Friday, April 10, 2009

Sermon on Mark 14:12-26 and Exodus 24:3-11 for Maundy Thursday. "The Blood of the Covenant"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On this night we remember Maundy Thursday, the night on which Jesus was betrayed, and celebrated His Last Supper with the disciples. The sermon will be based on our Old Testament and Gospel readings, which link together the blood of the old covenant, and the blood of the new covenant. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Why are these two passages so closely linked, since the time and place of their occurrence are so different? Approximately 1,500 years apart, with Moses speaking to the 12 tribes of Israel at the base of Mount Sinai in the desert, while Jesus is speaking to the 12 disciples alone in the upper room of a home in Jerusalem. At first there seems to be little similarity—but notice one uncommon phrase that appears in both readings. “The Blood of the Covenant.” These words only infrequently appear together in the Bible. When Moses first spoke them, God had just delivered all of His commands and rules to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. The 12 tribes of Israel responded with a hearty, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient.” So Moses then took some of the blood from the sacrifices, and sprinkled it on the people and spoke these words: “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Sprinkled with the blood of the covenant, they were sealed by God’s promise and command.

But another curious thing happens after they make this pledge to obey the covenant. It says that 70 elders of Israel, with Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, went up on the mountain and saw the God of Israel! Standing on sapphire pavement, like the very heaven for clearness—they saw Him. They glimpsed God’s heavenly splendor while here on earth. Even more amazing, was the fact that they did not perish because of their sin. It says that God did not stretch out His hand; “they beheld God, and ate and drank.” Seeing God, they did not die, and they participated in a sacred meal, eating and drinking while they beheld God. Purified under the blood of the covenant (Heb. 9:22), they ate a meal in God’s presence.

This covenant at Sinai remained binding on the people of Israel until you fast-forward 1,500 years to that Thursday night on which Jesus was betrayed. On that night, Jesus celebrated the customary Jewish Passover Meal with His disciples. But afterward, He instituted a new supper, and announced to them as He gave the bread to eat and the cup to drink, that “this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.” Jesus’ words were astonishing! There hadn’t been a new covenant given to Israel, sealed in blood, since the time of Moses! And what sort of covenant was Jesus talking about? The Old Covenant, under Moses, was a conditional covenant, meaning that in order for it to be kept in whole, both God and the Israelites had to do their respective parts. It was made with the 10 Commandments and other regulations of law, and gave them the promise of peace and prosperity in the Promised Land if they kept His Word.

But as you probably know, Israel repeatedly sinned and turned away from God, as the prophet Jeremiah described centuries later. There God described Israel’s failure to keep that Old Covent. “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, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:31-32). Now with Jesus’ words, that new covenant was finally being made. Not like the old one, a covenant of outward laws and decrees that was broken not only by Israel but also by us. But a covenant with His law written in our hearts and in which He would forgive our iniquity and remember our sins no more. This covenant was an unconditional covenant, not based on our obedience, but on God’s merciful forgiveness. This covenant was initiated with Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper—the new covenant in His blood. This covenant would be fulfilled by Christ alone.

As Moses sealed the 12 tribes of Israel by sprinkling them with the blood of the covenant, so Jesus, when He initiated the new covenant with His 12 disciples, established it with His blood of the covenant. His blood that would be shed in sacrifice to purify for Himself the people of God. This covenant, far superior to the first covenant, is made on better promises (Heb. 8:6). In this covenant, Jesus promises the forgiveness of sins through His shed blood. Through this forgiveness, we have the promise of salvation and life eternal. But this covenant is also different from the Old Covenant in that when Jesus established it, it was His own blood that founded it. Which meant that He would die to seal it. In reality, this means that this covenant was a last will and testament. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He was giving His disciples His last will and testament, to be sealed in His blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of our sins.

As the book of Hebrews describes this last will and testament, it says, “For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (Heb. 9:16-18). So just like an ordinary human will, Jesus’ will—His new testament with His people, couldn’t be put into effect until He died. But once He died, that new covenant or testament was now sealed in His blood, and no one can change or add to that covenant.

And what followed the sealing of that covenant in His blood, presented to them in cup He blessed and gave to His disciples? They ate a meal in God’s presence. They saw the God of Israel in human flesh and had a glimpse of heaven, here on earth. They saw the one who showed heavenly love with unerring perfection. They were in God’s presence, and did not perish because of their sin. Christ did not stretch out His hand against them. They beheld God and ate and drank. Seeing God, they did not die, and they participated in a sacred meal, eating and drinking while they beheld Jesus. Purified under the blood of the covenant (Heb. 9:22), they ate a meal in God’s presence, forgiven and cleansed from their sins.

This table is now spread before us, as Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and therefore are in God’s presence. He is present in body and blood among us in the bread and the wine. His blood of the covenant is poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins, and we partake in this sacred meal, witnessing God in His forgiving love. With His body and blood on our lips to purify them of sin and guilt (Is. 6), we behold God as we eat and drink. Christ’s atoning blood has been shed for us at the cross, the cross to which He was betrayed on this night. Betrayed for our sins, betrayed into death. But the death that would once and for all seal this new covenant, His last will and testament to all of us as His disciples. The last will and testament that seals for us the inheritance of His forgiveness, life, and salvation. And so we celebrate this new testament in His blood until the end of time, until He joins us anew by drinking the fruit of the vine with us in the kingdom of God. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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