Based around Jeremiah 31:31-34.
There’s an amusing, short-short version of the Old Testament that goes as follows:
God : Don’t do the things I’ve told you not to do.
Man : Gotcha.
God : Great – we’ll get on fine.
Man : God?
God : Yes, my son?
Man : You know the things you told us not to do? We did them….
God : (Sighing) Right. I’m going to punish you, then I want you to behave and not do those things again. Can you manage that?
Man : Yep.
God : Awesome. Let’s do it….
Man : God…sorry…we did them again…
And so on.
There is a lot of truth in humour. You’ll hear it said that the Old Testament describes the covenant relationship between God and His people, a relationship that is based upon the Law. Now, what do we mean by that?
God struck a covenant – a type of contract, if you like – with the people of Israel that He would be their God, and they would be His people, if they would abide by the Laws he set before them. The Laws were given to Moses in the form of tablets of stone; they were written on scrolls of parchment to become the central part of the Torah – what we know as the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy and Leviticus provide a written down set of instructions – the Law – by which God’s people were to act and behave to maintain their side of the covenant.
And like all rule and law based systems – like our own modern society – we then get in to the whole area of interpretation. There’s a joke that I’ve heard about lawyers and economists – ask two lawyers and you’ll get three opinions. And so it is in the culture that we read about in the Old Testament, based on the legalistic covenant between God and man. We have sixty volumes of the Talmud – learned writings from scribes, rabbis, judges and prophets that help interpret the Law and apply it to everyday life. As life got more complicated, there were more opportunities for loopholes and ‘grey areas’ to appear in the application of the Law. A good ‘modern day’ example of the interpretation of the Law of the sabbath was noted by the physicist, Richard Feynman, who was asked by an Orthodox Jew whether electricity was fire, because the questioner was trying to work out whether using ANY electricity on the sabbath was permissible. The physics answer is ‘No, electricity isn’t fire’. The Talmudic answer is ‘It depends what you’re doing with the electricity….’ If you’re interested in this particular problem, there’s a good article on Wikipedia called ‘Electricity on Shabbat’.
Having said that, though, we know that the Israelites didn’t exploit the grey areas; they drove a chariot and horses through the centre of God’s Law. After all, these are the people who within a few weeks of being told ‘No idols’, are making golden calves to worship.
Punishment follows, then God relents, brings the people back to him, helps them along….and then the people do something else.
And Jeremiah writes at a time when the ‘something else’ has been bad indeed. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, writes at a time of exile. The country has been devastated, and Jerusalem has been destroyed by Babylonians. Jeremiah is in and out of prison, and his book reveals the anger of the Lord at the people – particularly the leaders of Israel – who have not been faithful to God by maintaining justice and obedience. The destruction of Jerusalem, the scattering of the people of Israel, the exile, is seen as a punishment by God for this failure.
You can almost imagine the more thoughtful people saying “We’re in a mess; and it’s our fault. We knew the Law, but we still were not faithful to it, and because of our disobedience and lack of faith in God and the Law we have been again punished. Why do we keep on like this? What is wrong with us?”
The book of Jeremiah is primarily the prophet telling the people hard truths from God. But in the middle of his book, comes two Chapters – Chapters 30 and 31 – that are sometimes known as the ‘Book of Comfort’. In the middle of his gloomy prophesying, we get tonight’s reading. A statement of great hope from God, in the midst of the people’s despair. God tells the people – of both Israel and Judah – that He will make a new covenant with them to replace the one that he made with them when He led them from Egypt to (eventually) the promised land.
God is acknowledging that the covenant has been broken repeatedly by a faithless and ungrateful people, who haven’t treated God as a loyal bride would be expected to treat a bridegroom, but have, basically, cheated on Him and turned away from Him.
A new covenant is then described.
Whereas the old covenant was written on stone and parchment scrolls, and needed a library of explanatory texts and an army of experts to interpret, this one will be written on the hearts and minds of the people. It’s not going to be a case of folks having to read up on it; the law will be in them, part of them.
Now, at this stage, this might start making the people feel a bit uneasy; if they have the Law written in their very being, then surely they’re in a worse position than they were previously. There is no excuse for not knowing and understanding the law; and if the old covenant requirement of obedience ‘or else’ still applies, then things sound bad….
Let’s listen again to what is written in Verse 34;
“No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
It’s not saying ‘know the Law’. It’s not saying ‘they will all know the Law’. It’s saying that under the new covenant the people will all know the Lord. They will know God. They will be in relationship with Him. Something rather different!
And then the final words ‘I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’ – there is nothing conditional here. God is wiping the slate clean – the covenant will not be dependent upon the people behaving in a certain way; sins will be forgiven and forgotten.
The old covenant failed because it relied on man’s faithfulness to God, and because of man’s very nature it was almost guaranteed to fail from the off. The new covenant, spoken of here by Jeremiah, and brought to us through Jesus Christ, cannot fail because it relies on God’s faithfulness and grace to us.
That covenant is with us, now. It is written in our hearts and minds, made available to us by God’s incarnate word, Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
Reader Joe Pritchard