Jeremiah

“A Conversation About Covenant: The End of the Covenant”

The End of the Covenant

First Baptist Richmond, March 17, 2024

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.

The text of today’s sermon is one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible. It’s Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God says, “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the old covenant, the one that they broke. No, instead of writing this covenant on tablets of stone, I’m going to write it on the tablets of the human heart.” As I said, the text of the sermon is hopeful, but the title of the sermon is not. It’s called, “The End of the Covenant,” and it shouldn’t take long to realize you wouldn’t need a new covenant if the old one were still working. It’s not. It’s broken. The prophet Jeremiah would say that is broken beyond repair. The people of God have smashed the Ten Commandments and all those other commandments that followed into a million tiny pieces. There is not enough glue in the world to put them back together again.

And yet in that moment, the moment when most of us would give up, God says to his people, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to make a new covenant with you.” I read that last week and thought, “What other god would do that?” Not Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Not Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. Not Ea, the Mesopotamian water god. Not Ra, the Egyptian sun god. According to tradition those gods were erratic, unpredictable, and demanding. But the consistent refrain in Scripture is that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is

“gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” When the people have reduced the stone tablets of his covenant to rubble he says, “I will make a new covenant with my people, and this time I will write it on their hearts.” This is a god like no other.

This is the God who believes in us.

Think about it: in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he also made every living thing in the world: plants and trees, birds and bees, and every kind of animal he could imagine. But you get the sense that when he made people, we were his crowning achievement. The Bible says that he made us in his image, and when he stepped back to look at everything he had made and saw us, that’s when he said that it was not only good, but very good. We completed his creation.

But we also broke his covenant, such as it was. It wasn’t formal. It wasn’t written in stone, but he told those first humans, “You may freely eat from any tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” It wasn’t so much a covenant as a commandment, but it seems to have been understood. Later, when the serpent was speaking to the woman he asked, “Did God say you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” And she said, “No, we can eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God told us not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, or even to touch it. He said if we do we will die.” But the serpent was craftier than any of the other animals the Lord God had made, and within minutes Adam and Eve were wiping the juice of forbidden fruit from their mouths.

By all rights God could have killed them right then, right there, but he didn’t. He didn’t give them a death sentence; he gave them a life sentence

because this is the God who believes in us. He put them out of the garden and sent them east of Eden. He told Adam he would have to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and he did. He told Eve she would have pain in childbirth, and she did. But they made a life for themselves, they had a family, and everything seemed to be going well until Cain killed Abel, and once that kind of evil got loose in the world it was unstoppable.

By chapter six of Genesis the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. He made up his mind to do away with people altogether—he was sorry he had made them—but Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

Do you see? Do you see how God holds on to his faith in humankind even when he might have given up on us? He seemed to believe that Noah’s goodness, his righteousness, could be passed on through his children and grandchildren until humankind had been completely redeemed, until people were, finally, what he had always hoped they could be. So God flooded the earth, washed it clean, and in the end there was only this one family floating above the floodwaters in their homemade houseboat. God put a rainbow in the sky and promised them that no matter what happened from then on, no matter how wicked humankind became, he would never again destroy the earth with a flood. You get the feeling that while God was sorry he had ever made us, he was even sorrier that he had destroyed us. “That’s never going to happen again,” God said. And then he waited to see what Noah and his family would do.

Almost from the beginning they disappointed him. There’s a story in

Genesis 9 about Noah planting a vineyard, making some wine, getting drunk, and passing out in his tent, naked. One of his sons looked in and saw him, and invited his brothers to come and have a look. But they wouldn’t do it. They covered their father’s shame and condemned their brother’s wickedness, but things only went downhill from there. Within a few generations the offspring of Noah were building a tower with its top in the heavens, intending to climb up there and drag God off his throne. God put an end to it by mixing up their languages, so that they couldn’t understand each other and couldn’t get along with each other. It’s been that way ever since. You might think that God would give up, but he doesn’t. This is the God who believes in us.

