Reformation Sunday-c

Preached: November 3, 2013

The New Covenant: No Ifs, Ands, or Buts
Jeremiah 31:31-34

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit speaks the Good News of Jesus Christ is Jeremiah 31

“Behold! The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “and I will make a covenant with Israel and a covenant with Judah — a new covenant. It won't be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I grasped them by their hand to bring them out of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “For this will be the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD. “I will place my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God; they will be my people. No longer will each one teach his neighbor, nor will a man teach his brother saying, ‘Know the LORD.’ For all of them, from the least to the greatest, will know me,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their guilt and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

The 2014 Chevy and Dodge trucks, are hitting the showroom floors along with Jeeps, Toyotas, and many other models. Apple, Samsung, Sony, and others tout their latest phones, tablets, TVs, or other devices. Last month's is outdated. Here's the new and improved.

We're rightly skeptical of such claims. Do I really need the latest? Why waste money when the old still works fine? Often the changes are so small and incremental.

So what about this new covenant that Jeremiah writes about? Do we really need it? What's the big difference? Let's think about that first of all.

A. How unlike the old!

Jeremiah writes, “‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 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, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:31, 32 NIV84).

The old covenant goes back to Mt. Sinai. With a strong hand the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. At Mt. Sinai he not only gave them the Ten Commandments but also made a mutual agreement or contract with them, the old covenant. They would be his people and live in the promised land if they obeyed his commands. He had already shown such great mercy and kindness to them, rescuing and protecting them. He wanted to continue to bless them. All he asked was for them to honor him as their God, holding his word and command in highest regard.

How they failed! Within forty days, they had built the golden calf. Old Testament history records that generation after generation turned away from the Lord, breaking the old covenant again and again. Yet how merciful he was! He showed them the errors of their ways and called them back. He continued to care for them and love them. He was like a husband to them, even though they were an adulterous wife, running after other gods

Yet because of their failures, the old covenant could not save them. They needed something new.

What about us, 21st century Americans? For one, the conditional, old covenant God made at Sinai was only with the Israelites, not with our ancestors, unless you're Jewish. This leaves us even worse off. Without the new covenant we have only God's uncompromising and holy moral law. Any violation brings the death sentence of unending hell. No sacrifice from our hands can turn away that sentence.

We can't plead ignorance. That law is written on our hearts and our conscience bears witness to it. We do the evil God forbids and fail to do the good he commands. We have no excuse. Each violation earns you and me the death sentence.

God's law peels back the layers of our actions, exposing our thoughts, attitudes, motives, and emotions. It judges our hearts and minds, cutting to the bone. It declares: If you have not loved your neighbor as yourself, death. If you have failed to help them in need or to speak well of them, death. If you have ever coveted, wished for revenge, or lusted, death. If you have failed to give parents or others in authority the honor and respect due them, death. If you do not esteem the Lord God as dearer than anyone or anything else, death. If you do not hold his word and commands in the highest regard, death. If you do not rely on him alone as your only hope and source of happiness, death. If you misuse his name or are slow to call on him in prayer, death. If you do not gladly hear and learn his word, death. How damned we are by the Law!

Are you ready for the new? How unlike the old it is! The new covenant declares: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV84). Did you hear any ifs, as we heard again and again from the law? Did you here any buts: “I'll forgive you but you better shape up”? Did you here any ands: “I'll forgive you and here are the conditions ...”? Not at all! No ifs, ands, or buts. No conditions at all, not even one!

How totally unlike the old! The new covenant is not an incremental change, modifying the conditions or easing up on them. It's revolutionary. No conditions at all, not even one! No ifs, ands, or buts. “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV84).

Does that sound too good to be true, dear friend? Don't doubt it. For you have the Lord's word on it.

B. You have the Lord's word on it.

How do you have the Lord's word on it? First, look at the text. How many times do you see the words, “declares the LORD”? I count four time in four verses. In Hebrews it's the words (נאם יהוה). They ring out like a refrain. This is the solemn, solid, firm, unchanging declaration of the Lord God, the Lord who is the unchanging I AM. So do not doubt his new, unconditional covenant. It has no ifs, ands, or buts. You have the Lord's word on it.

