~ Jeremiah 31:33-34/Psalm 51/John 12:20-28 ~
The fifth Sunday of Lent: This journey through Lent can be rather tedious, can’t it? Ever since Ash Wednesday the themes have been rather somber; maybe to some, depressing. Fasting and penance; introspection and reflection about hard stuff, week after week. Maybe you’re saying, “That stuff is OK in small doses, but five weeks of it – too much.”
All this talk about sin. Can’t we get a break? Psalm 51, which we read for our confession today – It’s all about sin. Transgressions, iniquities, evil, guilt…sin. Do we really have to dwell on such negative stuff?
But that’s what this time of Lent seems to bring—talk of sin. Evidently, it goes with the idea of taking a serious inventory of our lives and considering the ramifications, a time of somber assessment.
We would much rather think on more pleasant things. The fact is we don’t willing look for suffering. If at all possible, we arrange our lives to be comfortable and peaceful. To spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about our own death is considered rather morbid. Even though death is potentially right around the corner—it could happen to any of us at any moment—we think on life; of living—it is a much more sensible way to go about our lives. So this talk of suffering and death—it just seems a bit troubling, doesn’t it? Even Jesus was troubled about it. “Now my soul is troubled,” he says. “What should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?” Since the Gospel of John does not include the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus agonizes over this decision, this one little moment seems to serve as this gospel’s Gethsemane. Jesus raises the question, but immediately dismisses it: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus knows in his heart of hearts his death at the hands of the authorities is inevitable. It is not the time to think of pleasantries and comforts. It is the time to face suffering and death. The hour has come!
Of course, Jesus couldn’t just keep the talk of suffering and death just about himself. He has to go and apply it to anyone else who would follow him. If you want to believe in Jesus, if you want to serve him, you will have to follow him on the same path he is walking–toward suffering and death. There is his talk of being a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies. Only in dying will it grow up to bear fruit. Even more drastic are Jesus’ words that if anyone loves their life they will lose it, but if you hate your life you will keep it for eternal life. Now, just because Jesus chose to suffer and die, why does he have to include us? Jesus death resulted in resurrection. But why do we have to go through all that suffering to gain eternal life?
Well, it truly is a mystery. Somehow, we do have to die to be resurrected to eternal life. We can’t just be reformed from what we already are to experience that life. We can’t have our tarnished lives just buffed up a bit to make us more acceptable. We have to die and then be resurrected to life. Scripture tells us that over and over again until finally we just have to come to understand that we just don’t get it. It is truly a mystery.
Sin and suffering—themes we’d rather not spend too much time with. Indeed, most importantly we don’t want to get stuck there. There is lots of emphasis on sin these days—although usually by people pointing out the sins of others and not themselves. And then the suffering angle—Well, consider these two ideas: One, precisely because Christ experienced suffering and death as a human being, he enters into the suffering of his created ones, we humans. When you or I suffer he is with us, agonizing with us, crying with us, encouraging us to embrace the grace and forgiveness he brings. And two, we are called to follow Christ into the suffering of the world. The world suffers terribly and because of Christ we can suffer with it for its ultimate redemption.
And, when it is all said and done this talk of sin and suffering points us to the ultimate goal, Easter. True we still have a ways to go on our journey to get there. After the brief “hosannas” of Palm Sunday we walk with Jesus through the somberness and questioning of Maundy Thursday and the grief and pain of Good Friday. But it all culminates in Easter. No matter how serious the sin and suffering it is all, and I am most serious about this, it is all overcome by God’s work of resurrection. Because God desires it so, we are restored, re-enlivened…resurrected.
However, in amongst this talk of sin and death and resurrection we must encounter today’s text from Jeremiah. This passage speaks of a new covenant. Jeremiah prophecies of this new covenant as “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Indeed, says the prophet, this new covenant will be written on their hearts. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know God,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says God.”
Even though this prophecy was written for Israel, in the Christian tradition, this new covenant refers to the work of Christ. Indeed, another name for the New Testament is New Covenant. We acknowledge this new covenant when we take communion: “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Christ established the new covenant, the new covenant of grace, which replaced the old covenant, the old covenant of the law. And it is understood that the act of God writing a new law on the heart is the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. And it is quite understandable that we would have this understanding because it is expressed very explicitly in the New Testament. Hebrews chapter 8 quotes this entire passage verbatim and says very clearly that Christ’s work is the new covenant and that the old covenant, the covenant of the law, is rendered obsolete. So it is very understandable to read this text from Jeremiah in light of the coming of Christ, indeed, to read it as a prediction of Christ’s future work.
However, a troubling aspect of all this is the notion that the Holy Spirit speaks to each individual believer the truths of God without, supposedly, needing to be taught. As Jeremiah says, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know God’, for they shall all know me.” This is problematic. This can lead to all kinds of trouble, indeed, terrible consequences. I call it the “problem of being redeemed.” If I’ve been saved, been redeemed, I have the Holy Spirit speaking truth to me, personally. Whatever ideas I come up with I could say are God’s ideas and thus act on them. This notion played out tragically this past week when a 21-year old, extremely-devout Christian white man decided God was telling him to remove the temptation of sexual sin by “eliminating” the problem, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Of course, this really was not about his personal sexual addiction problems but was an outworking of his fantasies of sexual and racist domination of Asian women. As a white male, he was acting on his white supremacy. But in his mind God had told him this was what he needed to do.
I guess what I’m saying is that this ‘new covenant’ idea doesn’t include special insider spiritual information. That only leads to trouble and terrible consequences as history has amply demonstrated. Indeed, all the ‘new covenant’ does provide is that God, through the work of Christ, will forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more, as Jeremiah puts it. This is the basis for the people’s new knowledge of God written on their hearts.
That forgiveness creates newness in the lives of the people; a transformation of our hearts, if you will. That is God’s work in the life of the people of Judah, for those first Christians, for us. This is God’s work in this world, in us.
Which brings us back to our gospel story. Here is Jesus in his last days walking towards the cross. It is not an easy way but it is the way he is determined to go. However, Jesus didn’t just walk – he danced. As the song we are about to sing says, he was dancing before the world was begun. He danced down from heaven to earth, in Bethlehem he had his birth. He danced for the religious authorities but they sat out the dance; he dance for James and John and they hesitantly stepped out on the dance floor. He danced in places where it wasn’t allowed so they hung him high, left there to die. Friday was not a good day to dance, the sky turned black, they say. They buried him thinking they’d stopped the dancing but you can’t stop this man from dancing. So he keeps on dancing.
And he invites us to the dance. Again, as one version of Psalm 51 puts it, we are invited to “foot-tapping songs of joy and to set these once-broken bones to dancing.” Wherever we may be, we are to dance. He’ll lead us in the dance, so we should dance. And as we continue this journey of Lent, even as we struggle with the issues Lent calls us to contemplate, we continue the dance because he lives in us. So, let us dance. Amen.