But he adopts a different strategy: instead of trying to win over the whole world he goes to one man, to Abram, and makes his covenant with him. He says, “Listen, if you will be mine I will bless you and make of you a great nation.” And nothing could have sounded sweeter to Abram than that. He was seventy-five years old at the time and had no property of his own, no family of his own. But when he heard God’s promise he looked into the future and saw himself surrounded by children and grandchildren, flocks and herds, manservants and maidservants, looking out over fertile fields that seemed to go on forever. He said yes to the God who believes in us, but almost as soon as he did God seemed interested in finding out if Abram believed in him.

According to the biblical narrative he tested his faith by taking forever to give him a child, and then tested it again by asking him to offer that child as a sacrifice. And maybe it was because of all the years they had spent together, but Abraham trusted the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. He spared his son and renewed his covenant. And so Abraham passed God’s promises

down to Isaac, and Isaac intended to pass them down to Esau, but Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing and ran for his life. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be; it’s just the way it was.

Jacob married a beautiful girl named Rachel and got her older sister, Leah, in the bargain. Between them and their two maidservants they gave Jacob twelve sons and at least one daughter. When Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, meaning “one who strives with God and prevails,” his sons and their families became the twelve tribes of Israel; and in Egypt, where they eventually settled, they became a mighty nation; so mighty that when a new king came to the throne he worried that these Hebrews might rise up and overpower him. He forced them into slavery and for 400 years that’s what they were—slaves in Egypt. But God didn’t give up on them. He believed in them.

He sent Moses—who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, who knew the language and the customs of the Egyptian people—to talk to Pharaoh and to say to him, “Let my people go.” But Pharaoh wouldn’t do it. His heart was hard. And so God brought mighty plagues upon the people of Egypt, ten of them altogether, until Pharaoh, weeping over the death of his first-born son, told Moses to take God’s people and go. And they did: through the waters of the Red Sea; through a wilderness where there was nothing to eat or drink; to the foot of Mount Sinai where God told Moses he was going to make his covenant with his people.

And I’ve told you before: it was a beautiful thing. It was a wedding in the wilderness where God said, “If you will be my people, I will be your God,” and all of them said that they would. They recited the Ten Commandments as if they were wedding vows and from God’s perspective at least, entered into one of their happiest seasons. I sometimes refer to it as the honeymoon, when God asked his

people to make a tent for him—a Tabernacle—and pitch it in the wilderness so that he could be with them, and they could be with him. In those days Moses used to go into the tent and talk with God as a man talks to his friend. When he came out his face would be shining with God’s glory. And when he told the people what God had said they were only too eager to obey.

Those were the days.

But they didn’t last forever. After forty years of wilderness wandering the people came into the Promised Land and there they settled in an uneasy compromise with those who had been there first. They lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and they began to adopt their pagan ways. Instead of staying true to the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, they began to worship at other altars, making offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. It made God jealous, and often he would allow the surrounding nations to attack the Israelites, and they would cry out for help, and God would deliver them through one of the judges—Gideon, Samson, Deborah—but then they would sin again. Samuel was the last of the judges. He was the one who anointed Saul and when he did he became the first of the prophets—those who challenged the kings of Israel to stay true to God’s covenant.

David was the greatest of those kings, a man after God’s own heart, but even he broke the covenant. And his son, Solomon, was no better. His heart began to stray after foreign women, who worshiped foreign gods, until Solomon was doing it right along with them. The kingdom was split apart, into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and while some of those Judean kings actually tried to obey the Lord and keep his covenant, none of the northern kings did. Israel fell

to the Assyrians in 722 BC and in 586 Judah fell to the Babylonians. God’s people were carried away in chains, they ended up in exile, and it was there that they began to understand that all of this had happened to them because they hadn’t kept the covenant. That’s when they began to repent and turn to the Lord, asking him to help them and heal them. That’s when they began to take all the oral tradition that had been circulating around the campfires of ancient Israel and write it down in books, so that the people would have it from then on, and one of the things they tried to make clear in those books is that the Exile was their fault: they had sinned against the Lord and this was their rightful punishment.

