The New Covenant

Part Five of “The God Who Makes Promises”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 25, 2012

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (NRSV) 

    Today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah begins with these familiar words: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  He goes on to say that it won’t be like the old covenant he made with their ancestors at Mount Sinai, the one they broke, though he was their husband.  No sir.  He’s not going to write this one on tablets of stone that can be easily broken or set aside.  He’s going to put his law within them; he’s going to write it on their hearts.  And it’s not going to say, “if you will be my people then I will be your God”; it’s going to say I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” as if they really had no choice in the matter. 

    It all sounds very promising, and according to my Bible it’s a promise that has been fulfilled.  There is this page in my Bible, a title page just before the New Testament begins, that says, “The New Covenant, commonly called the New Testament, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  What my Bible is saying (and what I think most Christians believe) is that God was as good as his word, that those days that were surely coming surely came, and that in and through his Son Jesus God did, in fact, make a new covenant with his people.  In other words, that mission has been accomplished; that promise has been fulfilled.

    Or has it?

    “I will put my law within them,” says the Lord, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  That’s the second half of today’s reading, and it’s that part right there at the end—the part about how “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”—that trips me up, because if Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise, if he is the New Covenant God made with his people, then why don’t we all know the Lord?  When I look around these days it doesn’t look as if more and more people know the Lord; it looks as if less and less of them do.  Certainly less and less of them are coming to church on Sunday morning, bringing their Bibles and their offering envelopes, bright-eyed and eager to get to Sunday school on time.  The last figure I heard suggests that only 17 percent of the American population is in church on any given Sunday.  That’s a long way from the promise that “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  Seventeen percent is nowhere close to a hundred.  Does that mean that this promise has not been fulfilled, or only that it hasn’t been fulfilled yet? 

    When I was in seminary one of my professors drew two mountain peaks on a chalkboard and said that one of them represented the first coming of Christ—nearly 2000 years ago—and the other represented the second coming of Christ—sometime in the future.  He made a point of saying that we were living in the valley between those two peaks—between the “already” and the “not yet”—and because we were in the valley we couldn’t look over the second one to see what was on the other side, but he hinted that on the other side of that peak was the thing we had all been waiting for.  He may have been more specific than that, but I just remember thinking that every delicious, wonderful, perfect, pure, and pleasing thing you could hope for was on the other side of that mountain, including this—the idea that everyone would know the Lord. 

    I don’t think we’ve gotten to that place yet, although I’ve been in some places where everyone was supposed to be a Christian, and I’m not sure that’s the same thing.  For instance, I once got an invitation to bring my family to Heritage USA, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina.  I was a little suspicious about it.  There had been this big scandal.  Jim Bakker was in prison somewhere.  I’m not sure what Tammy Faye was doing.  But the invitation promised that “New Heritage USA” was now owned and operated by some Malaysian Christian businessmen who wanted pastors to come and visit so they could spread the word to their congregations about what a wonderful place it was.  That seemed plausible.  And the invitation was for three days and two nights: all expenses paid.  That seemed perfect.  So I loaded up the car and drove my family to Fort Mill. 

    It was the strangest experience. 

    The hotel was decent enough—clean and comfortable—and the restaurant was fine—kind of like Cracker Barrel without the rocking chairs.  We had fun walking around the grounds and we spent hours at the little playground in the woods.  What was strange was the people who were there.  It was as if we all knew that only Christians would come to New Heritage USA, and so we were nodding to each other on the assumption that we were, you know, “brothers and sisters in Christ.”  We were being extra nice to everyone, and they were being extra nice to us, smiling as if we all shared the same wonderful secret.  I would say, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” and they would say, “Yes it is, brother!  Praise God!  Hallelujah!”  And after about three hours of that I was ready to get in the car and drive home.  Everybody was sweet, but they were all so artificially sweet that I began to feel sick to my stomach.  I thought, “If this is what heaven is like I don’t want to go!” 

    But I believe there is a difference between knowing the Lord and acting like a Christian.  I think I’ve told you before that the verb “to know” is the most intimate verb in the Bible.  It’s the one that’s used in the book of Genesis, where it says that Adam “knew” his wife Eve and she conceived, and bore a son.  Obviously we can’t know the Lord in that way, but it’s also obvious that knowing the Lord means something more than knowing things about him.  It reminds of what I’ve said to you about the word believe in the last few weeks, how it doesn’t mean believe that so much as believe in, the way you might say that you believe in someone you love.  When John 3:16 tells us that anyone who believes in God’s one and only son will have eternal life it means it like that: that if you believe in Jesus, if you put your faith and trust in him, you will have eternal life. And then in John 17:3 Jesus himself explains what that means.  He says, “This is eternal life, that they may know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” It makes it clear that these words, knowing and believing mean more than knowing about and believing things; they are expressions of the deepest kind of intimacy.

