Sermon for Lent V
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Psalms 51:1-13 119:9-16 Hebrews 5:5-10 John 12:20-33
In these readings today, the lesson from Jeremiah is really important. What God is up to here is a complete makeover of religion, from an old crusty external form to an inner form full of vitality, alive with hope and available to God. The old covenant, made by God with the people he delivered from Egypt, collapsed under the weight of a corrupted form of religion that lacked heart. Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant – perhaps his most important single teaching – is also a powerful harbinger of the “good news” that will be preached and embodied in Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah’s life spanned one of the most troublesome periods in Hebrew history, the decades leading to the fall of Jerusalem (in 587 BC), followed by their exile in Babylon. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong and Jeremiah was in the middle of it. He was there, praying and preaching, suffering and striving, writing and believing. It is his example of living through crushing storms of hostility and furies of bitter doubt that give his words merit for us today.
It is in remembering Jeremiah’s story that we see Jesus with new eyes. Understanding Lent, year after year, takes a commitment. I was reminded of Brene Brown’s 2010 TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” It seems we associate vulnerability with those who suffer without power: children in poverty, refugees in crowded camps, civilians trapped in war-torn areas. Yes, these folks are vulnerable, but all of us are vulnerable. Vulnerability is about our weak places, the soft places where we are most easily hurt. Isn’t that what we struggle with in Lent, getting rid of the false ideas of ourselves and embracing God’s idea of us? I know that God wants us healed and whole, but without the awareness of those things in our past, those things in us that stand in the way of God, we won’t reach our God-giftedness. That is what Lent is about, digging, unearthing, dragging those things to the light of day so that God’s light can shine on them, so that the healing power of Jesus can touch us and make us whole.
Jeremiah, the prophet, didn’t have quick answers. Jeremiah, who embodied personally the woes of the broken covenant, proclaimed that God was up to a new covenant that would be written on human hearts and not on stone tablets. And at its core is what God is forever up to: forgiving sin and creating the community of the forgiven with a calling in the world. Christians embrace the arrival of the new covenant in Jesus,- God with us. In Jesus, we already live by signs and sacraments that point to the greater fullness yet to come. By the grace of the new covenant in the Lord Jesus, religion comforts rather than terrorizes, possesses a soundness that’s beyond political partisanship. It welcomes the stranger instead of scorning him or her in their differentness. Where would Jeremiah see evidence of what God is up to in our world? Where could that discernment lead?
Jeremiah is an appropriate reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, because it reminds us of God’s love, commitment and forgiveness. As we turn our faces now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are given this last Sunday in Lent to ponder God's gift of generosity and what that generosity means in our lives with God and with one another in this community of faith. Holy Week approaches and the passion and death of Jesus lie immediately ahead, for both the characters in John’s Gospel and for us the readers. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
On this the last Sunday in Lent, it’s not too late to get what Lent is all about. Every year as Lent begins, I think that this year, I will be well-balanced, having the proper balance of worship, piety, study, and action. I have yet to achieve that. But in Lent we can strive to get closer to God, to see what God is up to – what God is up to in scripture, in our rich tradition, in our community, in our hearts, and in our lives.
John’s Gospel text is situated dramatically in the context of the festival of Passover, preceded by events such as Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet, and the triumphal entry of palms and praise as Jesus comes into Jerusalem. The responses to these events are intensely divided, as crowds of people come together to hear Jesus, while others plot to destroy him, - some of the disciples become more reverent while within the heart of one of them, Judas, irritation escalates. Momentum builds in this narrative, as all eyes – including those of the Gentiles – strain to focus on Jesus. The scene is shaped by Jesus’ powerful statement to his disciples about not just what is to happen but also what it means. One more time, Jesus tries to tell them what his mission really is.
Now, as we anticipate Holy Week. The lesson from Hebrews shows us a very human Jesus who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears… and who learned obedience through what he suffered.” We know that God never gets tired – never tires of the heartbroken or of those who have lost their way. The Letter to the Hebrews is for tired believers, those dubious about the grace of a second chance and in need of a fresh grip on what God is up to.
The reading from John’s Gospel offers a number of hints as to what God is up to. Each is promising, although the verses of the passage come one after the other in a disconnected jumble. Jesus does not force, or bribe, or dazzle; he draws people to know and love him. A powerful word, draw, informs us as to how he goes about doing God’s mission. From his uplifted cross, the place where suffering love put him, he draws to himself all who will come. This is both foolish and scandalous to everything we know about religion. Yet this scandal is the good news of Christ’s eternal priesthood: he forgives our sins. He brings us to God. He brings God to us. He brings wholeness and healing. We’re drawn into the healing community of the forgiven – not yanked or cajoled or sweet-talked. We are wooed. Pondering what God is up to in such gentle, magnetic, sure-handed drawing, we can allow ourselves to rest assured in God’s outcomes for our lives.
“The hour has come,” says Jesus. It is an hour to which his whole life has been leading, an hour in which he is to be glorified. It is clearly important to him that his disciples have some understanding of this hour, but what he offers them is an oddly disconcerting proverb. Grains of wheat must in a sense die to what they are if they are not to remain alone and fruitless. This is a beautiful picture of the necessary sacrifice of Jesus. Unless a kernel of wheat is buried in the ground, it will not become a blade of wheat producing more seeds. Jesus had to die to show us his power over death. And so, it is that we human beings must in a sense die to our love of our own lives, to die to loving ourselves above all else. This “hour” of which Jesus speaks sounds scary, even if it has a happy ending. As the hour comes, Jesus says that his very soul is troubled. Yet, he will not ask to be spared this hour, for it bears the reason for his life.
In these words, we have the central revelation of God’s wisdom and action to those who can understand it. But grasping it as the words were spoken seems to be beyond the understanding of the disciples. It would prove through the centuries to be just as difficult to theologians and believers to explain. Yet, in the end, with the experience of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples did come to understand it; and believers have grasped it through the years without exhausting its mystery.
Clearly, the “hour” is the time of Jesus’ completion of his mission. It is the time of his absolute surrender to God – whom he called Abba, Daddy. John’s Gospel makes it clear that the incarnation of God is the first movement in God’s action to reconcile humanity to God; it is an action of self-emptying, which will culminate in a final free surrendering of love. The “hour” in the end is not unexpected.
Within the mystery of salvation and ultimate glory, there lies one more message for Jesus’ disciples. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” The disciples too will be “delivered up” to forces of evil. They will be asked to drink the same cup Jesus drinks, to carry the same cross, to make the same absolute surrender to God. The cross symbolizes the saving affirmation of Jesus but it also symbolizes the potential participation of all human beings in the new life of Jesus the Christ. By the cross, life and love are offered to Jesus’ disciples, and the cross constitutes both an appeal and a demand; it attracts and heals, so all can be fulfilled. Jesus’ action is not a private action; his life is his own, but so are we “his own,” and in his life we “abide.”
In her research, Brene Brown talks of characteristics that help us become whole-hearted people. Characteristics such as courage, the willingness to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart, and compassion and connection to others and vulnerability. She believes that what makes us vulnerable also makes us beautiful. We see that in the life of Jesus. She believes that we are all worthy of love and sense of belonging. The disciples find that out as they journey toward the cross together, and perhaps we can also find it out. We can see and experience the cross and resurrection, suffering and transformation, loss of life but faithful love: “if the grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit.” Believing this, the followers of Jesus can come in trust to the “hour” in which they must share, and truly surrender. We can bear much fruit. Amen.