It was in those days that they began to wonder if God was done with them, because it can happen: you can come to that place where your partner in the covenant is tired of trying. The sacred promises you made to each other all those years ago have been broken so often that there is almost nothing left. You know what I’m talking about: the husband who has cheated on his wife; the wife who has given up on the marriage. When one of them comes to the other and says, “What do you think? Can we give it just one more try?” the answer is often no. “I’m too tired, too broken-hearted. I can’t do this anymore.” And God would have had every right to say that. His people had broken the covenant of Adam, the Covenant of Noah, the covenant of Abraham, the covenant at Sinai. As I said before, the Ten Commandments and all those others that came after them had been smashed into a million tiny pieces, reduced to rubble by the very people who should have kept them. There is no repairing of the Old Covenant. But there is this: through the prophet Jeremiah, while God’s people are languishing in exile, he comes to them and speaks to them like a man proposing marriage. “I will make a new covenant with you,” he says. “Not like the old covenant that your ancestors

broke, even though I was their husband, even though I led them through the wilderness like a mother leads her child. No, I’m going to make a new covenant, and write it on your hearts, so that you will never forget it. I’m going to be your God and you are going to be my people no matter what. Because I can’t seem to give up on you; I can’t seem to let go of you. I am now and will always be,

The God who believes in you.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

No Longer a Starry-Eyed Bride

No Longer a Starry-Eyed Bride

First Baptist Richmond, January 1, 2023

New Year’s Day Covenant Service

Jeremiah 31:31-34

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.

  Today’s service is brought to you in two distinct movements: we’ve already had the first one—that was a continuing celebration of Christmas, with readings and hymns appropriate to the season—but the second takes advantage of the fact that we stand at the beginning of the New Year.  It’s the renewal of our covenant with God, an idea which probably got its start on Christmas Day, 1747.  That was when a young preacher named John Wesley stood before his congregation and urged them to give themselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point their covenant that the Lord should be their God.  A few years later, Wesley made the same proposal to nearly eighteen hundred worshipers at the French church at Spitalfields, and was amazed when they all stood up in agreement. “Such a night I never saw before,” he wrote in his journal. “Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever.”

So, it’s not a complicated thing we are doing in this part of the service, but it could be life changing.  In just a little while I will urge you—as Wesley urged his congregation—to give yourselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point your covenant that the Lord should be your God.  I can’t think of a better way for Christians to enter a new year.  But before we get to that point I want to talk to you about what a covenant is.

When I used to teach fifth-and-sixth-graders in Sunday school I told them that a covenant was a promise, and not just any kind of promise.  No, a very special promise, like the kind you might make at a wedding.   It’s true.  The marriage covenant is among the most sacred of all promises human beings can make, and yet I am often surprised at how glibly they do it.

The twenty-three-year-old bride, for instance (whom I have had to ask not to chew gum during the ceremony), seems to be only half listening as I say, “Will you, Ashley, have Brandon to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”  And then (and I can tell she is mostly thinking about how adorable Brandon looks in his tuxedo) she says, “I will,” as if she were standing at the counter at McDonald’s and I had just asked, “You want fries with that?” It’s enough to make a minister shake his head and wonder: “Does she have any idea what she’s getting into?”  That’s why I was so pleased to find this piece, written by a woman who was renewing her vows with her husband of twenty years; a woman who had been around the marriage block a time or two; a woman who knew what she was talking about.  She wrote:

My dear husband,

On our wedding day we stood before God, family, and friends and promised to love, honor and cherish each other. We swore to be faithful to our Lord and one another.  It seemed so easy to make those promises that day as I stood there, a starry-eyed bride.  I loved you, and as we walked through the doors of the church that day I pictured the perfect life I would have.

The reality has been slightly different.  We have loved, we have fought.  We have laughed, we have cried.  We have seen each other in the morning, unshaven and bleary-eyed.  We have determined that you make better coffee but that I don’t burn popcorn in the microwave.  We have gained a few pounds, picked up a few gray hairs, and seen the wrinkles begin to creep in.  We have nursed each other through colds, flu and viruses.  We have shared our secrets with one another.  We have been close.  We have been distant.  We have walked innumerable miles and talked for thousands of hours. We have experienced marriage. We now know what love is and what it is not.

I am no longer a starry-eyed bride. I cannot promise that I will always have your socks matched or that I won’t lock myself out of the house.  I won’t always have more than a quarter tank of gas or be able to tell you where the flashlight is.  Much as I might like, you will not always come home to an immaculate house nor will I always be perfectly groomed when you walk through the door.  I cannot promise that I will always be agreeable or easy to live with.  We both know that those kinds of promises should never be made.