Second, look at Jesus Christ who himself is the Word, who came from the Father. His blood put this new covenant into effect. The old at Mt. Sinai was sealed with the blood of animals. The new is sealed with the blood of God's Son. Think about that each time in the Lord's Supper you hear Jesus say, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” What's more, God raised Jesus from the dead as the final word and everlasting Amen. Yes, the new covenant is sure and true. Jesus' resurrection is God's signature. “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV84). Don't doubt it. There's no ifs, ands, or buts. You have the Lord's word on it.

Thirdly, you don't have to wait for a prophet to tell you what to believe or wonder whether the new covenant is really for you. Consider this picture from the text, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV84). The old at Mt. Sinai was only for the Israelites, the new is for all people from least to greatest, including you, dear friend. Be sure of it. For you, yes you personally, have, God's full revelation already completely written down. That's what the Bible is. You don't need the authority of a prophet or pastor or church or anyone else to tell you what to believe. You have the very words of God himself written down for you.

This is one of the truths Martin Luther confessed. Rather than trusting in the authority of popes or church councils, we are to believe the words of Scripture alone. In 1521 when the Emperor ordered him to recant, Luther replied that he could not, for his conscience was held captive by the Word of God.

Now don't misinterpret the picture from Jeremiah as if people will automatically know God so that we no longer need to teach or preach or share his word. That would contradict what Jesus and the New Testament says. But unlike in the Old Testament when people had to wait for a prophet to tell them what the real word of God was, but now it's written down in full for all to see and read and know. Christian friends and the pastors Jesus sends can guide us in that Word. But it's through the Word that we know the Lord. The Bible is the authority we trust. So know your Bible. Take it to heart.

For through his Word, the Lord brings his truth into your mind and writes it on your heart. The Bible is like a pen and our hearts are the paper. The Holy Spirit uses God's Word in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments as his tool, his pen, to write the new covenant on our hearts. That's why we believe — not because of any choice or decision on our part but because through his word the Holy Spirit has written the new covenant on our hearts. Don't doubt the Lord's forgiveness. You have his word on it, written from the Scriptures onto your heart.

God forgives you, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. No conditions. Even faith is not a condition but a response. Watch out for the thinking that says: “All you have to do now is believe and then God will forgive you.” Whether they mean to or not, they've destroyed the new covenant and made it conditional like the old. They've mutated faith into a condition or work God requires from us to make ourselves ready for his forgiveness.

Rather God's unconditional promise transforms our hearts so that we believe. That's the power of the new covenant. That's the power of the Holy Spirit. “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 NIV84). Yes unbelief still brings death and hell. The new covenant is not some sort of universalism where everyone ends up saved. Unbelievers remain under the law. And who can meet those conditions? On the other hand, believers are saved not because faith meets some sort of condition that makes them ready for forgiveness, but rather because the new covenant brings them free, unconditional forgiveness through Jesus Christ alone.

That's the amazing truth Martin Luther brought back into the light. We are forgiven and saved not because of anything we do, not even because of our action of believing, we are saved because of God's free, gracious forgiveness that the blood of Christ purchased for us. That's the new covenant.

When that good news lives in our hearts, written there by the Holy Spirit through the word, our hearts are changed. The Spirit makes them new not only so that we believe but also so that we have a new attitude, a new mindset, a new will, a new self. We eagerly want to do what the will of our Lord, our dear Bridegroom who has washed us clean.

No wonder God calls this the new covenant. It's totally different from the old, no conditions at all, and it makes us new from the inside out. Even though it goes all the way back to Genesis 3:15 when the Lord first promised to send the Savior to crush Satan's head, it's still new every day. We may not need many new things, but we certainly need the new covenant each and every day. No ifs, ands, or buts, about it. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313