Reading: Jeremiah 31:27-34
Christians have long loved the prophets. We read Isaiah and Jeremiah and we see the promise of Jesus. We see God building a new relationship with humanity through the church. We see a promise of a new covenant. We Christians believe that this New Covenant is what came with Jesus Christ. Now, if we spoke Greek, and we read the Greek translation of the Old Testament like was common in the early church — we would see something in Jeremiah 31 that we don’t see now. When we read Jeremiah 31:31, we would see that “The days are surely coming… when I will make a New Testament,” or if you prefer, we would see that our Bible’s are broken up into two sections — the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. διαθήκ is the word we see written in a Greek Bible, where we’d expect to see “Testament”, and it is also the word that is associated with covenant.
Christians have connected with this passage for so long that I can read this passage quoted by reading Hebrews 8:8-12. Hebrews 8-10, can be described as an interpretation of this passage, showing how Jesus came and brought us into this New covenant. As Christians, we read these words, and we remember how Jesus changes everything: We see promise — and I will get back to Hebrews soon.
Right now, we are in the season of advent. Most of us Americans don’t really understand advent. Sometimes people make a big deal about a war on Christmas, but if there is a war on any part of the Christian calendar, it is a war on Advent. We are ready to start celebrating Christmas before we’ve digested our Thanksgiving Turkey.
Advent, however is not when Christmas starts — Christmas is when we remember what it means to have a promise and have to wait for it. Judah, as a nation, never really recovered. They never saw David’s kingdom restored. When they rebuilt the temple, we learn from the Greeks who defiled the temple that the Holy of Holies was empty — the Ark of the Covenant was lost and not recovered. There might have been a sense of promise, but every time things started looking up, something turned out to be a disappointment. To quote from the Chronicles of Narnia, it was always winter, but never Christmas; when years pass without Christmas coming, eventually it feels like it will never come.
Advent, traditionally, was a period of fasting when we look at the darkness, and remember how it felt like God abandoned God’s people. We remember a period of prayers which never seem answered, and how every hope is extinguished as the days seem to get darker and darker. We remember that the new covenant was promised during the Babylonian captivity — and, we see that the best the Old Covenant had to offer was Pharisees: those who care very much about obeying the law and pleasing God; but, according to Jesus miss the point as they focus on the letter of the law without recognizing the spirit of the law. They demonstrate — just as our own government demonstrates, that trying to legislate compassion fails. I am convinced that when our government makes laws, we try to balance public good, individual rights, compassion, and safety — but, I feel terrible for anybody who has to suffer the compassion of our government.
This is the nature of the Old Covenant — it tried to create a just society through rules. People such as the Pharisees did their best to figure out how to live up to these rules even when there was no just government — but even with this change, the Old Covenant is still about rules. Rules are good, but we really cannot legislate empathy, nor compassion. Rule based compassion looks heartless — it ends up following the letter of the law and missing the spirit. There is a difference between a covenant that is written in law books, and a covenant written in a person’s hearts and minds. The difference between the Old and New Covenant is that in one, people are given a bunch of rules, and in the other God promises to work on their hearts and minds until they don’t need the rules anymore.
Hebrews 8 reads:
Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
Later, after quoting Jeremiah 31:27-34, the author of Hebrews continues “In speaking of a New Covenant, he made the Old one obsolete. What is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” The rules, and their attached punishments might have changed behavior, but they did not change attitudes. While the Jews did an amazing job of adapting to living under the Old Covenant, and a hostile government — the Old covenant was a covenant between God and a nation. The New Covenant is something much more personal — it is a covenant between God and us, made when the nation was hostile.
Hebrews 9 and 10 can be described as a bit of a monologue comparing the temple system and the sacrifice system to the person of Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews observes that if sin is forgiven, then there is no need to continually sacrifice for sin; while on the other hand if a person willfully lives in sin, there is no point in sacrifice. The point is that we need something different; something that works. Salvation is, among other things, letting God work on us, changing and shaping us.
Christians believe that the New Covenant is all about Jesus. We believe that Jesus was a human being, who lived as well as it is possible for a human to live — we also believe that Jesus was God. Somehow, we believe in the miracle that allows both of these statements to be true. For me, this miracle is the real game changer: Because this miracle happened, humanity is lifted up. Jesus invites all of us to become more than we are in our `wild’ state; we are invited to what we have been since we were created — humanity was made in God’s image.
There are quite a few theories about how Jesus changes everything; my personal take is that, in general these theories of atonement are too simple. There are different theories, because Jesus saves us in more than one way, from more than one thing. The New Covenant is about the forgiveness of sin, and it is also about God working in us to free us from the destructive influence of sin.
Many of you, for example, remember when there were lots of bumper stickers and bracelets with the letters WWJD. “What would Jesus do” is actually one of the classical theories of how we are saved — it is called “moral influence” or exemplar. The idea is that Jesus, through his life, taught us also how to live. Through Christ’s example, we have a saving influence in our lives. I know, as a teenager, I was given a copy of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps by somebody who might be called a fundamentalist. I think moral influence is accepted as part of what is going on in our New Covenant throughout the Christian theological spectrum.
One of the earliest Christian theologians Irenaeus taught me that Jesus did not despise nor evade any part of human life, but instead lived it, modeled it, and a sanctified it. At Christmas we will celebrate the miracle that made this a reality for us. We when the baby in the manger was both a helpless infant, and yet also God. From Irenaeus, I learned that this miracle marks infancy as holy. Because Jesus lived a human life, Jesus makes it clear that there is nothing that keeps the human life from being holy; by being, Jesus sanctifies humanity.
For me, this is the biggest promise of Christmas; that through Christmas, humanity is uplifted. Because the Son was able to be fully human, without any harm to His divinity, humanity was invited to participate in holiness. The Old Covenant was full of commands, the New Covenant is a Person who changes us simply by living and dying with us — and inviting us to also live with Him.