What I can promise is this: I will always be your number one admirer, your staunchest supporter.  I promise to be your encourager as you follow your dreams; to be your comforter when you are downhearted; to be your conscience if you are confused.  I will rejoice with you in your victories and I will console you when life is unkind.  And, as of today, I promise to NEVER EVER make shepherd’s pie again.

Isn’t that refreshing? And isn’t it the right thing to do?  I think this is what every covenant needs from time to time: an honest look at that very personal relationship and a reassessment of those old promises. Some people wouldn’t agree, and especially when it comes to our covenant with Christ.  Some Baptist people, for example, might say that once you are saved you are always saved; that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, that’s it; your destiny is sealed, your future is secure.  That may be true, but that’s the language of a contract, not a covenant.  A contract is a formal agreement, legally binding. A covenant is different: it’s personal.

So, we haven’t gathered on the first Sunday of the New Year to renegotiate our contract with Christ, but to renew our covenant with him. That’s very personal. And like the woman who wrote this piece for her husband we might need to look back at the whole span of that relationship, to the beginning—when we stood before a church full of people, feeling a little embarrassed, wearing a long, white robe, standing waist-deep in the water—we might need to look back to the day we were baptized.  

It won’t be hard for most of us to recognize the difference between who we were on that day and who we are on this one.  We were so innocent then.  We were so glib.  We said, “Jesus is Lord!” as if saying so would make it so.  We came up out of the baptistery thinking we were done with sin.  Now, when we look at our lives, we see how far we have fallen from that early innocence, and how frequently the church is NOT the starry-eyed bride of Christ.  But the wrong thing to do is to look at the mess we’ve made of this relationship and give up on it.  The wrong thing to do is to look at the institution itself and say no to Christianity the way some people say no to marriage. The right thing to do is to look on the one who loved us in the first place and wonder,

“If he asked me again, would I say yes?”               

—Jim Somerville © 2023

PART 1: CONFESSION OF SIN

Let us humbly confess our sins to God:

O God, you have shown us the way of life through your Son, Jesus Christ.

We confess with shame our slowness to learn of him,

our failure to follow him, and our reluctance to bear the cross.

Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

We confess the poverty of our worship, our neglect of fellowship and means of grace,

Our hesitating witness for Christ, our evasion of responsibilities in our service,

Our imperfect stewardship of your gifts.

Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

Let each of us in silence make confession to God.

SILENCE

Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

In your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Now the message that we have heard from God’s Son and announce is this:

God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.

If we live in the light – just as he is in the light – then we have fellowship with one another,

And the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.

But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right;

He will forgive us all our wrongdoing.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

COLLECT

Let us pray:

Father, you have appointed our Lord Jesus Christ

As Mediator of a new covenant;

Give us grace to draw near with fullness of faith

And join ourselves in a perpetual covenant with you,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

PART II: THE COVENANT

In the old covenant, God chose Israel to be a special people and to obey the law.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection,

Has made a new covenant with all who trust in him.

We stand within this covenant and we bear his name.

On the one side, God promises in this covenant to give us new life in Christ.

On the other side, we are pledged to live not for ourselves but for God.

Today, therefore, we meet to renew the covenant which binds us to God.

Please stand, as you are able.

Friends, let us claim the covenant God has made with his people

And accept the yoke of Christ.

To accept the yoke of Christ means that we allow Christ to guide all that we do and are,

and that Christ himself is our only reward.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others are difficult;

Some make others applaud us, others bring only reproach;

Some we desire to do because of our own interest; others seem unnatural.

Sometimes we please Christ and meet our own needs,

At other times we cannot please Christ unless we deny ourselves.

Yet Christ strengthens us and gives us the power to do all these things.

Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.

Let us give ourselves completely to God,

Trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

I give myself completely to you, God.

Assign me to my place in your creation.

Let me suffer for you.

Give me the work you would have me do.

Give me many tasks

Or have me step aside while you call others.

Put me forward or humble me.

Give me riches or let me live in poverty.

I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you.

And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours. So be it.

May this covenant made on earth continue for all eternity.  Amen.      

—from The New Handbook of the Christian Year