The New Covenant: A forward-looking hope.

As we’ve journeyed through Lent, we’ve been reminded of God’s faithfulness, His goodness, and His mercy through the covenants – the sure and certain promises – He has made with His people.  From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and ultimately through the one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of the Lamb of God, He has shown us what it means to be faithful, to continue reaching out in love, not because we’ve earned or somehow deserved it, but because we were created for a free and loving relationship with Him, and He’s always ready to honour that: all we have to do is turn to Him in faith.

In today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34) we hear familiar language about the New Covenant.  This covenant is the core of our faith, with the promise of forgiven sin, the promise of sharing no longer in the sinful life of the first man, Adam, but partaking – really entering into and sharing in the eternal life of Jesus, the first-born of the new creation who leads to eternal life.  This covenant is central to our life together: it’s the reason we’re gathered, and it’s the message that we’re called to bring to the world; and Holy Week – beginning next Sunday – the holiest, most involved, and most visible part of the Christian year is our annual opportunity to enter into that story, to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness, to remind ourselves of the great price of our salvation, and to equip and inspire us to do what God has commanded every generation: to spread the good news, to tell the old, old story, and to teach it to our neighbours, our children, and our children’s children.

We’re Christians – we are the people of the new covenant in Christ: this is our story, this is our song, and our job is to proclaim it all the day long.

But… looking at God’s words to Jeremiah, I think there’s something about that Covenant that we all-too-easily miss.

A Future Promise

“This is the covenant that I will make:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and teach his brother saying “Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Sometimes, I think, we get in the habit of thinking that God’s promises are all in the past, that God’s done all he is going to do, and our job is to figure it out, to make the best of it, to make it work and try to remain faithful until he calls us home.

But, while it’s true that the New Covenant began at supper on the night before Jesus was offered as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, while it’s true that the price was paid once and for all, the New Covenant isn’t “done”, it isn’t in the past.  Rather, it’s still unfolding now, and as we look at those words from Jeremiah, it remains our hope for a yet-more-glorious future.

As we’ve seen in the other covenants this Lent, each covenant begins with God’s promise – His promise to bless his people, to lead them and guide them, to be their God if they will be His people; and each comes with responsibilities, with work to be done.

In the covenant to Noah, God gave the authority to create and maintain a just society, protecting the weak and innocent by punishing those who do wrong; Abraham and his descendants were promised the glorious opportunity to bring the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth, and a promised land to dwell in the very presence of God, requiring their commitment and faithfulness;  through Moses, freedom from bondage and sin was promised as God used the Law to instruct his people in righteousness, in knowing right from wrong, teaching them to live as God desires; and it’s in Jesus that the path to eternal life is opened, all it takes, as we heard in the Gospel today (John 12:20-33), is that we stop clinging to the broken ways of this sinful life, and instead take up our cross and follow Christ.  “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him”.

It’s glorious – that’s our living hope – but there’s even more to the story!

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

God promises through Jeremiah that, when the New Covenant begun in Christ is fulfilled, the law will be written on our hearts, we will be God’s people, and there will be no more need to spread the good news, because everyone – everyone – will know God.  Like, really know God; Paul says that now we see in a mirror dimly, but once that veil is lifted from our faces, we’ll see and know God clearly, even as God already knows all there is to know about us.

But what does it mean that the law will be written on our hearts?

That’s an important question – because God’s certainly not saying that we’re going to have the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy memorized! 

If you remember back to the covenant with Moses, the law isn’t just about things that are clean or unclean, details about how to live and how to worship; it has a great, over-arching purpose.  The purpose of the law isn’t in the details – the purpose of the law is to show us God’s character, and to demonstrate our absolute and utter need for a saviour who can do what we can never do for ourselves.

God’s promise is that, through the New Covenant, his people would finally know him – not just know about him, but know his very character, and carry that around inside them, right down in their hearts, in the very life flowing through their veins.  God’s promise is that we will finally know, right in the core of our being, that God is God and we are not, that we need a gracious and merciful saviour who offers us a place as sons and daughters of the King, not because we deserve it or have any right to it at all, but because we were created for his glory, a glory shown forth as we accept his mercy and share in the eternal life and relationship of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Law – the knowledge of God’s character and our own need for a merciful saviour – will be written, engraved, not on tablets of stone, not on scrolls or the holy pages of scripture, but in the very hearts of those who are united to Christ in his sacrifice, clothed with his righteousness, and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

What a glorious promise.  …and what a fitting end to the story of our salvation.

The Reprise of Genesis

If you remember back to Genesis, Adam and Eve had all that they needed, they even knew God, walking and talking with Him in the cool of the day in a place where everything they needed was provided, everything had been declared ‘good’, and where God was glorified. 

