Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 21, 2021
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Commentary
This remarkably sunny text may seem a peculiar choice for the dark journey of Lent, unless we see it in the light of theme of covenant on which the RCL has been focusing during this Lenten season.
We began with God’s covenant with Noah and all of nature, the covenant on which all life on earth depends. Then we moved to God’s covenant with Abraham, the center of God’s saving work for and through Israel. Our next stop was a Mount Sinai, where God gave Israel the covenant Law by which they could lead the kind of liberated lives that would attract the world to their God. Last week we stopped in the wilderness where Israel radically broke that covenant and God renewed it with a snake lifted up on a pole, a foreshadowing of Christ on the Cross. All who looked on the snake were healed of snakebite.
Here we have the promise of something better than physical life, better than family and land, better than Law etched in stone, better than healing—the promise of a new covenant based on forgiveness, forgiveness so thorough that God will even forget our sins. This changes everything. It promises a new beginning just when we need it the most.
The last time I wrote on this text (almost a year and a half ago), no one could have imagined where we would be today. No one had ever heard about COVID-19 and the havoc it would wreak on the world. No one would have believed a prediction about the fracturing of American democracy by a contentious political campaign that put us on the brink of civil war. No one could have foreseen the floods and the fires and the storms that have given us a present-time foretaste of the climate catastrophes many doomsday prophets have warned us about for years. No one could have anticipated the depression and despair all of this would bring to millions of people. I think it is safe to say that we all long for a new beginning.
That is surely how Israel of Jeremiah’s day felt. Written around the time of the Exile, this prophecy is filled with words of gloom and doom for its first 29 chapters. The Northern Kingdom had been gone for 150 years now, and Judah was only months away from a devastation no one could have imagined. Nebuchadnezzar is at the city gates and the world is about to come to a violent end. Now, out of the blue, comes a prophetic word about a whole new beginning, a new covenant even. Just when it seemed that all was lost and it was over forever, God intervenes again and makes promises that change everything.
God says in effect, these times are awful, but these days aren’t the only days you’ll ever know. Four times God points ahead to better days: “in those days,” the days are coming,” “the time is coming,” “after that time.”
With doom at the door, it was very hard for Judah to believe that there could be any hope at any time. Thus, God emphasizes over and over that the words being spoken to them by Jeremiah were in fact God’s own word. Five times we read that the preceding words come from the very mouth of God with this formula– “declares the Lord.”
The word of the Lord in these verses has two parts, the first having to do with Israel’s return from exile (verses 27-30), the second focusing on the new covenant with Israel after that return (verses 31-34).
This is the first and only place the Old Testament speaks explicitly of a “new” covenant. Yes, God’s covenant with his people had been renewed and restated many times in the Old Testament. I just mentioned God’s covenants with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. And think of the great covenant renewals after Israel’s sin with the golden calf in Exodus 34 and as Israel entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 29. But this is a whole new covenant.
Well, not entirely new. In verse 33, God repeats the very center of the Abrahamic covenant; “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” That covenant relationship will continue. Even the horror of the Exile did not break that relationship, though it certainly seemed to them that God had forsaken them.
But there are several new features/promises in the new covenant. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt….” Clearly a reference to the Mosaic covenant that was anchored in the Exodus and expressed in Torah, those words of verse 32 do not mean that the new covenant isn’t anchored in God’s redemptive action and has nothing to do with Torah.
Rather, as the next words say, the newness has to do with the possibility of breaking the covenant. Though Yahweh was a loving and faithful husband to his covenant partner (verse 32), that partner broke that covenant again and again by disobeying Torah. In the new covenant, Israel (whether the Jewish people or the New Israel that is the church) will not be able to break covenant as their forefathers did. Israel could break the old covenant because it was based on Torah obedience. The new covenant will be based on forgiveness which will cancel disobedience and make covenant breaking impossible.
That doesn’t mean that Torah won’t matter in the new covenant. Indeed, rather than having to obey a law written on stone tablets, God’s people will actually have that law written on their hearts. “I will put my law in their mind and write it upon their hearts.” Despite all the Pauline warnings about misuse of law, the new covenant does not reject God’s Torah. Instead that law is injected into God’s people. Or as Ezekiel puts it, God will put a new heart and a right spirit in his people so they will desire to do God’s will and be able to do it. As Romans 8:1-4 says, this promise was fulfilled by the gift of the Holy who enables us to obey God’s law and produces the fruit of a Christ-like life.
