“Christ among us, the new covenant”

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33 (March 17, 2024)

Throughout this Lenten season we’ve been thinking about covenants: relationship and promise between God and people. We’ve read several covenants mentioned in the Bible: God’s covenant with Noah – never again a flood. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah – descendants and a promised land. God’s covenant with Moses – keep these commandments, and you will be my people and I will be your God.

The problem is that, for our part, these covenants are not easy to keep. Part of us resists living in loving relationship with God and neighbour. Put simply, we’re not very good partners. We find it hard to be faithful.

We may start out with good intentions. But soon we have second thoughts. Powerful forces pull us in another direction. In this Lenten season we acknowledge that we have not always been, and are not even now, the people God intends us to be. I mean, honestly, I’m not even the person I want to be! Thank goodness that God is merciful and gracious. And that God keeps calling us back, inviting us to make a new beginning.

Jeremiah.jpg

Jeremiah is one of the major prophets of the Bible. We sometimes call him the “weeping prophet”. The book that bears his name is full of sorrow and lament.

It was Jeremiah who predicted his nation’s time of exile in Babylon. But he could also see beyond that catastrophic event. He saw a new covenant, a new beginning in our relationship with God.

 “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.” (Jeremiah 31:31)

And this covenant will not be like the ones that went before. Not like when God rescued people from slavery in Egypt. Remember all those commandments? Well, ten core commandments, written on tablets of stone and given to Moses in dramatic fashion on the cloud-covered heights of Horeb.

stone slates - ten commandments.jpgThey were such strong and righteous words meant to guide God’s people in the way of life: Life with God, life with others. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, by the time Moses clambered down the mountain with those tablets in hand the people were already in full-fledged rebellion, partying before a golden calf.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Synagoga_Hartmanice_04.jpg" width="226" height="79" />“You know these people are bent on evil,” explained Aaron sheepishly. What did you expect?

It was enough to make Moses smash the tablets in white-hot anger. That was not a very promising beginning, was it?

God desires right-relationship with God’s people. God desires to give us life. But what about us? We’re hell-bent on our own un-righteous way.

It’s the story of all our lives, not just those ancient Israelites. We have this fierce independent streak that gets us into trouble. We make our own gods and bow before them. The covenant is broken almost before we begin!

But this new covenant, says Jeremiah, is not like that. “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.” (Jer. 31:32)

Listen. “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 …”

So then, not an external law, with stone-hard commandments imposed from somewhere distant up on high. Rather, imagine this: the finger of God gently giving shape to the inner life that guides you. God within, leading you in God’s way. God within the community of God’s people, shaping us all from the inside out!

“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.” (Jer. 31:33) Now that’s relationship! And what a promise!

“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.” Try to take this in: The knowledge of God will be within us. Within all people who bear God’s name.

Cartoon Senior Couple.pngAnd “knowledge” here is more than just academics. More than facts and diagrams and human-concocted theories. This is knowledge in the biblical sense of awareness and intimacy. A deep knowledge that comes from “being with”, abiding in the presence.

It's like what two life-long partners are meant to be after years and years together. You know what the other is thinking, without them even saying a word.

Why, how? Well just because you know. There’s a comfortable familiarity. A lovely sharing between two friends. Have you ever known anyone like that? Do you know God like that?

Well God will always be God – beyond our knowledge. But God will also reveal God’s self to us in love.

“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The barrier that keeps us apart from God – our rebelliousness and iniquity – this very thing God will overcome! “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray. But God has promised to do this, even before we ask.

In the Old Testament way of thinking, the heart is the centre of our will. If the heart is committed to something, it’s bound to happen. So tell me, what is the condition of your heart? Red Heart.pngIs it rock-hard, rebellious, dead-set against God? Or is it God-shaped, God-directed, and brimming with new life?

My mom, in her later years, had congestive heart failure. That organ, so vital for our existence, was not functioning properly, not moving the life-giving blood where it needed to go. She had no energy for anything. I recall visiting her one evening, while she lay on the couch exhausted, barely able to carry on a conversation.

Some time later she had an operation. She barely made it through, so depleted was her condition going in. But over time she healed and regained strength. That change to her heart was life-giving. The doctors had performed a miracle! And those of us in her family were so very grateful.

Jeremiah speaks of an inner renewal. A re-shaping of our hearts. A new lease on life in our relationship with God in which love and justice will flourish. A New Covenant.

Obedience to God will seem the most natural thing on earth. We won’t have to wrestle ourselves toward it. God’s life-giving Spirit will be pulsing through our veins. Seriously, don’t you long for such a day as that? I would jump at such an opportunity! I would snatch it … in a heart-beat!