    So, imagine that for a moment.  Imagine a place where everyone knows the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest, where God has put his law within them, and written it on their hearts, where every iniquity is forgiven, and sin is remembered no more.  I don’t think that place would be like New Heritage USA.  I don’t think people would be going around slapping each other on the back and saying, “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah!”  I think (and of course this is only my thought—feel free to have your own) that you might find there the kind of intimacy you find among couples who have been married a long, long time, who can sit in comfortable silence with each other without feeling that they have to say a thing.  I think you might be able come into God’s presence in a state of perfect peace in a place like that, knowing that all your iniquities are forgiven and all your sins are forgotten.  Imagine that’s what’s waiting for us on the other side of that mountain peak: not New Heritage USA but God’s Kingdom, come at last.

    And then let me challenge you to do this: to make this place that kind of place.  You could begin by promising yourself that you won’t act like a Christian, and I’m using the word act quite literally.  I was talking with our staff about this not long ago.  They were saying that we do well with so many things, that we really do seem to be a warm and welcoming congregation, but that we sometimes have trouble dropping the masks.  Do you know what I mean?  Have you ever started up the steps of the church and then paused long enough to take a deep breath and put on your “happy Christian” face?  I’m not saying you have to come in looking like a sad Christian, but I’d love to think this could be the kind of place where you didn’t have to pretend, where you could be exactly who you are, in whatever state you happen to be in, and people would love you anyway.  That even if you had opposing political views, and even if you rooted for the wrong basketball team, people here would love you because this place was one of those “thin places” in the world where heaven actually comes to earth.

    And then let me challenge you to make this place that place by knowing the Lord with all the intimacy that biblical word suggests.  I know that as soon as I say that you begin to feel guilty, thinking, “Ah, I should know the Lord better than I do!”  But may I confess? I should know the Lord better than I do.  I spend a lot of time in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time it’s because I’m getting ready for my next sermon or Bible study.  I say a lot of prayers, but often it’s because people ask me to or expect me to.  I read a good many books, sometimes out of genuine interest, but sometimes just because I’ve run out of things to say.  So, if you asked me, “Do you know the Lord in that intimate way you just talked about, or in the way Jesus talked about, where it’s the same thing as eternal life?” I would have to say, “No, not yet.”  But I want to.  And I’m making an effort.  Lately I’ve been trying to build into my daily routine the sort of discipline that will result in that kind of intimacy.  I’ve been getting up early, reading my Bible, and saying my prayers.  I think I’m making some progress.  But at the same time I know: if it’s all up to me it will never happen. 

    That’s why I take comfort from this passage of Scripture.  Hear it again: “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with my people.  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  Did you notice that it’s God who takes the initiative?  That he is the one who makes the new covenant, who puts his law within us, who writes it on our hearts?  Did you notice that he doesn’t say “if they will be my people, I will be their God,” but simply, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”?  He goes on to say that in those days we won’t have to teach each other or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for we will all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  And finally he says he will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.  In other words, it’s not going to happen simply because we bear down on our Bible study, even though that’s not a bad thing: it’s going to happen because God wants it to.  He doesn’t always get his way in the world now, but one of these days the kingdom of the world is going to become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and that day is surely coming.

    As we’ve been looking at the kinds of promises God makes to his people I’ve been impressed by how determined he is to be in relationship with us.  After he purged the wickedness of the world with a cleansing flood he told Noah, “Never again.”  When he saw that he couldn’t win the whole world to himself he came to Abram and said, “How about you?”  He practically begged the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.”  And then, in John’s Gospel, he threw the doors open to anyone who believed in his son Jesus.  He’s shameless!  And now he says that the day is surely coming when we won’t have to teach each other or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” because everybody will know him, from the least to the greatest.  He will put his law within us, and write it on our hearts; he will forgive our iniquities, and remember our sins no more.  Why?  Because he made us, and loves us, and wants us for his own.  Because he is determined to be in relationship with us.  Because he will pursue us relentlessly until we relent and say,

    “Yes, Lord.  Yes, Lord.  Have your way.”

—Jim Somerville 2012

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