That Spirit is also the explanation of the promise of verse 34 that “they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.” Some have taken these words about not needing to teach each other as an argument against teaching and preaching. But what it really means is that the Spirit is our ultimate teacher. “He will lead you into all the truth.” “It is the Spirit crying ‘Abba, Father….’” We come to a deep relational knowledge of God through the work of the Spirit. Israel never arrived at that kind of knowledge in spite of all her prophets and priests. Through her prophets and priests, Israel came to know about God. Through the work of the Spirit, we can come to know God as intimately as a married couple know each other.
That new knowledge of God will be based on God’s forgiveness. Israel knew God as creator and deliverer, as lawgiver and judge, as provider and punisher, but in the new covenant God’s people will know their God first of all as a forgiver and forgetter. That is not to say that forgiveness is unknown in the old covenant; a quick look at God’s seminal revelation of himself in Exodus 34:6,7 will prove that. But in the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing action of God. Never again will the sins of God’s people be punished as with the Exile. Now they will be forgiven and forgotten.
John Goldingay summarizes: “the act of forgiveness that Yahweh will now undertake in restoring his people after the collapse of the covenant will break into their spirits in a wholly new way. They will know themselves as an extraordinarily loved and forgiven people. That will change them inside and make them respond to Yahweh in a way they never have before.”
All of that will be true because of the sacrifice of Christ, says Hebrews 8 and 10, where Jeremiah 31:31-34 are quoted at length. Interestingly, the word “make” in verse 31 means literally “cut,” which harks back to Genesis 15 where the making of the covenant with Abraham was concluded with the cutting of animals and God passing between them symbolically. In the new covenant, the cutting that sealed the covenant will have to do not with the sacrifice of an animal, but with the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11-17). Because of his sacrifice, sins are forgiven and forgotten. There is no more sacrifice or punishment for sins that have been forgiven for the sake of Christ. With this truth, we connect with the season of Lent and anticipate our reading for next week, which focuses on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.
Some of the promises of Jeremiah 31 were fulfilled when Israel returned from Exile. Others had to wait for the days when Jesus died on the cross and then sent the Spirit. But complete fulfillment remains until the final coming of God in Christ. The sad fact is that even with the Spirit within, we still don’t obey Torah completely. And even with Christ showing us the Father, we still don’t know God fully. And even understanding the sacrifice of the cross, we still don’t receive forgiveness internally all the time. So, there is still a time coming (“in those days”) when the new covenant will be fulfilled completely in all God’s children.
COVID has turned my wife and me into occasional binge watchers of TV. Sometimes it isn’t a waste of time. For example, I was struck by a comment made by a brawny male nurse named Kenny on a TV show called “Night Shift.” He and another nurse were lamenting the sorry state of their lives and the other nurse asked Kenny, “If you could go back and start your life over, when would you begin again?” Without missing a beat, Kenny said, “October 12, 1999.” “Why that date?” “Because that was the day I wrecked my knee and ended my chances to play professional football. Because of that, I’m a nurse, rather than a member of the NFL.” In our text, new beginnings are not tied to going back to the good old days. Rather, our new beginning is rooted in God’s promise of a new future based on what God will do through Jesus and the Spirit. We can’t recover the past, but we can be renewed in every way by God’s new grace.
The promise of forgiveness that forgets reminded me of a book entitled Amish Grace. It’s about the horrific murders of a number of Amish girls by a man who must have been a monster. But even more, it’s about the way the Amish community forgave that monster. The whole country was so shocked by their forgiveness that the authors of the book spend the last part of it probing forgiveness.
In their investigation, they discovered that there are levels or stages of forgiveness. There’s the speaking of the words, “I forgive you,” even if you don’t feel anything positive toward the sinner. There’s the act of treating him differently- not holding the sin against him. There’s the actual acceptance of the sinner into your circle of affection. But, the writers point out, even with forgiveness, there can still be a desire to see justice done toward the offender. And, it is unlikely that the victims of such a horrific crime as that mass murder will ever be able to actually forget it.
All of which we can understand. Which makes the promise of Jeremiah 31:34 almost incomprehensible to us. How can an omniscient, perfectly just Judge, who loves his children with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) ever forget the sins committed against and by them? It’s amazing and impossible apart from the sacrifice of Christ.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!