St. Patrick's Day Banner.pngToday is St. Patrick’s Day. I wore my green tie in honour of that, even though I’m not Irish. This day is so much more than green beer and fiddle music.

Do you know Patrick’s story? He was born in the fourth century, the son of parents living in Roman Briton. As a teenager he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. They put him to work there in that foreign land, herding sheep.

Ireland.pngDuring his captivity, Patrick turned to God in prayer. One day he managed to escape. He fled to the coast and found some sailors who took him back to Briton, where he was reunited with his family.

St. Patrick.jpgNow you’d think he would have had enough of those Irish – after what they’d done to him. The years they’d stolen from his life. If it was me, I’d never want to set foot in that country again!

But Patrick was given a dream in which he heard the people of Ireland calling out to him, “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Patrick_Catholic_Church_(Junction_City,_Ohio)_-_stained_glass,_Saint_Patrick_-_detail.jpg" width="142" height="152" />Years later, after Patrick became a bishop, he was sent to take the gospel to Ireland. Talk about irony! He spent the rest of his life working there among the very people who had previously captured and enslaved him.

There was something going on in Patrick’s heart that enabled him to do that. Some work of God. Patrick turned his former enemies into friends. His was a ministry of reconciliation.

Did you hear that? Could Patrick have been an early Anabaptist? A peacemaker, a risk-taking disciple of Jesus, willing to give his life for others?

The people called Anabaptists didn’t arrive on the scene for another thousand years! Then again, isn’t peace-making meant to be part of every Christian’s life?

Menno Simons.jpgLast year when we had our service at Bethany Manor I got talking to one of the greeters at the door. He mentioned that my name didn’t sound very Mennonite.

I told him my family had come from a little-known colony of Mennonites in a remote corner of the Scottish highlands. He looked at me for a moment, as he considered the possibility. I think he almost believed me! Then we both had a good laugh. I need to say how thankful I am for the Anabaptist witness to the larger church of peacemaking and reconciliation which is so important for our world.

What’s the condition of your heart? Is there transformation going on? Are there any signs of God’s New Covenant being formed within you?

Wheat stalk.pngIn our Gospel reading, Jesus compares his life to a grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die in order to bear much fruit. That was a perfect image for first century Palestinian people living in an agrarian society. It’s a pretty good image for Prairie people too.

We know exactly what Jesus is talking about: Losing life – his life, our lives – in order to gain life. Something within each of us has to die.

What is it? It’s that self-centred, wilful, disobedient, hard-hearted life. That part of ourselves that could care less about our neighbour, let alone our enemies.

Yet as we die to that part of ourselves and turn to God, we find new life beginning to emerge. The “Christ-life” that glorifies God and cares for others. A life that’s moved by sacrificial love. A life that will spend itself for the healing of the world.

It's a life that St. Patrick lived. And on this day, as we remember him, we are invited to live that life as well.

Communion drawing.pngOn the night our Lord Jesus was betrayed he took the cup and blessed it and said to his disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” (1 Corinthians 11:25) A new relationship. A new life. Jesus’ death and resurrection will make us new.

Sometimes I wonder, when? How long, Lord? The answer is that every one of us will be made new as we allow God’s holy, life-giving Spirit to move within our hearts. To soften us and change us. Rework us from the inside out …

To plant God’s law within our heart. God’s knowledge deep within. God’s will directing us, moving us in this moment of time.

All through Lent we’ve been talking about Covenants. And as I look back and reflect on this it seems to me that two truths emerge.

One is the truth of our human story, which is failure to live God’s way.

And the other is the truth of God’s story: God keeps coming to us with mercy and grace, inviting us into right-relationship. Calling us back to the rich soil of Eden.

A New Covenant. A new beginning. Again and again and again! For this great Good News we lift our hearts to God, saying “Thank you!” and “Amen.”

“Christ among us, showing justice”

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22 (March 3, 2024)

Movie Poster.jpgDid you ever see the movie: The Ten Commandments? Made in 1956, starring Charleton Heston as the Hebrew Moses and Yul Brynner as the Egyptian Pharoah, it’s one of the most famous movies of all time. It continues to be played on network TV every year around Passover and Eastertime.

That movie offers us an iconic image of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt. And later receiving the commandments etched in stone on the mountain of God.

All through this Lenten season we are talking about Covenants. These ten commandments represent the terms of God’s covenant with the people of Israel.

