The New, Old Covenant of Grace

Mar 17, 2024

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Today our focus is on what I’m going to call the new, old covenant. We know a lot about the old covenant, or promises, made between God and the people of Israel that are found in the Old Testament readings for the season of Lent.
     First, we read about God’s covenant with Noah and all of creation, and God’s unconditional promise to never again destroy that which lives on earth. Then, we moved to God’s conditional covenant with Abraham, that he and Sarah would be the ancestors of a great nation, God would be their God, and they would walk blameless before the Lord. The next stop was Mount Sinai, where God gave Israel the 10 words, which we call the 10 commandments, which, if followed, would strengthen their relationships with God and each other, and make them a positive example to the nations.
     However, during their wilderness journey, God’s chosen ones often turned away from God and, to avoid Divine retribution, relied on Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.  Last week, the people once again rebelled against God, and were given a difficult reminder of the source of their help and hope in the form of poisonous snakes. The covenant of trust with God was restored as, once bitten, they looked up at a snake lifted-up on a pole.
     Today we go forward hundreds of years in Old Testament time to around 587 BCE when the Prophet Jeremiah spent a good deal of time speaking doom and gloom to the people of Judah, the descendents of the ancient Israelites, who were controlled by the Babylonians. Many of the prominent and educated citizens of the Holy City, Jerusalem, were already in exile in Babylon (against their wills). The city and the Temple – the most sacred of places - were about to be destroyed, after which more people were sent into exile. The Prophet’s message is that the people of Israel have brought this on themselves with their covenant-breaking activity.
     Then, out of the blue, there’s a prophetic word about a new beginning, 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.” Four times in this passage God points ahead to better days and five times it is confirmed that this message of hope comes from the very mouth of God.
     The interesting thing, though, is that this is a new, old covenant. In other words, what God was offering, has been offered before. In the verses just before the ones we read, Israel was reminded of what had always been true. In verse 3 of chapter 31 we read this message from God, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.”
     Isn’t that the message that has been transmitted during our Old Testament review the past four weeks? The Old Testament is full of narratives of the people collectively and individually breaking their covenant with God by turning away. Sometimes they suffer consequences for doing so, other times God changes the Divine mind and relents from punishing, but always God continues seeking a relationship with God’s creation, making “new” covenants with the same old people. God’s covenant was renewed and restated many times.
     So, why does the Prophet call this covenant new? While God’s love for the people is “old”, Commentator Stan Mast writes that what is new is that this covenant will be based on forgiveness, not on keeping the law, which will cancel their disobedience and make covenant-breaking impossible. Whether one is referring to the Jewish people, or those who later are identified as Christians, people will not be able to break the covenant as their forebearers did. Listen to this: “In the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing action of God. Never again will the sins of God’s people be punished, as with the Exile. Now sins will be forgiven and forgotten.” (1) 
     The imagery used is interesting given the destruction of the Temple; the tablets and scrolls on which the law is written are gone, but they are no longer needed. Instead, the Prophet says, the law – the law of love - will be within them; it will be written on their hearts. Or as another prophet, Ezekiel, puts it, God will put a new heart and a right spirit in the people so they will desire to do God’s will and be able to do it. And, in the New Testament, Romans 8 indicates that this promise is fulfilled by gift of the Holy Spirit who enables people to produce the fruits of a Christ-like life.
     What’s new about this covenant is having an internal, relational connection to God, which leads to knowing that one is extraordinarily loved and forgiven. (2) And if that’s the case, then it will change how one lives.
     Commentator Woody Bartlett writes that having the law of love written on one’s heart is the essence of freedom. Let me quote him, “…having the love of God written on one’s heart is the essence of freedom. It is the freedom to act spontaneously, knowing that one’s actions will reflect what fills one’s heart. It is the freedom to be who one truly is, knowing that one’s true character is what is most pleasing to God and therefore reflects what the law requires.” (3)
     Just think about that for a few minutes … our true character is what is most pleasing to God. Often, we think just the opposite is true, that our “true character” is something sinful, unable to make good choices, damaged, all of which has a negative impact on how we live. But, perhaps, the first step to healing and to a different way of being is to realize that we are extraordinarily loved and forgiven, and that who we are is who God loves.
      This is a new, old message, appropriate for every generation beginning with Noah and continuing to you and me. God’s desire is for relationship with us; God has literally hurt, bled, and died for this relationship. For us, the new covenant is established in and through Jesus. Listen for it today in the “words of institution” as we share Holy Communion.  Jesus says, “…this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” Because we are forgiven, we are free to be who God created us to be, to be most fully ourselves.
     Next Sunday Holy Week, and our journey through the last days of Jesus’ life begins. Then, it will once again be affirmed that we are recipients of the new/old covenant of grace, which transforms us from the inside out. AMEN
  1. “Jeremiah 31:31-34 Commentary” by Stan Mast, March 21, 2021,
  2. Same as #1
  3. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2008 Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 125