DEAL OR NO DEAL?
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“Deal, or no deal?” For four television seasons, comedian and television host Howie Mandel has asked that question countless times to contestants on the game show with the same name, Deal or no Deal. It didn’t take talent to be a contestant on Deal or No Deal. It only took guts — or maybe foolishness — to keep playing through the game. Contestants selected a suitcase with an amount of money that could be anywhere from one penny to $1 million. Then they opened the other suitcases on stage to determine the amounts that were not in their case and to narrow down the possible amounts that could be in their case. Every so often, the “banker” made a money offer to the contestant. Sometimes those offers even came with only one case left on stage besides the contestant’s case. What would you do if two possible amounts were left — let’s say $100.00 and $500,000.00 — and the banker offered you something in between — let’s say $250,000.00? Would you take the deal, or would you say no, and open one more case that will either give you half a million dollars or leave you with a hundred bucks? Deal, or no deal?
What made the show interesting, of course, was that no one knew what would happen if the contestant kept playing. That’s where the drama and ratings came in. But what if you knew that your case had six or seven figures inside it? Maybe the drama and ratings would sink, but if you knew the better deal was the suitcase in your possession, wouldn’t you take it? If you could be guaranteed the best deal, wouldn’t you ignore the banker’s offer and play on? Of course!
The First Lesson for today’s service talks about two possible “deals” or arrangements between God and his Old Testament people living in ancient Judah. The word that is used to describe these two possible deals is “covenant.” To adequately cover this subject, we would need far more than a single sermon. We won’t cover everything that could be said about the old and new Covenant. But unlike the gameshow, Deal or No Deal, we can see in advance which of the two covenants is the better deal. In fact, God explicitly says that his new covenant is the best deal. So let’s take a closer look at our First Lesson, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and we will see the covenant God first made with his people, and the new covenant he now extends to all people.
The first verse in the First Lesson shows us that Jeremiah is comparing two different covenants through which God established a relationship with his people. “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.'” If he’s going to make a new covenant, that means there was an old one. And sure enough, Jeremiah tells us a little about the old covenant. “‘It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah looks back several hundred years to the time when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt. God convinced Pharaoh to let the Jews go free after several terrible plagues struck Egypt. But then Pharaoh changed his mind. He sent Egypt’s army chasing after the Israelites, who were pinned between the impending army on one side and the Red Sea on the other. With the odds against them, God performed a stunning miracle for his people. He opened up a dry path through the sea so that the nation could escape to the other side. When the armies of Egypt followed, God sent the waters back over them and turned them into fish bait.
With that stunning incident fresh in their minds, God established a covenant with his people. This was a two-sided deal. If they observed his laws and commands, he would bless them. But if they failed to live as his law instructed, they would suffer for it. And wouldn’t you know it, before the ink was dry on the old covenant, they had already broken it by engaging in all sort of pagan immorality. They had just been the beneficiaries of one of the greatest miracles recorded in the Old Testament, but somehow they had already forgotten what God had done to rescue them. You can read all about it in Exodus.
But this wasn’t only the story in Exodus. It was the story of their whole history. Fast-forward several hundred years to the sixth century B.C., when Jeremiah served the little nation of Judah, the remaining fragment of the original Israel. Jeremiah’s book is filled with doom and gloom and warnings to Judah, because the people had forsaken God time and time again. Finally God said, “Have it your way! If you don’t want to live under my covenant and be my people, fine!” So God gave them a seventy-year “time out” (a gross understatement, to say the least)! He allowed an enemy nation to attack, defeat, and deport them from their homeland for seven decades. That’s what was going on when Jeremiah wrote his book.
If God is a loving God, why do bad things happen? If you haven’t asked that question yourself, you’ve probably been asked the question. If God is a loving God, why doesn’t he just put an end to all the evil and suffering in the world? That’s fair enough. Why doesn’t he just end it all now?
Parents, you know that no one on this planet loves your children more than you. You also know that no one can frustrate you more than your children! Sometimes you see them doing something you know is bad, and you put a stop to it. But sometimes you choose to let them suffer the consequences for their mistakes. If you are a loving parent, why do you let bad things happen to your children? The answer is: You don’t. But you also don’t turn them into robots. Sometimes, when they choose to do the wrong thing, you may say to yourself, “That’s the only way they will learn.”
