Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
The end of the church year brings several special occasions or festivals (Reformation, All Saints, Christ the King), which, like all such days, inevitably cause the preacher to ponder whether to preach on the event or on the text.
The answer for Reformation Day is clear: preach the text—it is pretty much what the “event” was about!
I argue more broadly, in fact, that preaching the text is always the answer to that question. The liturgy, prayers, hymns, anthems, vestments, and adornments will “preach” the occasion; the sermon should preach the text. I do not mean to be silly, to be sure, and insist that the sermon never even acknowledge the day—all preaching must take account of the context—but, still, what drives the sermon is the text. That is the only thing that makes it a sermon. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Since the sermon is the proclamation of the Word of God, its whole promise rests upon the assumption that it remain bound to the Scripture and the text.”1
Another danger of special occasions is that they seem often to invite preachers to run through all the lessons for the day, taking a piece here and a piece there to speak to the “theme” of the event. So, while I am at it: Don’t do that either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer again said, As much as possible the preacher should avoid the practice of putting two texts together and stick with only one text.”2 The reason, for Bonhoeffer, was to avoid preaching about “pet ideas” or themes rather than preaching particular texts. Incarnation is always and only particular, never general, and to be particular, sermons should stick with one text. Again, I do not mean to be silly: intertextuality is always in order, in the sermon as it is in the Bible; but intertextual references should illuminate a particular text—again, in the sermon as they do in the Bible.
So, on to Jeremiah 31: one particular text for this particular day. One more caution, though: if you choose to preach on this text, do just that; do not preach on the uses of the text in the New Testament (for example, references to the “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood in Holy Communion: Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; or to the “new covenant” established by God in the life and death of Jesus more broadly: 2 Corinthians 3:5-14; Hebrews 8:8-13; 10:16-17). Those references are significant, of course, for without that new covenant in Jesus Christ, the Jeremiah passage—indeed, the entire Old Testament—would not be Scripture for those of us who are Gentile Christians.
But now, grafted into the God’s chosen people (Romans 11:17-24), the Old Testament becomes our Scripture, just as it continues to function, of course, as Scripture for the Jewish people. What I mean, though, is this: if your sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 sounds just like a sermon on Luke 22:20 or Hebrews 8:8-13, then you have, in fact, not preached on Jeremiah 31.
To preach on Jeremiah 31 is to read it, first, in the context of the book of Jeremiah and its historical setting. Jeremiah has announced God’s judgment, directly and terribly, and that judgment has come to pass in the exile. But now, says the prophet, the “days are coming” when God “will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah” (30:3)—introducing what has been called “The Book of Consolation” in chapters 30-31. The promises here are as radical as the judgment that has occurred. What is needed is nothing less than turning “mourning into joy,” that is, life out of death—the recognition that the exile represents the death of what was, while the restoration brings new birth or resurrection.
In other words, the new thing announced in the New Testament, while truly new, grows out of the nature and character of God who, in New Testament and Old, is the one who re-creates and re-enlivens, breathing new life into a people who had been counted out, both by themselves and the surrounding nations. God does the new thing because God is completely and forever a God of surprising grace. A dead Israel can as little “pull itself together” as can a corpse—or, for that matter, a dead church. But God can do all things, which is why this text works as a Reformation Sunday lesson: everything, life itself, depends solely on the grace of God. God forbid that some (say, Lutherans) would pat themselves on the back for “getting this right”—for that would be the greatest abuse of the text and the day. We all continue to live with the daily need for rebirth and the hope of God’s promise to bring it both to ourselves and our churches.
People argue about just what is “new” in Jeremiah’s new covenant: certainly not the character of God, as we have seen, nor the nature of the covenant relationship that ensures, as always, that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (verse 33). Nor will Torah go away—that is, God’s law, teaching, and instruction. People still will only live from the word of God. New will be the fact that “all” will know God, from the least to the greatest—that is, none will be privileged in the divine relationship—because God will have put the law “within them.” In this new age, all mediation between God and God’s people will be unnecessary. Why? Because “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (verse 34).
Amazing! Our life depends upon God’s self-imposed forgetfulness! And everything, in the old covenant and the new, depends upon the forgiveness of sins. This is by which this passage clearly means not so much overlooking the individual peccadilloes and naughty acts to which we are all prone (though, those are included as well), but rather restoring the disruption of life and world, politics and creation, community and culture, body and soul that humans bring upon themselves through both their willful refusal to “Let God be God” (the title of Philip Watson’s classic 1947 study of Luther’s theology) or their unhappy following of the path of least resistance.
Thus, the frequent Lutheran equation of the gospel with the forgiveness of sins seems correct, according to Jeremiah 31:34, but only if the forgiveness of sins includes all God’s work of re-creation and restoration, rather than just an individual act of penitential piety, as valuable and importance as that is.
Are we there yet? Have we arrived in those days that “are surely coming?” Yes and no. God worked restoration for exiled Israel in the sixth-century B.C.E., and God brought restoration to all people and all the world in Jesus Christ. But we still await the time when God will have written the law indelibly on all our hearts. We are thankful in the meantime for the daily forgiveness and renewal God continues to bring through the gospel in every generation.