Sermon – A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25

Farmville Presbyterian Church

March 17, 2024

– There is always a hope and a future in God’s promise


I once had the brilliant idea of refinishing a piece of furniture.  Anne and I attended an auction in Blackstone, and there was a gentleman’s secretary up for bid.  This was different from any secretary I had ever seen, and it had some interesting decorations, lots of little lines.  It also seemed to be in good shape with “seemed” as the operative word.  I did bid and I did win.  Here was this older piece of furniture that I was going to restore and make it new again.

Did I mention that I had never done any furniture restoration before?  But how hard could it be?  I am a reasonably handy person, and there were videos out there on how to do things.  It did not seem like rocket science, just a matter of time and effort.  That’s when I came to realize it was a much bigger job than I knew.  All that intricate detail work was frustrating and impossible to do.  I also discovered that the wood and craftsmanship were not the quality that I expected.  The piece felt cheaper than I thought.  It did somewhat turn out, though, and did get used in the house for a while.  One of my children even used it at some point, but it was never the heirloom quality piece that I dreamed it might be.  Eventually, it ended up in the furniture home in the sky, I think.

Even if I had been a spot-on, refinisher expert, though, there are plenty of things that we are just not capable of fixing up or making new.  This is one of the beautiful things about Better Days and the furniture ministry that we used to house here at the church.  When someone loses their home with all of their furniture and such, they can find new things to replace what was lost.  The old was destroyed.  It could not be fixed.  Even just a little bit of smoke or water damage can make something unusable and unfixable.  We had that issue in our house with the kitchen leak last year, and it was not even a huge leak like the one the Sandfords suffered through.  Here is an interesting aside: our industrious music director has a collection of pump organs in varying stages of functionality.  In all of his free time, he also enjoys tinkering on those.  If anyone knows organs, that’s our John Scott, but I have a feeling that even with all his copious skill, he has run across organs that are beyond saving without starting from scratch.  Yes, even with some of us being very capable of restoring things and renewing things and renovating things, so much of this world is beyond us.

That could not have been more obvious than in the world of Israel and Judah in the 7th century before Jesus.  By that time, nearly everything was nearly literally falling apart.  Please remember that the entire Kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms after King Solomon.  The northern kingdom was Israel, and the southern kingdom was basically the tribe Judah and was called Judah.  The northern kings were terrible and wicked and led the people into all kinds of trouble.  It turned out very poorly for them when they all got hauled off by the Assyrian Empire into captivity.  Nearly none of us can truly imagine what that might be like – to be taken to another country as a prisoner in chains.

The southern kingdom, Judah, lasted basically another 100 years before they suffered the same fate.  The Babylonian Empire hauled Judah away, and we have some of the stories of that time such as in the book of Daniel.  The original nation of Israel was gone.  David’s kingdom was no more.  All the riches and power and buildings and people were no longer what they once were.  There was horror in their destruction that points to acts of modern-day terrorism.

This is when the Prophet Jeremiah has the utter gall to dare to express that a new covenant is coming.  It is very difficult to imagine anyone heard his words in that time as comforting.  My guess is that it felt more like salt in the wound.  If a farmer finds her field flooded by a once in a century flood and loses everything, it is not much consolation to assure her that she will be able to start over one day.  You can imagine how hard that might be to hear in the moment.  The help is needed then, not at some vague time in the future.

But that is also where we tend to live, too.  We would love to see all of our needs met and questions answered and assurances expressed and injuries healed and brokenness mended, but nothing works that way.  Of course, it is different when we suffer a catastrophic event.  It is different when we are thrown into crisis.

When our oldest daughter was born, her heart had an issue that required her to stay in the hospital for some extra time.  It was not a long time, but when you have to leave the hospital without your baby, you feel every second.  Thankfully, it all worked out as they expected, but in that time, we had no interest in “down-the-road” assurances.  We wanted to know then and there where the help was.  Don’t tell us that one day we would be celebrating her college graduation when we just wanted to bring her home.

So Jeremiah is in something of an impossible spot.  For centuries and generations, God has been holding the people in strong promises.  God’s covenant was the backbone of their relationship, and the covenant had defined their relationship.  God was going to be their God, and they would be God’s people.  Jeremiah even uses marriage language here reflecting this relationship, but the people defied God and turned away to all kinds of things – including child sacrifice to idols.  The people were pursing all kinds of other ways of life than the one God gave them.  This situation also reflects the reality that they were in a piece of prime real estate, and the major political powers all around them wanted the land for themselves.  God did not make the Babylonians strong so that they could conquer Judah.  God did not make the Babylonians attack, but when they did attack, Judah was too weak to stand, and this was seen as God’s judgment.  That is the only way they could make sense of it.

If you ever wondered if God was out to get you or whether God was trying to punish you, you need to hold this passage in your heart.  Even though Jeremiah doesn’t dispute that the people deserve every ounce of God’s judgment and the end of their time in in the land, God is not done with them.  God’s part in their commitment was not ended, even when the people did not seem committed anymore.  This promise may not have come across very comforting in that moment, but it laid a foundation for a new way of living together that no longer needed laws to be given or rules to be followed or temples to be built or sacrifices to be made or places to be revered.  Even though they were being taken to a foreign land to live in foreign ways, they could still be God’s people wherever they were.

Actually, a good bit of the Old Testament was written when the people were over in Babylon.  They did not want to lose or forget their history and identity.  They also wanted to teach lessons to those who came after them.  You don’t do that unless you have hope for a future.  Even though they had lost everything in horrors unspeakable, somehow one prophet was able to stand up and confirm that God still loved them and was committed to that love for the future.

About six hundred years after this, Jesus was sitting with his closest friends at his last celebration of the Jewish Passover when he confirmed God’s promise – God’s covenant.  He showed them God’s love in broken bread and poured wine.  The next day he showed them in his broken body and poured blood.  God was not done with them.  Every time we share in Holy Communion, we are saying God is not done with us, either.  That’s why some churches celebrate communion more often – to hold that promise and commitment and love front and center.  John Calvin (one of the creators of Reformed theology who inspired our way of doing things) advocated for celebrating Holy Communion as often as ever week.  John Knox (who created Presbyterianism) was inclined to have Communion every time the people got together.  We have disassociated ourselves from this promise and God’s covenant over the years by holding the Lord’s Supper once a quarter.  You have to wonder what that says about us.

Maybe the faithful in Ukraine or Russia are worried about remembering God’s promise too often.  This is just as much for the faithful in Israel or Palestine.  I doubt the faithful in Sudan are worried about remembering God’s promise too often.  The only reason to push away God’s promise is when you don’t need God’s promise.  The only reason to forget God’s covenant is when you don’t need God’s covenant.  That is when things go to heck in a handbasket.

There is a fair bit of religiosity in America that has very little to do with the actual promise of God for us all.  Today, the focus is on personal salvation, but it misses the covenant God has with all people.  Notice, the new covenant Jeremiah promises is for Judah AND Israel – even though they had both fled God, even though they were seen as corrupt.  There is room here to love God’s promise together.  There is room here to love God’s commitment together.  There is room here to love the new covenant together.  There is room here to hold the love of God together.

To God be the glory.  Amen.