The stone tablets are placed in a box, called the Ark of the Covenant. That box is kept in the most holy place in the house of meeting. Which is to say, this covenant is at the very heart of Israel’s life with God.

stone slates - ten commandments.jpgTo put these commandments in context, our passage begins with this reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The commandments are given to a people who’ve been saved from a miserable existence as slaves. They’ve crossed the waters of the Red Sea. They’re headed for a new and promised land. Now they’re reminded who God is, and who God intends them to be.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Synagoga_Hartmanice_04.jpg" width="232" height="78" />Notice the commandments are given to a people already saved. A people who are already in relationship with God. A people who are now being instructed in the shape of their new God-given life.

And the first thing they’re told, the very first commandment they’re given, is: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

This is meant to be an exclusive relationship. In much the same way that we enter a marriage. Once you’re committed to that other party, there’s no fooling around. No, it’s you and God, God and you – in a loving, faithful relationship that will last your whole life long. (And beyond, actually. But that story is for another day.)

In the wilderness, before they enter the promised land, the people of Israel are getting to know this God of their ancestors. It is a kind of honeymoon time, if you like, when they begin to build a life together.

Yul Bryner.jpg

So what does that life look like? Well it’s the exact opposite of what they’ve experienced under Pharoah. God’s freedom is as far from Pharoah’s slavery as you can imagine.

The commandments begin with a focus on God: “No other gods before me. No idolatry, no graven images. No bowing down to anything or anyone that is not God.” God alone is to be served.

It is, writes OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, an affirmation that the world – [their lives,] our lives - are under new governance, a new regime that is contrasted with the brutalizing regime of Pharaoh.”[1] The old order of things is finished. A new way has come.

All through history there have been rulers just like Pharoah. But the Reign of God is different. The reign of God brings emancipation and freedom. The reign of God brings fulness of life.

So, instead of having to produce bricks on demand, seven days a week, God instructs us to keep the Sabbath. The LORD took six days to make heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested.

So go ahead, take a break! Your body needs to rest. You need to get out of the rat-race of constantly producing and consuming, day after day, world without end. That is not a healthy way for any of us to live.

No more slavery, says God. No more forced labour and exploitation. No more concentration of wealth in the hands of one powerful ruler. God rules, not Pharoah. No more taking advantage of these ethnic non-Egyptians. All people matter to God! Wow, this really is different, isn’t it?

And what follows is a whole list of things about how we are to treat our neighbour. How to love and respect one another. Not stealing. Not always looking over our neighbour’s fence and wanting what they have for ourselves.

Not killing one another when we have our differences. We are so quick to retaliate. We build up huge stocks of armaments – the more powerful, we think, the better. It's madness, isn’t it – the suffering and destruction we bring?

explosion.jpgHumanity has built enough nuclear weapons to destroy everyone on the planet several times over. And the blasphemous part of it is we actually talk about using them! Who do we think we are?

The commandments we read this morning point in a different direction. They teach us to honour and respect. To care for our neighbour.

Do not bear false witness! In other words, speak the truth. It sounds so simple. But our propaganda machines thrive on distortion, bending the truth, moulding it to serve our own desired end.

Keep these commandments, says Moses to the people, so that you might live well in this new land. “For I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” Yes, we are all familiar with this. The mistakes of one generation having consequences for those who follow.

But listen to this: Here is a God who “shows steadfast love – covenant love – committed, faithful, enduring love, to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Four generations of consequence. A thousand generations of blessing for those who live God’s way! You see, there is no comparison.

The commandments point to life. What did the Psalmist say? They are more to be desired than gold. Sweeter also than honey. “The ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9-10)

Our sermon title this morning is “Christ among us, showing us justice.” I find it helpful to think of justice as more than rigid adherence to a rule of law. Rather justice points to the goal of every law and every commandment: That we might live in right-relationship with both God and neighbour.

The commandments, in and of themselves, do not have the power to create those kind of relationships. But they describe what those relationships look like.

Some of you have been part of our Lenten Bible Study, where we’ve been looking at the Lord’s Prayer. And it strikes me that, there too, we find this same two-fold division. The first part of the prayer focusses on God. Just like the first few commandments.

And then the prayer turns to us and our needs – for things like daily bread and forgiveness. In the same way, the second half of the ten commandments turn to various aspects of neighbour-love. How to live with one another in ways that are just, righteous and good.

Relationship with God. Relationship with neighbour. Both of these matter deeply. When these relationships are broken or distorted, there is no justice. And we do not have abundant life.

Which brings us to our Gospel reading. I want to mention it briefly. Because, as you know, Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly!

Christ expelling merchants from temple.jpgWhen Jesus went into the temple, he created quite a stir. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the animals and the people selling them. He overturned the tables of the money-changers. Why would he do such a thing?

