We believe in a God who makes all things new. We believe in a God who is faithful and does not turn back on his promises. We believe in a God whose words will not pass away even though heaven and earth pass away. Jeremiah in the face of God’s judgment proclaims for us today a new promise, one which we Christians have heard and interpreted in the New Testament. Let us listen to it closely.
27 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals.
Contrast this with the uncreation we read about in Jeremiah 4 where he undid creation then and unmade Jerusalem. Here God the gardener returns, renewing the earth, planting both humanity and animals in the barren wasteland of Jerusalem.
My imagination can’t help but be filled with visions of the renewal of the Okanagan hillsides in the years following the forest fires, the return of the grass and the bugs, the mice and the birds, the snakes and coyotes, the trees and deer, homes and families each in their season.
28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.
God is soveriegn, and just as he was sovereign in the overthrowing and undoing of Judah he will be soveriegn in its restoration and renewal.
29 “In those days people will no longer say,
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
This is an idiom that depicts children suffering for their parents’ sin, and much of what we read of the history of Israel is God teaching and correcting them as a nation. Jeremiah follows this with a contrast-
30 Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.
God’s concern for a people turns to God’s concern for individuals. In seeking a nation to be set apart for him, he seeks people to be set apart for him. In seeking justice he is coming, not only to judge nations but also to judge individuals.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah
God will make a new promise, a new contract, a new deal. Unlike the covenant God made with Noah this isn’t for all of humanity. Its a deal between himself and the nations of Judah and Israel.
Some think this covenant means that the people of God will return to the land in a new way. And the people do return, and they do work hard to study the law. They rebuild the temple. They rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They forsake their foreign wives and their foreign gods. That is what they do, that’s what Ezra and Nehemiah are about. But this covenant, just like it is different from the covenant with Noah, is different from the covenant with Moses.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
God claimed Israel, redeeming them out of Egypt. Despite how good God was to them they kept breaking their half of the deal. The covenant with Moses is one which to God appears to be one of adultery. Know this, that the covenant with Moses was experienced by God as a marriage to a faithless wife and in Jeremiah we hear that the new covenant will not be adultrous, this covenant his people will not break.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
Unlike tablets of stone kept in an arc in the temple in Jerusalem, inaccessible by God’s people, the new covenant will take God’s law and write it on their hearts. It will be put in their minds not on stone. In this way Israel will be God’s people, and he will be their God, when his righteousness that sets them apart as holy proceeds from the core of who they are.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more
What would it be like? What would it be like to not have to be taught of the God who made us as if he were a stranger but know him in our depths as the Lord? What would it be like to take for granted that all of your nation, those with power and those working in the factories and on the farms and the cashier at the grocery store knew the Lord and that this was a promise sealed from God?
This is God’s promise to Israel and to Judah in the face of their destruction and exile, when all hope for them seems lost. And yet we know that when they seemed to be restored, when the people returned from exile and rebuilt the temple and the walls of the city they did not know the Lord. We know that God himself came and lived among them and they killed them, only some among them knew him. What are we to make of this, we who know the faithfulness of God. I don’t know. I will say the following about how the Gospels and Epistles seem to recieve the promise God gives Jeremiah a glimpse of:
We know that on the day of Pentecost thousands of the people of Israel came to know God, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem and their sins were forgiven and the presence of God came and lived in them. We know that God tooks those thousands and built them into his church on the foundations of the apostles’ teaching. I do know that Jesus at supper with his friends took wine, gave thanks, gave it to them and said: ‘drink this, this is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for many’ (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:15). Is this the same new covenant? Is it a foretaste of the last days when it will be fulfilled? We have two epistles that talk about this new covenant: Hebrews and Romans.
In Romans beginning at chapter 9 Paul mourns that though God in him brought so many gentiles into the gospel so many of God’s elect-Israel have not recognized Jesus as God. And yet he assures us that they remain God’s elect and that though he makes Israel disobedient now this is only until the “full number of gentiles” are grafted into the tree of Israel. Then all those who are true Israel will return-whatever that means. For Paul it seems the law will be in the heart of God’s people at the very return of Jesus and no sooner. And yet in Hebrews 8-10 this passage from Jeremiah is quoted in full to show how God in Jesus makes the old sacrificial system of the law obsolete by fulfilling it in his death and resurrection-obsolete through fulfillment. Hebrews tells how Jesus takes our humanity into the presence of the living God. It proclaims Jesus as the mediator of this new covenant and invites us to approach God confidently through the torn curtain having been cleansed by water and blood. We are assured to persevere and encourage one another for this last day of the new covenant is approaching.
I would think that if this new covenant was the covenant of the Eucharist that all those who call themselves Christians would know God. I would think they would have righteousness fulfilled in them now, this day, no later, that they would obey God’s commandments and be holy as he is holy. I would think that if the new covenant were fulfilled there would be no need to teach, no schism, no heresy, no bending of the church to the culture around it. Yet this is not so. So if the new covenant that Jesus proclaims in the last supper and the Paul proclaims in Hebrews and Romans is the same one Jeremiah sees then we receive in the Eucharist only a foretaste of it, we recieve from Christ now an assurance of our inheritence not the inheritence in full. And still it may be possible, in fact it seems to make more sense to me, that these are two different new covenants and that one is meant for all the gentiles brought into the church as well as for Israel out of which the church is made – the other for Israel and Judah. It is not clear to me which of these interpretations is true.
To conclude: Jeremiah gives us a vision of God’s desire and promise, that he will gather together a people to himself who will know him intimately, who will obey him and reflect who he is, a people who will be as faithful to him as he is to them. He longs for a people loyal and holy as he is. May we await the day when his kingdom comes and his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May we drink this blood of the new covenant confident in Christ our Redeemer. May we approach God, confessing our sins and offering our hearts to him that he may remake them, remake us, in his image. Amen.