Lent 5B: Remade From the Inside Out

Wheat GrainsOLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This is yet another passage that centers on covenant, God’s promise to us as God’s people. But this one is different—it is not written on a rainbow or a stone, but is written deep in the people’s hearts. Essentially, this covenant is a part of their very being. The context in which this was written is probably following the exile. The cities have been breached, the temple has been totally destroyed, nothing is left of their lives. They have become subjects of the Persian king and have lost everything that they had before. But God through the Prophet Jeremiah gives a vision of reconstruction and renewal. But this time things will be different…

The Book of Jeremiah is sometimes called the Book of Consolation. The people have spent generations disobeying God, expecting God to give them more, even running from God. And yet, God loves them. God promises love and faithfulness and gives it over and over and over again, whether or not the people keep their part of the bargain. The prophet Jeremiah addresses the people’s suffering with words of comfort and hope, not just long ago but today as well. The timing of the ultimate promise is indefinite. Many would rather interpret this as a “renewed covenant”, a fulfillment of the promises that God made earlier, but with a deeper and profound meaning. (The Hebrew could be interpreted either way.) And even though the earlier covenant was broken, God, rather than cursing the people, forgives and renews.

The use of the word “husband” implies a familial, intimate relationship. This is the type of relationship that God envisions with each of God’s creatures. The future promises are certain. And the law, this time written on the hearts of God’s people, is no longer a requirement, but part of who they are.

It is easy for us to read this through our Christian lens, and, yet, God says “all”—all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. This is not solely a projection of the Messianic promise to come. But God has written the Godself into us, making who God is part of who we are. It is permanent. God has written the capacity for love and faithfulness into us. And someday…someday…we’ll get it. This idea of the covenant being “written on our hearts,” of this New Covenant becoming not just something to which we aspire, not just something by which we try to abide, but something that is actually part of us just downright eludes us. This covenant is something that should be part of our body, our soul, our heart, our mind, our very being.  The promise is certain, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it.  Read the words.  This is not about God just tossing some words out there in the hopes that someone will be curious enough or scared enough or ready enough to pick them up.  God is much more nuanced than that.  Rather, God’s vision is that they are written on our hearts, permanently tattooed, part of our very being.  It is as if God is remaking us from the inside out.  Maybe that’s our whole problem.  Maybe we’re making ourselves backwards.  Maybe we’re trying to do the right things and say the right things and fast and pray and live our lives with the hopes that our hearts will be made right.  And in the meantime, God is inside, with heart-wrenching fervor, remaking us from the inside out.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this new covenant mean to you?
  3. What does it mean that you need to do?
  4. What is the difference between a “requirement” and a covenant that is part of you?
  5. What is the difference between “doing” the right things and living a life of faith?
  6. How does this speak to you in the Lenten season?

 

 NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 5: 5-10

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage begins with a strong reminder of God’s action in Christ, with a strong reassertion that Jesus has been exalted above any of the cosmic powers. It reminds us that in the face of the difficulties in our lives and the madness of the world, God through Christ is stronger than anything else either on earth or through all of Creation.

Melchizedek is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible—in Genesis and then again in Psalm 110. He was a priest of the Most High in the time of Abraham who received tithes from him. His name literally means “righteous king” or “King of Righteousness”. Some have claimed that these passages refer to a literal human; others claims insist that it refers to a theophany, a righteous ruler superior to the Levitical priests. This is not what we think of as an apostolic priesthood. Rather, it is an eternal designation.

Remember that Abraham has been called by God, called to be the Father of Nations. And yet, for years Abraham remained childless and ultimately found himself struggling with his nephew Lot. And into this struggle, a figure named Melchizedek appears. He comes into the Valley of the Kings, offers bread and wine, and blesses Abraham.

So Jesus is part of this same so-called “order”, a continuation and culmination of God’s plan of relationship with humanity, God’s offering of order, and sustenance, and blessing. But the ministries of a priest like this must be with the people, not removed from them. God does not want compensation; God desires one’s very life; God desires to be in relationship with humanity. Jesus was human and suffered as humans suffered. But Jesus was fully human, the very epitome of humanity. This is the way not around suffering but taking it unto one’s life. And through the suffering, through this relational priesthood, God leads us to life.

