The Distinguishing Act of God
Mar 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
In Tuesday’s Akron Beacon Journal there was an article about Akron Public School students adjusting to being in school in-person again. It struck me how much of an adjustment that would be when it was noted that they left on March 13 and returned on March 15, with a year and a lot of changes in-between.
While 20-40 percent are still doing school online, that leaves a large number of returning students, and teachers, who are facing something new, different from remote learning, but also from what was true before the Pandemic. As one girl noted, the first day seemed especially crazy, hectic, and loud – no doubt!!
On the one hand, new beginnings can be challenging. On the other hand, especially for many in March 2021, new beginnings are much desired and what is needed most. That is probably what the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day were feeling as they lamented, “Can there be a do-over?” The initial response from the Prophet Jeremiah seemed to be “no.” For twenty-nine chapters, there is nothing but doom and gloom from the Prophet’s lips, as well as in their lives.
Let’s pause here for just a moment to recall our focus during Lent on the relationship between God and people, through covenants (the promise of relationship). We began with God’s covenant with Noah and all creation. Then moved to the covenant between God, Abraham, Sarah, and all their descendants, which was the foundation of God’s saving work for and through Israel.
Next, we stopped at Mt. Sinai; months earlier, the people had been led by Moses and God out of slavery in Egypt. God gave them the 10 commandments as a guide to living their best possible lives. They did not do that, though; Israel broke the covenant and were punished with poisonous, biting snakes. But God provided a remedy – hope, healing, and new life - if they would just look in the right direction, turning back to God.
Even that encounter with snakes, however, did not end the Israelite’s unfaithfulness. The context of today’s Old Testament reading is that Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the people of Israel are in exile, captives in Babylon. This is the consequence of their disobedience and idolatry, of breaking the covenant God made with them. So it is that Jeremiah is speaking during one of the most catastrophic times in ancient Israel’s history. They are in deep need of a do-over.
And that is what they receive. Just when it seems that all is lost, God intervenes again and offers a new beginning, a new covenant. These days are bad, God seems to say, but better ones are coming. Since that is hard to believe, it is emphasized over and over again that Jeremiah’s words are from God using the phrase, “says the Lord.” “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.”
While God’s covenant (promise of relationship) with Israel was renewed and restated a number of times, this is the only place in the Old Testament that speaks of a NEW covenant made with the same “OLD” group of people.
This new covenant is initiated by God, who is depicted as a healer, one who forgives and restores a broken relationship, even though it is the people’s fault. What a word of hope for those in exile, in despair! It is amazing, this divine act of forgiveness, this relationship that is written on the heart so that doing God’s will is a part of one’s character.
Furthermore, it will be impossible to break this covenant, or so writes Old Testament scholar Stan Mast. Why? That is because breaking the covenant was based on disobedience, but the new covenant will be based on forgiveness which will cancel out disobedience and make covenant-breaking impossible. Let me quote him, “That new knowledge of God will be based on forgiveness. Israel knew God as creator and deliverer, as lawgiver and judge, as provider and punisher, but in the new covenant God’s people will know their God first of all as a forgiver and forgetter.” And, he writes, “In the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing act of God.”
Then he concludes by widening the scope, “Some of the promises of Jeremiah 31 were fulfilled when Israel returned from exile. Others had to wait for the days when Jesus died on the cross and then sent the Spirit. But complete fulfillment remains until the final coming of Christ. So, there is still a time coming when the new covenant will be fulfilled completely in all God’s children.” (1)
We are inheritors of the new covenant, which comes to us through Jesus. Later this morning, as we prepare to share Holy Communion, you will hear me say as I raise the chalice of wine, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin, do this in remembrance of me.” As we receive the sacrament, we experience the distinguishing act of God – forgiveness – and are strengthened to do God’s will, which is written on our hearts.
During our own Pandemic exile this past year, the word of the Lord gave us and continues to give us hope, just as was the case for the people of Israel. Therefore, as we face both the challenges and joys of new beginnings, our covenant relationship with God is like a cord that cannot be broken; it is our foundation and a source of continuing strength. We can be assured that it will continue to be true as we face whatever adjustments are required, whether at church, at school, or at home. It is the reality in our lives, in the lives of our loved ones, and in the depths of our hearts, where-ever a do over may be required.
That is because, to put it another way, grace is the distinguishing act of God...for us. AMEN
(1) “Lent5B: Jeremiah 31:31-34” by Stan Mast, March 15, 2021, cep.calvinseminary.edu