Jesus was determined that nothing, absolutely nothing, should get in the way of our relationship with God?

Those animals occupied the outer court of the temple, the place reserved for non-Jews, for Gentiles. Is God’s house not a house for all people?

And what if the business of buying and selling and making sacrifice became an end in itself? Getting in the way of God, instead of leading us to God? “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” said Jesus.

“Christ among us, showing us justice.” Christ among us, bringing right-relationship with God and people. He comes that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Now, back to the commandments. Can they bring us life? No.

We need a power beyond that to fundamentally change us from the inside out. A power to forgive our sins, and set us right, and make us part of God’s new creation. We need the cross and resurrection. We need God’s holy, life-giving Spirit.

But these Ten Commandments can show us what that new life looks like! They can remind us of what’s important in our living with God and others.

They teach us about God’s justice. A justice that goes far beyond rule-keeping, as good and necessary as those rules may be.

They teach us about relationship. Right-relationship. Where God alone is worshipped. And where each and every person has their needs met, and more than met, with generosity and love.

Pharoah’s old rule is finished. A new life lies before us. And we, like the children of Israel, are invited to enter a new and promised land.

This too is the journey of Lent, as we shift our loyalties from Empires of old and turn to the beloved community of God’s people. Love for God. And love for neighbour, living together in the Reign of God. May it be so! Amen.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Strategies for Staying Emancipated,” March 04, 2018. http://day1.org/8145-walter_brueggemann_strategies_for_staying_emancipated, Accessed Mar. 1, 2018.

“Christ among us, showing faith”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
(February 25, 2024)

purple lent.png40 days is one of those biblical phrases that’s meant to convey a long period of time! 40 days it rained when the earth was flooded in the time of Noah. 40 years the people wandered in the wilderness in the time of Moses. 40 days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan.

And so we have our 40 days of Lent, which can drag on for a long time. Will we ever get to Easter? Well I say, “Have a little faith. God will lead us on our journey.”

Waiting can be hard. Sometimes we want to hurry things up. Like children in the back seat of a car. “When are we going to be there? Can’t we go any faster?”

woman looking at destinations.jpgOr like someone I know, returning recently from vacation in a warm sunny place. They arrived in Toronto, ready to board their connecting flight to Saskatoon, and then were told there was a problem. Their flight had been cancelled. They would have to spend the night.

Flying isn’t the fun, exciting thing it used to be. That whole experience of being herded through lines and scanners and holding areas, cancellations and delays, luggage and people jammed in tiny spaces …

“We’re not sticking around here!” they said. They decided to book another flight for the next morning. Only to find that flight too was delayed. On the plane. Off the plane ….

Two days later, they finally made it to Saskatoon, exhausted, just in time to prepare for work the following day! The choices we make don’t always get us where we want. Sometimes what we think is best can actually make things worse.

Abram and Sarai had been waiting a long time. I’m talking 25 years since God called them to go to the land that God would show them.

Along the way there were promises made. Covenants, we call them. These covenants are of God’s instigation, not ours. We’ll be hearing about them each week throughout this Lenten season.

God brought Abram out of his house one night and pointed to the sky. “Count the stars, if you are able,” said God. “So shall your descendants be.”

count the stars.jpgBut over time God’s promises can become a painful thing – when nothing seems to happen. And years go by. And the gap between heavenly promise and earthly reality grows ever larger. So you begin to wonder if you’re going to get there at all.

It’s hard to believe God’s promises. When things don’t seem to be going in the right direction. Darkness closes in.

Can you think of those times when you’ve pinned your hopes on something good? But there’s no sign of it coming to fruition. You’ve invested time and energy, maybe even money. You’ve set your sight on a certain outcome. But time is dragging on. And now you wonder if you’ll live long enough to see it?

Abraham.png

That’s when we are tempted to find our own solution. Force the outcome. Find a shortcut that will bring in the kingdom of God – just the way we want it! The emphasis here is on “we”. What we want.

You know the scheme that Abram and Sarai cooked up, when there was no sign of children on the horizon and they became impatient. Sarai gave Abram her slave-girl, Hagar. So they had a child, and called it their own. But it was never what God intended.

Our bending, twisting and manipulating of circumstances and people around us rarely are. For those who like to be in control, it’s hard to step back and wait for what God will do. We want a good outcome and quick success. Success – as we define it.

Our Gospel reading today shows us another person who mirrors this tendency in ourselves. I’m talking about Peter.

Peter rebukes Jesus.pngWhen Jesus started speaking about his suffering, rejection and death, Peter began to panic. “No Lord, you can’t mean that!”