At the end of The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says, “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something — an object or ourselves — and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it . . . to the life force.”   Thomas Long says that, “In Christian language, to be truly human is to shape our lives into an offering to God. But we are lost children who have wandered away from home, forgotten what a truly human life might be. When Jesus, our older brother, presented himself in the sanctuary of God, his humanity fully intact, he did not cower as though he were in a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” Instead he called out, “I’m home, and I have the children with me.” (From “What God Wants”, by Thomas G. Long, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3336, accessed 19 March, 2012.)

Irenaeus once said that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” So what does it mean to be “fully alive” in the faith? It means entering that continuation of God’s relationship with us. It means opening one’s life so that God can intervene, so that God can call you into this priesthood of believers, this ongoing relationship with God.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to be “fully human” to you?
  3. What does that have to do with being “made perfect”?
  4. How would you describe being “fully alive”?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 12: 20-33

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These verses are part of the final days of Jesus’ ministry. It is interesting that these Greeks, or Gentiles, had to have a sort of “mediated” introduction to Jesus, as if they had never seen him.   But this also looks to the opening of the message to the Gentiles. This is not a periphery part of the message. These are not merely Greek-speaking Jews, but Gentiles who have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. The imagery of the passage implies that there will be fruit among the Gentiles. This is a new section of the Gospel. The world has begun to see Jesus.

They approach Philip and request to “see” Jesus, to have a meeting with him. Perhaps they want to know more of who this Jesus is. Perhaps they just want to talk to him. Or perhaps they want to become disciples. But regardless of why they are here, their arrival points to the fulfillment of the church’s future mission—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world. This is the decisive dividing line between Jesus coming as a Jewish Messiah and Christ, through his death and resurrection, fulfilling God’s promise for the renewal and redemption of all of Creation. Now is the time for the Son of Man to be glorified.

But first, the wheat must die so that it can grow and bear more fruit. This is sort of confusing if you do not know what wheat is. Wheat is what is called a caryopsis, meaning that the outer seed and the inner fruit are connected. The seed essentially has to die so that the fruit can emerge. If you were to dig around and uproot a stalk of wheat , there is no seed. It is dead and gone. The grain must, in essence, allow itself to be changed. What this tells us in that in order for something new to happen, in order for a “new” or “renewed” creation to come about, we must allow ourselves to be changed.

So what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully thwart change, avoid conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we have no life at all. So why, then, is death so hard for us to talk about, so hard for us to deal with in our life? In fact, we do everything that we can to postpone it or avoid it altogether. So maybe that’s why the cross bothers us so much if we really think about it. Oh, we Christians can focus on the Resurrection and just let the cross somehow disappear into the background, covered in Easter lilies. But then we have forgotten part of the story. We have forgotten that God does not leave us to our own devices, does not leave us until we have “figured it out”, does not wait in the wings until we have covered it all up with Easter lilies. God is there, in the suffering, in the heartache and despair. And God in Christ, there on the cross, bloodied and writhing in pain, is there not in our place but for us and with us.

Whether you believe that God sent Jesus to die, or that human fear and preoccupation with the self put Jesus to death, or whether you think the whole thing was some sort of colossal misunderstanding…the point of the cross is that God took the most horrific, the most violent, the worst that the world and humanity could offer and recreated it into life. And through it, everything—even sin, evil, and suffering is redefined in the image of God. By absorbing himself into the worst of the world and refusing to back away from it, Jesus made sure that it was all put to death with him. By dying unto himself, he created life that will never be defeated. And in the same way, we, too, are baptized into Jesus’ death and then rise to new life.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What stands in our way of totally surrendering to being “made new”?
  3. Why is death so difficult for us to talk about?
  4. Why is the cross such a difficult notion for us?
  5. What is your image and understanding of the cross?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

For death begins at life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death. (John Oxenham, a.k.a. William Arthur Dunkerley, (1852-1941))

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)

The way of Love is the way of the Cross, and it is only through the cross that we come to the Resurrection. (Malcolm Muggeridge)

 

Closing

Out of the depths I cry to You! In your Mercy, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If You should number the times we stray from You, O Beloved, who could face You? Yet You are ever-ready to forgive, that we might be healed. I wait for You, my soul waits, and in your Word, I hope; My soul awaits the Beloved as one awaits the birth of a child, or as one awaits the fulfillment of their destiny. O sons and daughters of the Light, welcome the Heart of your heart! Then you will climb the Sacred Mountain of Truth; You will know mercy and love in abundance. Then will your transgressions be forgiven and redeemed. Amen. (from “Psalm 130”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 278)

 

And join me for daily reflections as we travel this Lenten journey on Dancing to God!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

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