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Lent 5B RCL March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Our first reading, which dates back to 587 B.C. E., over 2,500 years ago, is the first mention of the term “new covenant” and the only mention of that term in the Hebrew scriptures.

Although he lived all those centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah had a life that could be made into a miniseries. He was the son of Hilkiah, a priest who lived in Anathoth, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Scholars tell us that living just that short distance outside the center of power made Jeremiah an outsider. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This is true of all of us. God has known us from the beginning, and God has called us.

Jeremiah is young, and he tells God that he does not feel that he should be a prophet because he is only a boy. But God says, “I have put my words in your mouth.”

As I thought about this sermon, I began to realize that Jeremiah, like so many of the prophets, reminds me of our Lord. Jeremiah’s ministry was anything but easy. During much of his ministry, the king, the priests, and the official prophets were corrupt. Jeremiah tried to call them back to God;s ways, but they just strayed farther and farther from God.

Jeremiah also had the extremely difficult job of telling those in power that they were going to be conquered by the Babylonian Empire. For that, he was placed under arrest.

Our reading for today is God’s revolutionary proclamation through Jeremiah of a new covenant. This happens after the Babylonian Empire has conquered Judah, leveled the temple in Jerusalem and deported the people to Babylon. It happens in the midst of the deepest possible pain and defeat and suffering, a time when the worst possible disaster has occurred.

It is clear that the people have fallen away from God. but that does not stop God from reaching out in love and mercy. Some of the most significant moments in the life of God’s people and in our lives happen in the midst of crisis and suffering.

God is going to write this new covenant on their—and our—hearts. Everyone is going to have the opportunity to be close to God. Barriers such as social status, occupation, and education, melt away. Everyone will be equal in the sight of God. There will be no need for experts or teachers. Everyone will be able to be as close to God as we are to each other right now. This is the covenant that God offered to God’s people 2,500 years ago. They had erred and strayed like lost sheep. yet God was ready to forgive all of it and begin anew.

God was saying that the spiritual life is not a matter of following rules. It is about interior transformation which leads to changed attitudes and behaviors. In our hearts, we finally realize how much God loves us, and that love touches and transforms us and our lives.

The great Episcopal theologian Urban Holmes talks about how many people still believe that the spiritual journey is about following rules. If we follow the ten commandments and do everything right, our lives will be happy and we will avoid suffering. But that is not what our faith teaches.

Following Jesus does not make us successful in the world’s terms. Following Jesus does not protect us from suffering and disaster and heartbreak and brokenness. In fact, as we see from his own life and the lives of many saints, following Jesus often takes us to a cross of one sort or another.

Sometimes you and I have to undergo suffering. It is not something that God sends upon us. It is part of living in a fallen creation. This world is not as God would want it to be. There is much brokenness that would not be God’s intention. God’s vision for the creation is a vision of wholeness and harmony. But we are not there yet.

The suffering that comes into our lives may be a family situation which is tragic and complicated. We struggle through it with God’s help. We can’t fix it; It is way too complicated, but we ask God’s help and we do the best we can one day at a time.

It may be a point of decision in our own lives. We agonize over it and seek God’s guidance, but nothing is coming clear. It may be a diagnosis that changes our lives. It may be a setback to ourselves or someone dear to us. Sometimes we may grieve deeply and cry. Sometimes we may be angry about it and have to ask God’s help to deal with that. As we look around our world and see the suffering of so many people, we suffer with them.

We are following our Lord to the cross. Our Lord is the embodiment of the new covenant. Life in Christ is not a matter of following the rules as a matter of duty. The love of Christ is engraved in the center of our being. Christ is in us and we are in him.

In 1373, Julian of Norwich, in an England ravaged by plague and war, had fifteen visions of Our Lord on the cross. She wrote, “Do you want to understand the Lord’s meaning in this experience? Understand it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. …Thus it was that I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.”

That Love has come into our hearts and into our lives. He has suffered the worst. He is with us in our sufferings, and, because we know how much he loves us, we can fall into his loving arms as a seed falls into the ground. Then wholeness comes out of brokenness. Life comes out of death. Because he has suffered and won the victory, we no longer have to fear suffering. We no longer have to fear death. We no longer have to live in fear of any kind. Instead, we can live in faith.

Amen.

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