Monday, October 22, 2018

New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the Old Testament text appointed for Reformation Sunday every year.  It is a gospel text if there ever was one!  God is announcing all sorts of wonderful things on our behalf.  Perhaps our greatest challenge as preachers will be to discover how to adequately celebrate the amazing grace that this text announces.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work well when combined with other sets of questions that come from a different perspective.  In order to learn more about the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The opening verse says it all:  "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel."  This promise is then fleshed out in the subsequent verses. In all cases God is the actor, putting the Torah in our hearts, forgiving sins, and remembering our sin no more.  This word  is pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is hardly a suggestion of Law in this text, i.e. any word which shows us our need for Christ.  There is a reference to the former covenant, which God's people broke, but there is no accusation here.  If we are going to preach Law from this text, we shall need to use other resources to accomplish this.  One might readily turn to the Second Reading from Romans 3:19-28 where we hear that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We will want to identify with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, those with whom God is making a new covenant.  We too have broken covenant with God through our sin and long to be restored to God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience is not present here.  We are not called here, albeit in plenty of other places in the writings of the prophet, to live faithfully in response to God's amazing grace.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in this text gives us plenty of ideas for couplets:  old covenant/new covenant; no knowledge of God/sure knowledge of God; guilty/sin remembered no more; forgiven.

6.  Exegetical work:  Scholars have named Jeremiah 30:1-31:40 The Book of Comfort or, in some cases, the The Book of Consolation.  Scholars differ as to whether someone other than Jeremiah wrote this section using Jeremiah's name, perhaps to balance the prophet's many sermons of doom.  In the 31st chapter there is much talk of a homecoming, God assembling the exiles back in their homeland:  "There is  hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country." (31:17)  Finally in 31:31 Yahweh speaks of establishing a new covenant (b'reeth).  This term refers to a "binding settlement". (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. Booterweck and Ringgren, vol. II, p. 255)  There are different kinds of covenants:  "In contradiction to the Mosaic covenants, which are of an obligatory type, the covenants with Abraham and David belong to the promissory type." (Ibid, p. 270)  Jeremiah's covenant seems to fall into the promissory type. "The covenant idea is first given greater importance in Jeremiah.  He rebukes the people who have broken the old covenant, but tells of a new covenant which Yahweh will make." (Ibid, p. 277).  Such covenants were apparently a special feature of Israelite religion, which was the only religion "to demand exclusive loyalty" akin to husband and wife.  No double or multiple loyalties were possible as in other religions. (Ibid., p. 278)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  There is no better time than when dealing with this text to follow Henry Mitchell's advice and pursue a celebration in this sermon.  Mitchell said that the preacher should be the first one to experience the ecstasy of the gospel, and then should pass that on to the listeners. 

Blessings on our proclamation!

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