Sermon – Reformation Sunday
On this Reformation weekend, we hear words of promise from the prophet Jeremiah, words about a new covenant and a renewed relationship between God and God’s people.
Jeremiah is talking to the people during the time of the exile. Israel and Judah had lost the war. All that they had now belongs to their enemies. They have been taken as slaves back to Babylon. They are far from home, far from everything they know and love. They are frightened. They have lost everything – home, family, land, freedom.
Many believed that the god of their people could not protect you or provide for you in a foreign land. They felt God has abandoned them. I cannot imagine how scary it would be if I believed God could not protect someone when they left the country.
This is the situation where Jeremiah speaks his words of promise. He speaks directly to their concerns. God has not abandoned them. Jeremiah tells them that the issue is their relationship with God.
The old relationship, called the old covenant, is the agreement made between the LORD and the people when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. A covenant is a contract or an agreement made between God and the community. In the covenant with Moses, God promised to be with the people of Israel, and walk with them, love them and care for them.
God gave Moses the Ten Commandments as a guide for living. God told the people that following the commandments would make life better for them. We know it would make life better for all of us if we could obey all the commandments, but we are no more able to do that than the Israelites were.
The prophet speaks words of promise to the people in exile. The promise is all about the relationship with the LORD. “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” (Jeremiah 31:31).
There are some things about the new covenant that are like the old covenant and some things that are very different, but the character of God never changes. The LORD is the same LORD. The love of God for people never changes no matter what the people do. God has not forgotten the promises made long ago at Sinai. God continues to love this wayward people; they continue to be God’s treasured possession.
The difference is, of course, implied with the term, “new.” This new covenant with Israel is not like the covenant at Sinai, “a covenant that they broke” (Jeremiah 31:32). Still, what is new about this covenant is not its content, but the way that God will bring it about.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says The LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know The LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says The LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
The old covenant, written on stone tablets and scrolls, will be replaced by the new covenant, written on flesh. The first set of stone tablets was broken (Exodus 32:19), the second set written again (Exodus 34:1) and hidden away in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5).
The book of the law, containing the details of the covenant, was also stored beside the Ark (Deuteronomy 31:24-26) and mostly forgotten until it was rediscovered in the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), in the early days of Jeremiah’s prophetic career.
Unlike the old covenant, then, written on stone tablets that can be broken and scrolls that can be lost, the new covenant will be written within the people, on their very hearts. No need for remedial religious education, because everyone will know The LORD, from the oldest elder to the youngest child.
And it will all be The LORD’s doing. The people have not shown that they can be faithful during the many years of the old covenant, so this time The LORD will do it differently. This time, the covenant relies solely on God’s mercy, God’s ever-present grace in forgiving a disobedient people and calling them back into relationship.
Christ fulfills Jeremiah’s prophesy. We hear every week, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” We receive Christ’s very body and blood into our bodies and our relationship with God is changed. The new covenant is written on our hearts and minds and souls. We receive the grace and forgiveness as a gift. It is all Gods doing. We come empty handed. We offer nothing in return.
Martin Luther did not believe that he had discovered something radically new in Scripture when he found there the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. He rediscovered a treasure that the church of his day had largely lost. The movement he began was as much a restoration as a reformation — the rediscovery of God’s abundant grace in the new covenant established in and through Jesus Christ. Luther was restoring the church to a right understanding of that covenant.
Luther knew that God’s nature does not change. God was, is, and will continue to be a God of great mercy, forgiveness, and love for a wayward people. The church’s understanding of God’s nature had become clouded in Luther’s day. Like Jeremiah, then, Luther called the people of his day to a new understanding of God and a renewed emphasis on God’s grace and God’s abiding love even for a sinful people.
And it is all God’s doing. In and through Jesus Christ, the God of Jeremiah continues to forgive, renew, reform, and call God’s people into right relationship with God and with one another. God is faithful, even when we are not. That is the good news that both Jeremiah and Luther proclaimed, and it is news that we can and should celebrate on this Reformation Sunday, always with great joy.