3/24/2024

“A Conversation About Covenant: The New Covenant?”

The New Covenant?

First Baptist Richmond, March 24, 2024

Mark 11:1-11

Those who went ahead [of Jesus] and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

For several weeks now we’ve been having a conversation about the word covenant, and if you are just joining us you may need to know that a covenant is a promise, and not just any kind of promise: it’s a sacred promise, the kind you might make at a wedding. In Old Testament times people would often “cut” a covenant, that is, they would slaughter an animal, cut the carcass in half, and then say to the other party, “May the Lord do so to me—and more!—if I should ever break my covenant with you.”i In the first sermon in this series I suggested that the marriage covenant might be strengthened if the father of the bride would heave a chicken up onto the chopping block, lop off its head, and say to the groom, “May the Lord do so to you, and more, if you should ever break my little girl’s heart!”

We’ve talked about the covenant God made with Noah when he put that rainbow in the sky and promised that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood; about the covenant he made with Abraham, when he promised to give him a land of his own and descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky; and the covenant he made at Mount Sinai, where he promised a ragged band of former slaves: “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” We’ve talked about how the people strayed from that covenant, how they eventually broke it beyond

repair, and how, while they were in exile in Babylon, God came to them with the promise of a new covenant that would be written not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of the human heart.

If you know anything about what happened next you know that those exiles were set free by Cyrus, king of Persia. They were allowed to return to their home in Jerusalem. But when they got there they found the walls broken down and the temple in ruins. They worked for years to rebuild, often with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other to protect them from their enemies round about. But eventually they dedicated the new temple, which was not nearly so grand as the old one, and settled into their new life, which was not nearly so good as the one before. For the next few centuries they waited for the promise of that new covenant to be fulfilled, but it didn’t happen. If anything, their circumstances got worse.

Israel was oppressed by Syria, its neighbor to the north. In 167 BC a few faithful Jews revolted and war broke out. That’s when the people remembered their old dream of a Messiah, a strong military leader who would deliver them from their enemies and take his rightful place on the throne of his ancestor David. And it’s when they began to dream about resurrection, thinking that a just and merciful God would surely raise up those who had died while fighting for the freedom of Israel.ii At the end of that war they were able to rededicate the temple—an event our Jewish friends celebrate as Hanukah—but it was nothing like the new covenant that God had promised his people. The Old Testament ends almost wistfully, as Malachi looks toward the future and speaks for the God who says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” And then nothing but silence, for nearly two centuries, until John the

Baptist steps onto the stage.

In my Bible there is a blank page between the Old Testament and the New, but if you turn that page you come to the next page, on which these words are printed: “The New Covenant, commonly called the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” You won’t find those words in every Bible. You certainly won’t find them in the Hebrew Bible. Those words are explicitly Christian, and they comprise a statement of faith: whoever put them there believes that the promise God made to his people while they were exiles in Babylon was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. My Bible dictionary puts it this way: “New Testament authors, influenced by the idea of a new covenant, saw in the death of Jesus of Nazareth the beginning of it, and saw his followers as members of that covenant [community], although that did not annul the first covenant given to Israel.”iii

That’s an important point. Although we Christians are eager to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the new covenant, we need to be careful not to imagine that the new covenant has somehow replaced or superseded the original covenant. It has only expanded it, thrown the doors wide open so that “whosoever believeth” can be welcomed into God’s family. In the same way we need to be sure that when we use the words Old Testament we use them as if we were talking about wine, which gets better over time, and not as if we were talking about fish, which does not.

Now, back to Jesus.

Whatever his fellow Israelites may have believed about him, Jesus seems to believe that he is God’s anointed one—his Messiah—and that he has been sent not only to fulfill the new covenant but also to usher in God’s kingdom. How does he do it?

1. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the sky is ripped open and a dove flutters down and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then, after he has spent forty days in the wilderness learning what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, Jesus comes into Galilee preaching his version of the Good News: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near,” he says; “repent, and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).

2. He calls disciples to help him fulfill his mission, eventually calling twelve men. Have you ever wondered why, as in why did he call twelve disciples and why were they all men? Looking back it seems obvious: Jesus was constituting the New Israel, and just as the Old Israel started with twelve men—the twelve sons of Jacob—so the New Israel would start with twelve men, with Peter, James, and John, and all the others. It’s a symbolic action on Jesus’ part, and it seems very deliberate. Yes, there were women who followed him as well as men, and yes they were part of his inner circle,iv but the Twelve Disciples represented the Twelve Tribes of the New Israel, and Jesus wanted everyone to know it.

3. He preaches the good news of the coming kingdom, in fact, this is his gospel: not that we are saved by grace through faith (as Paul likes to say), or that those who believe in him will have eternal life (as John reminds us), but that God’s kingdom is getting ready to come into the world “like a rock through a plate glass window,” as Fred Craddock once put it. Jesus wants his hearers to be ready for that, he wants them to embrace the idea, he wants them to help him bring it in. Throughout the Gospel of Mark he tells his hearers what the world is going to be like when God finally has his way, but

he also shows them.

