Our Lenten pilgrimage has given way to Holy Week. We begin today the slow march with Jesus to the Cross and tomb, through Good Friday to Easter. And through the things we will do together over this week, we feel again the sublime truth about Christ, his humiliation, his exaltation, and his cosmic offer to take us along with him in that process.
We feel this year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, how much evil and suffering there is in the world. Perhaps what happens to Jesus should come as less of a surprise to us this time around.
I’m sure every one of us has brought some aspect of what we’ve been through this past year with us today as we enter into what Jesus goes through on our behalf. Personal pain, family pain, global pain, whatever it is, we carry it with us into this great week long process that is bigger and more powerful than the things we bring with us.
And accordingly, we have just together proclaimed the passion Gospel, taking it into our voices, because that is where it belongs. If we want our life story to make sense, we have to find its meaning in Jesus’ story. We have to find ourselves in him.
If you believe that, you will want to live this week with Christ, whether in person, on Zoom, via video, or through the materials we’ve emailed out. This week we walk together with Jesus through the great events by which he won our salvation. Take everything you bring, all your pain, all your questions, all your hopes, and pour them into this. Let Holy Week do its work until we arrive at Easter. Let God bring you, in Christ, all the way to the real end of the story.
Things weren’t good in Jeremiah’s Jerusalem. The city itself had broken down into the kind of factions we see today — the wealthy oppressed the poor, the powerful ignored the plight of the weak, widows and orphans were left to fend for themselves. It had been this way for years; and the consequences were about to unfold. The LORD had warned his people that disobeying his commands and turning aside from his way would result in death and destruction; and death and destruction were on the way. Nebuchadnezzar himself was coming to lay siege to the city, and the survivors would be forced to return to Babylon with him, leaving their homes, their temple, and their land.
Everything was in chaos.
And yet this is the time that God chooses to share his promise, the hope of a new covenant, with Israel.
We’ve talked for the last month or so about the ways God has blessed his people, Israel, and through them, the world. We’ve looked at the promises made to Noah and Abraham and Moses, and all of them have been remarkable and beautiful. But this one is different.
Or perhaps we should call it surprising or counterintuitive — because it comes while the people of God are embroiled in the consequences of their own disobedience. It comes before they’ve figured out what they have done, before they have repented of their sins. God makes this new promise — a promise that features him as the only one doing anything — while humankind is still at odds with the one who made them.
C.S. Lewis once called the story of the Bible, which is the story of everything there is, a comedy — in the classical sense. Unlike a tragedy, which begins with everything being semi-okay and ends with most everyone dead, a comedy begins with everything wrong and ends with everything finally coming to rights. The road to that conclusion doesn’t have to be funny; it can actually be quite tragic. But we know, or the author knows, that the marriage feast awaits.
Ever since that fateful day in the Garden, God has been working to bring his people back to him — and we’ve fought him every step of the way. And yet he’s been forging ahead regardless, using imperfect and sometimes wicked human beings to accomplish his work, to bring us to the end he desires: that we should willingly, happily, joyfully be his people and recognize him as our God.
“Behold, the day is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. . . . 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 they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. . . . For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
God doesn’t wait until his people are perfect, until they’ve recognized their sin and repented, to save them. As St. Paul writes, “when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus, God’s own Son, put his life on the line because he wanted more than anything in the world to restore the community we once had with the LORD.
The day is coming for us, too, when we will see God face-to-face. Until then, though, know that however messed up we are, however imperfectly we live our lives, however unloveable we think we are, God is for us. He loves that which he has made, and he is working every minute of every day to save us, to bring us all to the happy end, when we will feast together at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. AMEN.
“ And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This morning, the fourth Sunday in Lent is the half-way point between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is also known as Laetare Sunday, laetare meaning rejoice. Other names for the day are refreshment Sunday, and if you are in England, mothering Sunday. Being mid- way in the season the liturgical color is rose, a lighter version of the darker purple. Today I am reminded to thank Lil Larivee and Patti Gruber who made these particularly beautiful vestments that we only wear twice a year. Looking forward on this rose Sunday, we celebrate the hope that is to come at Easter. And pausing at this mid-point we are prompted to make use of the season before Lent is over until next year.
While it is nice to have a set end to the season we know that much of life does not give us an exact mid point where we can say, four more weeks and this trial or tribulation will be done. Yet, while we may not be able to pinpoint the exact middle of something it is good practice for us to realize in other trying times of life, that this too will pass; there will be an end. There is hope that comes with acknowledging the finish.
If you were to find the most reliable, most level-headed person in your life, and you were to ask them if you should go into a high-stakes real estate venture with someone who constantly messes up, who can’t manage to be on time to anything, and who doesn’t know the difference between weekdays and the weekend, your friend would almost certainly say don’t do it. In fact, I don’t think you’d need to find your wisest friend or mentor. Most people would say that committing yourself to a person like that is a bad idea. Just go find someone different, someone better or more mature. There are plenty of people like that out there. Take your pick.
But then, what if you decided to just ignore their advice and go ahead with the partnership? Would you blame your mentor for thinking you foolish? You knew what you were getting into before signing the dotted line; and yet you did it anyway.
Curiously enough, we see a very similar situation playing out in our OT reading this morning. Except this time, it’s not a business proposition between you and your neighbor down the street — it’s a covenant between God, the creator of the world and everything in it, and Israel, a people who will quickly prove that they just can’t get it right, whether or not they try to do so.
