Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
I am not sure why the Revised Common Lectionary’s series of passages from Jeremiah skips around the way it does (one week Jeremiah 32 but then next time around it’s back to chapter 29 and now we leap to chapter 31) but I think I can understand why the Lectionary saved this passage from the 31st chapter for last. Contained here are some of the most well-known words of this entire book. The reason is clear enough to see: the New Covenant Jeremiah predicts certainly looks to have found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ, particularly the part about writing God’s law onto our very hearts, which surely looks like (among other things) a preview of the post-Pentecost fact of the Spirit’s making each believer a living Temple of God himself.
Of course, the passage contains some other curious items that we don’t always pay as much attention to. First are the words about how children will no longer be punished for the sins of the fathers. That much sounds like good and fair news. But then we’re told that it’s not as though people would stop dying on account of their sins, it’s just that each of us would die on account of only our own sins, not on account of someone else’s. That’s fair too, I suppose, but it seems like a rather odd way to lead into verse 31 and its lyric introduction of the New Covenant imagery.
On the other end of this lection are words that are lyric but perhaps a bit confusing in terms of when this was to come about. Jeremiah predicts that the day would come when everybody would know God (thus rendering witnessing a moot point) and that the reason this day of universal God-knowledge would come about was because God was going to forgive everyone’s sins.
So on the one hand we have words to the effect that people were going to die on account of their sins. On the other hand we have a prediction that God was going to forgive all sins. In between is the promise of a new way by which God would get the knowledge of himself and his law across to people and it ends up being a promise with huge ramifications: everyone would simply know who God is. It sounds almost as though it would be automatic.
We need to note that God is talking here about the context of his own chosen people and so is not applying this knowledge of God universally. Even if we bear that caveat in mind, we could still wonder whether such a day ever came for Israel in even the post-exilic times. Like many prophecies, therefore, this one may have multiple horizons of fulfillment such that we could rightly affirm that the ultimate such horizon has come only in Christ and in the context of God’s Pentecostal indwelling Spirit. All of us who are now baptized into Christ receive the Holy Spirit and even if the presence of that Spirit does not mean we will automatically lead peerless moral lives, it surely does mean that the venue for God’s works has shifted from the corporate to the very, very personal.
Interestingly enough, the Lectionary pairs this passage with the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. In some ways, however, Jeremiah 31 gives us the reverse of the parable in Luke: because in this case it has been God himself who has been the persistent one, begging on and on for his people to listen to him, to follow his ways, to stay true to the God who loves them and rescued them from Egypt. But if it’s true in Luke that the persistence of a widow can be enough to get results from the judge / God, oddly enough when God himself is the one doing the begging, it is not enough!
Our persistence pays off, God’s never did!
In the long run, for God to get the results he wanted, he needed to do more than be patient. He needed to do a wholesale renovation of the human heart. He needed to stop standing on the outside of the door and knocking and instead had to move right in, busting down the door and setting up shop inside the human mind and heart. But the path to making that a reality was a hard path, a sacrificial path, a path that ended at a cross. Because the thing that was keeping humanity for giving in to the persistence of even God was a face of sin and death so stubborn, so deeply entrenched, that only the death of God’s Son could overcome it.
In the context of Jeremiah 31, it is almost as though the first verses (vss. 27-30) are saying that so long as sin remains our stubborn human problem, we’re just going to keep dying. Whether you die on account of someone else’s sin or on account of your own, death just keeps happening because sin just keeps happening. And so on the far side of this passage (vs. 34) we are told that God is going to find a way to forgive all those sins once and for all. In between (vss. 31-33) we learn what it is that is going to snap the cycle of sin/death and so lead to a new day of knowledge/life: God is going to take on the problem himself. He’s going to do a new thing. He’s going to find a way to move right into the human heart with a new grace and a new life-giving power that would turn things around once and for all.
This is the divine plan. Or as we call it more commonly today, this is the Gospel.
Mention the word “covenant” to the average person today and you won’t get much of a reaction. It’s not a word that gets a lot of play in everyday conversation. If you Google it, you’ll find about 30 million search results but you would have to go through hundreds of Google search pages before you ran out of search results that were the names of churches, hospitals, schools, retirement communities, and the like. Somehow “covenant” is a good name for establishments even though it’s not a word we typically use in day-to-day life.
We are far more familiar with words listed as synonyms for “covenant” like “contract” or “deal” or “agreement.” The closest most people get to anything remotely akin to the biblical sense of the word is probably due to the popularity of the first Indiana Jones movie where “the Ark of the Covenant” plays a prominent role. But even in that case, the meaning of “covenant” is at best foggy to most people who watch that film.
Most people figure a covenant is pretty much like a contract and so if they have any associations with this word at all, it is in the realm of all that is proper and legal and official. You sign on the dotted. You make promises. You become obligated to make payments on loans or to perform certain tasks as stipulated by a customer. It’s all very cut and dried and bloodless.
How very different “covenant” is in the Bible and especially in a passage like Jeremiah 31! From the Call of Abram forward, covenant in the Bible is the lifeline of God’s relationship with humanity. True, even in the Ancient Near East you can find lots of cut-and-dried legal associations with the various types of covenants that existed back then. But when it came to God’s relationship to Israel, covenant was always more than a transaction.
Covenant was life itself. Covenant was hope and promise and grace all rolled into one. The covenant opened up a future for all creation that would not be possible were it not for the existence of the covenant. And if we Christians are now right to believe that all of God’s covenant promises found their “Yes” in Christ Jesus, the crucified Lord of lords and King of kings, then we can know for sure that this is a word freighted with meaning.
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