4. He heals the sick, cleanses the lepers, raises the dead, and casts out demons. He makes it clear that when God’s kingdom finally comes and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven there won’t be any more sickness, any more suffering, any more death or any more demons. All of that is going to be gone. So, as he makes his way from one small village to another in Galilee, preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom, he also demonstrates what it will be like by healing everyone who comes to him. And there are lots of them.

5. Near the end of the first chapter in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is at Peter’s house on the Sabbath day. He has preached in the synagogue, cast out an unclean spirit, and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The kingdom is coming. But when the sun goes down and the sabbath ends the citizens of Capernaum bring to him all who are sick or possessed by demons until “the whole city was gathered around the door.” And what did Jesus do? He cured “many who were sick with various diseases,” Mark says, “and cast out many demons.” And can you guess what happened next?

Jesus became famous.

I hadn’t thought to look before last week, but when I searched for the word crowd in the Gospel of Mark it showed up 36 times, beginning as early as chapter 2. Remember this? “When they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (2:4). In that same chapter, “Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them” (2:13). And then in chapter 3, “He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him” (3:9). So,

instead of picturing only Jesus and his twelve male disciples making their way from one little village to the next in Galilee, you need to picture Jesus, and the Twelve, and then those women who accompanied him and provided for him out of their means, and all those people who had been healed by him, and couldn’t seem to stop following him, and all those others who wanted to be healed by him, and hoped to be next in line. By chapter 10 of this Gospel, it’s not only a crowd that gathers around Jesus, it’s crowds—plural.v

His strategy is working.

I went to an event last Tuesday night because someone invited me. I didn’t really want to go. It would mean giving up my regular Tuesday evening workout. But my friend Amy Redwine, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said she really hoped I would be there and so, grudgingly, I went. I went to St. Paul’s Baptist Church out on Creighton Road, which is a big church! I got there late and had to park practically in the next county. I walked through the wind and the cold for about five minutes before I got to the front door but when I got inside I was amazed.

Because the place was full of people. I mean packed! And the people who were there were of every race, country, color, and clime. It was something called a “Nehemiah Action,” sponsored by a group called R.I.S.C., which stands for, “Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities,” and the purpose of the gathering was to actually get something done about gun violence and the lack of affordable housing in our city. There were some solutions offered that had had good results in other cities. There were some questions asked about why those same solutions hadn’t been applied in our city. And then the candidates for mayor were brought up on the stage—seven of them. “Do you hear what we are saying?”

they were asked. They nodded. “Do you see how many people are here?” They nodded again. And I realized that any serious mayoral candidate would have understood that when this many voters ask for something you need to pay attention.

It might get you elected.

It makes me wonder if this is what Jesus was up to as he made his way around Galilee, preaching the good news of God’s coming Kingdom, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, and casting out demons. Was he working to gather a crowd so that when he rode into the city of Jerusalem the religious and political authorities would have to pay attention to him? He rode in on a donkey, which may seem to us like an act of humility, but you may remember the words of Zechariah 9:9, where the prophet says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Call it what you will but Jesus appears to be presenting himself to the people of Jerusalem as their long-awaited Messiah. He’s asking for a response; he’s looking for their answer. You have to wonder: was he trying to start a populist movement that would overpower the old regime and replace it with something fresh and new,

A new covenant, perhaps?

I think about Blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the road outside of Jericho. When he heard that Jesus was passing by he began to shout at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s the first time in this Gospel that anyone has called Jesus the Son of David, and it suggests that some people have come to think of him not only as a gifted preacher and a powerful healer, but also

as a potential ruler—as one who might sit on the throne of his ancestor and usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity. The people around Bartimaeus told him to keep quiet. Maybe they knew you could get in trouble for making claims like that. But Bartimaeus shouted out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him, called for him, and when Bartimaeus was standing in front of him he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus said, “Teacher, I want to see again!” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” In that moment Bartimaeus regained his sight, but he did not go; instead he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Which means that he would have been in that crowd that came with Jesus over the Mount of Olives and into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I don’t know if he was in the group that went ahead of him, laying their cloaks on the road, or in the group that came along behind him, picking them up again, but I have a feeling it was the former: that Bartimaeus was the one leading the parade, waving a palm branch and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, but if you have and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Temple Mount you know you can stand there and look out over the Kidron Valley and see the Mount of Olives on the other side. It’s only about a half a mile away. If you had been there on that Palm Sunday so long ago you might have looked across that valley and seen a crowd of people coming down the road toward the city—a big crowd. You might have heard them shouting and seen them waving palm branches. If you strained your eyes you might have been able to see the focus of their attention—some stranger riding a donkey’s

colt, his feet dragging the ground. And if you strained your ears you might be able to hear one voice lifted above all the other voices shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” If you were just another pilgrim in Jerusalem, there for the Passover Festival, you might get excited, thinking that you had arrived just in time for a coronation, but if you were Caiaphas, the high priest, you might mutter under your breath, “You want to cut a covenant with us? We’ll show you how we cut a covenant.”

And by the end of the week, they had.

Lord Jesus, as you ride into our city today may we receive you in the spirit of Bartimaeus, and not in the spirit of Caiaphas. And may we open our hearts to you, so that you can write the words of the new covenant on every one. We ask it in your name. Amen.

—Jim Somerville © 2024