New Covenant, New Deal

Heritage Presbyterian Church

March 21, 2021
5th Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and John 12: 20-33

A little Presbyterian theology as we start the sermon for today:

Let’s begin with the definition of a sacrament:

In Reformed churches such as ours, we believe that a sacrament is an act that Jesus did – and which we also do as his followers.  The two sacraments that we embrace are Baptism and Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.

In other Christian denominations, they have other definitions for sacraments, and they also have different lists of what those sacraments are.  I have no quarrel with those extended lists…I just understand and follow and believe that two sacraments are appropriate.

The problem sometimes comes up when I meet with couples who wish to be married; often, there is a misunderstanding about marriage, with some believing it is a sacrament.  I go to some lengths to explain that we believe marriage is a covenant.

Now we have arrived at the theological point for today: what is a covenant?

A covenant is a “holy deal” agreed upon by both parties, sealed in love, and blessed by God.  If you think about it for a moment, that is a pretty good definition of marriage.  It is also a pretty good definition of what the Lord was doing in both passages of Scripture we have for today.

In the Old Testament of Jeremiah, we hear about a new covenant that the Lord is going to make with his believers.  It all sounds well and good until you consider where the people of God were at the time Jeremiah wrote this; this so-called “weeping prophet” had been trying to get the attention of God’s people through the last 40 years of the Kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah tried to serve the last five kings of Judah, but none of them – and most of their subjects and high priests – would not listen to him.  Because of their sinful natures and their lack of trust and faith in the Lord, their beloved kingdom was invaded, sacked, and destroyed – and the survivors carried off into captivity as slaves to the Babylonians.  Jeremiah was there for the whole thing.  

Yet even in the self-made destruction of Judah, the Lord was still there offering a new covenant that would take place at the right time.  The Lord’s promise of a new covenant was going to be very different this time; all previous covenants in Israel’s history had been broken each time by the people, not by God.  So Jeremiah told the people that this covenant would be different.  It would be put on each believer’s heart and mind.  All would get the opportunity to know God.  And as before, part of all previous covenants the Lord had created would remain, namely: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”  

By the way, if you read just a little around this section of the Book of Jeremiah, you will see that this covenant was established just prior to the final destruction of Judah; Israel had already been destroyed.  Jeremiah was still the prophet, but his words were recorded to give hope to future generations – NOT to influence the current sinful generation.

Once again, the definition of a covenant:  a “holy deal” agreed upon by both parties, sealed in love, and blessed by God.  

In this case, the wording leads us to believe both parties were not necessarily ready to agree upon it.  Those Judah-ites just wanted God to deliver them, as God had done so in the past.

In the passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry.  By the time we hear today’s reading, he has been in Jerusalem for several days teaching and healing and arguing with the religious leaders on almost every point.  The very next passage has Jesus at the Passover feast, washing his disciples’ feet, declaring that one of them would betray him, and setting the stage for the sacrament we continue to follow today: the sacrament of Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus has predicted his death, he has arrived in triumph in Jerusalem a few days earlier, his disciples are all gathered in one place, and it is time to teach them the last things.

Yet, even in this painful hour, Jesus still had one more important act to do that illustrates the difference between a sacrament and a covenant: Jesus served them all the bread and the cup and said the words we have all heard for generations:

“This is my body, broken for you.  Take and eat.”

“This is the cup, sealed in my blood.  Take and drink.”

Then Jesus gave them all a final commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you.”  This will be how others will know we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

Because we cannot just accept the words of Jesus, we have to break down such a simple and straightforward sentence:

  • Jesus called it a commandment – but the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament remained unchanged;
  • Jesus modeled this action of loving them all, and so we should consider this a sacrament because we are following what Jesus himself did.  Yet we continue to have just two sacraments in our official list.
  • So perhaps this declaration of Jesus falls into the category of a covenant, a “holy deal” agreed upon by both parties, sealed in love, and blessed by God.  That fits the definition perfectly, I think.

Lent is the season of preparation for the events leading up to Easter Sunday.  Many of these events are difficult to consider, witness, and even think about.  Most of us would MUCH rather go directly from the triumph of Palm Sunday and to the glorious discovery on that dark Easter Sunday – and avoid all the rest.  Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are difficult to encounter, especially for those of us who are tired of facing bad news, difficult circumstances, and terrible events in our own world that can bring us all to tears.

Yet I challenge you anyway to do so.  It has been said before in many settings, it has been said from this very pulpit, and it should be believed:  We cannot get to Easter Sunday without going through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We must not turn away and avoid them.

Because within those terrible, amazing days, is the very embodiment of a brand new covenant, a“holy deal” agreed upon by both parties, sealed in love, and blessed by God.”  Consider what Jesus did:

  • Jesus and the Father set up his death as an atonement for the continuous sins of the people of God.  No more would believers have to be considered forsaken by their sins; now they could return to the Lord in this new “holy deal.”
  • Jesus and the people would agree on this.  It would be simple and straightforward for the Lord to do this, but believers would struggle in their agreement because they hold on to their old sins as proof that “God couldn’t love me enough to save me…he only saves other people.”  Or “You’re going straight to hell when you die” which is not our judgment to make or to even say.  Or “I just can’t forgive that person.”  Or “I can sin all I like…in the end, because I believe in Jesus, I will still be saved anyway.”  Any of these statements damages the part about both parties agreeing on the covenant.
  • Sealed in love.  Nothing Jesus ever did, especially his actions of Holy Week, were done for any other reason other than love.  Why did he cast out demons?  Because he loved those who were possessed.  Why did he heal the sick?  Because he loved those who were suffering.  Why did he raise Lazarus?  Because he loved his friend, Lazarus.  Why did he die on the cross, a horrible public execution?  Because his death and his subsequent resurrection proved once and for all that love conquers sin and death.
  • Finally, blessed by God.  Does anyone in history who believes in Jesus Christ ever think that he did anything for any reason other than because of his obedience to the Father?  His love for the people was unwavering, but his obedience to the Father.

And maybe there’s our greatest lesson for today: As Jesus was obedient to the Father, even unto death of a cross, we should strive to be as obedient to the Father too.  

We should follow that new instruction: “Love one another.”

We should believe even when it is almost impossible to do so.

We should follow the Lord and learn from past examples, in our own lives and in the examples from the Bible.

We should not turn away from those things that are hard to witness, but rather we should look for God’s work and our own opportunities to serve in everything around us.

And most important of all, we should always and forever stick to this new covenant that our loving Lord has put before us.

If we embrace this new covenant…this new deal, we are saved.