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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/22/2015

Covenant has been a theme that directly or indirectly has been part of the Sunday readings throughout Lent, covenants in this context being agreements of some kind between the Lord and the people. Covenant isn’t just a Lenten thing though, it’s an underlying theme that runs throughout the Old Testament starting with the covenant with Abraham by which God chose him and the descendents who would follow him to be the people through whom God’s story would be told. Then there is the covenant with Noah in which the Lord says “Never again,” following the flood; never again would the Lord destroy the earth with the rainbow being the reminder of the agreement. Finally, there’s the covenant with Moses centered on obedience to the Ten Commandments. Those are the big three and all have been revisited during the past few weeks and all are referenced at various times throughout both testaments.

Covenant, however, while being a prominent biblical concept, isn’t a word that we use a lot in general conversation; if it does get used it’s most likely in reference to marriage although there are certainly lots of other contractual agreements that could be called covenants. In general usage though a covenant represents an agreement in which both parties have responsibilities. It’s the if/then thing, if you do this, then I will do that. In the Bible, if/then is sometimes the case especially with Moses and the commandments where the Lord says to the people, “If you obey my voice you will be my treasured possession.” There are conditions in other words, if/then conditions of blessing and curse and that become the dominant way of thinking about God and in some ways it still is.

What makes covenant an interesting biblical concept though is the fact that in addition to the conditional if/then covenants, there are also those that are unconditional, strictly one way, promises made by the Lord that are not contingent on anything but the Lord’s faithfulness, promises like the never again of the Noah story. It makes things interesting because it brings the concept of grace into the covenantal mix.

Today we get another angle on a covenant without conditions. First though, similar to last week, we again revisit Ash Wednesday, this time with the confession of Psalm 51, a confession that begins with the psalm refrain we’ve used throughout Lent, “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness” and ends with “Create in me a clean heart O God” which we sing as the offertory. With Psalm 51 we’re again reminded of our sinful nature and our need for repentance along with our dependence on God’s mercy.

The psalm does takes us back to Ash Wednesday, but the Jeremiah text that preceded the psalm moves us forward with words about a new covenant: “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.” It continues with “I will be their God and they will be my people,” and then concludes with “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” For anyone who thinks gospel or good news is strictly a New Testament thing, think again, because it doesn’t get much better than this: “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” It’s an offer of new life and forgiveness made to a people trapped in exile a long time ago, but it’s also an offer that echoes down to us today.

It’s an offer that leads to another theme that runs through the Bible, the theme of second chances and new possibilities; I talk about it a lot and this text serves as yet another example. We are reminded that this offer of a new covenant and sins forgiven isn’t just a once upon a time thing but that it stands, today, even during Lent, maybe especially during Lent as we honestly acknowledge the reality of who we are which means acknowledging the reality of sin. What that should do though, as always, as good Lutherans, as I said last week, is to lead us toward grace. In this case, it’s the grace represented by this new covenant revealed to Jeremiah.

Looking at these verses more closely, they really do constitute quite a statement. They speak of a covenant based only on God’s steadfast love, no if/then. It’s a covenant that will make us want to be obedient as we finally understand the commandments as the guide to life that they are. It’s a covenant which eliminates any barrier that makes one group least and the other greatest.

Most remarkable though is that final statement: “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” That is such good news, such a remarkable statement that I’m not sure we can really grasp it because we can’t do it, especially the last part, remember their sin no more. Sometimes I can forgive but it’s really hard, maybe impossible for me to forget. It’s hard to imagine the slate really being wiped clean, even harder to imagine memory wiped clean, but there it is, that’s the promise.

It’s a beautiful and hopeful text, a good ending for the five Sundays in Lent. At best though, one would have to say that this new covenant proclaimed by Jeremiah is only partially fulfilled. We can’t honestly say that the law is written on our hearts so that we always want to obey. We’re also a long way from the usual ways of classifying and judging and dividing people being eliminated. Disobedience and the inclination to want to judge and create divisions are still very much a part of present reality.

We’re not there yet, but we’re given this vision from Jeremiah of a new reality, a new innocence, a new chance, a vision of cycles that seem unchangeable being broken. With that there is hope, hope accompanied by the part of this new covenant that has been fulfilled which is the present reality of sins forgiven and forgotten. Complete fulfillment of the new covenant lies in the future, in the not yet, but the forgiveness we want and need is part of the already. That reality is or ought to be a source of great hope, sustenance for living in the present even with promises not yet fulfilled.

There’s no reading from Paul today, but his theology very much reflects this new covenant announced by Jeremiah. Part of Paul’s understanding of gospel was that in and through Jesus the Kingdom of God was present and so movement towards the full revelation of that kingdom has begun and this isn’t about the heavenly hereafter; this is about the kingdom’s full revelation in this world, a kingdom that represents a new reality and another chance, A world set right by God. Jeremiah also had a vision of a new reality, one that was also about this world, one that represented another chance for humanity. Paul made the connection with Jeremiah and for him Jesus embodied and lived that new reality, that new chance; in Jesus we see the future and with him we move toward it.

In Paul’s thinking, and I think it’s one of his greatest insights, that vision of the future is what guides us in the present. The reality of sin and brokenness still surrounds us but we know that there’s more. The present age continues, but we don’t conform to it as we live into the vision of a future ordered the way God would have it ordered. We live not just in hope but in expectation.

What we’re faced with though, especially during Lent, is the struggle between the present age and the future vision and the fact that we often don’t navigate it very well finding ourselves quite comfortable in the present age. But…we have the new covenant. We have the vision and we have the promise and we have Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise. In and through Jesus, especially in the story we’ll tell over the next couple of weeks, we know that when we go off course we are forgiven. We again hear the words of the Lord through Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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