In those days, long ago, not unlike today they made covenants. A covenant was like our idea of a contract. Usually two parties agreed to behave and operate in certain ways to achieve a goal – you pay this, I’ll give that; or you go stay over there and I’ll stay over here, we’ll leave each other alone; or you provide these animals and I will provide these services and we’ll split the proceeds, etc. There were a number of these covenants throughout history – between human beings, between tribes or countries, and between God and his people.
One of the most vivid and memorable was that covenant at Sinai. There, as Israel waited on the plain below, on the mountain above God expressed his will for them – what they should know and do. And Israel, for their part, said they would be God’s people, “We will do everything the LORD has said.”(Exodus 19:8, NIV84) And God then gave them his law at length—his will for their lives, written down in specific (the 10 commandments, other rituals, festivals, etc.).
Now covenants, wills, contracts often are concluded with some ritual… Today, perhaps if you broker a huge business deal, they might hold a party, have a signing ceremony. In that day, at Sinai, Moses made animal sacrifices on a large altar with 12 pillars (one for each tribe of Israel) and he sprinkled God’s people with the blood of those sacrifices – marked them as “in covenant” with God. And then, 70 elders of Israel went up onto the mountain and saw “the God of Israel” over a “pavement of sapphire, clear as the sky itself”. And then, at God’s divine dinner table, they ate a heavenly meal with him—they concluded the covenant.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to sit at table with the Lord of Hosts—how astounding, reverent, scary, thrilling, foreign it must have been! How it would have changed everything for you…don’t you think? Except… Except with that Sinai covenant moment, do you remember what happened? Tired of waiting for Moses upon the mountain, Israel did the golden calf thing. Made an idol out of gold, worshiped it as the god who would lead them. Though Aaron had seen God, eaten at his table, he helped them to it! They did not comport themselves as people of God. They were not faithful to the covenant.
Which is a theme that goes on in Israel’s history still through to the prophet Jeremiah, who writes to us tonight. Jeremiah’s were Israel’s darkest days – Jerusalem, the temple, in ruins and everyone but the least and worst off had been carried away into captivity. Through his prophet God expressed the habitual, generational failure of Israel: “they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.” They struggled with all the same things–immorality, idolatry, defeat and despair. God was faithful; Israel was not.
You would think, after things like the golden calf and hundreds of years of generational unfaithfulness, that God would be done with Israel. They couldn’t keep his covenant. But St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, said that Israel’s failure to keep their side of the covenant “does not…do away with [God’s] promise.” (Galatians 3:17, NIV84) That is, God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai was meant to be Israel’s way to joyfully show that they were already in a covenant relationship with God.
You can see it in pretty much every other one of God’s covenants – or you might say – every other one is part of the same one. There was the first covenant with Adam—after the devastation of the Fall into sin, God promised to crush the Serpent’s head and to bless the whole world with a Savior. There was that one with Noah, after the devastation of the worldwide flood—God gave the rainbow as his sign that he would reapply his love and mercy through Noah’s growing family to every generation. And there was the one to Abraham—whether via star-math or promises of land or offspring—God promised that he would bless all people on earth through Abraham—and one of his offspring in the days to come.
And Jeremiah reflects the same… Scan over the verbs throughout Jeremiah’s prophecy: God says, “I will make…I will put…I will write…I will forgive…I will remember no more.” God would do all these things in “the days [that] are coming”.
I hope you caught it in the gospel and Hebrews tonight said: the fulfillment of God’s promise has arrived ever since Jesus walked onto the scene to do the work of salvation. God said, “I will make a new covenant…” And it turns out God meant in a way, rather like a will, which is only put into effect when someone dies… Here, with the death of God’s holy Son, Jesus Christ, at the cross, the necessary death has taken place and the will, the new covenant is in force.
Which means, these are the days; they’re here… And the question for us is, do we understand that we are covenant people by faith in Jesus Christ?