They knew God.  They had everything they needed. But there was one thing that would upset it all; one thing they could not touch.  It’s absolutely fascinating: Genesis 2 says the tree of life was there – they were free to eat from that if they wanted, God wanted them to live forever; they could eat from the tree of life, it was only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they could not touch.

You see, all was fine while they walked with God, and all they knew was the goodness and mercy of a loving Father.  They walked with God, they knew his character, reflected as his image imprinted upon them.  But the knowledge of good and evil is a dangerous thing: without the law, how do you know which is which.  And worse still, without the law proclaiming our need for a saviour, reminding us that the serpent’s lie is a lie, that no, we cannot make ourselves like God, that we creatures depend on the mercy and grace of a loving Creator; without the law, the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, will lead us astray.

God couldn’t bear the thought of humanity living forever with that twisted and broken outlook, and that’s why Genesis 3 tells us that God drove Adam and Eve from the presence of the garden, to keep them from eating from the tree of life.

But God’s plan doesn’t change – how could it, his Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He still wants to walk with us, to dwell with us, for us to live forever with him where he provides for all our needs; as the Book of Revelation proclaims, he still wants us to eat from the tree of life.  But, to do that, we first needed his law – we first need his loving character and our need for a merciful saviour – written on our hearts.

My friends, Jesus paid the price of our salvation on the Cross on Good Friday, but that’s not the end of the New Covenant.  The good news is that the Cross is literally just the beginning!

Day by day, moment by moment, as we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to repent and return whenever we slip off the path of life, our very hearts are being retrained; we learn, one day at a time, to give up loving the things of this world – Jesus actually puts it even stronger, we learn to hate the things of this world, and our hearts learn to know more fully who God is, and to acknowledge more fully, each and every day, just how much we need a saviour.

The promise of the New Covenant is that, beginning with Good Friday, we can learn to take up our cross and walk with God once more, a journey that begins now, and appears to cost us everything, but with each step, brings us closer to knowing God, trusting more fully in him, and, clothed in his righteousness alone, living with him forever together with all the others, from every language, people, and nation who know the Lord, where the knowledge of the need for a saviour and trust in him alone means that all iniquity is forgiven, and sin itself is remembered no more.

This is our living hope – it begins with the power of the cross, and transforms us from the inside out as we become enabled to reflect God’s glory.  And the message is so simple that it’s sometimes hard to believe: all we have to do is repent, return, and follow Jesus – simply walk in his footsteps, not worry about the changes and chances of this life, and learn to trust in Him alone.  And we can, because his covenants are sure, he is faithful, he always keeps his word, and the one who created us for life with him, and who started a good work in you and in me, will see it through to completion, by his grace, and for his glory.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Boast in your Hope.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2.

To say that this has been a rough couple of months might be the understatement of the decade.  Our country, our world changed overnight as the virus travelled around the globe, and all the routines, everything we considered “normal” was suddenly replaced by new terms we had never even heard before: social distancing, and self-isolation.

Then, in the weeks that followed, we began to see the economic impacts, as hard-working, self-supporting families turned to food banks, and hard decisions had to be made by people all around us; decisions whose effects will continue to ripple for months and years to come as we recover.

And with that, came the many less visible effects that have spread through every community, as isolation breeds depression, and people who had cleaned up and turned away from a life dependant on a bottle or a puff or a pill bought on the street were tempted to throw all that away to occupy their idle hands.

Many of us have also seen, or at least heard of, the effects of isolation for those whose homes are not happy places, as support structures – and ways to blow off steam – were taken away, and here in Canada, domestic violence help-lines have seen a 300% increase in calls,[1] and that’s not to mention the normal, everyday grief and frustration that slowly simmers into anger as so many simply feel powerless as this invisible virus changes everything we’ve worked and hoped for, and everything from graduations and birthdays to mourning and supporting one another in times of need has changed.

And if that wasn’t enough, anyone who turns on the news knows the pain and deep division that’s coming to the surface now as racial tensions rise, and it seems day after day, even very close to home, video after video emerges to show just how depraved we can be in the way we treat one another.

It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in despair.  No wonder the world around us is anxious.

…But then we turn to scripture.  Hard as it is, we don’t turn to God’s Word to hear what we want to hear, but to hear what God is saying through the Church.  And today, with all that’s happening in our world, what is God saying?  “We have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in the hope of sharing in the glory of God.”

Boast in your hope.

Now I must say I’ve read this verse hundreds of times, but never before has that phrase jumped out like it did this week.

One of the marks of a Christian – one who has been forgiven, who has been made right in the eyes of God by believing and following Jesus – is that you boast in your hope.

Think about it: this is totally upside down from the world’s perspective.  According to the world, we should boast in what we have, in what we’ve done.  In the world, in the workplace, that’s how boasting works: people boast pridefully as they try to prove to others just how good they are.  “I’ve done this, I’ve accomplished that; I built this from the ground up; look at my home, look at my car, look at my kids: one’s a teacher, one’s an engineer.”

