I wonder how many weddings you have been to? Probably none of us have been to more than Colin, but over very many years that I’m not going to count, I certainly played for a lot. Most have been happy, joyous celebrations; only on a couple of occasions has the bride arrived so late, that as organist, by the end of the service, I’ve had to be prised off the seat. I’ve played some interesting music like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a wonderful piece, though sadly, commonly associated with Dracula movies; or “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in acknowledgement of a groom’s favourite football club. But it doesn’t matter what music is chosen, how late the bride is, what clothes or dresses or colours are being worn, because regardless of these, in every case, a wedding is a binding agreement between two people. In old or legal language, a wedding is the perfect example of a covenant that holds within it agreements and future hopes and expectations.
The symbolism of a wedding is often used in the Bible as a sign of a covenant between God, the bridegroom, and the nation or the Church being the bride. (v32) So a definition of a covenant would be an agreement between two parties, involving promises each to the other. The concept of a covenant is a central theme of the Bible but implies so much more than a contract or simple agreement between two parties.
Therefore this chapter in Jeremiah, chapter 31, is declared to be one of the most important in the Bible. To see why it has this status, we need to establish, first of all, some background to understanding the covenant idea, then see what Jeremiah is saying in this chapter and then look at the relevance to us today.
Covenant comes from an ancient Hebrew root word meaning “To cut.” This explains the strange custom in Jeremiah 34v 18 where two people passed through the cut bodies of slain animals to ratify a covenant. But you can see where the “cutting the cake” comes in a wedding ceremony- another solemnisation of the binding wedding agreement. In other places in the Bible, the covenant could be ratified by sharing a meal (Jacob and Laban in Gen 31:54 )or at Sinai, where Moses sprinkled the blood of animals on the altar and upon the people.
5 Great Bible Covenants
The first is that of Noah, God and the rainbow defining the sanctity of all Life.
The second was between Abraham and God. Abraham was to remain faithful to God and his descendants would be God’s special people through whom blessings would flow to the rest of the world.
The third was the great and very important Sinai covenant in Exodus 24v 8 where Moses and the people agreed to the Covenant of being faithful to God and receiving his blessings, its conditions being encapsulated in the 10 Commandments. The altar and the people were then sprinkled with blood to seal the agreement. This idea of sprinkling with blood was of great significance in the forgiveness of sins in the ritualistic, practise of animal sacrifice.
The fourth was the Covenant between God and King David whose descendants were established as royal heirs to throne of the nation of Israel. (2 Sam 7v12-13) This, too was to gain great significance in the future.
The fifth is the New Testament Covenant which is the culmination of all the others and to which we will constantly refer from now onwards.
So this is the background in a nutshell, but there is a sense in which each of the four covenants, incorporates, succeeds and expands the preceding ones. And so we arrive at Jeremiah 31, after Noah. Abraham, Moses, and King David.
Jeremiah 31 v 31-34 (read p 793)
V31 “I will make a new covenant,” declares the Lord. God will bring into being a New Covenant, a 5th one which means that the covenant with Moses v32, will be superseded.
The key to this new covenant lies in the Davidic Covenant where God promised David royal heirs, because, as the Christmas story makes clear, Jesus, the Messiah, was born in Bethlehem of the line of David and thus began the new Covenant. Today we celebrate that kingship of Jesus, for this Sunday is Christ the King, emphasising the Old Covenant made with King David and expanded into the this new 5th Covenant.
But why is this the key to the New Covenant? The New Covenant came in the person of Jesus, born of the line of David. The New Testament makes a clear distinction between the Mosaic Law and Covenant and the New Covenant presented by Jesus, who in dying on the cross sealed the New Covenant with the shedding of his blood for all. In ch. 22 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says “this is my blood of the New Covenant, shed for you… for the forgiveness of sins.” We will hear this soon in the liturgy of the Communion to follow. Jesus was the final sacrifice, overlaying the old covenant, thus fulfilling this prophecy of Jeremiah. This New Covenant is written in hearts, not tablets of stone, no longer a cold prescription but warm and active agreement.
This New Covenant today
1. V 34 states that people will no longer need to know God because all will know Him. It is the word know that is important, because it implies, not just a passive acceptance of God, but a relationship that is constantly being worked at and developed as in a marriage contract. John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience transformed his passive acceptance of what was expected as a minister of the church, into a new experience of God that grew and developed, changing his life completely, so that he was always searching and seeking to better understand God and the faith he was preaching.
Like John Wesley, we need to be constantly working at our covenant with God, as individuals, and corporately, as the Church moving forward in faith– Judith referred to this a few weeks ago.
2. God will forgive the sins of his people in a new way, and centuries after these words of Jeremiah, this New Covenant took place in the birth of Jesus, in his ministry and in his once for all sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins that makes all other sacrifices obsolete. It is a covenant that will never end, because it has been perfected by Jesus and his death as we heard in the Gospel reading.
So, we are called to faithfulness and given the Holy Spirit to enable and this Sunday known as “Christ the King,” reminds us that the Davidic covenant came to fruition in Jesus and as this Sunday is immediately before Advent, we are being encouraged to think ahead and prepare for Advent by considering our part in this new covenant brought to the world in the birth of the baby celebrated at Christmas. This goes beyond superficial acknowledgement of belief, to a deeper understanding of our reason to be – what life is really all about – being totally empowered within the love of God as the people of God.
In this covenant, first put forward here in Jeremiah, God is revealing a new way to be in him – a new way of being – a way of love and service, forever verified by the Gospel writers in the words, “There they crucified him” and as we will hear in the communion liturgy – “A perfect sacrifice for the whole world,” thus sealing for ever the New Covenant between God and his world and each of us, the eternal triangle.