Covenants

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Jeremiah 31:31-34; along with Genesis 9:8-17, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Exodus 20:1-17, and Numbers 21:4-9. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there has been a single theme building up throughout our first readings on these Sundays in Lent. Each Sunday we have heard about a covenant God has made with people, building up an entire series of covenants, each one a single step in one overarching purpose of God.

The series begins in Genesis with the covenant God made with Noah. We heard about that on the First Sunday in Lent. After the Flood, when Noah and his family and the animals had survived, Noah built an altar and gave thanks to God. And God spoke to Noah and made a covenant: God made a solemn and sealed promise never again to destroy the earth with the waters of a flood. God even put his bow in the clouds as a reminder never again to let the rains come down so much they’d overwhelm the earth. God made that covenant with Noah and all humanity and every living thing on the earth. So it’s a pretty big covenant.

And it lays the foundation for all the other covenants to come. Because what is happening here is that God is promising never again to simply destroy sin. The book of Genesis says that God sent the Flood because the earth had grown corrupt, the earth was full of sin – and God didn’t create the world to be corrupt, God created the world to be fruitful and multiply and be very good. So the Flood was sent to destroy sin, to wipe it out, to clear it all away, so that good life could start over again.

But that was a pretty drastic solution. That was the Creator God in a very real sense turning against his own Creation and becoming a Destroyer. And what this part of Genesis tells us is that God doesn’t want to be a Destroyer, not even of sin. God wants to be a Creator, and so God promises to find a way of dealing with sin that will be creative instead of destructive. God promises never again to destroy the earth for sin, but to find a way to change sin, to redeem sin, to re-create sin, so that even sin itself can become open to the possibility of rising up as new good. That is the meaning of this first covenant with Noah.

And that meaning carries over into the second covenant, the one made with Abraham. We heard about that covenant on the Second Sunday in Lent. God called Abraham and Sarah to go where God would lead, to learn to trust in God and walk in God’s ways; and God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a land and descendants and blessing. Even more, God promised that through the blessing of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, all the families of the earth would be blessed. And God sealed this call and this promise by making a covenant.

This covenant is the beginning of God’s more creative way to deal with sin that God had promised to Noah. In this covenant God counters sin with blessing. Rather than simply leave people to try to figure out on their own the best way to live, God chooses a family and forms that family in living the way God shows them, living the way of blessing. Trusting in God and living in blessing are ways to turn away from sin, not just destroying sin, but reforming sin into forgiveness and faith. That is the purpose of the second covenant.

And that in turn lays the foundation for the third covenant, the covenant made with Moses and all Israel at Mount Sinai. That was our First Testament reading for the Third Sunday in Lent. In the Moses covenant, God promised to the Israelites, “I will be your God, and you will be my people”; and to show that Israel was God’s people, God gave them a Torah to live by. We often call the Torah “the Law”; but the word “torah” also can mean “teaching” or “guidance” or “instruction”; it is not just rules and regulations, but is a description of how to live a really good life. The purpose of the Torah was to give the Israelites instructions for how to live their lives – all of their lives, from the highest moments of worship and sacrifice right down to day-to-day business like how to mark their property or how to harvest their fields or how to make restitution for an injury – the purpose of the Torah was to give the Israelites instructions for how to live their lives in a truly godly way. Keeping the Torah was the way they would keep their end of the covenant.

And forming a people to keep the Torah was the next step in God’s finding a more creative way to deal with sin. The Torah was meant to help the Israelites live godly lives, live lives of blessing, that would take the promise made to Abraham and apply it to all the basic day-to-day tasks of living. The Moses covenant took the promise of the Noah covenant, that God would not destroy sin, and the promise of the Abraham covenant, that God would give blessing, and the Moses covenant extended that to an entire people and an entire community life. A whole people, a whole nation, a community of communities, all living God’s instructions, was the next step in changing the very conditions of sin, re-creating sin into the possibility of good.

But of course, as we all know, and as the Bible shows over and over again, having instructions for how to live, and actually following those instructions, are not the same thing. The Fourth Sunday in Lent gave us a story about a time the Israelites lost sight of their instructions, disobeyed God, and complained against Moses and God; and God punished them but also gave them the cure for their punishment, so that God did not destroy them.

But the problem of disobedience remained, so much so that the prophet Jeremiah discerned the promise from God of a new covenant, another covenant to add to the covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses, the covenant we hear about in our first reading today. What will be different about this covenant, Jeremiah says, the difference that makes all the difference, will be that this covenant will be written in the heart. This new covenant will not be something external to us, like a bow in the clouds or a land and a family or commandments chiseled on stone; this new covenant will be something that comes from inside ourselves, something that will well up from within like the deepest knowledge of our own hearts. This new covenant will be that we will truly, deeply desire what God promises, that we will truly, deeply love the very thing that God commands. The commandment of this covenant will no longer feel like a burden imposed upon us from outside, but will be what we long for with our own deepest hearts. This new covenant will take the promise first made to Noah and bring it full circle: God will deal creatively with sin by transforming our own hearts so that we lovingly turn to God.

And that is the covenant we Christians see opened to us in Jesus. The new covenant is not just for one family, not just for one people, but for all peoples – as Jesus says in the Gospel today, “when I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” And by the grace of God we are included in that covenant in Jesus right here and now. We are promised that God’s creative way to deal with sin, God’s re-creation of sin into the possibility of good, God’s love that transforms even our sorrow and pain and greed into compassion and connection and good – we are promised that God’s love will be in our hearts, in our desires, in our loves. That is how we are saved.

All during this Lent I have been encouraging you to use your Lenten disciplines to live into some aspect of the good news for that week. I’ve encouraged you to use your disciplines to recreate right-relationships with nature, humanity, and God. I’ve encouraged you to use your practices to take up the cross, to see places where God takes up broken bits and pieces and puts them together into something new. I’ve encouraged you to look for zeal, for where you are genuinely passionate for the place where God’s name dwells. I’ve encouraged you to consider how you can be a co-creator with God.

Now, on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, as we have one more week before we begin Holy Week and the buildup to Easter, now I want to offer you one more encouragement. This week, I ask you to use your Lenten discipline – fasting, self-examination, praying, works of mercy – to look into your own heart, to recognize where your love and God’s love love together, recognize where you really do love what God commands and desire what God promises, recognize where the covenant of blessing is written in your heart. Use your discipline to clear away distraction and worry and self-doubt, and to see with clear eyes where God really is loving you into being a blessing, where God really is redeeming you from sin into being good for you and for people all around you. Allow your Lenten practice this week to draw you to Jesus, to be lifted up in love.

That is God’s promise to you. That is God’s covenant with you. And that is God’s truth for you. Amen.