So he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. That’s right, Peter rebuking Jesus! The disciple thinks he knows more than the master.

Not two minutes before he’d blurted out his profession of faith: “You, Jesus, are the Messiah!” Meaning, you are the one who will deliver us, defeating our enemies, bringing in the Reign of God. Isn’t that right? “So now what’s all this talk of suffering? Surely you will not die! Not you! There must be another way.”

I picture him putting his arm around Jesus, rather condescendingly. Explaining a more successful plan, one that will bring God’s kingdom right here and now. No messiness. No cross. “Come on, Jesus. We can do it. Just listen to me.”

But Jesus doesn’t listen to Peter. Or any of those disciples who’ve been constructing their own plans for power and self-promotion, seats of honour at his right hand. Jesus looks at all of them. And says to Peter, in particular, “Get behind me Satan! You’re setting your mind on human things, not on God’s.”

So now who’s rebuking whom? Calling Peter, the leader of the group, calling him Satan! That’s such a startling thing to say! And it must have hurt like blazes – Peter, for sure, and maybe Jesus too.

“Get behind me Satan.” Jesus will have no part of Peter’s plan.

We met Satan just last Sunday. Do you remember? After his baptism, the Spirit of God cast Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted. We noted that Satan means Adversary. One who stands in opposition to God.

Satan tried to seduce Jesus with certain promises of success. “Hey Jesus, why don’t we do it this way? I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world!”

And now here’s Peter too, trying to convince Jesus he can have it all. He doesn’t have to die. We can have the kingdom, have it now, have it our way.

I find it disturbing that Peter is the one who becomes the Adversary in this passage. And this week, as I’ve pondered that accusation from the lips of Jesus, it’s made me ask a hard question:

“Can I be a Satan?” I mean, if Peter could, what’s to stop me from trying to steer Jesus in my own direction? Redirecting God’s way of being in the world . Promoting the things that I desire. If Jesus called his good friend, Peter, the Adversary – what would he call me?

Lent is a time for us to examine our lives. Recognizing that our purpose is not always well aligned with God’s. Jesus’ way and our way can be two very different things. And half the time we don’t even realize it. We’re so clued out! So ill-tuned to the melody of God’s kingdom and the voice of God’s Holy Spirit.

I wonder … how are we not listening to things that Jesus has taught us? What don’t we get? How might we be bending him to our purpose – our politics, our plans, our practice of faith? How might even our good intentions be standing in the way, putting up road-blocks, and preventing others from the path we’re meant to follow.

cross & nail.jpgThere are no short-cuts to the kingdom. The road is not meant to be easy. Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him. He tells us to deny ourselves. He says we have to give up our lives if we want to save them.

The part of us that has to die is self-centred. It’s impatient. It doesn’t want to wait, it wants to get there now.

It doesn’t want to do the hard work of peace-making or reconciliation, which never happens quickly. It opts for quick solutions, just to get us out of these uncomfortable seats, eliminate the agony of waiting.

And maybe also the disappointment of a kingdom that has not yet come! “Why is there still so much darkness in the world? Come on, Jesus, can’t we just snap our fingers and make it right?”

We’re like kids in the back seat of a car. We are not a very patient people, are we?

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Kings vision of a world where all people would live together in harmony, with equality and justice for all, would not come without a monumental struggle. It’s still going on!

But God is in that journey. Christ is with us on our way. The Spirit is leading us toward an end that God can see.

trust.pngOur sermon title for this morning is “Jesus among us, showing us faith.” And so we see him following God’s plan for his life. He refuses to be diverted from it.

He puts his trust in God. Faith and trust are two sides of the same coin, you know. To believe in God, is to put your trust in God.

There comes a time in all our lives when we can no longer control circumstances or things around us. Maybe once we thought we could. But now we see how foolish that idea was.

Like Abraham and Sarah, coming to the end of their lives, with no hope of bearing children on their own, the only thing they can do is trust. Trust that the promise of God is real. Trust that God is dependable. Trust that the covenant God made all those years ago will be fulfilled!

It’s God’s doing, not our own. So we must go forward believing there is more to this old world than we can see. And that no plan of ours alone is ever going to fix it. And that God is with us!

Come to think of it, that’s kind of what a Christian is, isn’t it? Someone who believes there’s more to life than meets the eye. Someone who takes a stance on what most of the world around us may think of as ridiculous. So much so that we are willing to stake our lives on it. Trusting that the one who made us and called us and gives us life, will be there to welcome us at the end of our journey.

To live well in this present time is so much easier when we have faith. We believe in God. Even when the way is hard. And even when the way is long. God is trustworthy and God’s promises are true. Thanks be to God!