But, for those following Jesus, that’s not the way.  We boast in our hope; and hope, in a biblical sense, isn’t positive thoughts or wishful thinking.  Hope, in scripture, is nothing short of the confident expectation that God will keep his promises.

When the world is swirling around us, when everywhere you look is nothing but bad news, those whose lives are built on themselves, on the work they have done, on their own accomplishments, are thrown into anxiety and despair.  There’s not much to boast about when businesses are closed, bank accounts are draining, and you’re being asked the hard but serious questions about whether the opportunities you’ve been given and your success would have looked different based on the colour of your parents’ skin.

But, if we want to live as followers of Christ, we’re not to build our identity or our value or our worth in wealth or possessions or positions, we’re not to put our trust in the work of our own hands.  The message of the cross is nothing short of radical surrender.  The invitation of Jesus is to finally admit that we can’t do it on our own, that we can’t rely on ourselves, because, I can’t hope in my own future if I’m powerless to change the world around me, and the outcome of that, as we’re seeing every day, is anger, frustration, and despair.

Whether we work a trade like Sts. James and John, or work in an office like St. Matthew, or are among the ruling elite like Paul, or work with our hands and care for our families like Tabitha, all the world’s ambitions, hopes, and plans are worthless… all the world’s training in positive thinking and personal empowerment come crashing down when we learn, in times like these, that I really can’t control anything outside of myself, and no amount of worrying can add even a single hour to my life.

But the message of the cross is to surrender; to admit defeat; to stop playing the life-long games of trying to get ahead, and finally acknowledge my life is in God’s hands, I can’t do this on my own, I can’t see the path ahead… so Lord, let me follow you.

And when we finally bring ourselves to give up, everything changes.

My circumstances in this moment no longer matter.  My identity, my value, my worth, isn’t found in the things I have done.  Paul says I can even boast in my suffering.

Now, who in their right mind boasts in suffering… unless we have full confidence that even being the least of the sons and daughters of God is still better than all the praise or boasting that this world can offer.

It’s that confidence, that sure and certain hope, that the uncertainty, the frustration, the worry, the anger, the fear of today – even the loss of every thing that I have – cannot change my value or my worth as one who has been made right in the eyes of God by surrendering, by giving up the lead, and simply following the One who knows the way because he’s walked it before: Jesus knows poverty, he knows hunger, he knows ridicule and shame, he knows doubt, and he knows what it is to triumph over the sin of this world and to live not for yourself, but as a member of a body knit together by love, sacrifice, and a sure and certain hope in the One who holds the future.

Boast in your hope.

In spite of what’s happening around us, boast in the knowledge that tomorrow, and the day after that, and the days and weeks and years to come are in God’s hands; boast in the fact that your value isn’t in what you have or what you do, but in who you are in the eyes of God.

And does that mean all your anxiety goes away?  Does that mean you never worry?  Does that mean you won’t have days like I had on Friday morning when you are so darn frustrated that you’re ready to throw things out the window and snap at the next person unlucky enough to cross your path?

No.  Not at all.  That’ll still happen. 

But that anxiety, that frustration, even that pain now carries no weight, because we know who holds tomorrow, and we know where our true worth is found.

And when we snap, or when we find out we were wrong, there’s no longer any need to be ashamed and get defensive.  We can own it, and surrender once more, knowing that every time we’re out of line, the answer isn’t forging ahead, but to fall back and follow  the Good Shepherd.

A Mission:

This is how we’re to live in difficult times.  And, the harvest is plentiful – let’s not kid around, we don’t have to look very far to find someone who is anxious, depressed, frustrated, worried, angry, or fearful.

If we can learn to boast in our hope, even just a little, then two things happen:

We become the labourers in that harvest, like Jesus said.  And, as we learn that confident hope, by God’s grace we find what we can never find for ourselves: that anxiety, that stress is replaced by a peace that passes understanding – a perfect peace that really makes no sense in the eyes of the world.

And yes, sometimes that hope sounds ridiculous.  Who can blame Sarah for laughing anymore than we would laugh if someone said one of our dear 80-year-old ladies would bear a child.  But that’s our task right now: to grin in the face of the impossible and say “God’s got this, I’m not going to worry about it; He’ll work it out, I’ll trust in Him, and follow where He leads, one day at a time”.

That’s hope to boast about.  It sounds simple… simple enough that you and me, normal, everyday followers of Jesus, can start living that way today.

So let’s do it – because if there’s one thing the world needs now, it’s hope that the God who loves us will lead us, that his grace is sufficient, and that no matter what we face, he offers his peace; all we have to do is surrender and follow where he leads.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.