3/17/2024

“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