. God will forgive and forget, period. When you come to God in repentance, there is no condition. The conditions to receive forgiveness were in the old covenant and in the old testament. There are no conditions like having to do 10 hail Marys to then be forgiven. There are no demands of the law like you have to give 10 percent of your income to be a member. We have no conditions in the new. Christ has fulfilled all those laws and all those restrictions so that we might have the freedom to serve God, to live for him, and to glorify him in everything we do.
Instead of running away from our past, and running away from our failures, and all of the times that we failed to put God first, we get to live for something. That is the beauty of the new testament. Because we have been forgiven, because God remembers our sin no more, we have reason to live. We have reason to share with people that life here and here after is not about what you have to do for God but it’s about what God has done for you!
Can you imagine Jeremiah hearing this amazing message? He was known as the “weeping prophet.” He was always depressed because people didn’t want to listen to him and the law was a hard message to share. But the message of this new contract, this new testament, is so amazing. It’s too good not to share. So many people don’t know! So many people unknowingly think they are part of a conditional contract with God that if they do good works, God will reward them. Why would you want to wait to share the message of the truth and the message of the new contract?
I mean what if no one told Jordy Nelson that he was released from the Packers? What if none of his lawyers or his old teammates or his loved ones told him that he was part of a new team? What if he kept trying to get to Packers practice every day? It would be pretty embarrassing right? Why would we want to let people keep thinking that they are in this conditional contract with God any longer? Why would we want to wait to share with our family and friends this amazing message of full, free, and unconditional love and forgiveness? The contract of the cross is too good not to share. The contract of the cross, this new testament, is a message that Jeremiah was privileged to share and is the best contract ever written. Amen.