If God is a loving God, why do bad things happen? The answer is: He doesn’t. He hasn’t turned us into robots. But we have continued in the sinful tradition of ancient Judah, of Israel in the desert, and ultimately of our first parents. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, and ever since then our free will has been perverted into a rebellious will that naturally opts for sin. So who are we to complain that bad things happen? When we select what parts of God’s Word do and don’t apply to ourselves, when we act like his people when it is convenient and hide our faith when godliness is inconvenient, who are we to blame God for letting bad things happen? We are not only letting bad things happen. We are making them happen! It’s called sin. It’s called failing to keep up our end of the covenant. It’s called guilt and condemnation that should remove us from God’s good presence now and eternally. That’s the “old deal,” and that’s the eternal predicament our sin puts us in.
So if the “old deal” — the old covenant — puts us in such a bind (because we’ve put ourselves there), what does God’s “new deal” — the new covenant — have to say to us? “‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.'”
The old covenant was a two-sided arrangement. People do their part and God will do his part. But his people never did their part. No ordinary human being has or ever will keep God’s commands perfectly. So the Lord looked ahead to a time when his new covenant would be put into action. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” The Hebrew word for “law” is torah, and it can mean much more than what Lutherans usually think when they hear the word “law.” The word can simply mean a “teaching,” and the teaching that God would write on the inner soul of his people is really the gospel. “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” The special relationship that the old covenant couldn’t accomplish will happen under the new covenant. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord.” The new covenant relationship with God won’t be based on what people do; it will be based on the One in whom they believe. And Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah in whom God’s people believe, brought about this key aspect of the new covenant: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Wickedness forgiven. Sin forgotten. Iniquity against God pardoned for the sake of his Son. Failure to reach the holy standards God requires no longer remembered, because God remembers instead his Son’s sacrifice on our behalf on the cross. No strings attached. No fine print on the bottom of the page. A one-sided deal, a unilateral covenant signed, sealed, and secured in the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ. And that signed covenant is brought to us through faith in the precious blood of Jesus. And as we learned last Sunday, even our faith is not really our doing, but the gracious working of God’s Spirit in our hearts.
Deal, or no deal? How can the no-strings-attached grace of God in this “deal” be anything but the greatest gift and richest treasure we could receive? Perhaps the word “deal” is too casual to describe this great gift of God. Despite our professional efforts at sin and rebellion, despite our amateur claims to be self-sufficient without God, God came forward with the divine rescue plan of his new covenant. In fact, God not only came forward, but he came down to our world in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with the righteousness that covers our sinful hearts. He came with the sacrifice that atones for our sin. He came with the resurrection victory that guarantees our resurrection from the dead and victory over sin. He comes in his Word to absolve us, at the font to cleanse us, and at the altar to feed us.
I have loved the season of Lent since I was a child. When I was young, I think the reason for my love of Lent was a little different than it is now. I liked going to church on Wednesday nights because it was kind of different. There was a different order of service, a different mood in the service, and sometimes even a different pastor leading the service, due to the Lutheran custom of pastors “exchanging pulpits” for the additional midweek evening services of Lent.
I still like the different order of service for Wednesday night Lent services. I still like the meditative and contemplative mood of those services, in contrast to the more energetic Sunday services. And now I really like the preaching rotation idea — although for different reasons than I did when I was young! But there’s something else that I’ve come to savor during Lent, and especially during midweek Lent services. I like them not just for the external atmosphere, but for the intrinsic message they convey. Each week we come one step closer to the cross. Each week we see the new covenant in action — God’s unconditional grace in Jesus. He feeds his disciples with his Supper of forgiveness even though they will soon ditch out on him. He allows himself to be arrested even though he sweats anxious drops of blood beforehand. He faces the fabricated court of the Jews who convicted him for claiming to be who he actually was. He finds no sympathy from Pilate’s court even though the governor clearly knew he had an innocent man on his hands. He is nailed like a criminal to the cross where he endures the punishment for our crimes against God. And he leaves nothing, absolutely nothing for us to do — not even one-tenth of one percent. We watch and listen and are left with nothing but hearts filled with gracious gratitude and lives filled with humble praise.
That’s quite a deal, isn’t it? Amen.