On Mount Sinai, God established a covenant with his people. It was a covenant etched quite literally into two stone tablets. This covenant established the relationship between God and his chosen people. On the outset, it seemed so simple. After all, God had done all the heavy lifting. He had heard their cries in the land of Egypt, brought them out with a mighty outstretched arm, enabled them to walk through the Red Sea on dry ground, and protected them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They didn’t have to earn that right; they didn’t have work towards this blessing. Instead, they are given a law, one set in stone, that would guide how they live. All they were given to do was live lives that reflected the blessings of their God. They were to have no other god’s before them, not use the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. The list, of course, goes on, but we don’t need to go much further to see that they failed to keep their end of the covenant.
Because of their sin, the people of God found this covenant to be a powerful burden. This burden bound them up and highlighted their inability to walk as God would have them walk. Over time, they became managers of sin. I think you probably know what I mean by that. After all, we are still quite familiar with sin managers in our day. They became those who would see it as their purpose to control sin. If you committed 15 grievous transgressions against the law this week, next we would try and shave it down to a mere 10. And certain sins would be elevated above others. There would be big sins that we need to focus on and get under control, and once we get those controlled, then we will move on to other ones. And so the managers of sin deeply seek to keep us in compliance with the covenant. Their efforts, however, never work. They didn’t succeed for ancient Israel, and they don’t succeed today.
Instead, what we find is that every attempt by mankind to fulfill their end of the covenant is another door that is closed. Those doors that close shut us off from true confidence and the true assurance in the salvation given by God. What becomes increasingly clear is that mankind does not possess within themselves what is necessary to keep the covenant. Those commandments written in stone bring no hope and no confidence, only doom. The failure by God’s people to keep the covenant comes to a pinnacle in the work of the prophet Jeremiah. Because of their failure to adequately manage their sin, God sends Jeremiah to proclaim to them the coming exile. They will be we taken away from the land they were promised, away from their temple, and away from the place of mercy and hope.
What the ancient people of God faced is what we all face when we look to our own deeds to assure us of our participation in the blessings of God. When we become managers of sin, scrutinizing our lives and the lives of others believing that if we just work hard enough and pray diligently enough why then we will succeed in keeping the covenant of God, we slowly but surely get swallowed up in an exile, a separation from God. This makes the words of Jeremiah in chapter 31 words of incredible hope and joy, words that are almost too good to be true. Yet there they are, clear words of an incredible promise by God: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
God promises a radically new thing, but who could have imagined how truly radical it would be. On that first Maundy Thursday, we witness a shocking turn of events. The incarnate Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, rises from the table, takes off his outer garments, ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, gets down on his knees, and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. Jesus does the work of a servant, and so God becomes the lowly slave cleansing the feet of his disciples. This is truly a new thing. This is not a god high up on a mountain clothed in cloud and lightening, or a covenant etched in stone highlighting the failures of the disciples. This is a God who comes near, and who gets into the hearts of his people. As Jeremiah says, “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”
But it’s not just the washing of feet that demonstrates this new covenant established by God. No, this covenant of forgiveness and the removal of sin goes beyond a Lord that serves by washing feet; he serves by giving his own body and blood for the salvation of us all. On the same night that he washes those feet he also takes bread, and after blessing it breaks it he gives it to the disciples saying, “Take eat; this is my body.” And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Bread and wine, body and blood — given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. This new covenant is one established not in the stone tablets carried down from Sinai’s height; it is established in the very body and blood of our Lord himself.
This new covenant is not driven by our efforts to manage sin but completely by the love of Christ alone. In fact, it is the radical nature of his love that makes this new thins so unprecedented. You see, we know what it is to love. We all have loves in our lives, but our love is established by the thing we love. In other words, my love for my wife was established years ago, first by her beauty, then by our extensive conversations, and now by our long and wonderful life together. My love for my children is driven by the simple fact that they are my children. I love them and would fight tooth and nail for them if need be. But the love of Christ is different. Our love begins with the object and then builds this powerful relationship of love. This is not so with our God. His love is so powerful and transformative that it established that which he loves. He doesn’t wait for us to successfully manage our sin, rather he loves the sinner. He loves them, and in his love, he makes their sins his own; he gives his body to be broken and his blood to be spilled so that sinners like you might become the saints of God.
This is the radical gift of the new covenant. Jeremiah declares, “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord. When I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” But I say to you this day, “Behold that day has come!” The new covenant is established in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and is driven not by your works and not by your efforts, but solely by the love of Christ.
Because of this love of Christ, you have been made new.