It’s worthy of our time, perhaps especially in this penitential season, to consider our ways. And to acknowledge that they’re generally the same as Israel’s. In truth, we each know amazing blessings—so many we don’t have the time to count—which God has poured out on us. Yet we tend to fall back into all the other “agreements” we’ve made with ourselves – to be comfortable or to satisfy this desire or to not deal with that person’s annoyances or failures, etc. How often doesn’t God “come down” and “find us” in sin, in worshiping all the old idols… How often, seeking assurances of security or comfort from “other powers” than him? How often worshiping this world’s words instead of his mighty Word? We’re people just like Israel, who cannot justify ourselves in God’s sight. By our own works and words and thoughts—indeed, our very natures—we break covenant with him.
As we analyze our hearts and turn again from our sins, thank God that he deals with us just as he has with his people throughout history. We’re not in a covenant that we’ll do better or achieve more tomorrow – and thus we’re confident. No, as the writer of Hebrews said it: we have “a covenant based on better promises” than our own work (8:6).
What promises? Three in particular:
- v.33—“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” That word “law” is the Hebrew word torah. It can mean God’s teachings (even, the gospel) or his moral will. Either way, God’s new covenant promised to do what that old one with Israel couldn’t accomplish fully: to give people a new heart of faith and move them to want to keep God’s law.
- V.34—“[T]hey will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” To know the Lord is to have saving faith. Jesus said it when praying to his Father, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, NIV84) Through the hearing of his powerful Word, God’s Spirit comes to hearts to make them believing hearts (Romans 10:17) – people who know God.
- The third is really the basis for the first two (v.34)—“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” God now presents the one sacrifice for sins: the death of Jesus Christ at the cross. In his death, all sins are paid. Forgiveness for sins is made and shared.
How promising! God makes the perfect and complete sacrifice for sins in the death of Jesus at his cross—and there is nothing left to be offered, nothing more to be paid. So that we who know sins and guilt now know God instead, we’re at peace in his forgiveness. And, by God’s Spirit or new hearts of faith desire to keep covenant with God—and we do…
What blessings we have in covenant with him! We have confidence to approach God as our Father, cleansed from guilt and fear, knowing he is faithful and reliable. So that our goal might be to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,” and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds”—the things God is and loves, those things we love and are. Because these are the days long promised…
Still… sometimes I wish for something more, don’t you? Sometimes in a dissatisfied way; most often just in longing for those kinds of days to come, where God’s presence is felt and frequent? Something vivid like God making that covenant with Abraham—cut the animals in half, put ‘em in rows, watch God’s glowing firepot float the middle. Or like that “seeing God” moment on Sinai, to sit down and eat at table with him?
But God knows me, and you… So Jesus sits down with his disciples to celebrate how God took Israel by the hand at the Passover. But it’s just before Jesus will die, so he makes it his last will and testament. He has no earthly wealth, no estate to leave, no gold or silver. So to his disciples he left himself. Rich grace and mercy! He gives us himself— “This bread is my body,” he says; “This cup is my blood.” “Given for you…poured out for you.” And he calls it just like Jeremiah: the “new covenant.”
When Jesus offers himself to us to eat and drink in/with/under bread and wine—in this miraculous and sacramental way—he is offering for us to take in and have the price of salvation itself. We receive, by faith, the forgiveness for sins and the salvation that price paid for! He says, “I am with you, in you, so that you will not doubt in time of sorrow or fear that I am closer to you than any human being could ever be. I know you – who you are, what you’ve done, all your good and bad, and I do not despise you: I love you and want to be with you forever!”
What blessing! Could there be a greater motivation to live as God’s covenant people? A stronger motivation to run after love and good deeds? Than to know that Jesus Christ with his salvation is with you and for you? So the Son of God invites his disciples of every age to eat with him—a most divine meal—and we don’t even have to ascend a mountain to get it! He invites us to remember his death and to conclude the covenant with him again and again and again.
Since these are the days when such astounding blessings are so frequently outpoured, receive them. Come to the Lord’s Table: hear again his promise, eat and drink, be forgiven, be filled with joy for Christian life, and be comforted that the Jesus who has worked salvation goes out to live its joy with you.