In 1920 the Prohibition movement began in the US.
A nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.
And what was the goal of prohibition? Advocates desired a reduction in substance addiction, domestic violence, crime, and political corruption. Unfortunately, prohibition led to some unforeseen consequences. Following the ban, mobsters gained control of the beer and liquor supply in many cities and continued to buy and sell without any government regulations. In addition, grape juice sales increased fourfold during prohibition, and as you can imagine, if grape juice is allowed to ferment for 60 days, it turns into wine.
It became impossible for the US to regulate bootlegging and homebrewing of alcohol. Ultimately, however well intentioned, prohibition failed. The regulations imposed could not change society, let alone the human heart.
Of course, this is not a new problem but one as old as humanity itself. The history of God’s people is filled with efforts at social reform.
Attempts to renew the covenant God had made with them on Mt. Sinai.
The first attempt at reform was under Moses, after the famous Golden Calf incident.
And the pattern continued under Joshua, Samuel, and Hezekiah.
Each time, God’s people promised to recommit themselves to the Lord. To obey his law, and to walk before him in holiness.
And each time, God’s people failed to uphold their promise. Each time, that is, until King Josiah began to reign in Judah.
All the other attempts had been half-hearted, this time would be different.
King Josiah would lead Judah into the greatest of all covenant renewals.
He rediscovered the book of the Law, which had been forgotten.
He removed idols from the land.
He reinstituted faithful worship of the Lord – offering the proper sacrifices to God.
He enacted the most magnificent Passover celebration since the time of Samuel.
It was beginning to look like the dawn of a new spiritual day for God’s people.
Sadly, as you may have already guessed, even Josiah’s reforms would prove to be only temporary. The sin of God’s people, their idolatry, their rejection of God led to exile in Babylon.
Would this cycle of failed covenant renewals ever be broken? Is there any hope for something different for God’s people?
It is into this hopeless situation that the prophet Jeremiah speaks.What is needed, Jeremiah tells us is not another failed covenant renewal, but a whole. New. Covenant.
Jeremiah tells us this New Covenant will not be like the old one, the one God’s people broke over and over again. But how will this New Covenant be different?
Instead of the Old Covenant, the covenant they broke, God promises something amazing: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Jeremiah does NOT say “I will be their God as long as they keep their end of the deal,”
God promises by himself, by his name, by his character, to be their God.
This New Covenant is an unconditional Covenant—God is upholding it all on his own.
It is a promise so radical, so astounding that it will cause the Lord to be known throughout all the world.
Instead of a covenant written on tablets of stone, it will be written on the heart,
put there by God himself. God will finally deal with the long-standing problem of his people. Even though they had outwardly obeyed to the best of their ability what they really need was a new heart:
Transformation from the inside out but the pinnacle of all this above everything else,
the one thing that the Old Covenant could never guarantee is the total, complete, 100% forgiveness of sins.
God declares through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The promise that makes everything else possible, the unconditionality, the transformation, the new heart, all of it rests on the complete forgiveness of sins.
Under the Old Covenant there were provisions to deal with sin. The book of Leviticus reads like a cultic butcher’s manual with instructions for how to sacrifice bulls and goats.
But all this was only temporary. These sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience.
They could not change someone from the inside out. The author of Hebrews tells us
“It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.”
So how can sins be taken away? Through the only sacrifice acceptable to God, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who in the words of the Prayer Book made on the cross, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.
God has made a New Covenant with his people in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The perfect sacrifice. Jesus is thus the mediator between God and Man.
The one who guarantees the New Covenant. A Covenant made on better promises:
A covenant sealed by the shedding of his blood.
A covenant that can actually take away sins.
A covenant that transforms us from the inside out, an unconditional covenant.
Not because God decided to let it slide this one time but because he has promised by himself to be our God so that we can be his people through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
Sermon preached by the Rev. David M . Svihel, Deacon
Church of the Redeemer
5th Sunday of Lent
21 March 2021