Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33 for March 18, 2018, Lent 5B

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I have been reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He explains that there are two theories about how our species, Homo Sapiens became preeminent, over Neanderthals (and other species). 

One theory is that Homo Sapiens, being better tool-makers and hunters, out-competed the Neanderthals for resources, so that the Neanderthal populations gradually dwindled into extinction. 

The other theory is that Neanderthals were eliminated violently in, what today we would call, a campaign of ethnic cleansing. 

I would much rather believe the first explanation than the second; I want to be able to tell a story of having descended from peace-loving ancestors who were smart, but gentle.  But I know enough about what it means today to be Homo Sapiens that the story of brutal violence cannot be eliminated.  We will let the scholars sort out the answer as to which theory is correct.

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My Experience in Europe

I served for a dozen years in Central and Eastern Europe, most of the time in Croatia, formerly one of the republics of Yugoslavia.  So, I witnessed the damage caused by the Balkan war between Serbs and Croats.  The concept of ethnic cleansing may be ancient, but it is still modern.  I lived less than thirty minutes away from mass graves, in more than one direction. 

Did the war have to happen?  No, I do not believe it did.  Strongman Marshall Tito died in 1980 and the power of the Soviet Union started to crumble. As the Berlin wall came down in 1989, and the republics of Yugoslavia felt less constrained; they wanted their independence.  Who knows whether or not an international forum could have found a way for a Brexit-type of peaceful divorce, but that is not what happened.

What did happen was that people seized upon the opportunity to catapult their own political careers by using one of the most tried and true methods known to Homo Sapiens – unite people together by creating fear of a common enemy. 

So people like Slobodan Milosevic whipped up Serbs to believe that if the Croats became independent, they would attack Serbia. Had not the two been enemies in the Second World War?  He was successful.  He stoked old memories, old wounds, old stories of atrocities, and fueled them with fantasies of impending attacks, and created fear. 

Before it was over we became familiar with places known for atrocities like Srebrenica and Djepa, Vukovar and the siege of Sarajevo.  As many as 140,000 people were killed. 

So I believe we should take it seriously when people use fear to try to unite us.  I believe we should be suspicious of any politician, or journalist or preacher who tries to use our instinctive need for security and our human propensity to mistrust people who do not look, speak or believe as we do, to encourage us to fear the other.

The Calling of the Gospel

Why?  Because as a follower of Jesus, this is my calling; this is our calling.  Our text from the gospel of John is precisely about this.  The scene we read comes at the final turning point in John’s story of Jesus.  It is pivotal.

Scholars tell us that John’s gospel was written many decades after Jesus lived.  The earliest indication we have of the nature of the gospel is by a church father who called it a “spiritual gospel,” quite unlike the others.  So, John’s gospel is not so much describing literal events,  as it is telling a story to try to illumine the meaning and significance of Jesus.

To make it clear to us, the readers, that the events of this scene are pivotal, John’s gospel records Jesus referring to this moment as “this hour,” as he muses about whether or not to ask the Father to save him from what is ahead – it troubles his soul.  But no, he says,

“it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” 

What then, is the crucial event that signals that this pivotal hour has finally come?  It is this: Jesus’ mission had become international.  Greeks come looking for Jesus.  It says,

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Jesus’ sense of mission was never limited to his own people. He was constantly crossing boundaries, going to the gentile side of the Sea of Galilee, ministering to Samaritans and Romans, and Canaanite women.  His vision was of a kingdom without national or ethnic boundaries.  He wanted a common table at which everyone was welcome, and no one was excluded out of fear of their difference.

So, to symbolize the achievement of this new vision of a trans-national, trans-ethnic kingdom, John pictures a group of Greeks, representing the international community, wishing to see Jesus.  John’s gospel says:

“Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

The hour had come and the Son of Man was glorified by the bursting forth of the message of the kingdom of God, across lines of ethnicity, onto the world stage. 

It is impossible to be a Christian and a racist, a nationalist, or any other form of chauvinist.  The gospel is all about the joy and open-hearted delight of affirming the beautiful variety and differences of all of God’s people.  It is about loving people the way Jesus did, the way God does, without distinction.  This was essential to Jesus.   It is fundamental to what Jesus called the new covenant.

The New Covenant

In the gospels we read that on Thursday evening of holy week, when Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples, he took the cup, after supper, saying,

“This is the new covenant, in my blood”

That phrase, “new covenant” is an intentional echo of the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said,

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

The former covenant, given by Moses, was chiseled in stone.  In the story, Moses brings down the tablets of stone from Mt. Sinai where they camped just after being set free from slavery in Egypt.  Jeremiah says,

“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, … But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

At the last supper, holding the cup Jesus said, this is the new covenant.  It is not written in stone; it is written on our hearts.  What has been written on our hearts? Jeremiah goes on to say,

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

We have been forgiven; God refuses to remember our sin.  Everyone is included, “from the least… to the greatest.”   To whom does forgiveness extend?  John’s gospel tells us “For God so loved the world that he sent his son… not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.”

What is Written on our Hearts

So the first thing written our hearts in the new covenant is forgiveness.  God’s mercy is written on our hearts.  But that is not all.  Having received mercy and forgiveness, we become people of mercy and forgiveness of others.  We forgive “as we have been forgiven.”  We do not use past injuries as an excuse for present vengeance.  The Jesus way is the way of forgiveness.

That means that radical hospitality to strangers is also what the new covenant writes on our hearts.  It may be the Homo Sapiens impulse to have suspicion and even animosity towards people who are different, but that is not the way of Jesus, and it is not the way of anyone who is a follower of Jesus.  We are radically hospitable, just as Jesus was, to people who are different from us nationally, racially, religiously or in any other way. 

Radical hospitality is the paradigm Jesus set out for us.  Therefore we use that paradigm to decide how to treat anyone who may not be like us; people who have non-heterosexual orientations, or people who’s gender does not conform to rigid binary categories.  Our radial welcome is merely our effort to be faithful followers of Jesus in our context and times. 

Suspicious of Wedge-drivers

So, I am suspicious of any attempt to drive a wedge between us and them, our people and “those people.”  It made me uncomfortable to read in the local paper an article about people coming into our city of Fort Smith or our county, or crossing the State lines from Oklahoma or even coming up from Texas to commit crimes.  As if people outside of Sebastian county or outside of Arkansas were somehow different people that we should be suspicious of, or even fear. 

How does it help to think like that?  I believe articles like that only reinforces the worldview that says we should fear different people, Mexicans or non-whites or gays or Muslims, as if orientation or religion or culture were reliable predictors of character, which they are not.

But we do not have to live in that angry, pinched-off, narrow-minded condition of exclusion.  We can live in the joyful, open-hearted, open-minded life of the world-wide Kingdom of God.  The Greeks have come seeking Jesus.  The hour has come.  the Son of Humanity is glorified.

When this message is lifted up, when this vision of reconciliation and love is exalted among us, then, we will understand these words:

“when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

All people – not “our people.” 

Let us then be people of this new covenant, with these words written on our hearts.

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