Three months after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they arrived at the base of Mount Sinai. Bedraggled and footsore, they set up camp while Moses climbed the mountain to talk to God. And the LORD said: “Tell this to the house of Israel: You have seen what I did to Egypt. You have seen how I brought you out of slavery. Now, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will and always shall be my treasured possession, a jewel among all people; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Now, it’s interesting that God would say this, would so willingly enter into a covenant with the Hebrew people — because the Israelites have spent the last three months grumbling, forgetting entirely what God has done for them, even going so far as to say to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”
But despite all this, God chose to commit himself to them anyway. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant,” he says, “you will be mine, and I will love you more than anything else I have made.” And in a storm of thunder and lightning, the LORD does so, giving his people the 10 familiar commands that will shape their relationship, that will allow a sinful people to live with a holy God. And Israel, terrified of the storm and of the idea of a God being so involved with them, fell to their knees and worshiped, awed and honored at the beginning of this new covenant.
Now, if we were to stop there, it looks like things will turn out well. The Israelites are amazed and thankful at their change in fortunes, and God has chosen a people to be his people. They will move forward together, traveling out of the desert and into the land of Canaan, the land God had promised to Abraham all those long years ago.
But, and there is always some kind of caveat in this fallen world of ours, the Israelites had already proven that they weren’t up to the task. They had doubted, forgotten, grumbled, failed. Within a few short days of this new beginning, the Israelites will have already built an idol, a golden calf, thinking that this was the god for them. What was God thinking to get involved with such a people? Another nation, another family would definitely have done better. We would have done better.
Would we have done better? It can be easy for us at this point to think that if we had been in the same situation as the Hebrew people, we would never have been so unfaithful, so difficult. If we were hungry and afraid, we would rely on God to feed us, to protect us. If we were impatient, thinking that God had forgotten us, of course we would remember the deeds he has done in the past.
But would we, though? It really only takes a second, a moment of introspection to realize that we are no different than the people of Israel. We grumble. We doubt. We forget. We fail. As St. Paul writes, all have been consigned to disobedience . . . no one is righteous, no not one.
So what was God thinking? God knew what he was getting into, when he bound himself to such a stubborn people. He knew that the Israelites would stray from him, and he knew that we wouldn’t be much better.
What, then, does that make of God’s promise?
If we were to return to our wise friend, who told us from the very beginning that we shouldn’t trust someone unreliable with anything important, they would be justified in saying that we should just end our partnership and look out for better options. Some folks just won’t change. Better to abandon them than to continue digging ourselves into a hole.
But that’s not what God does. He ignores such seemingly wise counsel and continues to commit and recommit himself to people who have a very bad habit of taking him for granted. In fact, as the story continues, we find that the LORD is so intent on saving the Israelites that he will actually die for them. For us.
The logic of God’s actions, as St. Paul describes it, is totally foolish according to the world’s standards. No matter what we say or think about ourselves, in our heart of hearts, we would never willingly die for a people, let alone a person, who constantly insulted us, disrespected us, took us for granted. We don’t want anything to do with people like that. We actively try to get away from them. Yet God did the opposite. He does the opposite. He not only didn’t abandon the creatures who betrayed him in the garden, he came to earth so that he could lead their children — Jew, Gentile, you, me — out of the wilderness of sin and into the promised land of eternal life. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Throughout the story of Scripture, throughout the history of the Church, God chooses the weak and the foolish, the inept and the unreliable to accomplish his work. In short, he chooses to work through human beings like you and me. He knows that we have “no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” yet he commits himself to us regardless. Because of that commitment, because God is radical, relentless love, we are today his kingdom of priests, his holy people regardless of the fact that we just can’t get it right, whether or not we try to do so. No matter what we have done, no matter the regrets we have or the mistakes we’ve made, God will not abandon us. He has staked his very life on it. His is a purpose we may not understand, but his is a Word that is unshakeable. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” AMEN.
“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
The Old Testament readings for Lent in this year B encourage us to think about covenants, which are special kinds of promises or commitments. Last week we heard of Noah. In that covenant God promised to never destroy the entire earth again by a flood. Today the covenant is with Abram whom God renames Abraham in this lesson to mark God’s promise to make him the father of many nations. We are told that Abraham and Sara will become the ancestors of God’s people, both the famous and the common. (Into that lineage David and eventually Jesus will be born.) As a preview, next week the first lesson will be about Moses and the Ten Commandments. In fact, each of the Old Testament stories in year B is about covenants. A common theme in these lessons is that the promises being made come first and most strongly from God rather than what human beings such as Noah, Abraham, Sara and Moses promise in return.
So, I wonder this morning, what exactly is a covenant and how does this type of a promise work? Is it like a pact or a treaty or simply an obligation? Is it the same as a contract, which my thesaurus uses as a synonym? Personally I don’t think so.
A contract carries a legal aspect to it, at least in our society. Each party involved signs on to exactly what is written on the document. In a contract each party agrees that I have to do certain things and in return you have to do certain things. If one of us breaks the contract there will be consequences which are usually spelled out in the document. We agree to exactly what is stated in the contract, nothing more. What we sign to is the minimum—we are not required to go beyond what is on the paper. You can make a contract with someone without caring for them or without really even knowing them. It is a “business” arrangement. You can sign a contract with someone you despise and still fulfill the provisions of the agreement.