Twelfth Sunday after Trinity September 2, 2001
2 Corinthians 3:4-11
12, 289, 388, 283
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Here ends our text.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
The new contract—or perhaps I should say the lack of a new contract—was beginning to take its toll. I’m speaking of the Philadelphia teachers’ strike that was in the headlines recently. At first it was simply that—a headline, an interesting news item. As the first day of school approached, however, and the strike loomed, more and more Philadelphians worried that it really would happen. That the wheels of public education would grind to a halt. Consequently, the pressure mounted to reach an agreement, to discard the old contract between the state and the teachers’ union, and to settle on a new contract that would satisfy both sides.
As it happens, our text for today has to do with contracts. In it, the Apostle Paul tells us about two different contracts, or “covenants”, between God and men—the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. If we try to live by the old contract, we’ll find out it just doesn’t work. But unlike those striking teachers, we’re not stuck on the picket line. Because today, in the words of our theme:
“Covenant” is a word you don’t hear too often, besides in church. A covenant is simply an agreement, a contract, a “deal”. Marriage is often called a covenant, because when two people get married, they make an agreement before God to commit themselves to each other for the rest of their lives. Well, ever since the time of Moses over 3,000 years ago, God has always had a covenant with man. There have been two such covenants—the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Each of these two “contracts” between God and man has its own purpose, its own particular glory, and its own time-frame during which it is valid. Well, some of the Christians in Corinth were confused about which of these two contracts applied to them. And you know, there’s a lot of that same confusion in our day. Do you, as a Christian, know for sure which one of these two covenants applies to you? It’s something you’d better be awfully certain about, because the way you answer that question will determine where you’re going to spend the rest of eternity!
The “Old Covenant”, God’s first contract with man, was drawn up and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It also has a simpler name that’s probably more familiar to you—it’s called “the Law of Moses”. The terms of the contract were very simple. If the people of Israel would just keep the commandments that God wrote down on those two stone tablets, then He would prosper them and bless them, and the Israelites would live happily ever after. It was a beautiful and glorious covenant. God punctuated the giving of this covenant on Mount Sinai with lightning bolts and crashes of thunder. Thick black smoke billowed up around the mountain. When Moses came back down after speaking with God, his face shone with a brightness that made people turn their eyes away. This was certainly a glorious covenant!
Well, every contract that people enter into has a purpose—something they want to accomplish by making the agreement. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us what God’s purpose was in establishing this Old Covenant with Israel, “Before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Law was our tutor until the time of Christ.”—Gal 3:23. The Old Covenant was there to bring the chosen people of Israel safely through the ages until the birth of their Messiah, Jesus Christ.
But as you know, it didn’t work out that way. One thing about a contract is that both sides have to stick to it. Do you remember the episode of the golden calf? Why, the people of Israel broke the contract before Moses even got down off of Mount Sinai! And those rebellious people kept breaking that contract over and over again throughout the Old Testament.
Unfortunately for them, the Old Covenant had teeth. Everyone knows you can’t just break a contract when you feel like it and hope to get away with it. God had warned them about the consequences—“But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandment, and if you…break my covenant, I also will do this to you: I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever which shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you, and you shall be defeated by your enemies.”—Lv 26:14-17. And on and on, all the bad things that Israel finally did experience because they kept turning away from the Lord. The people couldn’t keep the commandments of God, so the Old Covenant became, for them, a contract leading to death!
You know, there are lots of people in this day and age who are still trying to live by that old contract—even folks who call themselves “Christians”! There are so many people who think you can earn the favor and acceptance of God by an outward keeping of the Ten Commandments. What about you? Will you be satisfied with that old contract? Or do you want a new one? Don’t answer too quickly; you have to know what you’re agreeing to. There should be no confusion among the members of Ascension Lutheran Church, like there was at that church in Corinth.
The people in Corinth got those two contracts mixed up. They thought they had to believe in Jesus and keep certain parts of the Law as well in order to be saved. The problem with that is that you can’t have just part of the Old Covenant—if you hold yourself to any of it, you’re obligated to keep the whole thing. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law, to do them.’”—Gal 3:10. Can you live up to that? Can you keep the terms of the Old Covenant well enough to satisfy the righteous God? I can’t! Thank God we don’t have to!
The Lord saw that man needed a new contract. The old one wasn’t working. We read in Jeremiah, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’”—Jer 31:31. The people needed a new contract, and “when the fullness of the time had come,” God gave it to them.
Do you know where the separation occurred? At what point did the old contract expire and the new one take effect? I’ll tell you: the moment Jesus gave up the ghost on the accursed cross—that’s when the new contract took effect. The dividing line is right there! Before that was the old contract, the covenant of death, the ministry of condemnation. After that is the new contract, the covenant of life, the ministry of righteousness.
And what a glorious covenant this “New Covenant” is! How do you think those striking teachers would react if management suddenly gave them a new contract which read as follows: “Your salary is hereby increased ten times, and your working hours are reduced by 100%! I.e., you can have ten times the benefits, and you don’t have to do any work to receive them!” My fellow believers, that is exactly the deal God has given us in Christ. Instead of we having to earn our own salvation, we find (according to the New Covenant) that Jesus has earned it for us, 100%! We find that God, for Jesus’ sake, has given salvation to us by faith, as a free gift of His grace. Paul says this new contract is so much better than the old one, you can’t even compare the two: “If the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.”
This is a much better contract, with much better terms! Every professional athlete, every corporate employer, and every labor union in America works to get the best possible terms on every contract they make. Well, today God is offering you His new contract. It’s a contract with so many benefits that you’d have to be a blind fool not to take Him up on it.
Here are the terms of God’s New covenant: He promises to forget about all the times you’ve sinned against Him. He promises to watch over you and provide you with security your whole life long. He promises to bless you with all the things you need for your life, and he promises that when you reach the end of this life, you will live forever with Him in paradise. And what’s you part of the contract? What do you have to do to get all these benefits? Believe in Jesus Christ as your only Savior from sin. Oh, and by the way—God will even give you the faith to do that! So you don’t really give much of anything—you just get all these good things from God, for Jesus’ sake. I’d call that a pretty good deal! In fact, it’s such a good deal, we wouldn’t even be able to believe it was true if the Holy Spirit didn’t work faith in our hearts!
During the 1930’s, the Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen had a popular radio broadcast, which reportedly made quite a bit of money. When his contract came up for renewal, Sheen was expecting a considerable pay raise, but after reading through his contract he said solemnly, “The large print giveth, but the small print taketh away!” My Christian friends, there is no small print in the contract God is offering you today. The offer is clear and bold—free forgiveness through Jesus’ blood and righteousness! Accept, today, the generous terms He offers you, and then don’t look back. It will the best deal you ever made! AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.