NOTE: There are two groups of readings for this Sunday. There is the regular lectionary readings for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost and there are the readings for October 31st, which is Reformation Day for some Christians. Usually, we do the first of these. This year, we will look at the readings for Reformation Day. In addition, I am going to change the order, putting the gospel reading second, and the reading from Romans last.
The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived about the same timeframe. Ezekiel was deported to Babylon along with many other Judeans. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, tending to the spiritual needs of those remaining. If they were alive today, they would be communicating by email and having Zoom meetings on a regular basis. Back then, however, communication was quite a bit slower. But remarkably, their message to the people of God was very similar, as we will see. After all, they were both God’s spokesmen; the source of the message was the same. Today’s passage from Jeremiah comes from his “Book of Consolation” that we discussed last week. It is a message of hope and renewal.
- Jeremiah assures the people in exile, both from Israel and Judah, that better days are coming. God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be like the old covenant. They broke that one many, many times. Time for something new. (vv. 31-32)
- This new covenant won’t just be written down in a temple somewhere, it will be written on the hearts of the people. There will be an intimate relationship between God and his people. (v. 33)
- We won’t have to learn things about God anymore, because all of us will know it all! (vv. 34-35a)
- Best of all, God will not only forgive our sins, but He will forget all about them. (v. 35b)
The word “covenant” and “testament” mean the same thing. It is easy to conclude that God’s “New Covenant (Testament)” is realized in the life, death, and resurrection of his son Jesus. Is this what it meant to Jeremiah’s listeners, or did it mean something else to them? The short answers are no and yes. Can it be both? Maybe!
The people of Jeremiah’s time had troubles of their own. Jerusalem and it’s society was ripped apart by foreign pagans. It was a time of desperation and hopelessness. God had not yet put forth the idea of a Messiah. Instead, Jeremiah’s message from God was that God wanted to have a close-knit relationship with them. God was not interested in worship, at least when it was not from the heart. Ezekiel 36:24-28 gives the people under Ezekiel’s care the same message. God wants an intimate, loving relationship. The message is the same in that passage and this one—Israel and Judah will be restored one day. When they are, God’s law will be written on everyone’s hearts. Sins will be forgiven and forgotten.
Centuries later, God sent His only son to walk the earth with us. Jesus taught us his Father’s will, when he spoke his Sermon on the Mount, and when he taught us parables about the kingdom of God. Then, he died for our sins. So, the life of God’s son was the final chapter in Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jeremiah most certainly did not know that part of the story. But he most certainly knew the hope and promise that God gave his people in captivity.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
It is one thing to forgive someone for what they have done. It is quite another to forever forget about it. God promises to both forgive our sins and forget them! We receive this free gift because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Now, we must not only forgive those who wrong us, but forget about it as well.
Today’s reading comes from the gospel of John. At this point in the story, Jesus had been gathering disciples, and teaching those around him. Teaching and clarifying God’s will for the people was one of Jesus’ main missions. For the most part, Jesus taught to the Jews. Jesus and the twelve apostles were Jews. He did, of course, occasionally reach out to the Gentiles, but most of his ministry was to his fellow Jews. In the gospels, “the Jews” often refers to those who resisted or challenged him. In today’s reading, however, it refers to some followers of Jesus.
- Jesus makes a statement to start a discussion. He is teaching “the Jews who had believed in him”. This could have been the twelve apostles or others. John does not specify. It doesn’t matter, so he leaves that out. John was like that. (See John 21:25.) Jesus tells them that if they “continue in his word, they will be free”. (vv. 31-32)
- The disciples immediately think that Jesus is talking about slavery (which he is, sort of). Slavery was commonplace at that time; about 40% of the population were slaves. The disciples state that they have never been slaves, since they are the descendants of Abraham. I guess they forgot about Egypt and that the Romans had conquered them. (v. 33)
- Next, Jesus drives his point home. We are all slaves—to sin. But the good news is that if we “continue in his word” (from verse 32), we are set free from the slavery of sin. (vv. 34-36)
For those of us who love and follow Jesus, we are freed of the sin that enslaves us. We are truly free to be Children of God!
I am also going to change the order on this reading from Romans. There is a lot of nitty-gritty detail in this passage. If you don’t want to wade into the “deep water”, you can just go to The Takeaway. I’ll put the detailed explanation after the takeaway, for those who want to take a deeper dive.
I like to read the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans as one big unit. You could skip the greeting, and begin with 1:16. Keep in mind that the church in Rome was made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. One thing I like to do is substitute two words for words in the text. When Paul says “Jews”, I substitute my church denomination. When he says “Greeks”, I substitute another denomination. This makes it more real; and it is closer to what Paul was trying to say.
Anyway, in the first three chapters of Romans, Paul presents a panoramic view of the sinfulness of mankind. He starts with pagan idol worship, but slowly turns the gun around, aiming squarely at the Jews and Greeks. There’s no escaping it—we are all a sorry, sinful lot.
Verses 23 and 24 are at the heart of this passage. Paul makes his two main points:
- Everyone has sinned, and do not measure up to God’s expectations.
- For those who have faith in Jesus, our sins are forgiven*.
This gift of forgiveness is free to those who have faith in Jesus. Later in Paul’s letter, he uses the phrase “free gift” often. (5:15, 5:16, 5:17, 6:23) All you need to “do” to claim your free gift is to believe in Jesus!
* The word “justification” in this context is a legal term. When someone was accused of a crime, and was in court, they could explain why they did what they did. If the judge believed that their actions were acceptable, he would claim that the defendant was “justified”, and the charges would be dropped.
- When Paul talks about “the law”, he referring to Jewish law. You know, like the 10 commandments, and all the detailed laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Paul states here (and elsewhere) that the law is there to make us accountable—accountable to the point that we shut our mouths in guilt. (vv. 19-20)
- Paul now sets the law aside, and talks about what God has done for us (God’s righteousness). In fact, all the prophets were like weathervanes, pointing to this righteous act. (v. 21)
- The righteous act that we are talking about is the gift of God’s own son, for all who believe. (v. 22)
- Paul reminds us what he has just told us in the previous chapters—we have all sinned. Everyone. (v. 23)
- The Good News is that by God’s grace, our actions have been “justified”/forgiven. It is God’s action that does this. It is a gift. (v. 24)
- During Paul’s time, and earlier, the high priest would make a blood sacrifice for the peoples’ sins. God himself made a blood sacrifice of his son’s blood for our sin. We, too, receive this atonement through faith. (v. 25)
- God did this to show that He is a righteous God. He loves us so much that He did this for us. (v. 26)
- So, what have you got to brag about? Can you brag that you are a Jew, or a Greek, or a Baptist or a Lutheran? Can we brag about being good or doing good deeds? Paul emphatically says “NO!” God has all the bragging rights. (v. 27)
- Salvation comes not from keeping God’s rules, but by living our lives in faith. It is a free gift from our Father in heaven. (v. 28)